HIGH Soaking in those sumptuous visuals.
LOW Finger-swiping QTEs.
WTF Why do I have to clean 100% of the dirt off this artifact with my tired finger when I can already make out the "hidden" image?
Based on its pedigree, media exposure, and unusually steep price tag ($50 at retail compared to the normal range of $30-40 for Vita software), Uncharted: Golden Abyss is obviously the alpha dog in Sony's PlayStation Vita launch lineup. The game is also a very risky move on Sony's part: It tries to cram one of the most technologically taxing video game series into a handheld that is not quite as powerful as the six year-old PlayStation 3. Combine sky-high consumer expectations with the launch-time pressures of having to show off every Vita feature under the sun and a new studio (Sony Bend) at the helm, and you have a potential debacle on your hands.
Crisis averted. Golden Abyss may not be the best Uncharted or the best portable shooter or perhaps even the best Vita launch title, but it's a fantastic game nonetheless—one that fittingly streamlines some aspects of the series while introducing new ones that feel at home on the Vita, all while returning the series to its most essential genre roots.
Of course, the most notable thing about Golden Abyss is just how damn amazing it looks. Some of the plant textures can get a little blocky, but character models, lighting, and interiors look ripped from a big-budget PlayStation 3 title. I found myself using the Vita's nifty in-game screenshot feature multiple times, angling to capture the perfect image to use as system wallpaper. By the time the game ended, I was left with dozens of photos that repeatedly had me pinching myself. Quite simply, Golden Abyss looks too good to be true. PSP games that were graphical showcases were usually rather short (e.g., God of War) or shallow (Soul Calibur: Broken Destiny). Golden Abyss suffers from neither problem.
It wouldn't be an Uncharted game without a convoluted story involving a cursed treasure and Golden Abyss thankfully delivers an enjoyable, albeit slightly rote, romp in the jungles and caverns of Central America. This time, Drake is brought down to Panama by a squirrely, predictably backstabby friend named Dante to investigate signs of a lost civilization and their fabled golden stash. There's a strong-willed romantic interest, there's an appearance by Sully, and the whole thing is rather standard fare for Uncharted. Thankfully, the story is saved by the top-notch voice acting and smart dialogue for which the series is known. The writing isn't quite as tight as in an actual Naughty Dog production (this is most evident in mid-game banter between Drake and Sully that borders on meandering), but for the most part it works.
In fact, I'd go so far as to say the story and setting work better than those of Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, if only because the narrative is sharply focused on a few locations rather than on a disjointed hodgepodge of set pieces. There is a clear narrative arc with actual character development and entertainingly eccentric baddies steering the conflict, and I enjoyed the clever twist behind the cursed treasure more than in previous entries. It's also a decently long campaign, taking between 8 and 10 hours depending on the difficulty setting, though this is offset somewhat by the conspicuous absence of multiplayer modes.
Gameplay will be familiar to series veterans, as Drake once again alternates between gunning down hordes of interchangeable thugs and climbing cliffs with monkey-like agility. Shooting feels at home on the Vita thanks to the system's analog sticks, although the targeting is just as disappointingly finicky as in Uncharted 3, and multiple trips to the sensitivity settings may be warranted. It's too bad that Sony Bend didn't opt for the same system used in Unit 13, which lets the player easily target an enemy while still pressed against cover. Precision targeting while exposed can be a trying exercise on the higher difficulty levels, but it's never so frustrating that it detracts from the simple joys of launching a rocket into a swarm of armored militia.
Much has already been made of Golden Abyss's Vita-specific interface quirks, so let's get the ugly bits out of the way: Yes, Golden Abyss contains a few "minigames" that are essentially glorified tech demos. By the end of the game, players will have rubbed more filthy artifacts and assembled more jigsaw puzzles their fingers than they'll care to remember, and there are a few awkward moments when the Vita must be tilted to keep Drake from falling off a narrow log.
However, much of the gimmickry is optional and some implementations can be quite fun, at least in moderation. This is because many of these interface tweaks are tied into Golden Abyss's new secrets system. No longer does Drake simply run around collecting relics (although he does plenty of that, too); now every one of the game's 32 chapters comes with its own varying set of journal-based collectibles including photos (taken by moving the Vita around like it's an actual camera) and charcoal rubbings, each with a nifty backstory that adds to the game's Panamanian lore. The number of secrets is immense, easily dwarfing other modern adventure titles. I'm a collectibles fiend, so the pleasure of discovering well-hidden bobbles and vantage points easily outweighed any hassle caused by touch-screen implementation. As with the early Tomb Raider titles, gamers who don't care for easter egg hunting may very well want to steer clear of this game, as the treasure is half the fun... and the sole incentive to replay.
Another much-hyped addition to the interface is the ability to climb using the touch screen. The player can "paint" a path along shining ridges and hand-holds with his or her finger and Drake will seamlessly follow along. It's a completely optional feature, but I found it rather useful when I got sick of pressing on the analog stick during long climbs or when I was searching for ways to access secret platforms.
Compared to the other Uncharted titles, Golden Abyss may come off as something of a beautifully ugly cousin. The story is less complicated, the implementation of touch screen and motion controls is a mixed bag, the gameplay lacks for showpiece events like the horse riding section of Uncharted 3, and the graphics, astounding as they are, cannot compete with those of more powerful hardware. But make no mistake: It is an achievement that a portable game can even be compared to a full console game in terms of graphical sheen and scope, and it's an achievement made all the more impressive by the fact that the game itself is so much fun. At its core, it's the same Uncharted game we've all played before, but it's bolstered by sterling presentation, a bevy of secrets, and straightforward tomb-raiding gameplay that feels like a love ode to the series' adventure forebears.
It's not quite a masterpiece, but it's one hell of a way to launch a console.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail store and reviewed on the PlayStation Vita. Approximately 10 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode and it was completed once on Hard difficulty. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood, drug references, language, mildly suggestive themes, and violence. Like the other Uncharted games, Drake tends to spout a few expletives when he gets tired and/or cranky. He also seems to run around committing clone genocide for a living, so you may want to avert young eyes from the senseless, albeit mostly bloodless, massacre.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: Be aware that although the dialogue in the game is subtitled, the subtitles themselves don't differentiate between the speakers—it can be sometimes hard to follow. On the plus side, sound cues (aside from voices) don't play a huge role during the game, and directional indications are given for shots and grenades coming in from offscreen.