The Uncharted games have come to mean something to me. It’s not just how much fun they are to play, or how film-like the storytelling is. It’s more than that: They mean something because I have a connection with the characters. I’ve spent time with Nate, Sully, Elena and Chloe in a way I haven’t with Stringer, Marlo, Pook, Bodie, McNulty, Freeman and the Bunk — to reference the other (TV) series I can’t quit even though I’ve finished it a few times. Uncharted is a real three-dimensional space while The Wire remains a two-dimensional world I view but can’t control. That’s always been true of video games, but what stands out for Uncharted is that it is a video game about something — or about a few things.
Don’t get me wrong, I know this sounds a bit melodramatic and I know this is a lot of weight for a video game to carry. It not only has to deliver technical prowess on the more limited horsepower of the PS Vita, but it also has to deliver the characters that I have grown to know intimately over the 45 hours or so I’ve spent playing the first three games. But to stop there is to fall short. If it’s not about something it’s not Uncharted.
Add to all this the fact that Golden Abyss ($49.99 on Amazon) was not developed directly by Naughty Dog and the additional pressures of being a banner PS Vita launch title, and you’ll understand why I was a little nervous about how the experience would measure up before playing it.
As with any new game, what strikes you first are the nuts and bolts. Golden Abyss looks impressive on the beautiful PS Vita screen. It’s evident from the start that it is built on the same engine as the main Uncharted games rather than a derivative version for the Vita.
Despite expectations to the contrary this is something that can’t be said for the 3DS which is usually left the poorer cousin of related console releases. I’m thinking of the Lego games in particular here and it makes me excited to see whether the Vita will finally deliver a full Lego experience on the go.
Even without access to the online features yet, Golden Abyss excels in the main game. The same deft touch is found here with water, landscapes and realistic materials of every kind. Much has been shared between Naughty Dog and Bend Studios, which gives Golden Abyss a familiar feel while keeping locations distinct. Rusty architecture has the same Naughty Dog finesse and climbable elements are highlighted with the familiar yellow and blue hues.
Cut scenes and close ups, that are as crucial to Uncharted as game play, give away more of the compromises required to have this running on the Vita. However, and this was a big question mark for me before playing, they are obviously acted in the same way as the console versions. I assume this signals that they are handled by Naughty Dog while the rest of development is left to Bend Studios.
In fact I was happy to find the slightly one-dimensional tone of Uncharted 3‘s dialogue and Nate’s unshakable confidence to be replaced by the more chatty and contoured feel of Uncharted 2 (as little as $10 on Amazon). Golden Abyss finds a more satisfying opposite male for Nate in Dante and again steers this relationship back towards the double-crossing of Harry Flynn in 2 rather than Cutter’s more earnest assistance in 3.
The arrival of Marisa Chase (Christine Lakin) early on in the game also makes room for Nate’s protective side that we haven’t really seen since the first game. Chase is less willing to join Nate’s fight even than Elena was in the first game, something that introduces overdue questions about the ease our hero finds in shooting so many “bad guys.”
Chase also voices other blind spots for the series. Nate’s peculiar ability to climb the most obscure objects becomes the butt of not a few comments. “What is it with you, raised in a circus?” She even lampoons the game’s penchant for leaving the NPC stranded and getting Drake to find an alternate route. “Wait, let me guess, you’ll find another way round” she second guesses Nate on a couple of occasions. As play continues this is developed into a more thoughtful theme as her father’s diaries tell of his similar determination to “find another way.”
Firmly established as the voice of the player, Chase’s back story becomes both interesting and essential for the game. It not only explains much of the current challenge and enemies to face but also creates real tension over how and when she will join the fight or whether her non-violent approach will leave her as a hapless female dependent on the easy violence of the Nate-player complex.
There is a similar confidence to the controls. The gyroscope aiming is better than hoped for and actually eclipses the need for a second stick most of the time. Turning up the sensitivity of the gyroscope means you can lock on by pulling the left trigger then simply move the Vita around in real space to dial in for a head shot. This feels both more natural and more accurate than the console game and asks a serious question as to why this hasn’t become standard in Six Axis/Dual Shock controlled games — I assume the accelerometers alone aren’t up to the job in much the same way as MotionPlus delivered on the Wii’s original one-to-one control promises.
Less positively, Golden Abyss suffers, like the original Uncharted game, from heavy-handed use of the gyroscope for incidental balancing moments. Here too it feels forced and heavy handed. Similarly the game’s insistence on including DS-like touch-screen-controlled puzzles becomes tiresome. In fact, my heart sank each time Nate exclaims his telltale “What’s this?”
Where the touch screen works surprisingly well is for climbing. The ability to drag your finger over a series of color-coded ledges to have Nate make his way along them is a happy relief from “nannying” him across each and every hand-hold.
This, like the gyroscope aiming, is another interaction it will be hard to live without when Uncharted 4 hits consoles. In fact it’s such a success that if Naughty Dog is paying attention they should include a PS Vita control scheme for the main game where you can use the handheld rather than the Dual Shock 3 or Six Axis.
As game play opens out you are granted all the abilities of the console Uncharted games. Placing grenades with the touch screen is another success as is tapping to pick up weapons — something that I found to be more luck than skill on the console where it is hard to know where a particular firearm is located even once it has flashed up a prompt only moments previously.
There are, of course, limitations. Although these are minor they hit hard in an experience as expansive as we have come to expect Uncharted to be. You only climb a more limited set of architecture here and you are led down a much more restrained corridor.
There are also times when you can fall outside of the prescribed route and find yourself a little marooned with only the option to retrace your steps. It felt like player testing had had less time to finesse each and every scenario — something that shows just how much impact this aspect of development has had in the console games.
As with the console games, I won’t feel ready to really comment on the themes and nuances here until I’ve worked through the game a second time on Crushing. But even on this first play I’ve been roundly impressed.
The irony is that this has meant that I’ve treated Uncharted: Golden Abyss more like a console title than a handheld game. I’ve set aside evenings to play it rather than snatched moments in and around family life. The handheld nature has not been without its benefits, most telling the fact that I don’t have to tie up the main family screen to play it. It’s telling of the stature of the experience that I want to set aside proper play time to get the most out of it. That really hasn’t happened for me on a portable game before and I’m interested to see how this plays out.
Uncharted: Golden Abyss delivers the quality and meaning I’ve come to expect of the series, and that is no small thing. Bend Studios obviously “gets” what the series is about and has had plenty of input from Naughty Dog’s writing, acting and development talent. In many ways Golden Abyss is the game that I wanted Uncharted 3 to be: a fresh run-around for the tropes and style of Uncharted 2.
Even that is a disservice to the game that adds intelligently to the formula that has lived with Nate through his previous adventures. Couple this with a new cast of characters and some great new control schemes, and I’m more than willing to forgive the heavy-handed balance and puzzle moments. Golden Abyss is a must for Uncharted fans, and a must-buy launch game for the PS Vita.
Uncharted: Golden Abyss is available for PlayStation Vita for $49.99 from Amazon.
The PlayStation Vita is available from Amazon for $249.99 starting on February 22.
[Header image by flickr/sergesegal]