Discussion Review: Uncharted: Golden Abyss

Review written by Matt Litten & Stephen Byers.

UnchartedGoldenAbyss

Matt: As far as launch window software libraries go, the PlayStation Vita is off to a great start, Uncharted: Golden Abyss leading Sony’s first-party charge as one of the projected “killer apps.” By and large, it lives up to that billing.

The weakest part of Nathan Drake’s fourth adventure, however, would have to be the storyline. Not that it’s bad or anything, but in a greater series context I never got any sense that the prequel plot being told was adding meaningful back story to the existing series that would be missed if this game were never made. Nate is Nate and Sully is Sully, but all of the new characters seem like generic replacements for characters from the PS3 games. Guerro is the warlord gone mad who Nate is competing with for the secret treasure – in this case, it’s the gold of Quivira. Marisa Chase is the fill-in love interest for Elena, and Dante is the latest in a long line of double-crossing partners.

In a vacuum, the story is cinematic and compelling with benchmark-setting production values for a portable game, and the series’ usual during-gameplay character banter keeps you immersed in the narrative. But of all the Uncharted games, I cared about these characters the least.

However, in many other ways, I enjoyed the totality of Golden Abyss even more so than the previous expeditions. The core cover-based third-person shooting remains the same, and you can expect plenty of familiar popcorn action moments, scripted escape sequences and set piece shootouts, but the game didn’t feel quite as Hollywood as the two previous PS3 games and, thankfully, there is no element of fighting supernatural beings. I always lost a little interest in the previous games once ancient creatures were introduced.

Exploration and the sense of being a treasure hunter–which is what Nate is–feature more prominently than ever before too, and I loved that. Collectibles in the game now come in a wide range of items and are scribbled and cataloged as mysteries in the crowded pages of Nate’s journal. When a particular treasure set is complete, a mystery is solved and a trophy is awarded. Some of the treasure collectibles also incorporate new touchscreen mechanics, such as excavated treasures that need to be brushed clean of dirt and mud, a photography system with a camera you zoom in and out by dragging on the rear touch pad, and charcoal rubbings that have you brushing your finger to reveal symbols and then fitting the pages together like a jigsaw puzzle. For me, these adventure elements were a welcomed break between the action parts. I felt like I was exploring the environments and discovering hidden areas, not just plowing ahead to reach the next gun fight or cutscene.

For the most part, the touchscreen control elements work well – and I like that most are optional. The ability to “paint” trails for Nate to follow automatically while scaling walls is neat and surprisingly helpful in certain on-the-go scenarios when you may have to take one hand away from the controls for a moment. The dual analog sticks are a blessing too – the Vita’s sticks don’t have the same resistance as the DualShock’s so there is an acclimation process initially, but once your fingers adjust to the sensitivity aiming is snappy and accurate.

As expected from a major first-party launch title trying to show off every little thing the Vita can do, though, some of the new control accessories do feel forced and unnecessary. When walking across narrow planks or logs, for example, Nate will stop halfway across and you’ll have to tilt the Vita’s Sixaxis sensor back and forth in order to regain balance and continue across to the other side. These moments are lame and completely remove you from the otherwise briskly paced experience.

In another instance, I remember a puzzle that required a bright light to shine behind a piece of paper to reveal its contents. This requires physically holding the Vita’s camera up to a real light source, which actually would have been really cool had I not being lying in bed with the lights off sneaking in a short play session before going to sleep when I reached this particular moment. Because I needed light, I literally had to get out of bed to turn the lights on long enough to clear the puzzle. I applaud the design creativity, but games should not be designed with barriers like this that can only be passed under certain play conditions. Perhaps there’s a workaround, but I didn’t notice one. Even on additional replays, I couldn’t seem to skip this puzzle automatically like the other puzzles allow you to do.

I also loathed the final boss battle, which plays out as a quick time event fistfight controlled via brush strokes on the touchscreen. This was especially painful during my Crushing difficulty run, as one missed stroke anywhere in the sequence causes instant failure and a replay of the entire fight. I went through the fight probably five or six times, failing at the same part every time because for some reason a specific curved gesture didn’t want to register properly.

Steve: My history with the Uncharted franchise is not as old as the obstacle course-shaped Central American ruins that Nathan Drake finds himself climbing all over. I played the first one when it came out and did not like it very much as the enemies seemed to soak up way more damage than one would expect them to. The voice acting was great as were the character animations, but the core action was not enough to make me want to come back again and again. Despite a lack of fondness on my account, Sony has put out a pair of sequels and now a new launch game for the Vita. If you’re asking yourself “Should I buy this?”, and presumably you are as you are reading this article, a more relevant topic of internal debate would be “Do I own a Vita?” The answer to both of these questions is one and the same.

I am nothing short of impressed that Matt got all of the proper nouns of the settings and characters involved in this game correct. Or, at least, I assume they were correct, because I do not remember any of them. The story is certainly there and it seems believable and sincere when it is happening. That being said, any time that I tapped the power button to put the system into sleep mode and went to do something else and came back to the game later, I could not recall any of the charming and sincere words or places that comprised the story. I liked what I heard, but the substance of it burned off quickly like the morning’s fog. The story has something to do with gold, probably old gold. That’s all I remember.

Thankfully, like many action movies and games, the plot does not really matter. The materials surrounding this game tell me it is a prequel to the first Uncharted game but the story does not take advantage of this. Nothing here informs how Nathan Drake got to be, A) an expert on several ancient cultures with some degree of secret knowledge unknown to the average archeologist, or B) the greatest acrobat around that is not an ancestor of a guy sitting in an Animus. (Although maybe that will be the plot of Assassin’s Creed 4; players will have to replay all four Uncharted games as genetic memories. This would be relatively easy as Nathan Drake and Desmond Miles are both aptly voiced by Nolan North. It would also be a horrible idea fraught with angry fans who do not care for both franchises, lawyers who had to work out the licensing rights, and writers who had to justify this last minute change to the respective fictions, but at least one casting decision is already made.) Golden Abyss is more like a side story that allows players to get their Uncharted on without forcing the developer to worry about the continuity of the series than a proper prequel.

The game is divided up into a good number of chapters that only take about fifteen minutes to complete each, sometimes less, assuming Drake does not die. On the normal difficulty setting, death is not much of a threat as bullets only do a small amount of damage. However, staying out of cover for too long in a firefight will cause the screen to get progressively greyer until a retry is required. The combat is simple and the real challenge is in determining how much you can push it before diving back into cover. Luckily, most of what Nathan Drake does is not shoot men, but traverse cliff faces and remnants of ancient civilizations. Effortless and intuitive are words that fit Drake’s climbing and jumping. It is a little unbelievable that everything in the world is arrayed in very clear and distinct paths of traversal, peppered with visual cues, but this guiding does help in navigation as there is no other good on-screen indicator of where one needs to go to get the next bit of snappy and forgettable dialogue. Navigating the various set pieces was some of the most fun I had in the game.

Some of the worst moments involved the shoehorned elements of the game. When I bought my Vita, I saw on the box that, 1) the screen also happens to be a fancified touch screen, 2) there was a weird touch pad on the back for double-sided touching, and 3) the device can sense motion and changes of orientation. I do not think that the developer of this game was sure I read those bullet points because they decided to make sure every little feature, no matter how out of place or unnecessary, was used in some way.

In order to progress, our hero will take time out of engaging in high adventure to do a charcoal rubbing of a stone face (read: the player must rub his greasy fingers all over the screen for ten seconds until a little meter says “100%”) or examine an object (put another way: awkwardly rotate an object by sliding two fingers around on the back of the Vita whilst simultaneously rubbing the front touch areas to get one hundred percent of an item rubbed off). I too was annoyed at the little balance tests that grow on top of most fallen trees, but I think it is possible to avoid them if you hit the log just right at the right speed. I only remember avoiding the minigame once, but I would like to think that it is not always mandatory.

Often when performing a melee attack, the screen will throw up a line indicating that a digit need be dragged on the screen in that motion to make Drake avoid a punch or do an uppercut. This is unfortunate as this means that players must take their hands off the sides of the Vita to mess around with the touch screen. This, like most of the extra input requirements, was quite annoying and unnecessary. In the middle of a firefight where it is momentarily safe to CQC a baddie to death, it can be a numbing experience to have to then quickly switch back to traditional controls to hopefully not get killed before diving behind cover, something that would not have happened with a basic melee attack button. I died more than once not being able to switch back and forth quickly enough for fear of dropping my new, and fairly expensive, PSP 2.

One thing that I wish had been different and had incorporated the Vita’s various means of input was the shooting. Every now and then, Drake will take a break from quippy banter, demonstrating Vita features, and jumping on thousand-year-old national treasures to kill a bunch of people. My problem is not with the high level of cognitive dissonance this requires of the player and characters in the game, Nathan is both – at the same time – a lovable, scrappy underdog and a reptilian assassin who guns down hundreds of men in cold blood and murders scores of others with his bare hands, but rather the problem lies in the way he goes about these things.

As mentioned, there are a lot of features that use the touch screen. It is unfortunate that the shooting does not. Try as I might, I never got used to tweaking the nubs of the Vita in a way that allowed me to comfortably aim. Maybe it’s the size of my hands, or just the peculiar placement of the mini-sticks, but I always felt like I was overcompensating the targeting reticule’s movement with the first missed shot, and then getting a headshot off on the enemy that was nice enough to stand perfectly still for the zeroing in process. It would have been better if after holding down the Aim button, the same here as in most third person shooters, you could just tap on the enemy to fill them full of lead instead of using the sticks. The fact that this is not a control option for the shooting would seem to indicate that the game was not designed from the ground up to be played with both the touchscreen and the traditional controls, but that it was a regular Uncharted game and the developer felt some need to bolt on some functionality for unique features of the system.

Speaking of bolted on, the game has online functionality. Players can go online to trade virtual cards that are dropped by enemies when they are killed. These items do not appear to exist in the game world and are only shown to the player in the same fashion as trophy advancement, little text messages in the upper right portion of the screen. Other than the pursuit of the Platinum trophy, there is no incentive to do this. Similarly there are loads of collectibles in the game that appear to have no meaningful impact on anything, but at least Drake actually is shown picking them up. Most of these are of the “get the shiny, out of the way thing” variety, but some of them are fun. For some reason Drake will want to take photographs of things in the game world and it can be interesting to hold the Vita up to your face like a viewfinder while moving the “camera” around with motion sensing in the game world. This is out of place and breaks up the momentum unnecessarily, but at least it is kind of neat. Some people might replay the game to get all of these baubles, of which there are quire a few, but most will probably only marvel at the ones they managed to pick up along the way.

Matt: Implementation of a touchscreen shooting mechanic would have been a nice option, but remember that the two analog sticks, in addition to the touchscreen, are also one of the main Vita selling points, so it made sense for the developers to showcase how Uncharted on the go controls exactly the same as Uncharted from the sofa. With touch controls already in place for tossing grenades, melee and other actions—which I thought were in easy reach of my thumbs without limiting my ability to switch back and forth between touch actions and buttons — I imagine the developers could have also run into an issue of touchscreen overload. I suppose the cure-all option would have been a configurable control scheme that allowed players to remap actions to whatever inputs they desired, but sadly control customization of that depth is a thing of the past.

I agree that the targeting is touchy given the smaller size and lesser resistance of the Vita’s mini-sticks, which is most noticeable when you’ve just come from playing a console game with the larger, tighter sticks of a DualShock or Xbox 360 game pad, but I was able to adjust pretty quickly to the change in sensitivity and found the gunplay to be responsive and exciting overall.

The collectibles were my favorite part of the game. As mentioned earlier, Golden Abyss does a better job of making you feel like an explorer and treasure hunter than any of the PS3 games. While the main traversal pathways are still highlighted in an unbelievable fashion (suspension of belief is a must if you plan to complete the game without rolling your eyes at climbable walls highlighted in bright white or yellow and excavators from who knows how many years ago who were kind enough to leave boxes at the top of high ledges to be used as step stools), but the paths leading to many of the treasure collectibles are hidden in a more organic way forcing you to closely examine your surroundings to spot. Finding these objects does have meaning as well. Collected treasures and completed mysteries are accompanied by audio descriptions from Nate, and while these journal entries don’t necessarily build on the storyline with overwhelming substance, they do add subtle bits of lore that round the experience out with a sense of place and history.

The Black Market bounty system, on the other hand, didn’t come together so well. While playing the game, random enemy kills will reward you with bounties to then be traded over the PSN “Black Market” with other Vita owners via the NEAR app. The whole process is too random and confusing – at least I haven’t been able to fully figure out how to get trades to work. I’d be interested in going for the Platinum to compliment the shiny Platinum trophies I’ve picked up from Drake’s Fortune and Among Thieves, but acquiring all of the bounties is too much of a tedious gimmick and doesn’t feel like a reward for playing the game multiple times over as it should.

I’ve never cared for multiplayer in Uncharted, but I imagine anyone coming into Golden Abyss having enjoyed shooting other players in the face or joining friends in team missions in Among Thieves and/or Drake’s Deception will lament the complete omission of multiplayer modes, both competitive and co-op. I guess that’s the casualty of being a launch title, because within a few months like-genre games such as Unit 13 and Resistance: Burning Skies have accomplished online multiplayer where Golden Abyss did not. If nothing else, a simple co-op survival mode or a few co-op story missions would have been a nice touch to give the game some extra replay juice. On the other hand, between treasure/bounty hunting and two complete campaign playthroughs, this game has given me no less than 15 hours of gaming entertainment (probably more like 20). If you’re a completionist gamer, there’s plenty of succulent and satisfying meat here to sink your teeth into.

Golden Abyss does cut some corners with its level designs, in that, unlike the console games, the set pieces are smaller and fewer and invisible barriers do force you along a narrower path. It’s also obvious that the developers had to pull out some necessary graphical tricks to make the environments appear larger in scale than what you’re actually able to move around in. That said, the backdrops are visually expansive and stunning to behold on the Vita’s delicious OLED screen, and the character facial animations are every bit as lifelike and identifiable as the console titles. Hell, I’ve played a number of big-budget PS3/Xbox 360 games this year with characters that don’t animate as fluidly and realistically as Nate and company do in this game.

Given Sony’s billing of the Vita as a “portable PS3,” it’s easy to get caught up in wanting to directly compare every Vita game to its console counterpart, and from that perspective Golden Abyss shows that the Vita isn’t quite up to those lofty standards. However, while obviously not identical in technical capabilities, the level of graphical detail and overall gameplay feel this game pulls off is in the same ballpark as its three PS3 predecessors. Even if some of the finite details are slightly off kilter and certain compromises had to be made, this game still looks and plays exactly like the console Uncharted you know and love, which is a mighty impressive feat to pull off in any portable game, let alone a launch title in an established mega-franchise from a different developer than the series’ original creators (Naughty Dog pitched in, but Sony’s Bend Studio, responsible for the excellent PSP Syphon Filter and Resistance titles, led development).

In broader context, I do wish this game brought greater precursory depth to the series storyline, but at the same time a lot of the new tools this installment stuffs into its half-tucked treasure hunter’s kit are things I would like to see more of in Nate’s future expeditions, console or portable. As an early showcase for console-caliber Vita gaming, Uncharted: Golden Abyss is a remarkable technical achievement and a damn good action-adventure game, far superior to what many folks might want to backhanded compliment as “only good for a launch title.” It was the main game I bought a Vita to play, and it didn’t let me down.

Matt-BuyIt

Pros:
+ It’s Uncharted in the palms of your hands!
+ Numerous, well-hidden collectibles emphasize treasure hunting and exploration
+ Benchmark-setting graphics and production values in portable gaming
+ Touchscreen mechanics are implemented well overall

Cons:
- Certain touch/motion control elements are gimmicky and at times outright hinder progress
- Doesn’t add any substantive background to Nate’s character or the story at large
- Aiming sensitivity of the Vita’s mini analog sticks takes some adjustment

Steve: It certainly is true that many might perceive a need to show people that games on the Vita can be like those on the PlayStation 3, but that is no reason that the developer should not have smartly implemented features of the system that just cannot done at home. The few aspects of the game that do use the features of the new handheld felt unnecessary and gimmicky. I would have rather it be possible to switch back between Vita-style and traditional-style to see what I liked better. The hodge podge feature grab bag in this adventure makes the game feel like what it is, a launch title. The point of this game should have been to show consumers what can be meaningfully done, not just done to showcase an input method, with the Vita that cannot be done at home. Strip all that junk out, as they likely will in the inevitable re-release of Golden Abyss for the PS3, and I think most people would prefer it on that system with its regular sized thumb sticks.

To be fair, this game would have been a nightmare to control on the old PSP with its singular nubbin. I would not want controls liken to those on iOS shooters where all camera control is done by sliding a finger over the screen, just the ability to tap dudes to death when in cover when Drake is generally not moving and the only thing to control is the aiming reticule. Maybe as things go on and more games come out I will get more used to the controls, but if given the choice between playing this kind of game on the Vita or with a DualShock, I would go for the more traditional experience.

Now, reading back over things, it may look like I have been fairly harsh and did everything in my power to establish a fierce, Anti-Golden Abyss stance. “Down on it,” if you will. And that is because I have primarily only talked about the game design and control aspects of things up until now, which are neither groundbreaking nor noteworthy in their execution, and have avoided talking about the actual presentation of this Uncharted game. Mostly I have done so because the following is fairly obvious after looking at any screenshot or trailer: Uncharted: Golden Abyss is breathtaking.

When I first turned on the Vita, the first game I booted up was Uncharted. Call me a coward, but of the options available at the time, it was the most familiar to me. Even following from afar, I knew basically what Drake’s adventures were about in terms of basic motions and abilities–he never got bitten by a radioactive zombie or traveled to the future to come back as a cyborg–so I knew more or less what an Uncharted game should be. It was an “I know what this should be, or at least what it traditionally is, let’s see what this new system can do.” A game in a comfortable place.

Booting it up and working through the cheery Vita GUI, I eventually started the application. First impressions were exceedingly negative, solid logo screens and a little “Now Loading” spinning gold coin/medallion might have been ripped straight from a launch PSP game. A feeling of dread, that I had wasted a month’s food budget on an unimpressive paperweight crept into my vision like blood vessels into a Call of Duty guy’s getting shot at by a trio of Nazis.

When the game started up, I saw that this system was a lot better than any game I had seen on the PSP, or even the 3DS. Uncharted for the Vita is a fantastic showpiece for the technology. Even though the levels are cramped in terms of where Drake can actually go, and what he can actually do, waterfalls, jungle canopies, and ancient ruins all look lifelike (or at least what Hollywood tells us these things look like). The characters believably animate, responding to bullets, jumping and grabbing onto ledges, even the running and other basic movements look realistic in a way never seen on a handheld. There is obviously a finer amount of fidelity in movement in the cinematics where players have no control over the action, but that is the case in every game other than Heavy Rain or other minimal input games. The colors pop, the frame rate was solid and I did not notice significant motion blur (contrast any PSP game you’d care to name), things just looked great. Calling it a PS3 in your hand is probably overselling it; the graphics looks like a high range PS2 game. A feat still striking for a handheld as it’s only been a decade since Gameboys were popular. The overall graphics are the level of visuals in real time that one would expect in a cinematic on the original PSP. The only thing negative to note about the visuals is that some of the textures are a little apparent and a few game objects are a little jaggy, but the action has to slow to a crawl for anyone to notice these things. In summation, this is an impressive launch title that gives great promise of things to come.

All voices in the game sound fine coming out of the system. When turning the volume all of the way up, I did not notice any real distortion. Interestingly, everything seemed to sound better, less remote, when holding the device with two hands rather than taking my right hand off of it to mess around with the touch screen. Maybe it was designed to sound better with hands cupping it, or maybe I’m just deaf and imagining things. All of the voices were distinct, clear and at least on par with most modern blockbuster movies, perhaps better in a few spots (still weird that no one comments on Drake’s role as a one man weapon of mass destruction). The guns sounded tinny and, like the music, stuck me as competent video game noises that no one is going to have nostalgia for in six months.

As stated at the beginning, the question “Should you buy it?” and “Do you own a Vita?” have the same answer. Unless you absolutely despise the Uncharted series or modern action/adventure games in general, you will have a fun time with this game. It is not a great game as it can get repetitive and does nothing to push the franchise forward; perhaps on a good day it is better than average. If this game were Uncharted 4 or Uncharted Zero and was billed as the next big game for Sony’s line of exclusives for the PlayStation 3, it would get canned by critics, only loved by superfans, and the prospects of an Uncharted 5 would be a 50/50 shot at best. On the Vita, it is something else entirely and what it can do in the palm of your hand is highly impressive. Golden Abyss is by no means a killer app, as I cannot recommend buying a Vita just to play this game. But, it probably is either the best or certainly one of the top three games available for the system right now, so buying it is an easy decision, to those with Vitas. If this is only a fraction of what the new handheld is capable of and if it can be hoped that developer interest in the platform will blossom, then the future of the Vita is bright.

Stephen-BuyIt

Pros:
+ Looks nice, to put it mildly
+ Good approximation of Uncharted games on a handheld
+ Well done, full voice work

Cons:
- Inane minigames slow things down
- The value/point of the online features are not fully explained

Game Info:
Platform: PlayStation Vita
Publisher: SCEA
Developer: Sony Bend Studios
Release Date: 2/15/2012
Genre: Action-Adventure
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1
Source: Review copy provided by publisher. Second copy purchased by reviewer.

About the Author

Matt Litten is a 28 year old from-the-womb gamer turned video game reviewer/blogger and current editor/owner/operator of VGBlogger.com. Matt got his first taste of gaming as a youngster on the NES and Atari, and the rest is history from there. In 2004, three years removed from high school and still looking for a career direction in life, Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com, and after a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez Matt turned his attention to VGBlogger, and to this day is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary.