You may have had enough of hanging from glowing ledges, jumping from crumbling floors and narrow escapes from massive explosions, but I can't get enough of the adventures of "Dude Raider" Nathan Drake. I loved all of the PS3 games, with Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception being my pick for the best game of 2011.
That said, I had some reservations about the series going portable. How would the series' trademark cinematic style hold up on the small screen? I was also concerned that the title would not be coming directly from Naughty Dog, but from SCE's Bend Studio. Would this be a gimmicky, touch screen one-off?
All of my worries disappeared within 10 minutes of playing Uncharted: Golden Abyss on the new PlayStation Vita, both released in Japan on December 17. There's a huge review below to give you all the details, but here's what you need to know in short: Uncharted: Golden Abyss is the Vita's first "must buy." This game sets a new high mark for portable gaming. Also, if this is a launch title, the future looks very bright for Sony's new portable.
[Review Note: We used the Japanese release of Uncharted: Golden Abyss for this review. This release features the same English voices and text that we'll see in the domestic release. If any features change upon domestic release, we'll update this review.]
Uncharted: Golden Abyss (PlayStation Vita)
For those following the series, Uncharted: Golden Abyss is a prequel story, though it doesn't seem to establish much in the way of backstory. Nathan Drake may have a few less cuts and bruises in this game, but he's basically the same protagonist you've come to know and love. The rest of the cast is new, save for an old friend that series fans will immediately recognize. This old friend may have less gray hair, but he still has the same terrible shirts and jokes.
Golden Abyss has Drake working for a somewhat shady old friend named Jason Dante. He reports for duty as a historical expert for Dante in the deep forests of Central America. During their work they meet Marisa Chase, the granddaughter of a famous archaeologist. Chase is looking for her grandfather, who has gone missing during his an expedition. The group gets mixed up with a retired general from the region that is on the hunt for treasure. It seems that everyone is looking for the same ruins, but for different reasons.
The story is great, and there's some really nice plot twists and lore to be enjoyed and explored. Golden Abyss may not have quite the character depth that Naughty Dog pumped into previous series games' characters, but that not to say that the characters are bad in any way. You'll still totally hate the bad guys, sympathize with the heroine, and laugh heartily at Drake's snarky interjections. No corners were cut as far as the characters are concerned, mind you. It's just that, while good, they're not quite to the impossibly high level that Naughty Dog has set with previous games.
That said, the voice acting is exactly on par with what you've experienced with the console games. Nolan North is at his best, wisecracking like a champ as Drake. Voice actress Christine Lakin also does a fine job as Marisa Chase and when Drake and his old friend meet up in the second half of the game, the wisecracks come non-stop. In the latter half of the game there's a hilarious run of "...that's what she said" jokes between the pair. I think that most players will be surprised at how much dialogue is in this game. Everything is fully voiced, making you wonder how they fit it all on that tiny little Vita cartridge.
Drake has learned several new tricks with this first portable outing. The various new input controls of the Vita are all used in Golden Abyss, making the game a perfect showcase for the system. And while just about all of the touch and motion controls are optional, they're implemented so well that I'm sure most players will end up using them and enjoying them.
The front touch screen and back touch panel are used extensively. Basic commands, like picking up items and weapons, can now be done by simply touching them on the screen. This way you won't have to walk over to it and hit a button. Flinging grenades is a joy now, as you literally flick them in the direction you want them to go with the front screen. Fist fighting also uses the touch screen, and it's much better than you'd think, with swipey cinematic attacks and dodges mixing up the standard punching and kicking. I love that the sniper rifle's zoom can be controlled by either a slider on the front screen, or by running a finger up and down across the back touch panel.
The touch control even extends to exploration. You can jump from ledge to ledge with buttons and the analog stick, just as you always have, or you can simply touch a ledge to have Drake jump to it. In fact, he will follow a line you've traced across the screen with your finger to do things like move across ledges and over or under obstacles. Again, the touch controls in these cases are totally optional, but they're pretty slick, and trying them once will likely sell you on them.
My favorite new addition to Uncharted's control is the motion control-enabled aiming assist. You'll still use the right analog stick to aim your weapons, but the Vita's motion sensors let you tilt the system to fine tune your aim. While larger gestures let you move the reticle from enemy to enemy, I used it more for correcting my aim, and quickly fell in love with the feature. Being able to tilt to fine tune aim is so intuitive that I don't know how I ever lived without it.
The only touch control that is not optional is found in the game's cutscenes. You'll swipe your way through fist fights and narrow escapes. These "quick time events" start out as pretty standard, but get really creative toward the end. I don't want to spoil any of the situations, so just know that you'll be furiously swiping in all directions as quick as you can, gritting your teeth all the while. It seems like Bend had a lot of fun putting these events together, and I'm sure you will, too.
Sure, there's a lot of new tricks with this outing, but the game's core is classic Uncharted. This means you'll get more of that perfect mix of tense platforming and climbing and epic gunfights, all presented with cinematic flair. The first time things get hairy and you find yourself hanging from a rope with shooters firing from above and snipers aiming from below, you'll feel right at home. There's no way the game's creators could have been more true to Uncharted's gameplay. They nailed it.
I'm glad to say that series fans will also feel right at home with the controls. The exemplary dual joysticks of the Vita do a lot to blur that line between portable and home console. There's absolutely no learning curve here for anyone that has played any of the previous games. Nothing is lost in translation.
The Uncharted series has always incorporated puzzles, and you'll find plenty in Golden Abyss. In fact, I'd bet there are more puzzle-like instances in this latest title than in any of the other ones. While enjoyable, the majority of them are pretty shallow, and rely on the the front and rear touch panels. Your hands will be all over the screen doing things like making charcoal rubbings of ancient carvings, or rubbing dirt and/or rust off artifacts to uncover clues. The game's makers are absolutely unapologetic in their excitement for rubbing things, so much so that their studio logo is presented with a charcoal rub graphics.
There are a few other more interesting types of touch puzzles in the mix. You'll have to use your fingers to spin combination locks to gain access to treasures, and re-assembling ripped up maps, posters and other papers is pretty fun, though you'll do it so often that you'll wonder why so many things are ripped up in the forests of Central America. Fortunately, these iPhone game-like diversions give way to some really neat puzzles near the end of the game. These are more like your classic puzzles from treasure hunting games, and they're all pretty enjoyable.
Fans of item hunting will be glad to hear that Golden Abyss has more hidden items, treasures and other artifacts to find than any other of the series titles. Maybe too many! I found that I was almost tripping over collectable gems and coins during the adventure, and found a few more by accident. It's almost unbelievable how many findable items are in this game. Drake's in-game journal contains several pages of empty "slots" for all of these items, and it's a bit daunting going through them. I'd dare say that only the most hardcore will even attempt to collect them all, and that they'll probably need multiple playthroughs to do so.
As an amateur photographer I really enjoyed the new camera-based quests in Golden Abyss. Drake is free to bring up his camera at any time to shoot any of the game's lovely scenery to be kept in his journal, but there are also several requested pictures to collect. You're given examples to try to match with your own photos, and the game grades you on them, with collection requiring a 100 percent match. Photography uses the Vita's tilt function to aim and the rear touchscreen to zoom.
Uncharted: Golden Abyss is a beautiful game. From a visual standpoint, it's quite easily the most impressive portable game I've seen. So much of the polished presentation and cinematic style of the PS3 games can be found in this Vita title, which is especially impressive when you consider that this is a launch title. Seeing is believing, as online footage and screenshots do this game no justice. Bend's outstanding work on this game makes it easy to forget that you're playing a portable game. At announcement, Sony kept saying that the Vita is capable of PS3-like experiences, and Golden Abyss serves as proof.
The Uncharted series is known for its beautiful backdrops, and Golden Abyss is no exception. While treasure hunting adventure games all have similar settings, Bend cranked the pretty up to 11 in this one. Some of the texture art is positively eye-popping; I found myself doing double takes many times in my first playthrough. Lush, green forests give way to sun-drenched temple ruins in the game's first hours. Beyond that explore vast underground caves that lead to gaming eye candy that's so dazzling that I'd hate to ruin it for you. You'll see everything from dumpy lean-tos to impossibly scenic waterfalls on your journey, wondering how the game system isn't overheating from rendering them.
This game is also lovely in motion. The same high quality motion capture you enjoyed in the console games is present in Golden Abyss. Even moving water is stunningly realistic in this game. And despite some reports, I never experienced any kind of slow down or stuttering. Golden Abyss ran smoothly from beginning to end for me.
Talk about coming out strong! From launch day Sony has a flagship title and a potential system seller with Uncharted: Golden Abyss -- it's that good. It's everything you'd expect from an Uncharted title as a graphical powerhouse, and it serves as a technical showcase for Sony's newest hardware. It does such a good job of taking advantage of all of Vita's capabilities. It's as if Sony knew that this had to be amazing, and then spared no expense to make it so.
As far as single-player gaming goes, franchise fans will not be disappointed with the series' first portable game. Though smaller, Golden Abyss is still the deep, varied and highly entertaining adventure they've come to expect, with almost nothing lost in the move. And with more than 30 game chapters and about 12 hours of gameplay, this is a full Uncharted experience. There's no multiplayer, though, so some followers of the series may miss that.
With Uncharted: Golden Abyss we have the first must-buy for Sony's PlayStation Vita. It takes the series' much-loved gameplay, storytelling and presentation, and adds on innovative touch and tilt features to make a game that fits perfectly alongside its predecessors. Prepare to be amazed by a portable videogame.
THE VERDICT - Uncharted: Golden Abyss
Reviewed by Dale North