The Playstation Vita’s first pin up.
Almost a year before we first cast eyes on our sexy little handheld monster, several video game producers made enticing comments, saying that Sony’s new device was like a PS3 in your pocket. At the time, before the announcement of the Playstation 4 and the leap in graphical fidelity, it seemed like an exceptionally lofty claim that would bring expectations above and beyond what would be capable. And then came the reveal and we got our first glance at Uncharted: Golden Abyss. Jaws dropped on a global scale. My heart certainly pounded, and even when the Vita was first released I couldn’t afford one. My husband knows how much I wanted one, as I’m sure there were days where he could strangle me. I feverishly searched the internet high and low for information, news and reviews. My addiction to the Vita had already begun, and eventually I had to get one on hire purchase, and ended up paying well above the odds and getting two games from the release list I wasn’t really that interested in. My point? Two games fueled my desire to get my hands on the Vita. The first was WipeOut 2048, the second was Uncharted: Golden Abyss.
Created by Bend Studio (who I actually think are a little underrated due to the fact that they are known for handling PSP versions of console releases) and overseen by Naughty Dog, perhaps the kings of this console generation, Bend Studio was tasked with creating a full, console like experience on the go, with all the action of the console releases while still showing off the unique features the Vita is now well known for. Golden Abyss is a direct prequel and the events that occur here happen before the original Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune on the PS3. It’s difficult for me to describe the plot in detail for you as I don’t want to reveal major plot twists, but the game begins with an action sequence before moving back through time, and much of the game is played through the events leading up to the prologue. As is the norm with any Uncharted game, Drake teams up for many sections of the game with another character, and although the game starts with Drake and Dante (who is an old friend of Drake), Marisa Chase ends up being the leading lady and it’s the continuous narrative that occurs more frequently while you are actually playing than in cut scenes that makes the game shine. Drake is voiced by Nolan North, just as in the console releases and the script as ever has just as much tongue in cheek sarcastic humour and flirting than it does anything else.
Needless to say the highlights of the Uncharted series and what it is famous for are all here. Where the game differs (and unfortunately not always for the better) are what makes Uncharted: Golden Abyss unique from the other games in the series. While Uncharted 2 and 3 focused more and more on huge set pieces, Golden Abyss instead focuses more on discovery. Every single nook and cranny is begging to be explored, and if you’re a collectaholic like I am you’re in for a treat. Every single chapter in the adventure except for the prologue has tonnes of secrets; from ancient relics to Turquoise Glyph’s, charcoal rubbings and Jade Carvings. There are also photographs to be taken throughout many parts of the game, and Drake’s journal does an amazing job of keeping track of everything. Opening the menu by pushing select and then touching the on screen icon opens the list of items and mysteries to be solved in each chapter, so rather than having to look through all of the separate mystery sets (of which there are many), you know what you’re looking for. Finding all of them is another matter entirely. On my first playthrough I thought I’d be savvy and grab them all in one go, but upon completion I had to refer to a guide to find the ones I was missing. Many of the game’s secrets are tucked away cleverly out of sight and in hard to reach locations off the fairly linear main path, and the only visual clue you receive is a little glint of light (much like in the Resident Evil series) or by a flashing camera icon on screen. This goes a very long way to lengthening the experience, and I believe my first playthrough took about fifteen hours (I really was looking hard!). Added to the fact that completing the game on hard unlocks crushing mode, and that enemies drop bounty at random (sometimes meaning you have to replay chapters and kill enemies again and again) and you have a fairly meaty experience.
The game handles exceptionally well, and both analogs sticks are used here to great effect. The controls are very similar to the console releases, so the cover system is present here, as are the precise aiming mechanics needed for those ever so satisfying head shots. What hurts this game, and brings it down beyond greatness, lies in two big, big problems; long sections of more or less automatic platforming and utilising nearly every single one of the Vita’s features, to varying degrees of effectiveness. The automatic platforming is to put it bluntly, a bit of a joke. I really enjoyed the platforming in the PS3 versions, but here it’s nearly impossible to die in these sections, and this really takes a lot of the fun out of it. Jumping is now so automatic that you can simply draw a line using the touch screen and Drake will hop to it. Whereas in games like Assassin’s Creed, the semi-automatic jumping techniques are fluid and fun due to the open world you inhabit, here it’s just dull. Towards the end of the game things do get a bit more tricky with the threat of explosions, being shot at and mini quick time events where Drake looses his grip and you have to swipe up on the screen to stop him falling, but it isn’t enough to save the platforming experiences here as it’s too little too late and only serves to intrude the flow and frustrate. These swipe the screen sections aren’t exclusive to the platforming either. Drake uses his machete to cut through sheets quite frequently throughout the game, but the entire game stops every time for you to input swipe after swipe. It just doesn’t work well and serves to remind you that you are playing a game rather than immersing you into the experience like the Uncharted series has always managed to do. Charcoal rubbings and cleaning dirty relics on the other hand have you brushing the screen and these fare better, though the charcoal rubbings are perhaps a little too common.
The problem is it doesn’t end there. Walking across logs means you have to tilt the Vita when you loose balance. Rather than balancing as you walk across which would make more sense and work better, Drake more or less sprints across these logs like he is somehow magically glued to them and then slips and stops moving, halting the action while you regain balance. This feels like a missed opportunity to me as again it only serves to break up the flow of a game that relies so heavily on it. The worst of the lot for me was when I had to hold the Vita up to a bright light to reveal a hidden image. I’m pretty sure if you were on public transport at this point you would just switch to another game or turn the Vita off to avoid looking like an idiot, and indeed my husband gave me some slightly odd looks when I had to turn the main lights on one evening and wave the Vita as close as I could to the bulb without burning it. It really feels tacked on and rather pointless. The rear touch panel is also used and can be used for climbing up and down ropes, but I didn’t find this method to be any easier or more fun than just using the analog stick. My favourite feature and the only one that really feels like it genuinely helps the experience is being able to zoom in and out with the camera or sniper rifle using the rear touch pad. This was both quick and fluid and definitely aided me, making the sniper and photography sections the most fun in the game. Using the front touch screen to throw grenades also worked out fairly well, as it’s faster than cycling menus and pressing buttons.
I may sound like I have been fairly negative in many of my critisisms of Golden Abyss thus far. The truth is, as is often the case with games that are released on day one; there are these constant niggling problems that could have been fixed and would have made this title a true must have. I really did have a lot of fun with Golden Abyss but it just isn’t quite up their with the quality of the console releases. Yes, it looks amazing, and is nearly as impressive as early PS3 titles, but it’s also running at a reduced resolution and as a result some of the jaggies are horrendous. Yes, it controls fantastically but the gimmicks more often than not intrude and become particularly annoying towards the end of the game. Yes, the script and acting are amazing, and the story is great too, but it just isn’t quite as good as Naughty Dog’s titles and as a result it often feels like taking a small step backwards when playing. On the other hand, having a title that looks this good, sounds this good (the orchestral score is as ever absolutely amazing) and really does play well from start to finish means I would still recommend it if you are a fan of the series. Added to that the fact that it’s currently completely free if you’re a Playstation Plus subscriber and you’re onto a winner. I urge you to try it as I’m certainly sure there’s fun to be had here, just don’t go expecting an experience that’s quite as good as Naughty Dog’s offerings. As it works out cheaper to get a Playstation Plus subscription for a year than it does to buy Uncharted at full retail price, you’d be mad not to.
One last bit of advice. If you do have Playstation Plus and want to avoid frustration then make sure you utilise cloud saves. I completed the entire game on hard and got nearly half way through again on crushing (which is a painstaking process as the difficulty implies) and during loading the game crashed entirely meaning I had to hard reset my Vita. Upon loading the game again my twenty or so hours of gameplay had disappeared. That is why the screen shots are all from fairly early in the game. My trophy list says I’ve completed it on hard so to have to slog through everything again is currently a bit to depressing! Oh, and if you’re looking for multiplayer, you might want to hope for a sequel.