Uncharted: Golden Abyss is Uncharted on a 5-inch screen, and that’s the worst I can say about it, despite the fact that it’s the first one not made by series creator Naughty Dog (in their stead, Sony’s SCE Bend Studio). It’s not a crude port or a downscaled tie-in, but another exuberant jungle romp in this third-person adventure/shooter series that’d be just as at home — visuals, mechanics and in terms of how much solo playtime you get for your dollar — on your PlayStation 3. Okay, it doesn’t really fit in your pants pocket (unless you’re MC Hammer), but your coat will do.
For those who’ve never played an Uncharted game, let’s summarize: Imagine Allan Quartermain with a contemporary spin and an affable sense of humor. Into another lost world you go in Golden Abyss’s post-Noriega Central America, climbing on things, then shooting things. Cue occasional cut scenes during which characters wisecrack. Then you climb some more and shoot some more. Artifacts glint from impossible heights, daring you to find your way to them. Handguns yield to sniper rifles, then to machine-guns and on to grenades. Enemies start with pistols, progress to shotguns and graduate to rocket launchers. Mountain paths segue to jungle shacks and shantytowns, which give way to torch-lit ancient ruins and more Extreme Sports Treasure Hunting. The voice acting’s above average throughout (including Nolan North, reprising his role as series lead Nathan Drake), and everything looks exquisite.
The Vita prequel — technically, it takes place before the original PS3 game — introduces a few optional motion and touch angles. Sometimes they complement the button-stick controls, like when you slide your fingers along the rear touchpad to climb or finesse the zoom on your camera or a sniper rifle’s scope. At others, they feel gimmicky, like when you stroke the screen to do a charcoal rubbing or clean an artifact, or tilt the unit left or right to maintain your balance when the game decides you’ve lost it crossing a vertiginous plank or tree limb. There’s a groundbreaking motion-touch game in the Vita’s future, but Uncharted: Golden Abyss isn’t it.
But what I like most about these games isn’t the climbing, leaping and clambering or even the better than decent shooting sequences. I’ll admit my favorite part of the Uncharted games is the mundane poking-around-in-the-corners, looking-for-hidden-treasure stuff. Honestly, they could make an Uncharted where all you did was that and I’d be onboard.
Golden Abyss does treasure-hunting better than its console predecessors, taking their simple “find me” mechanic and breaking it into mini-games, from finding layabout objects to solving increasingly complex puzzles (the kind you literally piece together) to snapping photographs of obscure objects from just the right angle. And for those of you who do care about the plot in these games (I realize some of you don’t), tapping on solved puzzles conjures a narrative blurb that sheds light on aspects of the level design. Contrast with Uncharted 1 through 3’s arbitrary floating treasures with names like “Ancient Chupicuaro Figure” and “Shamanistic Jaguar Head.” I expect to see variants on this theme in all future Uncharted games, Naughty Dog (minus the silly finger-rubbing parts).
To the “climbing, leaping and clambering” parts, I say thank you SCE Bend Studio for at least maintaining the bar, if not raising it (per usual, the skill in getting from one precipitous vantage to another is visual, not acrobatic). Also: Thank you for tilt-based weapons aiming, which lets you really zero in on enemies, given you’re angling the Vita’s view as if double-handing one of those butterfly truck guns. That, and it’s something set-top consoles can’t do.
If you’re not a fan of the Uncharted games, convinced their emphasis on cinematic storytelling cripples the gameplay, Golden Abyss has nothing to offer you save ammunition for another finger-wagging lecture. But if you don’t subscribe to that sort of narrow, jaundiced view, Golden Abyss unlocks another fabulous lost world, filled with the same above average storytelling, action sequences and treasure scavenging you’ve come to expect from this series.
Version reviewed: PS Vita
Score: 4 out of 5