When you think about the various things that make up one of the games in the Uncharted series, what do you come up with? For me, the checklist includes the basics, like low-risk climbing sequences and standard cover-based gunplay. Then you've got Nathan Drake, lovable scamp that he is, cracking wise and such. Set him in a treasure hunting adventure with pseudo-historical references, surround him with a lady or two, and mix in at least two double-crosses because Drake can be a bit of a simp. Then, break up the climbing and shooting with a few puzzles. Oh, and don't forget to lay in a few huge, cinematic "set-piece" moments that are driven by the developer's technical mastery of the hardware at hand. That's sort of the thing that holds all the rest of it together, right?
Sony's Bend Studio gets its first crack at a portable Uncharted prequel with Uncharted: Golden Abyss on the Vita. It pulls together a lot of the things that you'd expect to see and hear in an Uncharted game, but it's missing the things that help set the franchise apart from other action games. In their place, the developers have inserted a bunch of mediocre minigames that have you touching or rubbing the screen or rear touch panel in various ways. If the goal was to use every single piece of functionality that the Vita has to offer, then the developers deserve a huge pat on the back. But the overall quality of the final product suffers as a result of these inclusions, leaving behind an Uncharted game that feels like a carbon copy of the genuine article.
The missing elements are noticeable ones, too. You won't see any huge, technical showpieces in Golden Abyss. Or, at least, none that resemble the insane scope found in the PlayStation 3 games. You won't find any sinking ships, speeding trains, or collapsing buildings here. The thing that's become something of a calling card for the Uncharted franchise is missing, and without those huge sequences, the game lacks punch. You'll occasionally see some pillars fall over or some other basic destruction, but it never quite feels like an Uncharted game. Instead it feels like Drake going through the motions, performing his base-level tasks under decidedly ordinary circumstances.
The game has Drake paired up with a woman named Marisa Chase as they stumble around South America in an adventure that eventually connects to Esteban the Moor, Marcos de Niza, and the Seven Cities of Gold. An ex-general attempting to lead a revolution and a greedy treasure hunter called Dante are also in the mix, with the former wanting to find the mythical gold to fund his revolution while the other is trying to get paid. Though the ruins change a bit over the course of the game, the vast majority of the action is set in jungles and caves.
By and large, the game controls like you'd expect an Uncharted game to control. When shooting, the left trigger aims and the right trigger fires. The analog sticks on the Vita are no surprise, either. For the most part, you can opt to play the game almost exactly like you'd play Uncharted on a PlayStation 3, at least whenever you're shooting people (and there are a ton of people that need shooting) or climbing around. Golden Abyss also offers a lot of optional ways to control the action. By default, for example, any time you zoom in with a sniper rifle, you can tilt the Vita to aim. Considering this asks you to occasionally tilt the system so far that you can't see the screen anymore, I turned that off pretty quickly. You'll tap the ammo counter in the upper-left to reload your weapons, and grenades are tossed by either tapping the touch screen or holding over the grenade icon and dragging them out to the center of the screen, which lets you aim your tosses a bit. Melee attacks can either be done via an on-screen icon or by tapping the enemies directly. Some melee sequences lead into a quick little screen-swiping sequence where you're forced to swipe in a specific direction to succeed. See a bit of bamboo blocking your path? A knife icon appears on-screen, and when you touch it you'll be asked to swipe the screen three times before Drake will begin cutting. The game's big boss fights are, essentially, touch-based Quick Time Events where you need to swipe the screen correctly to keep the momentum moving in your direction. Need to give your partner a boost up onto a ledge? Swipe the screen! None of these things are difficult, but they really pile up and take you out of the moment.
At some point, the action just begins to feel like a series of touch-based minigames with some shooting and climbing mixed in to break up the touches. In addition to swiping all over the place, you'll also have to rub the screen to take charcoal etchings of symbols or clean up skulls, helmets, swords, and other clues you find along the way. You'll even get to open combination locks with the touchscreen, after which your partner appears to be genuinely impressed by your ability to... work a combination lock, even though she just handed you the combination to the safe. That's just dumb. Optional "mysteries" can also be solved by taking photos. Whenever you end up in a spot where a key photo can be taken, a camera icon appears on-screen. Tap it, and you'll get a camera out and see a version of the photo you're supposed to be taking. It's up to you to maneuver yourself into position to take that exact photo in order to get credit. If you're too far off the mark, the game reports that your grade is 95 percent, but you need a full 100. This, too, feels like insanity. You'll also have to stop when crossing logs and narrow beams to "play" a bad balance sequence by tilting the Vita.
Again, no one touchscreen moment is awful (actually, the game encouraging you for doing something as dead simple as opening a combination lock is pretty close), but they add up to make the entire experience feel like it's half Uncharted, half lame iPhone compilation. The only genuinely cool moment I experienced that involved the Vita's additional control features was a bit where text was revealed on an otherwise-blank piece of paper by holding the Vita up to a light source. You can also optionally use the touchscreen to climb ledges by swiping along the path you want Drake to take, which is fine, but it's not like the existing control scheme for that is especially challenging or slow.
Perhaps looking for those huge, Uncharted moments on the Vita is a bit much to ask. It's hard to know where the system will ultimately fall with regards to technical strength and graphical capabilities, but for something that Sony has tried to compare to the PlayStation 3 on a technical level, it doesn't take long to see that this ain't no PlayStation 3 game. The lush jungle settings are vibrant and really sell the quality of the Vita's screen, though as you spend time with this full-length adventure, it's easy to pick out a flat-looking texture here and there. More damning, perhaps, is the game's unstable frame rate, which gets worse as you play deeper into the game and the game begins to throw larger environments at you with more frequency. It looks fine, and it's probably one of the more technically impressive games available at launch, but it certainly leaves room for improvement. Again, that's assuming that the Vita is capable of more than this.
The entire experience is anchored by Nolan North, who reprises his role as Nathan Drake. The writing isn't as sharp and the situation isn't as dire as some of the previous Uncharted games, but Drake's considerable charm is still on display and prepared to make fans of the series feel they're right at home. The supporting characters are also nicely done. The whole thing feels like a "B Team" sort of feel to it, but there's just enough Uncharted here to ensure that the experience isn't a total loss. It helps that there isn't any sort of other experience like this available on the Vita right now, though even that is tempered by the game's $50 retail price tag. It's not especially difficult to find a copy of Uncharted 3 for somewhere around that price these days, and paying a price so close to the full console experience to get something that feels watered down and rough around the edges doesn't feel like a particularly good deal. But if you're already sold on the Vita and you're in need of some games, Uncharted: Golden Abyss decently approximates many of the things that have made the franchise so successful in the past.