Early on in the PlayStation 3’s life it didn’t have a killer app, something to make people go out and buy one over and above the Xbox 360. There was no platform exclusive monster akin to a Halo or a Gears of War. A number of titles were potentials. Little Big Planet with Sackboy and the “Play, Create, Share” mantra had the critical acclaim and the popularity but something was still missing. Killzone 2 was an obvious candidate but it just wasn’t in the class of Microsoft’s top tier. Nathan Drake of course had already been and gone before these two games came out. Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was a good game marred by a number of niggles. Then came Uncharted 2: Among Thieves; the finest game on PlayStation 3 to date and utterly adored by gamers and critics alike. Everything good from the first game had been kept and ramped up to eleven; everything bad had been modified. Naughty Dog had created what at that time was the perfect game. In so doing the killer app had arrived. From that point on the PS3 was seen as a viable alternative to the 360. Sony haven’t looked back since and despite the continued development of Sackboy’s Little Big Planet games, he’s not the mascot anymore. That honour is Nathan Drake’s.
Which brings us to Uncharted: Golden Abyss and the launch of PS Vita. Nathan Drake is the star of the show; Uncharted: Golden Abyss the premiere launch title and the day one killer application. Sackboy has been relegated to second place and Drake is to Sony what Mario is to Nintendo. But of course this brings its own challenges. Expectation is higher. People want to see what the hardware can do. Gamers want the next roller-coaster ride involving Drake and company. People want quips and action and variety and downright excellent gameplay. What we get with Uncharted: Golden Abyss is an approximation to Uncharted 1.5 and it is an excellent game in its own right, succeeding in many areas but one that also does not meet or exceed the brilliance of the second and third PS3 games.
What Sony Bend have produced here is a smaller scale, more intimate Nathan Drake adventure. Gone is the rip-roaring roller-coaster ride that the second and third installments provide. There’s no globe-trotting action either as this episode is set entirely in one location - of course there are internal and external scenes; jungles and buildings - but we don’t move from the Middle-East to Tibet or London to the desert. It feels very much like the first time we met Nathan Drake, only more refined, more familiar and optimised to fit into the new hardware with all kind of alternative ways to make him dance.
The Vita’s controls have been utilised to the full here, as one would expect for a launch title which always needs to - in part at least - show what the new hardware can do, rather than just be its own game. In the most part the extra input options work really well. When climbing and jumping around the gyrometer and touchscreen provide a wonderfully intuitive solution to the usual thumbstick and X button movement. You can ‘paint’ the route you wish Drake to traverse, easily spotting the right path thanks to a distinct colouration versus the background, or a gleaming shine which for a moment makes you think there’s treasure there, but really is a handhold. If you need to jump, lean the Vita to make Drake lean towards his destination and then tap it to make him leap in hope and expectation.
Shooting can be managed as it always is in a third-person shooter, but also you can guide your aim by moving the Vita itself. Most obviously beneficial when sniping and looking for headshots, but also a much more sensitive way to apply the finesse to any aim in any gunfight; the gentle movement of the Vita as if it were a gun easier to pull off with adrenaline pumping through your veins as enemies stream out from hiding for a never-ending period of time (or so it can feel; there is no respawning; there is no invisible wall at which point the enemies stop). Grenades are much easier to utilise effectively as well. Place your finger on your grenade icon in the lower right hand side of your HUD and slide it to your preferred destination. An arcing arrow will show you if the route is clear and then on letting go, Drake throws the explosive device and nine times out of ten an incisive explosion takes place.
The rear touchpad doesn’t escape use, which considering it’s Vita’s input that is truly unique versus other portable hardware isn’t surprising. Its use is constrained to a technical demonstration really though - when climbing or descending a rope you use the rear touchpad to do so. It’s a bit fiddly, not really needed and after the first go (and getting that trophy!) players will likely resort to thumbsticks or front touchscreen. It works then, but Bend haven’t really worked out how it can benefit the game. Unfortunately this afflicts some other aspects of gameplay - when finding certain treasures or items in-game you’re asked to make a charcoal rubbing, or clean the dirt off of something. This requires you to rub your finger over the screen (and sometimes rotate the item using the rear pad as well). Fun it is not. Challenging it is not. Thankfully this is limited when linked to progression - much of it comes from trophy hunting.
The whole experience fits very well on the handheld console. Whilst initially disappointing that it doesn't quite have the wow factor of its console siblings, it all works very well and both the narrative and gameplay feel fluid and logical. It may not have the short, sharp pick up and play stylings of many handheld games but this is still something you feel comfortable playing on the Vita - in part due to its innate quality and also driven by the quality of screen in which you’re immersed. It feels right.
The story itself is not the most memorable but how it’s progressed from A to B to Z is very enjoyable. There is a regular turnaround of characters so as to ensure there’s no lag or boredom creeping in. Equally if you have a particular dislike for one of the non-playable characters it shouldn’t grate as soon enough there will be a different, or revolved, cast. Drake himself is played by the inimitable Nolan North as always and everything is fully motion captured. Dialogue is probably a mix of improvisation and scripting but there are some real laugh out loud moments and entertaining chats strewn throughout the whole game. The campaign is very full, with more than thirty chapters and lasts longer than the third game on PS3 did. During this time there is never any lessening in desire to progress and see what happens next. In fact, it’s highly likely that despite the purchase of the Vita and this game being made for travelling and the like, that you’ll end up playing it until three in the morning on your sofa anyway. Twice.
Sony Bend are not Naughty Dog though. It is difficult not to imagine this game, or a future sequel by the same creative team (led by Amy Hennig) who have produced the PlayStation 3 stories. Whilst what we have here does feel like a Nathan Drake adventure, and is of course the first cut of a handheld series there is an inescapable feeling that there’s much more to come. The Vita doesn’t feel pushed; it can produce more bombast. For sure it should be possible to make the jump in quality with regards to technical and artistic output from here that was made on the console between the first and second episodes. It seems that Bend were asked to make the best Uncharted game they could in time for the Vita launch, which they have done, but of course that’s tempered with the fact that more could have been squeezed out given the time or a change of developer to Uncharted’s creators.
That doesn’t matter though in the end. What could have been, and may one day be, is not important. What is important is what we have here in our hands to play. To that end we have a wonderfully enjoyable game that is right at home on the Vita and wouldn’t be out of place played in your lounge on the big screen either. Engaging, inventive, fun and fluid are words to describe this game. Others are funny, absorbing and excellent. If you have a Vita it’s important to get this game to show what it can do in terms of performance. If you are a fan of Drake it’s important to get hold of it to join him on another adventure. Finally if you’re a fan of gaming it’s important to get because it is probably the finest action-adventure yet seen on handhelds and Drake is the true face of Sony consoles these days.