We Review: Uncharted: Golden Abyss

The Uncharted franchise is considered by many as the crown jewel of high-definition gaming on the PlayStation 3 platform’s regalia. It has won numerous awards from fans and industry players alike, and it’s no surprise that Sony looked to it to lead the valiant charge of launch titles onto the PS Vita (reviewed here). So, in Uncharted: Golden Abyss wise-cracking treasure hunter Nathan Drake shoots his way onto Sony’s newest handheld gaming console. Is the experience up to the lofty standards that have been set by the previous Uncharted games? Has the essence of Uncharted been distilled into the pocket-sized console? Let’s find out.

The forth entry in the Uncharted series, Uncharted: Golden Abyss (shorted to Golden Abyss for the sake of my sanity) isn’t a prequel to the first game as some may have thought: whilst the events in Golden Abyss take place before those of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, it’s a separate story, and is prequel only in chronology. Unlike previous outings that find Drake running amok in far-flung destinations, Golden Abyss has our protagonist firmly grounded in the lush jungles, waterways, army encampments, and ancient temples of Central America. However, as typified by other Uncharted adventures, in Golden Abyss there are local inhabitants to be slain, puzzled to be puzzled over, platforms to be platted, puns to be punned, and the race to prevent a maniacal sociopath from doing Very Bad Things to be won. In this adventure, Drake’s attention is divided between old friend/general slimeball Jason Dante, and Marisa Chase, the granddaughter of an archaeologist who has mysteriously vanished while searching for a legendary lost city.

Golden Abyss is the first Uncharted game not to be developed by series creator, Naughty Dog. It doesn’t show though, as SCE’s Bend Studios delivers a highly commendable performance, albeit with some supervisory assistance. Bend Studios were given access to Naughty Dog’s mo-cap and voice-over studios, and Naughty Dog creative director Amy Hennig was on hand to oversee the project. Their penchant for cinematic storytelling is clearly evident in the plethora of cutscenes that are interspersed in the gunplay and action sequences. It’s rumoured that there are two hours of cutscenes in Golden Abyss. Not that I was counting, but I can believe that. As expected, this exposition is well animated and acted. Nolan North once again lends his body and voice acting talents to the role of Nathan Drake. Christine Lakin provides the voice for the feisty Marisa Chase, and you may or may not recall her from inFAMOUS 2, where she voiced all the female pedestrians.

If you’ve played any of the Uncharted games, you’ll be at home with the control mechanism in Golden Abyss. The standard controls that are usually mapped to the dualshock controller are replicated on the PS Vita, but there neat actions one can perform using the Vita’s touchscreen. Traversing ledges becomes effortless with the touch screen: tracing your finger across a set of ledges results in Drake following your route. You can tap a weapon to pick it up. Tap an unsuspecting enemy to stealth-kill them, or, if they’ve spotted you, tap them to engage fisticuffs and swipe your finger in the direction of the arrow that is displayed to deliver a fatal blow. Guns can be aimed using the PS Vita itself but that sometimes led to my body twisting in ways it was not intended. The motion sensing settings can adjusted to suit your needs, although I found the analog stick more responsive for aiming. The rear touch pad comes in handy when climbing ropes, where a swipe up or down the pad results in Drake ascending or descending the rope. Another wonderful use for the rear pad comes when using the sniper rifle, allowing you to zoom in and out. Overall, the combination of the analog stick, buttons, and touchscreen controls work well together and makes the gameplay in Golden Abyss that much more enjoyable.

As is usual with Uncharted games, there are many collectibles to be sought out in Golden Abyss (over 300, in fact). There are the usual treasures that glint from the shadows in cracks and crevices of the game. There are rubbings to be made using your finger, and these can be rotated and put together like a jigsaw puzzle. Photos of specific things or locations can be taken using the PS Vita as if it were a camera. The resulting images provide a backstory on the subject, although some of it is difficult to read. This is mainly due to the small size of the font used in the UI, but also in part to the abundance of Qs and Xs that the ancient civilizations decided to use when naming their pantheon of gods.

For a portable gaming console, the graphics are absolutely stunning. Understandably, the visuals in Golden Abyss cannot match those on the PS3, so flora doesn’t respond when you brush past it, and there might not be as much fidelity on the character models, but the Vita does a admirable job of rendering the lush environments on its 5-inch screen. The water effects are most special, and the sequences that did involve movement in the water are truly memorable. The screenshots used in this review attest to the wonderful scenes in Golden Abyss, they were all taken in-game using the PS Vita’s neat screenshot-taking feature.

Golden Abyss lacks the pacing and explosive setpieces from previous Uncharted titles. It does starts off a tad slowly but the action certainly picks up towards the latter stages. It takes a while to get access to the fun guns too. Five chapters in and I had mostly used the standard pistol, peppered with a few goes on the shotgun and sniper rifle. Mercifully this, too, changes in the next chapter where one is introduced to the assault rifles and grenades. The more explosive tools came much, much later on, and understandably so, as they would have made the game a cakewalk in the beginning.

While I don’t have many complaints about the story mode, the lack of multiplayer is only real disappointment. The online component Golden Abyss has is the Black Market. When you kill enemies, some of them randomly drop collectible called bounties — various playing cards, gold and silver coins, and jewels. You can collect these, and the Black Market is the store where you can trade the bounties that you have for items you need to complete a collection. You can send requests for items to the Black Market, and it uses the PS Vita’s NEAR application to check whether other PS Vita players in your area have the items that you seek. I have a WiFi-only PS Vita whose NEAR is FAR from working, so I could not test this at all. I’m sure it’s as exciting as it sounds.

Overall, there is much enjoyment to be had in Golden Abyss. The puzzles are fun, as is the mix of platforming and shooting. The touchscreen and motion controls add more depth to the gameplay. The story is a competent one, and is told over the course of 30 chapters, which is certainly much longer than I expected for such a title. [Ed: Given that the PS Vita cards can accommodate up to around 32GB, it’s not surprising that there’s a lot of content!] The lack of competitive/co-operative multiplayer is a shame, but it doesn’t dull the shine on this new PS Vita treasure. Not only is it a compelling action-adventure game but Golden Abyss is also a great vehicle that shows the immersive experience that the PS Vita is capable of. And you can take the adventure with you wherever you go!

Final Score: 9 treasure-seeking prawns out of 10

Detailed information:
Developer: SCE Bend Studio
Publisher: SCEE
Distributor: Ster Kinekor
Platform: PS Vita
Age Rating: 16
RRP: R449
Release Date: 22 February 2012

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