It’s strange how the one thing many of us gamers clamour to first for a new console is something familiar. It’s a brand new machine, but let’s not go nuts. With most only buying one or two games at best for launch, you’ll want something reliable, familiar and with just enough ‘new’ about it to make that transition to a new machine that little bit smoother. Uncharted: Golden Abyss is the perfect purchase for that purpose.
This is a great entry point to the series for non-PS3 owners as the game is a prequel, with a story that never relies on past knowledge of the series, not that there aren’t a few familiar characterisation elements for fans to enjoy. This time Drake is in the jungles and ruins of Central America. Initially hired as a sort of archaeological plundering partner in crime with new-guy Dante, Drake stumbles upon a mad army General intent on a typical power-mad scheme. With Elena not yet on the scene we’re introduced to new girl, Marisa Chase. Sharing -and perhaps really kick-starting- Drake’s passion for all things ancient, it’s not long before a new friendship is born. This relationship is well written with plenty of Uncharted’s trademark humour despite Naughty Dog not being at the helm. The writing and the flow of the story is pretty dam excellent throughout to be honest. A few hours in and you realise that we have another development team that can do the series justice.
Thanks to the Vita’s second analogue stick, the adjustment time for the game is gloriously quick. You find yourself settling into cover-shootouts and clambering around ruins like a pro in minutes. Many elements utilise the front and rear touchscreens and gentle motion controls, but many of them are optional with standard controls available simultaneously. For example, aiming is mainly handled with the right stick, but you can also gently move the Vita too. This works especially well for just tweaking your sights for a headshot as it provides more subtlety than the analogues can.
When using handholds to move around the ruins you can sweep your finger across them and Drake automatically follows your trail. If you change your mind, you can regain analogue control instantly. A much needed inclusion is a sense of urgency to crumbling handholds, as Uncharted 3 would automatically affix you to the next one without danger of falling. Now you have to react to a sudden touchscreen prompt to avoid falling. This doesn’t happen every time Drake lands awkwardly, just enough to have you on edge and scrabbling to match the prompt in time when it does. This really brings out the sudden panic that’s appropriate to the situation. Good work, Sony Bend.
Getting into a brawl requires bashing Square or tapping the fist icon onscreen. Instead of relying on Triangle for counters you need to wipe the screen to match QTE prompts. These are best avoided by softening up enemies with a few shots first so you can finish them off with a single smack. Better yet, take advantage of the stealth kills that involve pushing people off ledges or the piggy-back neck-break which never, and I mean never, gets old.
It’s great how most areas will allow you to take out many enemies by stealth. Snuffing out a few on the sly makes things a lot easier when you do get caught out and have to get the guns out. Unlike many scenes in U3, enemies don’t have eyes in the backs of their heads and alerts always feel fair.
Grenades are a lot of fun here. You can tap the icon to throw them towards the middle of the screen or you can drag the icon towards your target, revealing an aiming arc, and then release for a satisfyingly accurate throw. You can’t cook the grenades though, so enemies do sometimes scramble to safety in time.
The only compulsory touchscreen element that feels out of place is tapping the top-left ammo icon to reload. The tap works fine, it’s just that you have to release one hand from the regular controls or awkwardly stretch your left thumb to reach it. It’s no deal-breaker, but worth a mention anyway, even if it’s just because there isn’t anything else annoying to be found.
There’s Treasure In There
In addition to the 8-10 hours it’ll take to go through the campaign there are loads of extra hour’s worth of play thanks to the collectibles. Take a look in Drake’s journal and you’ll see a guide of what there is to collect in each chapter. Familiar trinkets with shiny hints can be picked up in corners or hidden behind bamboo thickets. Climbing hidden paths will also reveal finds. Some enemies drop Tarot cards too, which you can then trade with other players online. Using a camera to take specific photos using the rear touchpad to adjust the zoom is another new element, as is using the front screen to rub charcoal on paper over stones to reveal hidden images and messages. Some of these images can then be used as a part of jigsaw puzzle. Every item you pick up has an interesting description or a titbit of history from Chase’s uncle’s diary. Old artefacts can be rotated and brushed clean to reveal clues using the touchscreens. Out of all the Uncharted games this is the one that makes the most effort at making you get a real feel for exploring old ruins and feeling like an adventurer that does more than shoot henchmen.
Puzzles usually involve searching an area for clues and then moving objects around to unlock a door. None of them feel repetitive and are just right in terms of difficulty. The touchscreen is used well to move objects around on a grid and it’s certainly better than running over to each one and dragging them around. One intuitive puzzle involves trying to see faint images on a piece of paper by holding the Vita itself up towards a bright light in your room. It’s encouraging to see a developer have such an understanding of the Vita at this early stage.
These graphics aren’t good for a handheld, they’re f**king great full stop. I’ve no problem saying this knocks the pants off the first Uncharted game on PS3. The game doesn’t show off its best material in the first half either, it maintains a high quality throughout. There are a few pre-rendered backgrounds, which you could argue is a bit cheaty, but when they add another gorgeous view to gawp at it’s hard to give a crap about real-time rendering and so on.
Water detail is something that really impressed me here. From getting swept away downhill to the calmer waters of canoeing down a river, I think it might be the best looking water I’ve seen in a game. This machine is scaring the crap out of me with what it can do already.
When the detail on character models, caves and thick jungle scales such heights, you can’t help but measure up the game more in comparison to the PS3 games than anything that came before on a pocket device. As far as massive set-pieces like the building vs. helicopter of U2 or the escape finale of U3 go, Golden Abyss doesn’t really try to compete. It’s more about intense climbing while sniper-lines dance all over you, hunting for collectibles and enjoying the fun plot and characters. Whether the big blockbuster scenes will come in the inevitable sequel or not will depend on whether the developers feel if they’re worth doing on a five inch screen.
- One of the best Uncharted games yet
- Console standard graphics and gameplay
- Huge amount of collectables
- Great use of the Vita’s unique control features
- No regular button for weapon reloads
- Sets an impossibly high standard for other devs?
- I have nothing bad to say about this game
The Short Version: A staggering achievement and THE game to buy with your PS Vita. Golden Abyss carries on the series’ tradition of excellent adventure games with all the familiar elements working fantastically on the new handheld. The list of collectibles will have you replaying it obsessively too. The Vita’s unique control features are used to fantastic effect and avoid feeling like forced gimmicks. The bar has been set incredibly high.