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Uncharted: Golden Abyss preview: Drake me out to the small game

There's no better showcase of what the NGP is all about than Uncharted: Golden Abyss. With the NGP, Sony has created something of an uber-machine, so tricked out with bells and whistles, it would be an immense feat of creativity to simply use them all in one game; now, using them with purpose, that's a whole other thing.

Before kicking off a demonstration of Golden Abyss in Los Angeles last month, Sony Bend creative director John Garvin wanted to make one thing clear. "Golden Abyss is a brand new Uncharted game," he said. "It's not a port." In case the lack of Naughty Dog involvement makes you nervous, Garvin says, "We've been collaborating and working closely with Amy Hennig, the creative director at Naughty Dog, to make sure that our characters and story are authentic."

As far as characters go, we've got series' star Nathan Drake making a return, the role being reprised by omnipresent voiceover artist Nolan North. To capture that performance, Sony Bend is using the same mo-cap and sound studios that Naughty Dog uses for its Uncharted titles and, in the short cinematic I saw, it showed.

If there was one area that made it clear that the main Uncharted series still belongs to Naughty Dog, it may be the lack of a number on that title. "It's a standalone story that takes place before Drake's Fortune," Garvin explained. "It's not a prequel, but a standalone story." In other words, it's self-contained.

Gallery: Uncharted: Golden Abyss (NGP) | 7 Photos

It sounds like Garvin knows these are awfully large boots to fill. "Story is hugely important in the Uncharted franchise, as you guys know, and one of the things we've been working really hard to do is to create a game that lives up to the cinematic experience we see in games like Drake's Fortune and Among Thieves." To that end, Sony Bend has created over two hours of cutscenes in Golden Abyss. Compare that to the roughly 30 minutes in its previous game, Resistance Retribution, and it's clear they're focusing on story.

But all the story in the world doesn't mean much if the gameplay isn't there. We had two separate demos that showed off the games various features: one was climbing heavy and the other combat heavy. In the first, Drake and a friend arrive in a Jeep. Here, we see the non-interactive bits Garvin referenced. They banter and, thanks to some decent casting and good ol' archetypes, it's easy to get the impression Drake's buddy is a certified low-life.

The climbing sections will feel immediately natural to anyone who's played an Uncharted game on PS3 before. The dual analog sticks and assembly of buttons make it simple to pick up and play. However, Sony Bend has cleverly weaved in touch controls in some thoughtful (and some gimmicky!) ways.

See a weapon you want to pick up? Just tap it. Want to clamber hand-over-hand across a ledge? Just swipe your finger across and Drake does the rest. Less intuitive uses included the rear touchscreens' finger-over-finger rope climbing mechanic, or the tilt-to-lean-backwards move that preceded a jump. They worked, but never felt natural.

Another impediment to the controls feeling natural was the lag. Your run-of-the-mill touchscreen mobile game may appear simple, but a huge part of its success comes from the immediacy of your touch input. Any lag or delay will often prompt you to try again, instead of waiting for it to catch up. In Golden Abyss, there often wasn't an immediate sign that my touch input had been registered; I'd swipe again only to find my second input interrupting the delayed action. It's early, so we hope they get this under control.

In the combat demo, we see how the series' shooting mechanics work on the NGP. In short, really well! A standout was the sniper rifle, which uses the system's gyroscope to aim, forcing you to actually stare through a virtual scope and aim the NGP in real space. While it could be really sensitive, we found popping into the scope would auto-target the enemy, greatly reducing the amount of goofy aiming needed. Less successful was the grenade-throwing mechanic, which involved touching the screen to aim the grenade.

Maybe the biggest compliment I can give Uncharted: Golden Abyss is that it looks and plays like an Uncharted game. The developers were quick to point out that this was only possible in the handheld space on NGP. Things like water shaders to create realistic water ("Drake gets wet and slowly dries over time"), real-time lighting ("all lighting in the game is dynamic"), tons of polygons (260K per frame compared to Retribution's 50K per frame), and higher-resolution textures (160MB of 'em compared to Retribution's 10MB) all communicate the power of the handset.

And while the touch mechanics were totally optional (take note, DS Zelda games!) I couldn't shake the feeling that they were still being added to fill a hole, not to solve a problem; the first Uncharted's clumsy use of Sixaxis controls comes to mind. There's a lot more to a successful Uncharted game than the controls – a 5-minute demo is never going to show off the game's pacing – but if you've got a reason to want to play Uncharted outside of your gaming cave, I think you're going to want to pay attention to Golden Abyss.

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