When Sony's PlayStation Vita launched earlier this year, so did a brand-new entry into developer Naughty Dog's Uncharted series. Set as a prequel to the original Uncharted game, Uncharted: Golden Abyss finds protagonist Nathan Drake in his most treasure hunter-ish role yet.
Historically in the Uncharted franchise, story has taken slight precedence over gameplay. In Golden Abyss, this formula is switched. That's not to say that the game's story is inferior to others in the series; rather, the gameplay simply comes out slightly ahead this time around.
In this prequel, Drake travels to Central America to help fellow treasure hunger Dante. Dante is tracking down long-lost remains of the Spanish army. As is typical, however, Drake has bitten of way more than he can chew and finds himself in a heap of trouble courtesy of both Dante and a militant General Guerro. Of course, he meets other characters (both good and bad) along the way -- including the good old fashioned double-crossing sidekick as well as Drake's old buddy Sully. The storyline and its progression might not hold up to Uncharted 2 standards, but it fits in nicely quality-wise with those of the first and third games.
Uncharted: Golden Abyss takes a slight departure from the gameplay that the previous three games in the series had solidified. This is mostly due to the Vita's additional control capabilities. Players will find that the core backbone mechanics and controls are there (running, jumping, shooting, etc.), but the additional input features of the Vita's touchscreen and rear touchpad allow for expanded controls, though with mixed results.
The game's touch controls are optional for the most part, which should appeal nicely to more hardcore and established gamers. There are times, however, when the player has no choice but to use them. Hand-to-hand combat, for example, is executed exclusively by swiping one's finger across the touchscreen. Using Drake's machete to cut through dense foliage is another example of this required use of the Vita's touch mechanics, as the player has to swipe in a "Z" pattern to trigger the vine-cutting mechanic. Required non-standard gameplay controls such as these will probably set some players off -- especially those who prefer nothing more than gamepad-type controls. Fortunately, they've all been implemented into Golden Abyss well enough and (save for melee combat) don't really disrupt the flow of overall gameplay.
As far as game design goes, the previous three Uncharted games tended to be pretty action-focused. While Golden Abyss has its fair share of action, it feels like the game is more concerned with exploration and presenting puzzles to the player. All of the puzzles Drake must solve in order to progress through the game seem rather well thought out and utilize the Vita's various capabilities equally well. There will be times where the player has to hold the Vita up to a light source to see invisible ink as if he would if he were trying to see through a piece of paper or parchment. There will also be times where Drake needs to make a charcoal copy of an engraving and the player rubs his fingers against the touchscreen in order to make it happen. Sure, these are all things that could have been executed by having Drake walk to an object and hitting "X", but it just wouldn't have been the same. Kudos to Naughty Dog and primary developer Sony Bend Studios for making the player literally do the work in the puzzles that require such actions be made.
In terms of presentation, Uncharted: Golden Abyss dazzles. Boasting some of the best overall graphics available in a Vita game thus far, it is quite possible that this game could pass for a PlayStation 3 title rather than one for Vita. Character models are clean, crisp, and well-detailed. Similar can be said about the various environments in which Drake finds himself -- though not all of them are up to home console standards.
The game's audio presentation is also worth noting. Its soundtrack, which features a 70-piece orchestra from Nashville, Tennessee, is wonderful. Golden Abyss' voice acting is also up to snuff with the expectations as set from the home console Uncharted games. Nolan North reprises his role as Drake and does a job worthy of his talent.
In short, Uncharted: Golden Abyss is everything one would want in an Uncharted game if it were on the PlayStation 3. It's presentation is there, as is a good plot and cast of characters. Gameplay is good, not great, though it's hardly a blemish on the overall product. Sony Bend Studios did a great job implementing the Vita's various control options into the game and, while they don't all translate perfectly, they fit well enough and few complains should be heard by all but the most stubborn conventional gamer.
Final Game Guys grade: A-
(SCEA provided a copy of this game for review.)