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Uncharted: Golden Abyss PS Vita Review

The Uncharted franchise has increasingly become one of the highlights of playing video games for me. I love the sheer excitement those games build up as I immerse  myself in an (almost) Hollywood action-adventure experience. Naughty Dog has kept building on the formula, with each version getting closer to their idea of a seamless representation of a cinematic and involving story.

2012 sees the release of Sony’s new PlayStation Vita handheld, and with it at launch comes a portfolio of some well-known sequels. One of these is Uncharted: Golden Abyss, although there is something different about this latest Nathan Drake adventure, and that is the studio behind the game, Bend Studio.

If you aren’t sure on the studio, then I’ll let you know that Bend Studio is the development team behind decent PlayStation Portable games, such as Resistance: Retribution and the Syphon Filter series. They certainly have the talents to make handheld games, but when it comes to such a prime property as Uncharted, can they do the series proud? And will it make people want a PlayStation Vita come launch day?

This latest game is a prequel set before the events that happened in Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. Golden Abyss begins with Drake and an old buddy named Dante, as they explore jungles located somewhere in Central America. Along the way they meet up with the main girl of the game, Marisa Chase. The story is focused heavily on Chase’s desire to find her missing granddad, since he’s a famous archaeologist, who has suddenly vanished after looking for some secrets about a 400 year old massacre of Spanish explorers in the region. It’s a admirable story because it’s backed by the great characters and interesting lore.

Just like the other Uncharted games, Golden Abyss doesn’t cut any corners when it comes to the characters and written dialogue, be it be the new characters or a returning oldie, it’s constantly solid throughout. The chemistry between the new girl Chase and Drake comes across wonderfully, since Chase is like a female version of Drake, what with her obsession with finding her granddad’s secret, and her knowledge of ruins and tombs. They are practically a perfect pair for one another. It’s an enjoyable and stimulating story that doesn’t seem out of place in the Uncharted universe.

Fans that have played the console games will instantly be at home with how Drake controls on the Vita. Since the system has two analogue sticks, the aiming and shooting in Golden Abyss feels the same as using the PS3’s gamepad. The right shoulder shoots while the left shoulder allows you to do the over shoulder aiming. I do have some advice for people playing and that is to turn up the sensitive of the aiming. Initially I found the controls slow, but knocking it up in the options helped solved that.

Even though Drake is still up to his old tricks of climbing mountains and jumping dangerous caverns, he has learnt some new moves on his first trip to handheld gaming. Since the Vita has plenty of control inputs on the device, the game allows players to use these to replace conventional gaming controls. An example is how you can make Drake climb the side of hills. Instead of doing it yourself with the sticks and buttons, you can press on the screen and draw a line with your finger across the platforms you would like Drake to traverse. He’ll then automatically do the climbing across the platforms you’ve just rubbed with your finger. Touching shining platforms that are at the other side of gaps with your finger will make Drake run and then jump and grab the ledge. I found this quite handy as sometimes I didn’t make the jump on my first try, so I’d let the game do it for me with the touch input.

One of the standout features of the Vita is the back touchpad, which in Golden Abyss is used for a couple things during the games 7-8 hour adventure. One of them is to rotate objects on the screen. At first I found it a little strange as it’s something you have to get use to; when you rotate the objects it doesn’t actually use your movement on the pad to rotate it like you would think. Instead it uses your initial held down press as the centre point, and the further you slide away from that point the faster the rotation speed of the object on screen. The object will spin in the direction you moved your finger after placing it down on the back touchpad. Rowing is also performed on the back touchpad, with the game also allowing you to do that on the front screen as well.

The last feature is the use of the gyros inside of the Vita. This is the one I like the most as when it is combined with the Vita’s two analogue sticks it allows you to aim precisely. The sticks are quite small on the Vita, so if you are in a situation where your aiming reticule is extremely close to the head of an enemy, then you’ll find it can be a little tricky trying to move it to get their head in view. What the gyros allow you to do is to move the Vita slightly to adjust the reticule, allowing for some slight alteration in aiming that solves any problem that the small sticks have.

If there is one aspect Bend Studio has gone a little overboard on it is the amount of times you have to do charcoal drawings or clean an object with the touch functions. It’s like the developers are trying to drill it in your head that you can touch the screen by showing off these little mini-games. There’s just a little bit too many of them in a row sometimes.

Apart from the rubbings, the only other forced touchscreen controls are for the fighting. You cannot simply run up to someone and punch them down. Instead what the game does is bring up a fist on the screen that you have to tap. Touching these successfully when they appear will then start a quick time event, where you have to slide you finger in the same direction of the arrow that appears on screen to knock out the enemy.  These quick-time events feature throughout the game and are used for such things as sliding gates open in a cutscene. They work fine, and I never once felt like I missed one because of the hardware.

A refreshing thing about Golden Abyss is that it feels like you are playing Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. After the crazy set-pieces and over the top action in Uncharted 2 and 3, it is nice to go back to playing something that’s slower-paced. This time it’s more about exploring around the jungle, cliffs and ruins, climbing all over the place and solving puzzles. There are plenty of secrets to find, a ridiculous amount, certainly more than any other Uncharted game to date. Gems, notes, coins and artefacts are scattered everywhere that need to be found. The game keeps a nice notebook of everything, so you know what you’ve missed and where to get it. In some instances you also need to take photos of surroundings by matching up a picture that the game gives to you with your camera shot, with only 100% allowing you to count it as a pass. It will take you a while to find everything, so more than one playthrough is certainly needed to get it all, thankfully you can pick the chapters you’ve finished, skipping any unnecessary playthrough of levels.

Sony’s Vita is supposedly trying to bring console style experiences to the handheld market, and that’s certainly true when you look at Golden Abyss. As the visuals go this game is stunning, with some detail texture work and gorgeous lighting surrounded with beautiful locations. Seeing the waterfall scene proved to me that this is the best graphically looking handheld game I have ever played. It is slightly spoiled towards the end of the game with some slowdown that crops in during the more hectic parts, it’s not game-breaking and still easily playable.

It’s not just the environments that are great; also the models for the characters are complete, from the way they look down to the animation from the motion capture. If wasn’t for the jaggies that pop up you wouldn’t notice that Drake has moved from your TV to your portable handheld, they look that good. Voice acting, as always, is amazing, and feels like the cast were really getting into character while recording. There are no shortcuts taken with this launch title and if this is the potential of the system at launch then seeing what can be done further into the Vita’s life cycle is certainly going to be interesting.

If you’re thinking of picking up a Vita at launch then I strongly recommend picking up Uncharted: Golden Abyss. The only people who won’t like this game are those who never liked the other games in the franchise, for everyone else this is easily the game that shows off what the Vita can graphically do. While not the best game in the series, it’s still a great title that is a must-own for Vita buyers come February.

Price check

8 out of 10