Copy machines were a staple of hospitals, schools, and offices in the days before digital copies, and they did their job well. Of course, the tradeoff for having endless copies at the ready was that with each generation of duplicates, each copy became more and more faded than its source. In a way, this is what’s been happening with the Uncharted franchise since debuted on the PlayStation 3 back in 2006; a brilliant idea is fading with each carbon-copy. Its militant fans and critics blinded by the cult of fanboy-ism might say otherwise, but Uncharted 3 was a deeply flawed, haphazardly made game that was plainly inferior to its predecessor in ways that might been avoided had developer Naughty Dog received actual criticism instead of obsessed praise when the issues became apparent. Sadly, Uncharted: Golden Abyss, perhaps the most significant launch title for Sony’s new PS Vita, continues this trend of unrepentant fan-service at the expense of a better and more balanced game.
The experience isn’t unlike the PSP God of War: Chains of Olympus (and its sequel) in that the goal of Uncharted Vita (as I’m calling it) aims to prove that a home console-quality experience is indeed possible on the latest Sony portable. And that’s generally true; if you’ve experienced the Uncharted games on the PS3 than you’ve experienced Uncharted on the Vita, only now it’s in the palm of your hands. But it’s a compromised experience, perhaps owing in part to the developers operating under the illusion that everything is just hunky-dory in the Land of Uncharted. For one, it wasn’t developed by series stalwart Naughty Dog. That duty fell to SCE Bend Studio of Syphon Filter fame, an acceptable substitute given their experience in shrinking PS3 games to the portable world (i.e. Resistance: Retribution on PSP). Naughty Dog’s involvement seems to have ended at lending them pre-existing Uncharted artwork and sound files.
One are that Golden Abyss gets (mostly) right is the storytelling, at least in following in now-familiar footsteps of the series. Cleverly, the presents itself as a prequel-of-sorts to Drake’s Fortune, its tale told through a series of flashbacks and cinematically impressive narrative that has a younger, but no less cocky, Nathan Drake and his de rigueur companions (Jason Dante substituting for Sully and Marisa Chase for Elena) jousting against a stereotypical South American ex-general hell bent on financing a revolution with booty from the mythical Seven Cities of Gold. There are plenty of high-speed chases, zipping through bullet-spewing enemy masses, and enough History Channel-quality conspiracy to last to the end.
By this point you’re either onboard with Uncharted’s stream-of-conscious method of storytelling or you’re not, but it’s telling that even in this micro-adventure the once-charming luster is starting to wear thin: characters yapper endlessly like they’re on a cable TV show, with the bulk of ‘character development’ jostling one another with predictable quips, put-downs, and scads of cliched one-liners. Oh, and everyone – minus the baddies – are still plenty sexy in their designer, tight-fitting jeans and supermodel-inspired haircuts.
As shallow as it sounds, most of Uncharted on Vita’s biggest ‘WOW’ moments come from how much it looks and sounds exactly like a full-fledged PS3 game. OK, maybe not exactly; aliasing and some low-resolution textures are ever-present, the explosion effects aren’t so explosive, and scaled-back environments really don’t venture much further than lush jungles and muddy streams. But Nolan North and crew give it their all to make this sound exactly like the genuine article with full dialogue and enough one-liners to satisfy anyone looking for a quick Uncharted fix. The game looks and sounds so outstanding that you’ll forgive missing elements like wet jeans and reflective water.
So Uncharted Vita looks and sounds like a PS3 game, but how does it play? You’d think that with so many buttons and dual-analog sticks that answer would be ‘perfectly’. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case, and not entirely for reasons you’d expect. For one, the dual analog nubs aren’t the best substitute for true analog sticks; it’s not so much the lack of sensitivity as the way the developers seem to have simply translated full-sized DualShock analog controls to the smaller nubs without considering they’d handle differently, which can make aiming weapons frustrating. They seem to have sensed this as there’s a plethora of adjustables to help compensate, including auto-aiming, but it would have been nice to have analog controls built with the Vita’s smaller size in mind.
But who needs analog when you’ve got two touchable screens to play with? Here Nathan gains an entire arsenal of new controls, including quick-time event (QTE) swipes, taps, and even full system tilting using the built-in accelerometer. Generally they’re just gimmicks that seem to have been artificially grafted onto solid controls to help showcase the Vita’s vast array of possibilities. None enhance the experience all that much, though tapping targets and gliding your finger over multiple targets can make climbing easier (if automatic), and substituting the odd action button for virtual ones isn’t terrible.
Puzzles, a cornerstone of the franchise, have been almost entirely reduced to scenes that use the touchscreen to make charcoal rubbings and ‘cleaning’ objects whilst using the rear panel to twist and turn them. There’s even a quasi-Zelda style moment that requires you to hold the Vita up to a bright light to reveal a hidden message; it’s a neat trick, but what if you’re snuggled comfy in your bed, or playing during a dark car ride?
Skirting across fallen logs and rushing down muddy streams (but mostly logs) require you to tilt the Vita left and right to rebalance Nathan from certain doom. The QTE swiping fares much worse as you’re required to awkwardly switch up from buttons to touchscreen swipes, and do so in a flash. This scheme isn’t so bad when you’re initiating them, such as hacking through flaps of cloth and vines with a machete, but they often fall apart during melee attacks. In almost every instance the touch controls make the game more frustrating and worse than it could have been. What’s puzzling is that you’d think Sony would have learned a lesson since the first Uncharted on the PS3, where unnecessary motion-controls grafted onto the game to show off the Sixaxis controller only served to pull down the experience.
Puzzling and questing aside, you’ll still spend the vast majority of time following the non-playable secondary characters as they guide you to the next checkpoint, be it over jagged cliffs or through deadly firefights, with only the occasional cinematic break letting you take a breather before the next chapter begins. It’s strictly a solo sojourn this time around as there’s no multiplayer to speak of, leaving you more time to unlock all of the game’s achievements and taking picture-perfect snapshots with 100% accuracy.
Infuriatingly, the game is missing the trademarked ‘bongo drum hint’ noise (who’s usefulness was triggered by pressing up on the d-pad) that helps guide poor Nathan through some of the trickier bits when stumped. Without it, I kept getting lost over and over, backtracking through the same-looking scenery and retracing my steps when tasked with yet another slog through more charcoal-rub ‘puzzles’. These moments simply aren’t fun, and they happen often.
Uncharted: Golden Abyss could have been the Vita’s preeminent launch title, the one that clearly demonstrated the power of Sony’s new portable to bring once unthinkable console-style gaming, intact, to the portable masses. For many, it will be, especially those just looking to show off their new console’s power. But it’s still a copy of better games, one that looks, sounds, and plays almost exactly like a full-blown Uncharted game. But it’s missing that essential spark that made the originals so vibrant, especially in the very areas it should have excelled. It may be the most expensive AAA-game ever released on a handheld, but the experience, ultimately, feels like the most advanced tech demo ever made, one burdened with padding to justify its asking price. Hidden beneath the gimmicky touch controls, unfocused storytelling, and unrefined gameplay is a decent experience, one that a much-improved sequel should help bring about.