Uncharted: Golden Abyss
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Developer: Sony Bend
Release Date: 14 February 2012
Daring adventurer and mystery solver Nathan Drake has been busy lately. His blockbuster adventure in November, Drake's Deception, was another successful entry in the franchise. To make sure that the PS Vita had a “core franchise” at launch, Naughty Dog handed their boy over to the folks at Sony Bend. It's always a gamble to have another studio take on a beloved franchise, but with Naughty Dog consulting, Golden Abyss has every chance to be a solid entry in the series. What we got was akin to Uncharted: Drake's Fortune.
Our story starts off before the events of Drake's Fortune. Adventurer Nathan Drake is just trying to make ends meet. To that end, he takes a job in Panama for a greasy New Jersey jerk, and one time friend, Dante. Dante has hired Drake to look at some ruins deep in the jungles. At one of the sites, Drake meets Marisa Chase, a fellow student of history, and the two being to unravel the mystery of poisoned Spanish soldiers, secret Christian cults and one of the fabled cities of gold that so entranced the Spanish. Standing between the duo and the answer are mercenaries loyal to Dante (no one saw this frienemy turning on you) and the rebel army of General Guerro, a despot with delusions of grandeur. It's a smaller, tighter tale (like the original Drake's Fortune) that eschews a global adventure for one that is more intimate. The story is well done over all, but without Amy Hennig penning, it tends to feel more “penny dreadful” than “pulp adventure.”
|Drake and Dante, the best of "With friends like these..."|
While it was smart on Sony Bend's part to have the game play out before the main series, it also hurts the proceedings. Nolan North is back as the hero, and he does his usual stellar job even though the dialog isn't as tight. Drake is more impetuous and angry in this entry. The first line of dialog from Drake in the game is “Dante, you son of a bitch.” It just seems like Drake is being written as a gritty action hero instead of the loveable everyman he is in the other games. I want to believe that this is because he's younger and hasn't had the calming influence of Elena Fisher, but it could just as easily be that Sony Bend doesn't quite “get” Drake. The new characters are all well done, but none are really stand out. General Guerro is an 80s action movie throwback. He has tons of men, a short temper and the hilariously cheesy “Panamanian” accent that recalls the villains from nearly every Arnold movie. Pseudo-ally Dante is slimy, obnoxious and you can see his true intentions miles away. He's an antagonist you love to hate. I just wish that he was given more depth like fellow frinemy Harry Flynn (from Uncharted 2: Among Thieves). While Flynn was dynamic and a fun antagonist, Dante just comes across as, well, a jerk. It was a bit disappointing to go from the highs of Uncharted 2 and 3 to this. While it's still a good story with plenty of historical context to the mystery, it's just not as well done as the others.
|80s movie villain General Guerro|
Gameplay is a mixed bag that goes back to Drake's Fortune in terms of difficulty. The same wonky aiming found in that game rears it's head again in Golden Abyss. At first, it was rather frustrating to find that the tight controls of the recent titles had been abandoned, but then I started using the Vita-centered features. When enabled, the Vita can be tilted to assist with aiming. Using this to swiftly adjust while sniping feels great. While the aim-assist works well enough, with a slight tilt you can immediately get a head shot. This is essential to surviving on Hard and Crushing. It is frustrating, though, that the targeting feels “off” and that trying to swiftly draw a bead on mobile enemies leaves you open to too many shots.
|Combat is still good, but steps back from the highs of Among Thieves and Drake's Deception|
To pick up weapons and reload, you use the front touch screen. Tapping the icon in the upper left will reload your current weapon in a flash. To pick up weapons, you can tap the weapon on the ground or the icon on the right side. This becomes second nature pretty swiftly, and it feels like a natural extension of the controls. Firefights are tough, as enemies work intelligently to flank you and toss grenades at you to flush you out of cover. I found grenades to be a sore spot for the game. The inability to throw back grenades (added in Drake's Deception) is frustrating, but actually throwing grenades is even worse. To do so, you drag a grenade from the icon to the area you want to throw it to. If you blind-fire, at least in my experience, Drake throws the grenade half-way to the Panama Canal and overshoots the enemies nearly every time. If the dragging controls worked better, it would not be so bad. However, I killed myself a few times because the game decided that I had stopped dragging and dropped the device right at my feet. It was so frustrating that by the end of the game, I had killed fewer than 30 people with grenades (a trophy I usually get the chapter after I acquire grenades for the first time).
The enemies are, sadly, a rehash of foes you've fought in the other games. Guerro's army is just like the pirates in Drake's Fortune and the mercenaries under Dante are just like Lazarevic's army in Among Thieves. You even fight the same armored goons with mini-guns. I was disappointed by the lack of new enemies, but it did not detract from the game as a whole.
|Drake and new ally/love interest Marisa Chase|
While aiming with the gyroscope becomes second nature very quickly, other Vita-centered features wear out their welcome rapidly and become chores. Most of the puzzles involving the touch screen are making charcoal rubbings. They aren't terrible, but they are tedious. Many puzzles become labors of climbing the environments (yay!) to find the next glyph to copy (boo!). Others involve you brushing off some object to better inspect it, placing torn pieces together to reform a picture, and even the excitement of turning a combination lock. Outside of the puzzles, the touch screen is used for climbing. Using the back touch screen to climb ropes is kind of pointless (outside the trophy “Touch My Rear”), and drawing your finger along the front screen to trace Drake's path just leads to you watching and doing nothing while Drake jumps along the walls. Also, the annoying “balance using the gyroscope” returns. Nearly every time you cross a log or beam, Drake will inevitably wobble and a balance bar appears. After surviving the wobble, you move swiftly onwards. This pointless activity was in Drake's Fortune solely to take advantage of the six-axis controller (and was never seen again), and it is the same here. These kinds of features are not bad, but they don't add anything to the game.
|Sniping with the Vita's gyroscope is great|
Some Vita features detract. A lot. Chief among them is the use of the front touch panel for quick-time events. Sometimes a ledge will give way and the game will suddenly ask you to swipe your finger to make Drake catch the ledge. This can be awkward and have you juggling the Vita to free a hand to complete the motion. The worst use of these is during melee fights. While melee is never the first option, sometimes you just have to brawl. In the other games, the counter was mapped to another button, but here it is the front touch screen. So, after tapping Square (or the fist icon on the enemy), the game will go into “DRAMATIC SLOWDOWN!” and ask you to swipe in a certain direction. Correctly do this, and another swipe allows you to finish off the opponent with an uppercut or other suitable finisher. Where this falls down is that it happens every time you get into a fist-fight. You are forced to adjust your hold on the Vita to swipe easily and that can lead to some awkward juggling (just like the ledges) to get back into cover and continue fighting. The other annoyance is that these are unskippable. In many fights, I would have punched once or twice then ran to get out of the cross-fire. However, once the swipe portion begins, you cannot do anything. Failure leads to the enemy punching you, and even if you succeed, the other enemies get free shots on you all the while. There were quite a few deaths that happened because I was trying to punch someone (usually because I was out of ammo or needing to reload) and his buddies filled me full of lead while the game slowly showed me dodging a punch and uppercutting the man.
|The swipe fighting mechanic in action|
Where this “swipe to fight” mechanic makes sense is in the awesome fight-scene boss battles. These look and sound great. The dramatic tension, the controlled camera, and the sense of a dramatic fight are all well done. What didn't work well was the swiping itself. I failed one of the fights well over twenty times despite the fact that I was following the commands. On Hard, you can fail two swipes out of the entire fight, so the game not registering one early can mean an annoying death at the end (and restarting the whole fight). When everything worked and the swipes registered properly, they were easily the best fights in the game, and amazing moments in the series. But when they didn't work, it was frustration mounting almost to the point that I considered Vita discus as a sport.
While the controls are forced to show off the hardware (and do so poorly), the graphics do an amazing job of showcasing what the Vita can do. It seems that every climb and every twisting tomb corridor opens up in a vista that is breath-taking. The game is gorgeous and the wonderful array of colors paints the jungles in deep greens and brilliant oranges. Each area is lavishly detailed and is designed for you to stop and enjoy the view every once in a while.
|The game is gorgeous and is stunning to see on a hand-held|
One bit that I really appreciated from Sony Bend was the return of exploration to the series. The mainline games have steadily focused on bombastic set-pieces that are designed to get you on the edge of your seat. Even the locations, while diverse, are designed to funnel you to the next amazing shoot-out or chase scene. Golden Abyss however does the opposite. Levels are still linear affairs, but the branching paths are cleverly hidden. Each hidden path isn't just a small alcove, either. Some take a few minutes to traverse. At the ends of these offshoots are (usually) one of the myriad of collectables Drake finds. This game has a lot. And by “a lot” I mean over 300. Each “section” of the game (of which there are four) has it's own little treasures. It starts with turquoise glyphs (40 of these alone), then moves to jade carvings and finally to two sets of deity statues. Along with those, each level has treasures that flesh out side-stories. These are the normal Uncharted treasures like helmets, compasses, and other assorted objects. You will also find opportunities to take photographs (complete with Vita gyroscope controls, so it feels like a real camera). The photos task you with replicating a shot and you must land %100 to collect it. This isn't as bad as it sounds, and most of the time I was quickly able to make any adjustments. You will also find markings and make charcoal rubbings of them. Each chapter tells you what to look for in a handy checklist contained in Drake's journal, and the camera icon pops up when you are near a photo opportunity.
I loved the exploration of each level. Even thorough searches haven't yielded all the treasures yet. There are plenty of obvious side bits, usually hidden by bamboo thickets or canvas tarps that Drake cuts through with a touch screen machete. Others, however, are not so obvious hand holds and even back tracking along routes to see what has opened up. While the game doesn't have any moments that rival the train in Among Thieves or the cruise ship in Drake's Deception, the focus (and reward) for simply exploring the lush environments was awesome. There are, however, a few collectables during cut-scenes that force you to tap the flashing bit of the screen. This is a poor design decision, as I found myself looking for those and missing story bits because of it. The massive amount of collectables is not bad, but in having so many things to look for, it almost feels like you never make any progress of it.
|Reconstructing torn documents, just one of the many puzzles found in Golden Abyss|
So where does Golden Abyss stand with it's console brethren? I loved the more intimate story and the slower pace to the story. I liked the feeling that this adventure all played out satisfactorily, just like Drake's Fortune did. I didn't miss the action-packed set-pieces because I felt that the environments needed exploration, and I got the chance to do that exploring. The variety of collectables and the challenging task of hunting them down was great, but overwhelming. The lack of returning characters doesn't hurt much, but the new characters aren't as memorable. Where the game suffers is not really Sony Bend's fault. I'm sure their bosses were demanding that they include Vita features to justify putting the game on the system, and the game suffers for it. I'm sure the next game (and I'm sure it will be in development) will be much better because it can be a stand-alone game that doesn't need to have Vita features to sell the system. We've seen the same shoehorning in of features on other hand-helds in the first generation of games, but then games begin stand on their own. I feel that the next Vita Uncharted will do just that. This entry, however, is a bit too much of a backwards step. Having a full Uncharted experience in my hand is amazing. It is a shame that the game tries too hard to be a Vita showcase instead of a quality game. Recycled enemies, spotty combat controls, no memorable additions to the cast, and a Drake that isn't quite right reinforce the feeling that this game is a knock-off of the original. Just like Drake's Fortune, I feel that this is a solid foundation for the future, but it isn't as good as it could have been.
Score: 6.5 out of 10
Bottom Line: It is an Uncharted experience to go, but the mis-steps in implementing Vita features and the change in studios holds it back from greatness
Check it out if you like: Uncharted series, Tomb Raider series, adventures, Indiana Jones