With Naughty Dog moving their attention to The Last of Us, the PlayStation Vita could be your only chance of experiencing the further adventures of Nathan Drake. Luckily, Sony Bend Studio has handled Nate’s transition with care and competence.
Uncharted: Golden Abyss takes place before the first Uncharted game, finding Drake a little more inexperienced and naive. After agreeing to help a fellow treasure hunter, Jason Dante, solve a mystery involving the remains of a Spanish army. It isn’t long before he realises that he has bitten off more than he can chew and ends up on the wrong side of Central American General Guero.
As the adventure unfolds, he joins forces with Marisa Chase, who also got roped in by Dante. She has her own agenda for being there, hunting for her Grandfather who went missing weeks before. The story doesn’t reach the dizzying heights of Uncharted 2, but it moves along at a nice pace, even if it does get a little too deep into a historical back-story. All of the standard components are present; double crossing sidekick (don’t worry, that twist happens in the first 5 minutes), over the top villain and plucky female partner; nothing is left out. However, the game does suffer from the lack of chemistry between the characters; that is until Sully shows up. Once Nate and Sully get together the game starts to show the quality that made the PS3 games so appealing. The banter between the two has never been better, it is just a shame it takes so long for Sully to get involved. Of course, Nolan North puts in a stellar performance as Drake, with all the witty one-liners just a breath away.
The way the game handles doesn’t really suffer from being on a handheld, the controls are how you would find them on the PS3, with only a few changes made due to the lack of L2 and R2 triggers. There is also an emphasis on using the Vita’s control features, however with the exception of a few parts of the game, they are all optional. You can use the rear touchpad to climb ropes, you can use the touchscreen to traverse the terrain and you can use the Sixaxis to aim down the sights of a sniper rifle; or you can just use the regular control scheme. Sony Bend has given the player the choice between the two, and although the touch features work well, it doesn’t spoil the game if you’d rather use the buttons. The few things that have been forced to the touchscreen, such as melee combat and using the Machete, have been implemented well and don’t feel tacked on.
One thing that makes this version of Uncharted stand out is the way it handles the puzzles. Golden Abyss concentrates more on the adventuring part of Uncharted instead of the action. The puzzles are well thought out and really make great use of the Vita. From holding the Vita up to the light to uncover invisible ink, to using the touchscreen to take charcoal rubbings of ancient stones; the puzzles play a big part of the game and make you feel like a treasure hunter; uncovering the secrets along with Nathan. Sony Bend has also changed the way the hidden treasures work. Instead of being meaningless collectables, many of the treasures require you to solve a puzzle or take a picture, which in turn uncovers more information about the story.
It gives you added reason to go and find all of them, but there are 300 to find so it may take you a while. You can buy a map on the PSN Store for $0.99 that puts all of the treasure locations on your in-game map, which some people will find useful while other will find it an excuse to milk a dollar out of them. Golden Abyss also sees the introduction of the ’Black Market’, which uses the NEAR function. As you kill enemies and complete tasks, you will be rewarded with a collectable item. This can then be sent on to friends, or other players near you for trade. Trading items allows you to complete the full collection. It isn’t exactly in-depth, but it’s nice to turn on your Vita and see that someone wants to trade.
The gun combat feels solid, using the same mechanics as it’s bigger brothers. Sony Bend have also added a ’Snap to Target’ option, similar to that used in shooters such as Call of Duty, which helps with the combat should you need it. Grenades are thrown using the touchscreen, using your finger to aim. The usual weapons are on show and they all act pretty much the same as before. The enemies are also quite smart; one group will try to flush you out, while another takes shots at you from behind cover. The game has also gone light on a staple Uncharted recipe in the fact that there are very few times when you are walking through an area thinking “I guess I will be coming back this way, fighting bad guys from behind these carefully placed waist-high walls”. There are areas you do go through more than once, but normally at different points of the game.
Visually, this game is stunning, absolutely stunning. I have no idea how they managed to make a game that looks like it belongs on the PS3, but the recent comparisons to the original Uncharted are justified. The character models, the environment and the way everything moves look incredible. There are times in the game where you just want to stand still and take in the view. The game doesn’t really leave the jungle and ruins, but that can be forgiven. If this is how a launch game looks, I cannot wait to see what developers can do after a year or two. The sound design and music also stand out. The Uncharted theme is as epic as usual and it definitely pays to play the game with headphones in, as the Vita’s built in speakers don’t do it justice.
Uncharted: Golden Abyss doesn’t stray too far from the formula; but for the franchise’s first entry on the Vita, who could blame them? This is an incredibly well built game, made with care, love and a whole lot of talent, making it definitely the pick of the launch titles. The game does enough things different to keep you interested, but still feels like an Uncharted game should and much like the God of War games on the PSP. Golden Abyss stands tall against its PS3 counterparts. All I can hope is that this game sells well enough for Sony to give the green light to Bend Studio to make another.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.