Uncharted: Golden Abyss Review
The PlayStation Vita is one capable little machine and perhaps the best example of its power is Sony Bend’s Uncharted: Golden Abyss. The franchise already put the PS3’s considerable talents on display and the latest iteration is designed to make handheld gamers go, “…damn, portable stuff has come a long way.” Featuring unbelievable visuals and a gameplay mechanic that is undeniably Uncharted, this one overcomes a few minor drawbacks and becomes a satisfying, beautiful adventure.
You’ve probably seen quite a few screenshots and videos of the game, but as is the case with most Vita games I’ve tested thus far, you have to play it to believe it. I won’t say Golden Abyss is on the same level as last year’s Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, but it’s on par with the first Uncharted, which launched on the PS3 in 2007. The detail is great, the clarity and “shininess” of the environment is amazing, the effects are awesome, and just about everything in the environment is a pleasure to behold. It's gorgeous from the start.
This series has thrived on top-notch professional voice acting, wonderfully created and implemented music, and authentic audio effects that enhance our immersion. I sense a slight scaling back in this Vita installment when directly compared to its console counterparts, but I have to emphasize the word “slight.” In other words, not all the acting is quite as honed (or so it seems to me), not all the music has this epic, memorable flavor, and maybe a minor effect sounds tinny. But again, these are small shortcomings and the overall sound production is impressive.
You’ll start your new quest with a brief prologue, which acts like a tutorial. It will show you how to use the touchscreen for platforming and melee action, which may sound awkward to fans of the franchise. But in truth, it’s highly intuitive and extremely fluid. This is because you can choose to use the dual analog sticks or the touchscreen at any given time; so feel free to climb half the wall with the analog and the second half by “touching.” Pointing to a ledge will cause Drake to leap and hang, and dragging your finger across hand-holds will allow him to move on the designated path.
When it comes to melee or stealth action, a fist will appear on the enemy, and you just touch that fist to execute an attack. Counters are handled with a clever yet equally straightforward touch mechanic: an arrow will appear on the screen, and you simply trace the arrow with your finger so Drake can perform the counter move. You can also pick up weapons and items by touching them on the screen, and tapping the gun icon in the upper left-hand corner lets Drake reload. All of this works very well.
The best part, though, is that this is definitely an Uncharted adventure. You’ve got that stellar mix of platforming, action and puzzle-solving, mixed in with a decent story, likeable characters, and quick, realistic dialogue. However, as I mentioned above, some of this often feels a touch watered down for the sake of the new portable platform. It’s just not quite as mind-bogglingly great as one might expect, given this franchise’s unparalleled reputation. Plus, it’s a little on the short side (about 7 hours in length).
Also, I should add that using the analogs for the gunplay takes a little getting used to. They’re a good deal smaller than the sticks on the Dual Shock controller, for one thing, and they’re very sensitive. But it didn’t take long and thankfully, the mindless foes don’t often provide a hefty challenge. They can still throw countless grenades with irritating accuracy but then again, that’s an ongoing issue in the series, anyway. And again, it’s minor. For the most part, the gameplay is excellent and continually entertaining, as one should expect.
The combination of the front and rear touchscreen controls and the standard stick/button controls is appealing and never feels restrictive. They even took advantage of the portable’s tilt feature; instead of leaning in a certain direction while hanging on a ledge, you can just tilt the Vita in the desired direction. And pulling your fingers away from the traditional buttons to deal with any touchscreen commands doesn’t feel awkward and doesn’t hinder the flow of the action. You’ll also enjoy the fact that exploration is an actual option, as there's treasure to find...
Uncharted has always been a linear experience and Golden Abyss certainly qualifies as “linear,” but the developers have implemented branching pathways and hidden goodies. This offers a nice contrast to the action and platforming, especially after eliminating a few waves of enemies. The puzzles feel a little watered down (Drake’s journal has been downgraded to keeping track of your progress, for instance), and yes, there were a few times when the screen didn’t recognize my finger. But I want to stress that this was rare.
You sometimes feel as if Sony Bend could’ve incorporated a few different vistas and landscapes, and there’s some serious droning when it comes to the historical elements of the storyline, but this doesn’t detract from the overall experience. It’s positive across the board, with only the slightest hint that a few small sacrifices were made. At its core, this game is tons of fun to play and is undeniably the best action/adventure title for the Vita at its launch…and perhaps the best action/adventure game handhelds have ever seen. Or is that going too far?
Uncharted: Golden Abyss presses all the right buttons and is almost guaranteed to satisfy the loyal fans. It looks fantastic, the franchise trademarks are here (most all of which are of a super high quality), and the blend of high-tech touchscreen and traditional controls is a triumph for the next generation of portable entertainment. You’ll spot a few of the aforementioned sacrifices but they’re not likely to ruin your fun. If you’re picking up the Vita this week, Golden Abyss should absolutely be on your “games to buy” list.
The Good: Fantastic graphical presentation. Great audio. Touchscreen and tilt features blend nicely with traditional controls. Top-notch gameplay execution and variety. A touch of exploration is appreciated. Patented Uncharted flair and panache is evident.
The Bad: History lessons can get a little tedious. Puzzles feel watered down. Overall, a general sense that minor sacrifices (regarding story and action) had to be made.
The Ugly: “Uncharted has never been ugly for one second.”
2/20/2012 Ben Dutka