Of all the quality PS3 titles, the Uncharted games have just as much right to consider themselves “system sellers” as any. Each one has produced memorable moments, and seem to be enjoyed by all types of gamer. The franchise might not have had the same loyal fanbase of franchises that were around in the early Playstation days, but after three heavy hitters the Sony faithful have come to associate the franchise with consistency.
It’s that association Sony hope will make Uncharted: Golden Abyss into the Vita’s killer app. And when you first lay eyes on it, you might be amazed at how close it looks to the PS3 games. It belies the fact that Naughty Dog isn’t responsible for Drake’s “new” outing, handing over control to Sony Bend Studio to handle this prequel which chronologically takes place before Drake’s Fortune.
And with the same writer on board, mo-cap techniques, and voice actors (yes, including Nolan North), you can also expect the dialogue and overall flow of the story to be very much Uncharted. These are all characters we’ve seen before - either in a videogame, or an Indiana Jones movie, or elsewhere - but few franchises build their characters in such a way that makes players remember and care about them as Uncharted.
There’s the double-crossing, quick-talking city slicker whom you’re forced to trust. He’s in cahoots with the barrel-bellied, cigar smoking general, representing evil South American communism. And don’t think for a second they’ve left out that treasure-seeking cutiepie companion character who you’ll end up helping, despite being in the business for far less altruistic reasons.
You and Chase will finish each others’ sentences, you’ll bump heads when you both bend over to pick something up - and you’ll share the same casual wit in the face of hoards of South American death squads charging at you. Except in Golden Abyss, your companion has a strict policy against guns. “I don’t do guns”, I believe the line was. And she’s no Mohammed Ali either.
This means in firefights you sometimes have to protect poor Chase from enemies closing in as she ducks her head and counts to ten. It doesn’t quite achieve the Ico-inspired sense of being a protector it goes for, but at least she’s not useless: Chase is the only companion in the Uncharted series that will readily volunteer her climbing services to give Drake a break.
A Godsend, considering how much climbing there actually is.
After a trio of Uncharted outings, Naughty Dog had distilled a proven balance of activities. A bit of climbing, a bit of shooting, a cutscene to move the story forward, and every so often (and most famously) a massive, scripted action sequence. Each section was enjoyable, and moved along with the craft we’d normally expect of Hollywood.
These core elements are different in Golden Abyss, and consequently it lacks the pacing of its predecessors. Those iconic set pieces are missing, although it does try - but instead of producing a memorable escape from a burning chateau with everything crumbling around you (as in Uncharted 3), it might manage a lacklustre sprint through a forest pathway with enemies firing at you. It’s unclear whether the Vita’s hardware is the bottleneck here or whether Sony Bend just lacks the same technique, but what’s certain is Golden Abyss lacks those jaw dropping gameplay moments.
In their place is a mixed bag of additional Vita functionality. It’s clear that Sony Bend have put effort into giving you a variety of ways to use the touchscreen and motion features - and, as you can probably guess - some are more useful than others.
Surprisingly, there are some movement techniques that are so useful as to not make you want to tear your hair out. And there’s nothing too unwelcome about using the touchscreen to solve a puzzle here and there. One or two - such as touching where you want to climb, to as opposed to holding that direction and spamming the X button - you might even prefer.
But others are so pointless and downright detrimental to the experience, I can think of no other explanation than they had to be there to fill some Vita feature quota. The best (and most recurring) example is Golden Abyss’ archaeological activities, which usually involve finding some filthy artifact and cleaning it. This is done by rotating the object with fingers on the back touchpad, while rubbing the object on the front. After 100% of the dirt is gone and you’ve discerned whatever vital clue you can, you can continue. It’s the type of activity you’ll never see in a trailer, because there’s absolutely nothing fun about it, and the developers probably know it.
There’s little doubt that someone, somewhere, can make innovative use of the Vita’s new features. At its zenith, such cleverness can be very memorable, such as when Zelda on the DS required you to close the two screens together to imprint a map from stone onto your parchment. Uncharted’s imitation ideas don’t achieve that “Ooh, clever!” feeling though, and more often it’s a case of “Man, do I really have to do that?”
As in, “Man, do I really have to go find a bright light to see the ink through this old parchment?”
Or, “Man, do I really have to move my hand from the joystick to the touchscreen every melee combo for these quick-time events?”
So with less good bits (scripted action sequences), and more bad bits (shoehorned minigames using Vita features), this places a lot of weight on the “bread and butter” Uncharted experience. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the shooting and climbing segments - crumbling stone and weak pipes make sure each leap still has that perilous uncertainty - there’s just a disproportionate amount of them. So much climbing makes Golden Abyss feel slow at times, and it doesn’t help when your break from climbing turns out to be polishing some antiquated dildo.
Pacing is important, and Uncharted games are a coming together of different elements - so it’s important to acknowledge Golden Abyss has very clear strengths and weaknesses. Action gamers who found their way to Uncharted via God of War and similar bombastic franchises will only have their itches scratched in the cutscenes. Whereas if your main enjoyment comes from the character interaction and cute dialogue these games seem to do better than so many others, you won’t be disappointed at all.