Trying to give you a full console experience on a handheld seems like a very, very hard thing for developers to try and do. This is even harder when the developer seems forced into adding support for the device’s gimmicks into their game simply because of the name on the box.
The good news is that Uncharted: Golden Abyss delivers the console experience on the Playstation Vita, with graphics on par with that of the original Uncharted, great controls, and the same fantastic storytelling that the series is known for. The bad news is that it feels like Bend Studio was forced to use as much as the Vita has to offer regardless of whether it hindered the gameplay or not.
Uncharted: Golden Abyss takes place before the events of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune; everything you expect to find from Drake’s previous (or forthcoming) adventures are here. So it’s no surprise that the hallmarks of the series are present and correct here – you’ll be scaling the environment around and in old ruins, jumping behind cover during firefights and enjoying the fantastic voice acting. While the environments seem stripped down from the full console versions, there are still plenty of moments where you’ll have to pinch yourself to believe that Golden Abyss is running on a handheld device.
Like the other games in the series, Golden Abyss follows a mythical premise to drive both Nathan Drake, his allies, and his enemies towards a common goal; this time, it’s all about the Seven Cities of Gold and Friar Marcos de Niza. Nolan North is back for his role as Drake – and gives a performance that wouldn’t be out of place in Golden Abyss’ console-based big brothers, complete with his trademark witty dialog.
The game controls decently enough, making a strong case for the necessity of two analog sticks on a handheld device. If you’ve played a modern third-person shooter, you know what to expect here; the left trigger aims, the right trigger shoots. The left stick moves, while the right stick looks around. It took a while to get used to the aiming, but when I finally did, whilst good, it never quite felt perfect. What sets Golden Abyss apart is the Vita’s touch screen; sadly, this seems to hinder the game as much as helping it.
There are constant contextual buttons appearing on the sides of the screen in perfect range of your thumbs. These buttons are used for things like reloading, melee combat, picking up weapons and opening your journal when it’s needed to name but a few. Grenades are also thrown by tapping the grenade icon to throw to the middle of the screen, or by dragging the grenade to where you want Drake to throw it, which is a really cool idea… when it works. More often than not, I’d find myself trying two or three times to get a grenade out while a group of enemies moved in on my position.
The touch screen can also be used to scale the environment – you can either tap where you want Drake to jump or – and this is quite cool – draw a path up the landscape. For me, this added a lot to my enjoyment of the game; I never particularly liked the climbing in the series, but always thought it looked cool. Thanks to this, I can draw Nate’s path and watch him go. However, it loses its usefulness towards the end of the game when handholds start falling away on a timer as you’re climbing; if you manage to draw the wrong path, Drake will get stuck and you’ll be have little time to try and coerce him into trying a different route.
But, as alluded to earlier, the touchscreen is used in some very poor ways. The dreaded scourge that are quicktime events are particularly prevalent in Golden Abyss, except now it’s touchscreen gestures instead of button presses. A couple of these actually feel pretty good, but most of them feel shoehorned in and don’t help the game in any way. But the worst implementation of the touchscreen is the puzzles. These can range from rubbing a piece of paper to make a charcoal etching, stitching together posters by moving and rotating pieces, to unlocking a combination lock.
As much as those puzzles irritate me, nothing in the game has caused me more frustration than the use of the back touch panel. The most prevalent use of the panel is zooming in your camera and sniper rifles, which can lead to some major annoyance, especially in a sequence where you’re protecting someone from afar with a sniper. If your finger is so much as grazing the bottom of the touch panel, every time you try to zoom in, it will immediately revert to zero, and you’ll have to reorient your grip, which means the person you’re supposed to be protecting is in for some bad times while you try to avoid touching the back of the device. Besides that, the back touch is used to rotate 3D objects around in puzzles, which doesn’t feel intuitive, and to climb up ropes, which you can do by pushing up on the analog stick or by just touching up the rope on the front screen, so I see no reason to ever use that.
Maybe a developer will prove me wrong one day, but so far I have not seen a single implementation of the back touch panel to make it feel like a good addition to the Vita. There are definitely some neat ideas out there, but none of them seem to be executed well enough to make it worth the hassle for many players – especially if alternative dual stick controls are available.
Then we get to the motion controls. Often, when traversing a narrow path, Drake will lose his balance and a bar will appear at the top of the screen. You then have to tilt the device to keep the bar out of the red for a time before you can proceed. What does that sound like to you? Yep, you got it right – it’s a essentially a quicktime event, where instead of pushing a button or swiping the screen, you need to tilt your Vita around (EDITOR’S NOTE – the tedious balancing mechanic was also present in the console games, utilising the motion sensors in the SixAxis controller). I absolutely despise this quicktime event. I feel it adds nothing to the game. It adds tension, for sure, but that tension comes in anticipating a button press in every cutscene, or in this case, worrying that I won’t be holding the Vita in the correct position when it asks me to.
In all fairness, the game does use motion controls well at a few points in the game. You can also opt to aim with motion controls – something that may sound a bit dodgy, but actually works well in conjunction with the analog stick to fine-tune your aim. You can also choose to use motion controls to aim sniper rifles and the camera, which feels fine, but the right analog stick gets the job done well enough.
In the end, Uncharted: Golden Abyss is a decent 3rd person action game that big fans of the series may will almost certainly want to check out. While the screenshots don’t quite do it justice, the game looks amazing on the Vita’s screen. The voice acting and storytelling are as good and as interesting as ever, and the combat is on par with the best in the series. It’s held back by the needless utilisation of many of the Vita’s features seemingly for the sake of utilising them which, at times, can hinder rather than help your enjoyment of the game. It certainly doesn’t help that this is the most expensive game at the Vita’s launch, and is at a price that is dangerously close to that of its console big brothers.
If you’re looking for a game to play from the Vita’s launch lineup, you can do a lot worse than Uncharted: Golden Abyss, but you could also do a heck of a lot better.