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Uncharted Golden Abyss review: Grave rubber


Presenting Uncharted: Golden Abyss as one of Nathan Drake's earlier adventures is a masterstroke. For one thing, it explains why people are still hiring him to hunt down relics. At this point, they just haven't heard of the handsome, half-tucked grave robber who breaks everything he climbs across, shoots everyone he sees, and goes through an awful lot of trouble for treasure that's invariably cursed, deadly or not really treasure at all.

But we're not interested in the chest full of MacGuffins at the end. We're in it for the hero's hazardous journey over crumbling handholds and vertiginous chasms. We like to see an ancient civilization lurch back into life with the aid of an unbelievably convoluted, one-use mechanism. And we want to spot that spark between the characters who get themselves into one mess after another, and yet another. If that's what Uncharted is to you, then you'll find very little has been lost in the transition to PlayStation Vita.

Gallery: Uncharted: Golden Abyss (Gamescom 2011) | 4 Photos

The environments in Uncharted: Golden Abyss don't match the complexity of the PlayStation 3 games, but they are competitive in offering lush vegetation, picturesque lighting and the time-hewn, textured stonework that must be hell on Nathan's hands. And there's a big benefit to the less elaborate animation, which gives you a far more nimble and responsive character to control. The only thing you could fairly describe as ugly are the shadows, and even they aren't likely to make you realize you're playing this game on a handheld system.

Oh, but there's plenty of other in-your-face fluff that says YOU ARE PLAYING UNCHARTED: GOLDEN ABYSS ON THE PLAYSTATION VITA. Some Vita-exclusive distractions are inoffensive -- like optionally tracing a climbing path for Drake on the touchscreen -- while others try their best to suck the glamor out of Drake's illicit profession. Stopping to spin and reassemble torn scraps of paper is a pacing killer, and cleaning artifacts is a finger exercise, not a meaningful interaction. Screen-rubbing minigames? There are Nintendo DS launch games turning their noses up at that.

The game's fourth chapter highlights the artificial nature of these gimmicks better than I could. While Drake rushes out of a burning building, he's thwarted by a stubborn piece of cloth hanging in a doorway. Rather than simply barging through it (because it is a piece of cloth), he spends what feels like a minute cutting it to ribbons with a machete -- that is, after you've done your obligatory three swipes across the front touchscreen. It's the dumbest moment in Uncharted history.

Thankfully, the most surprising moment in Uncharted history is also entwined with Sony's new hardware. About halfway through the game, after struggling to pull off headshots with the finicky analogue sticks, I enabled tilt-based aiming (which taps into the system's accelerometer). Together with the snap-to-enemy targeting and the screen's excellent viewing angle, it provides a precise and practical alternative on top of regular aiming. I'd be surprised if it didn't wind up in every shooter on the system from now on.

The shooting in Uncharted has always been the weakest link, even if it worked well in the context of expertly crafted catastrophes and an upwardly mobile main character. Functionally, it's about the same in Uncharted: Golden Abyss, but developer Bend Studio seems to have a better grasp on moderation. Whether it's due to technological constraints, or the team being fans of Uncharted themselves (or both), it's nice to run out of enemy waves before you start groaning and rolling your eyes. There aren't nearly as many bullet-absorbent meat bags here, and the presence of armored goons seems curtailed compared to the PlayStation 3 games. Best of all, Golden Abyss is peppered with exciting sequences that truly capitalize on Drake's agility, sending him into the rafters to get the best shots.

Uncharted: Golden Abyss shows restraint in many ways, mostly for the better and without sacrificing the franchise's sky-high production values. There's a dearth of ooh-aah moments compared to Uncharted 3, which went off the rails as soon as it tried to adhere to them more often. This toned-down approach gives some breathing room to the few spectacular sequences that remain, and delivers a more coherent, grounded adventure overall.

I'd venture the plot and characterization -- especially that of Drake, which is still trying to reconcile his wavering morality with his neck-snapping awfulness -- is superior to the first and third console games. Uncharted: Golden Abyss exhibits a similar level of pluck, wit and expert performance, right alongside two interesting companions for the hero. Dante's a sloppy, shifty antidote to highfalutin super villains, while Marisa Chase brings a Meryl haircut and an earnest, honorable persona to the treasure hunting biz.

Or, as some may call it: theft. Just as piracy is romanticized without all the nasty, scurvy-induced details, the quest for treasure is a career that works best with some embellishment. And though Uncharted: Golden Abyss brings a little too much reality to Drake's day-to-day by making him polish artifacts in gimmicky touchscreen nonsense, there's still a good, if formulaic, adventure to be had. In other words, this might just sell you on the Vita ... whenever it's not selling you on the Vita.

This review is based on a retail copy of Uncharted: Golden Abyss, provided by Sony.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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