Nathan Drake’s outings on PlayStation 3 (particularly the most recent two) are spectacular, action-epics built on the solid foundations of engaging scripts, peerless directing and near-perfect pacing. The Uncharted games have upped the ante for the quality of adventure games in the cinematic department. Lara Croft, Indiana Jones, we hardly knew thee.
Unfortunately, if the PS3 examples of Uncharted are big-budget silver screen classics, the Vita’s Golden Abyss is something of a TV movie. It has many of the elements of its bigger brothers, but not all, and of those it does have few are as engaging or charismatic as we’ve come to expect.
Golden Abyss is missing those ‘wow’ moments, the moments you remember from Drake’s Deception and Among Thieves as though you’re still playing them this very instant. The entire budget has seemingly gone into making the core visuals look nice on Sony’s new handheld (which they do) and none has been spared for the standout set-pieces. The diversions from combat and climbing to pure survival in the face of collapsing mansions and dangling train carts are gone, replaced by smaller levels in which design decisions are repeated time and again.
The entire romp is set in the jungles, temples and crypts of South/Central America which (as usual) sees you searching for treasure and preventing it falling into the wrong hands. It looks gorgeous, a trip to the top of an ancient pyramid providing a panoramic view of the surrounding jungle that will have you in stunned disbelief that this level of visual prowess has been thrust into the palms of your hands.
Water, ground level foliage, masonry and interior mood lighting all look equally special, never failing to impress and never failing to provide enough of a reason to continue your adventure.
Other key pillars of the Uncharted experience are missing, though. Character and plot are distinctly lacking, particularly when it comes to the writing of Drake’s new partner Chase and a soldier-turned-villain straight from central casting.
Chase is a young, naive treasure hunter who (contrary to Drake) is in the ‘business’ for the love of history and artefacts rather than money. While the voice acting and dialogue writing is close to the level of other games in the series, her character is underdeveloped and her meeting and teaming up with Drake has more than a slight sense of deus ex machina about it.
Female characters in Uncharted’s past have been strong and able to look out for themselves, whereas Chase’s primary reason for existing is to set up gameplay scenarios in which Drake must protect her from the bad guys, rescue her from the bad guys and help her up to ledges that are too high to reach by herself.
It would be remiss to say that the writing and characterisation in Golden Abyss is bad; it’s not. As far as action games go it’s up there towards the top, but as far as Uncharted goes it’s at the bottom.
Combat is near the bottom, too – closer to Drake’s Fortune than Drake’s Deception. This is all about moving between cover, shooting and tossing the odd grenade. Hurling gas canisters, throwing back grenades and using advanced melee options to both dispatch an enemy and take his gun are all missing. The result is that Golden Abyss seems a little out-dated, despite the implementation of the Vita’s unique control options.
Touch screen controls often govern your success in combat, countering and delivering the final blow coming down by swiping across the screen at the correct time in line with the arrows that pop up. It’s a lacklustre, sloppy effort that has surely been included only to make more frequent use of the touch options. Puzzles that require taking charcoal rubbings of artefacts (rubbing the screen) and arranging pieces of torn up documents are equally tiresome.
Better are the gyroscopic additions, which make aiming a matter of precision and speed. Rather than painstakingly edge your reticule towards your target’s head with deft touches of the analogue stick, kill shots are better lined up by tilting/angling the Vita in the correct direction. There’s no hiding the fact that it takes some getting used to (especially when using the sniper rifle) but once you’ve nailed the sensitivity of the system it reveals itself as a welcome addition.
It would be a stretch to say that it provides the kind of accuracy offered by a mouse in PC FPS, but it’s not far off and an improvement over analogue stick as a standalone option.
As an initial experiment into what Uncharted can be on the Vita, Golden Abyss is a decent effort rather than an exciting debut. The quality of the writing, the pacing and the lack of set pieces make it obvious from the first hour that Naughty Dog are not involved (Sony Bend handled development duties) and, invariably, the experience suffers as a result.
That being said, this is still an Uncharted game. Every Uncharted game comes with a certain base level of precision and execution, and that hasn’t been lowered here. Golden Abyss gets a pass, but it doesn’t come with honours.