Uncharted: Golden Abyss

You may remember that I am the proud new owner of a PS Vita. My original review was written after only playing a few of the Augmented Reality games, a bit of Uncharted: Golden Abyss, and a few hours of Touch My Katamari. I lauded the machine in just about every aspect, and I still have no complaints.

The two games (still) vying for position as the release game to beat are WipEout 2048 and Uncharted: Golden Abyss. Both are Sony-exclusives, and while I haven’t played WipEout myself, I hear it’s very good. Being more a fan of action games than racing games, I stuck with Uncharted (which, to WipEout‘s credit, is the “obvious” choice).

Golden Abyss is a prequel to Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. The game begins in traditional Uncharted fashion (note: Golden Abyss was produced by SCEA’s Bend Studio and not by Naughty Dog), with Drake in some crazy predicament, seeming to be double-crossed by some guy named Dante. The game begins with what amounts to a very good tutorial of how to play the game; afterwards, you find yourself at the actual beginning, paired up with Jason Dante (!). Having played Uncharted 1 and 2, I have to say that as much as I like the game’s penchant for beginning halfway through the game, it does get a little predictable. You tromp around South America, looking for clues and shiny bits of treasure scattered all over the place (there are hundreds of collectibles, by the way). The plot thickens when you encounter the army of General Guerrero (hint, “guerrero” is Spanish for “warrior”…), a lunatic and failed revolutionary who is giving it the old college try and trying to conquer parts of South America again, and the young and nubile Marisa Chase, granddaughter of the recently-vanished archaeologist Vincent Perez. Things go south and you find yourself switching partners and trying to keep up with who is doing what. The plot, as in most Uncharted games, is really on the backburner though; Uncharted has always been about the visuals and the platforming, and it lives up to the Uncharted name in those respects.

The platforming elements of Uncharted are handled really well with the Vita’s controls; in fact, it’s just like playing it on the Playstation 3. The touchpad and touchscreen are used almost superfluously, however. You can drag your finger across the touchscreen, for example, and draw a route for Drake to follow along ledges and such. It kind of takes out what difficulty the game might have had, however, because, well, it is just so easy to do that. You can also pull your fingers down on the touchpad to make Drake climb ropes, or even tilt your Vita to make Drake lean out from a ledge to jump. Tilting the Vita while you’re hanging from a rope causes Drake to swing it. These things don’t really distract too much from  the game and you can use the analog sticks or various buttons to perform the same actions. There are times when you find yourself in a Vita-minigame, where you need to tilt the Vita to stay balanced on a log, or draw a pattern on the screen to cut some bamboo with your machete, or even swipe an arrow in order to dodge an enemy (and again to hit him) in combat. Some stick out more than others, and the novelty quickly wears out. There are also various combination locks scattered throughout; the combination is always provided to you and you get helpful clicks and indications from Drake of what to do, so it really becomes a minigame of patience as you draw circles on your Vita to spin the lock. It kind of gets old, fast.

That isn’t to say the Vita’s various gadgets aren’t well used, however. In-game you have a camera that you use to take pictures of various things with, and the cool thing about the camera is that it can be controlled by twisting your Vita around. While you may look like a weirdo standing on the bus spinning around to take a picture of something in-game, it is pretty nifty. The sniper rifle also features the same controls. While I found myself primarily using the analog sticks, I did find that I could fine-tune better by shifting the Vita, so I ended up using both controls in tandem. Either way, you also have to worry about shaking your Vita and thus your rifle — it’s pretty cool. The grenade mechanic is also very well done (if poorly explained): you can either press the grenade indicator on your HUD and hurl a grenade, or you can drag that same indicator and place it somewhere on the screen. The grenade arc will be drawn out for you and you can place it with some precision. One point that really caught me was when I was lying on the couch, sick as a dog, and Drake advised his partner that a piece of parchment was not in fact blank, and that by holding it up to a light, one could make out what was written. I stood up, turned on some lights, and pointed my Vita at them — but to no avail. I ended up finding a bright enough light and could read what was written. It was cool, but I imagine that if you were in a car at night or somewhere with no bright lights you’d be a little screwed at this point.

The game isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty killer, especially for a handheld console game. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, which helps: before Drake can say it for about the tenth time, he gets cut off by his partner who says “let me guess, we’ll find another way around?”. During one particularly aggravating chase scene (in that you’re unarmed and can’t attack your attackers), your partner shouts out, “hey, look, something glittery on that rock!”. As most of the game’s collectibles are only registered as glittery things, it did get a laugh out of me.

Something that impressed me was the game’s characterization of Marisa Chase. While they did, of course, make her attractive and a love-interest of sorts for Nathan Drake, they also did toss in some realism. While she shows up again midway through the game wearing eye shadow, she spends much of the game with a fat bruise on her face and on her chest. She gets hit a few times and shows it; in effect, Bend “uglies” her up, which is a pretty bold thing to do with your leading lady. Games have, since at least the heyday of Lara Croft, been criticized for their simple characterization of ladies: they’re usually just eye-candy. Even when they become something more, even the central protagonist, their sexuality still plays a huge role. They end up being totally unrealistic characters who shed more clothes than they do blood. While Chase remains attractive, Bend never panders to the audience by sexualising her (though the player might do that him/herself), and showing her get beat up a little, like Drake does, adds to the realistic portrayal of a “realistic” treasure hunter. I mean, if you spend your spare time jumping across chasms and scaling cliffs, surely you’ll have a few bruises, no?

All in all, the game does a lot of things right: combat is surprisingly tight, especially for a handheld, and while bullet-detection is sloppy at times (though, I can’t remember it ever being good in the console versions), it isn’t that big of an issue. Melee combat is handled about the same as it is in the Uncharted games, so it too remains pretty fun. The story, characters, dialogue, intrigue, treasures — everything is about what you should expect from an Uncharted game. Bend, in fact, did a very good job of emulating the Uncharted experience on a handheld, and for that, they do deserve some credit. But that’s where it remains: an emulation, a copy, a xerox, a simulacra. It never tries to be anything else and never really reaches beyond that, and that’s really the worst part about Golden Abyss. It’s Drake’s Fortune for people on the go and never anything more. That’s not to say it’s not fun or very well made, of course. It’s an excellent game and an excellent showcase for what the Vita is capable of. I wholeheartedly recommend this to any Vita owner.

Mass Effect 3 comes out tomorrow. I may not have a post up for Wednesday, which I think is totally understandable. Or I’ll have initial impressions. Or I’ll spend all of Tuesday playing and beating the game. Who knows.

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