Given that so many forthcoming titles for the Vita are bafflingly ‘enhanced’ versions of PS3 titles (despite being on an inferior machine) it would have been so easy to simply port across Drake’s Deception with some touch controls tacked on. Which makes the fact that Golden Abyss was developed from the ground up with the Vita’s capabilities in mind as well as being an all new story all the more impressive.
And from the first swell of the now iconic music, there can be no doubting that this is an Uncharted game through and through. Perfectly capturing the feel and style of the series, the dual sticks mean that no concession has been made to the gameplay which remains surprisingly faithful. And as for the graphics – it certainly looks the part.
Although fellow launch title WipEout 2048 is arguably the better looking game, Uncharted is more ambitious. Lush jungle, ancient ruins and the character models themselves are all of a PS3 standard without even taking into account the sumptuous level of background detail and the impressive cut scenes. Put simply, there is no doubting that this is the game that you’ll be showing off to non Vita owners.
As mentioned, the game plays almost identically to its PS3 predecessors, albeit feeling perhaps a little closer in style to the original game than the superior sequels. With the focus on exploration rather than continual action it adopts a more considered approach than more recent iterations. Yet this is not a criticism. In truth, this play style is better suited to the handheld format, making it much easier to pick up and put down on the go. That’s not to say that the game is utterly devoid of action. Far from it. It would just be truer to say that moments of genuinely adrenaline pumping action are saved for highlights instead of having the player lurch from set piece to set piece.
The feeling of it being closer in tone to the original title is only made more obvious by the use of Sixaxis for crossing narrow beams. Tellingly, this is something that was dropped for the sequels – and with good reason. Yet here it’s back in force meaning that halfway across any narrow section you can guarantee that Drake will waver and you’ll have to tilt you Vita to keep him stable. As an advertisement for motion control this is fine but in gameplay terms this swiftly becomes predictable and tiresome, detracting from the natural flow of the game. Thankfully such situations are at least used sparingly which is something that cannot be said for the touchscreen.
Used for almost everything, you could be forgiven for thinking that this was a tablet game at times. Items can be picked up, charcoal rubbings be made, pathways be cut open, objects examined and ropes grabbed. Whilst impressive, its use appears to be irrespective of whether it complements the game or not. For instance, instead of using the controller and button presses to climb and leap between ledges, you can choose to just run your finger over the path you want to take and watch as Drake follows. Even ignoring that this makes the crumbling ledges and breakable pipes utterly redundant as you never feel as if it might have been a mistimed movement on your part, the far greater problem is that it makes the player little more than a spectator in their own game.
Similarly, melee combat is simplified through the ability to simply tap on an opponent in favour of button presses and by drawing lines on the screen to counter enemy strikes. It might be more involving than timed button presses or QTEs but it makes things far too easy. In fact, it frequently makes melee combat preferable to gunfights. Instead of hiding behind cover to exchange shots and only getting involved in fisticuffs when an enemy attempts to flank you, ignoring the hail of bullets and charging into combat is often a worryingly viable tactic. As such, it dispels the usual Indiana Jones vibe by making Drake seem like more of a superhero.
Tellingly, Bend seem to be aware of this as some scripted events ensure that gunplay is the only way to proceed and sections forcing you to fight from a distance or even whilst climbing are not uncommon. There are even some sections where you have to protect a partner with either a sniper rifle or, in one particularly notable section, with just a pistol as you climb and leap around a cave roof. These sections are excellent fun but never quite manage to mask the fact that they seem to be a deliberate attempt to circumvent the ease of melee combat strategies. It also cannot be denied that players will die a lot less often in Golden Abyss than in previous titles simply because the touch screen can make things too easy. And although this is something of a boon when you can simply touch a rope on the screen instead of missing a jump and plummeting to your death, it still feels a little wrong.
However, since the touchscreen control method is optional for the vast majority of situations, a lot of these issues can be countered simply by stubbornly sticking to the standard Uncharted controls. And doing so is highly recommended as it makes for a far more enjoyable experience as well as making the game play more or less exactly like previous iterations. Of course, the touchscreen is still going to be used for some features and will still see extensive use in puzzles but this is far less intrusive.
That said, it is particularly well implemented for taking photos and picking up and cleaning all manner of trinkets. Indeed, the game is littered with collectables and exploration usually rewards the player with a shiny new object. Whilst this might appeal to gaming magpies, it cannot be denied that given the linearity of the game this is little more than an attempt to increase longetivity. Particularly since collecting whole sets results in trophies. Yet it often feels out of place with the game’s tempo. Taking the time to grab an item whilst fleeing a burning building or grabbing a sparkling object when you are trying to simply survive a mudslide just feel plain wrong. Whilst this is not unusual for an Uncharted game, it feels more pronounced here simply due to the sheer volume of items that can be found.
However, these are minor criticisms at best. After all, this really is a thumpingly good game. Melee combat is suitably meaty, gunplay is satisfyingly accurate and there is even the opportunity for stealthy takedowns should you desire. Simply put, this is a PS3 quality Uncharted tile – albeit on a handheld with all elements present and correct. Yet one can’t help thinking that if Bend had put more time into the game itself instead of making it at times more like an advertisement for the hardware it could have been better still.