Review – Uncharted: Golden Abyss

Since its release, Golden Abyss has been dogged by the internet platitude that casts it as the ‘straight to video’ episode of the Uncharted series. This is at least in part unfair; it holds a smaller team, working on a handheld, presumably with less money and a shorter lead time, to the standards of Naughty Dog. In fact, Sony Bend should be commended for having come as close as they did to matching the PS3 releases, at least in technical terms. As a game that I play, using my fingers and my buttons, Uncharted on the Vita is the equal of what you can find on the PS3. It’s the parts without buttons, both in and out of gameplay, where Uncharted: Golden Abyss comes up short.

The series’ three PS3 outings have taught us what to expect in an Uncharted game. As with all the previous releases, U:GA is great to look at. There are one or two Vita launch games that are a little more crisp, but none with as much going on as this. It’s worth reiterating: technically, this is really an impressive achievement on a handheld. Perhaps most importantly, Sony Bend have done an excellent job of capturing the feeling of adventure of the earlier installments, all without the massive set pieces that figure so heavily in Uncharted 2 and 3. In terms of both setting and scale, GA feels much more like the original Uncharted than either of the sequels, something from which I feel it benefits, given the relative constraints of the platform. Much of it is confined to Central American rain forests as Drake searches for lost gold…or a lost city…or a lost golden city or something. It’s pretty standard fare, but the plot in these games has never been anything more than an excuse for jumping around on platforms shooting baddies, and I’m down with that.

The sense of exploration and moments of awe are still present and will keep you moving forward even when other layers of the game let you down.

So far so Uncharted, but then cracks begin to appear. I may not ask much of the plot in Uncharted, but Naughty Dog have conditioned me to expect a lot of the characters as a storytelling device. What Amy Hennig and friends managed in the earlier games was to have me take a real interest in the cast and their relationships. This is a singular achievement in video games, at least with respect to my tastes. To me, each of  the console games is characterised as much by the relationships that comprise its framework as by the setting. Uncharted 1 is the story of Drake and Elena, 2 is essentially a love triangle, and, best of all, 3 is the ballad of Nate and Sully. These interactions keep me invested even while the plot is essentially recycled with each game. Some of this stems from the naturalistic look and feel of the characters – real actors, not simply delivering their lines, but actually acting out the events of the game as they do so. Golden Abyss makes a fairly good fist of this element. However I would argue that it’s primarily the dialogue that make the characters in the first three Uncharted games. Where it is written it’s pithy and feels natural, and where it’s extemporized it’s always consistent – it feels less like actors that are playing characters than actors just playing themselves.

Unfortunately, almost none of this quality is apparent in U:GA. While the dialogue is usually simply mediocre in Golden Abyss, at times it is truly awful, and I actually found myself cringing once or twice. The love interest, Chase, is an insipid shadow of both Chloe and Elena from the earlier games, and Drake’s interactions with her sometimes feel more lech than lovable rogue. This extends to the main villain. Where Naughty Dog’s antagonists were memorable, here we have a tired stereotype, apparently based loosely on Manuel Noriega. Even the return of a favourite character about half-way through the game cannot rescue this aspect of U:GA; in fact it just serves to highlight that Sony Bend cannot match Naughty Dog here, even when they’re working with the same material.

The tilt mechanic helps with the aiming quite a bit if you are willing to give it a chance.

Graphics and writing aside, there is a game to be played, and in this respect Golden Abyss fares well. For me the platforming has always been the weakest element of the Uncharted games – there is effectively no challenge beyond determining in which direction the game will let you jump. I appreciate that this helps the devs control the pacing, but I’ve always found it a bit monotonous. GA takes this automaticity a step further by allowing the player simply to trace a path on the touchscreen. It’s a nice touch that helps to reduce the repetitiveness of mashing the X button.

The shooting mechanic also comes with a tweak. Generally speaking I’m not a fan of tilt controls, so I turned this feature off before I even started Uncharted: GA. However I quickly found that the controls were horrendous with only the sticks (and auto-aim off). I could not hit a thing. I reluctantly turned the tilt-aiming on, and after getting used to it I found it a lot of fun. Its function is to fine-tune the right stick aim, rather than replace it altogether. I got so accustomed to it that when Unit13 was released I initially found myself wishing Zipper had eschewed auto-aim in favour of the Uncharted solution (my feeling is that the short analogue sticks on the Vita will always necessitate using one approach or the other for a shooter). It’s the shooting mechanic that  does more than anything to rescue U:GA from the ‘straight to video’ epithet. It gives the Vita version an identity that it never quite manages elsewhere.

Welcome to my….. PAIN CAVE!!!

It feels a little mean-spirited to criticise a game for something trying something new, but I wish Sony Bend had resisted the urge to make further additions to the Uncharted formula. Had they simply added tilt-to-aim and the touchscreen platforming, I might even have argued that they had improved the overall gameplay, but they went further. Mechanically, probably the weakest parts of the game are the touchscreen mini games that pop up from time to time. Most of these have you making charcoal rubbings of the stone reliefs that litter the game, or cleaning the dirt off artifacts by rotating them with the rear touch while you wipe them with the front. My issue is not that these activities are necessarily awful (although the combat and machete mini games are pretty bad), but more that they just feel unnecessary. For me they break the pacing while adding little of value. In my head I constructed a narrative in which some bigwig at Sony mandated the inclusion of every single feature of the Vita in its flagship launch title.That I got this impression reflects poorly on the game, whether or not it is actually true.

I should stress though, that in the end this is a relatively trivial matter. The mini games were at worst an occasional irritation. More problematic was the weak dialogue and poorly written characters. U:GA fares much better though as a straight-up video game. The traversal and shooting, which comprise the vast majority of the gameplay, could even teach Naughty Dog a thing or two. It’s a game that starts slowly, but once it hits its stride it is as much fun as most of the launch games on the Vita. The fact is that for me, even characterising it as the weakest entry in Uncharted series still makes Uncharted: Golden Abyss a better game than most.

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