Nate scales uncharted territory for a handheld.

A traditional fanfare of photography flashbulbs, developer spiels and baiting journalists greeted Sony’s announcement of the PSVita. Fancy features were touted, pricing strategies discussed and time frames were given. But there was one particular presentation that stole the show. A game which defied belief and set the standard for what people would come to expect from Sony’s next generation portable.

Predictably, it came from a franchise which has become synonymous with pushing the boundaries on the PlayStation platform. Yes, of course that franchise is none other than Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series. However, this time around, Nathan Drake and Victor Sullivan had been entrusted to past portable pioneers, Bend Studio. Not only were Bend Studios tasked with continuing the impeccable standards set by the mischievous mutts, they were also challenged to produce all the renowned spectacle of an Uncharted game for a brand new piece of hardware; in time for the PSVita’s launch no less. Clearly, such a significant test would be daunting to even the most established studios. But, as they say, pressure creates diamonds, and in all honesty, Uncharted: Golden Abyss is a one of the best portable games I’ve ever played. Incredible visuals, intuitive controls and console rivalling quality throughout. That being said, as the fourth entry in the Uncharted series and the series’ first portable entry, Uncharted: Golden Abyss can’t quite match the lofty heights set by its console counterparts.

Portable Plundering

When you pop the microscopic game card that houses Drake’s latest adventure into the PSVita and start up the game, one of two things will happen. An awestruck yelp will escape your lips, or you’ll find yourself momentarily stunned into a silent stupor. Uncharted: Golden Abyss looks absolutely phenomenal. Perhaps that’s an understatement. To witness such detail, such clarity, such graphical splendour on a handheld console is simply one of those unique gaming moments which will stay with you forever. You’re witnessing years of evolution. And boy is it satisfying.

My expression when I first saw the graphics in Uncharted: Golden Abyss. Stunned.

The power of the PSVita isn’t exactly an industry kept secret; far from it. Sony has proudly beaten their chest when it comes to the graphical capabilities of their pocket monster. Nonetheless, it’s difficult not to be blown away by Golden Abyss’ visuals. The environments are lush with vegetation, characters are detailed, animations are smooth and crisp textures adorn every rock face and uncovered tomb. Of course, to say that Golden Abyss’ visuals equal those of the PlayStation 3 Uncharted games would be an exaggeration, but with the brilliant OLED screen, you’ll be hard pressed to find anything to complain about. Taking into account that Golden Abyss is a launch title (games historically improve during a hardware’s lifespan) only adds to the sheer wonderment of Bend Studio’s achievement. If you’re looking for a showcase title for your shiny new portable than Nate’s your man.But of course, there’s more to a video game then mere graphics alone; gameplay is king. So how does Golden Abyss play?

The environments are lush with vegetation, characters are detailed, animations are smooth and crisp textures adorn every rock face and uncovered tomb.

Charted!

Attempting to emulate the comfortable controls of a console game when transitioning to the smaller frame of a handheld can always be a dangerous stumbling block, however, Studio Bend have recreated the cover shooting, rock climbing, collect ’em up gameplay mechanics of the Uncharted series to aplomb. In fact, the gameplay in Golden Abyss is almost identical to what you’ve come to expect from the series bar a few platform specific changes; most notably, the use of the front and rear touch screens. It’s obvious that Bend Studios were conscious of the fancy new tech that the PSVita has at its disposal when making Golden Abyss. Often, their design decisions are well implemented and intuitive, whilst others feel overly gimmicky.

The first welcomed addition is how the front touchscreen is used to pick up treasures, perform melee attacks and context sensitive actions. Players can simply tap on the icon when approaching a weapon or an enemy to effortlessly pick up or attack their target. Directional swipes of the screen are required for certain actions, and in all, they’re much more engaging then repeatedly tapping the face buttons like you would on the console games. Players can also drag their finger across Nate’s climbing route for simple, quick and easy navigation.

The rear touchscreen is used sparingly, but works well when required. Players can stroke the back of the PSVita in a climbing motion to scale ropes and zoom in and out with sniper rifles or Nate’s camera using a single finger. You won’t find yourself replacing the simplicity of holding up on the analog stick to climb a rope with the rear touch, but the option is there.

The accelerometer is an aspect that is used brilliantly, allowing you to tweak your aim by moving the vita as if you were aiming the gun itself. Due to the petit nature of the sticks (which overall work incredibly well) aiming can be difficult when lining up a moving target, thus, the ability to slightly correct your aim using the PSVita’s accelerometers is a welcomed addition, one which I hope is implemented by other third and first person shooters.

By far the worst addition, which should have just been completely scrapped from the game, is Nate’s inability to successfully walk over a beam without losing his balance for absolutely no discernible reason. You’ll be happily running along a beam when suddenly the player is tasked with tilting the PSVita to keep Nate’s sense of balance intact. Once he’s regained his composure, Nate awkwardly slaps his thighs and continues on. It’s a really jarring moment and it happens far too often. Nate’s frequent loss of his equilibrium seems even more ridiculous when he immediately proceeds to scale an 80 foot cliff edge with relative ease after struggling to master the dangerous maneuver of walking over a fallen tree trunk…

Meet Nate’s worst enemy… the dreaded tree trunk.

The majority of the touchscreen implementation takes place in the form of puzzle solving and treasure collecting. If there’s one area which Golden Abyss completely dwarfs its console counterparts in, it’s the treasure hunting department. There are hundreds of individual treasures to find and, new to the series, mysteries to solve. Nate will encounter items which need to be cleaned using the front and rear touch screens, photographs that need to be taken at specific locations with a designated level of accuracy required, torn posters to reassemble and charcoal rubbings to, erm rub, to create impressions. There’s a mind boggling amount and each are  initially fun to complete. However, if anything there’s too many. By the 30th charcoal rubbing, the novelty rapidly wears off and you’ll feel that the vast amount of puzzles intrude, rather than enhance the game’s campaign.

Of course, longevity is provided for those who choose to go back and solve every mystery and find every item, but the majority of players won’t be compelled to do so. It would have been nice to see more level specific puzzles, rather than ones that are basically geared towards obtaining a trophy.

Mystery Men

The driving force in any Uncharted game is the story, and Golden Abyss delivers a typically excellent thrill ride from start to finish. Set before the events of Nate’s PlayStation 3 debut, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, Nate is on the trial to discover the truth behind the 400-year-old massacre of a Spanish expedition. Employed by an old friend, Jason Dante, Drake is tasked with helping Dante uncover the past’s most well kept secrets. As their expedition begins, Nate encounters a strong-willed girl named Chase, the granddaughter of another explorer who mysteriously vanished. Chase is determined to find out what happened to her grandfather, perhaps it holds the key to their discovery?

On the quest to discover the secrets within and solve the mystery of the ancients, Nate finds himself embroiled in a battle against a dastardly war General named Guerrero. A race against time, and a race for their lives ensues, as Nate and Chase scale vertigo-inducing monuments, traverse through jungles, explore abandoned ruins and attempt to find the fabled City of Gold.

Can Nate kick it? Yes he can!

Once again, Nolan North takes to the stage with a motion capture suit adorned. And predictably, he’s fantastic as are the other host of newcomers, including a particular fan favourite. The dialog is witty, engaging and at times, almost educational in its depth and detail. The voice acting and motion capture of the characters in the Uncharted series is second to none, and its pleasing to see that the marvellous presentation values in the story remain for Nate’s portable adventure.

Tiny Idol

Uncharted: Golden Abyss continues its correlation with its console brethren with its 10 hour plus campaign. Yes, 10 hours. Remember the days when you’d take a selection of games with you for the road, knowing that each lacked the substantial longevity to last you a whole trip? Well, those days are gone. With Sony controversially pricing some PSVita titles for as much as a console game, many were up in arms at the notion of paying full price for a handheld experience. Yet, once you get to grips with the title and realise that the story is one that keeps on giving, you’ll definitely feel like you’ve gotten value for money.

Sadly, one noticeable area which has been omitted from the game is an online multiplayer component which is a darn shame. Instead, players are given a “Black Market” game mode which allows players the opportunity to trade and haggle their way to the missing treasures and items that they might need. Hopefully we’ll see the addition of a multiplayer component in the next title as there’s no doubt that playing Uncharted’s addictive head-to-head action on the go would be one of those “this is frigging awesome” moments.

Golden Bliss

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