PS Vita Review – Uncharted: Golden Abyss

The Uncharted series is the most recognizable exclusive on the PlayStation 3, so bringing a franchise of this caliber to a portable system is was always going to be a herculean task. But if there’s anyone up to the job, it’s Sony Bend. They’re probably best known for bringing Syphon Filter, and more recently, another PS3 exclusive franchise to the PSP with Resistance: Retribution. Both are noble efforts and make up some of the best the PSP has to offer. Can Sony Bend work the same magic on the PlayStation Vita, but with a franchise that is more cherished by PlayStation fans?

Uncharted: Golden Abyss is developed by Sony Bend in cooperation with Naughty Dog. Naughty Dog is mostly hands-off, leaving Sony Bend to the task of bringing Nathan Drake to the portable system. I myself – I’m sure like many others – was very skeptical. It’s not that I didn’t believe Sony Bend could make a great game based on a PS3 exclusive – they’ve proven themselves before. But what I could never expect, is that they’d produce an Uncharted game that’s not only worthy of the name, but it’s without a shadow of a doubt, the deepest, most-varied, console-like experience I’ve ever had on a portable system. Bold words, I know. And it’s something that must be seen to be truly believed. When it’s all said and done, you still may not believe that what you’ve just played is possible on a handheld. And more amazing still, on a launch title.

Surprisingly, anything big Drake can do mini-Drake can do better. And he does it in more ways. All of Drake’s melee moves, ducking for cover, and running and gunning are here on the PlayStation Vita, except now a lot of it can be performed using the Vita’s touch-screen. It’s not necessary, but it feels more natural and intuitive. Like I said, this old “dog” has learned new tricks: Drake can now clear out vines and overgrown vegetation using a machete; he takes charcoal rubbings of hieroglyphics; he snaps pictures of the environment with a camera he carries around in his backpack. And there’s are a few surprises that I’d love to talk about, but it’d be a shame to spoil. It’s evident that Sony Bend wanted to exploit everything the Vita hardware had to offer for Uncharted: Golden Abyss.

But that OLED screen isn’t just for touching. It’s stunning, and Golden Abyss makes for a beautiful game to display on it. It’s not the realistic-looking Uncharted 3, but it’s honestly not all that far off. Which says a lot for the capabilities of the PlayStation Vita. Uncharted: Golden Abyss is a launch title, after all – so think of what developers will be able to do with the device with some time and mastery of the hardware. Vistas are gorgeous, forcing you to stop and just gaze. Textures are nice, again, very impressive for a portable. I can’t stress enough how good the game looks.

You can tell that Naughty Dog isn’t at the helm here. Mainly because the cinematic presentation isn’t what we’ve come to expect from an Uncharted game. But like the graphics, is still very impressive. The story starts off slow, but eventually picks up steam a couple of hours in. And it’s worth the wait. It’s got the typical Uncharted twists, the love interest, and the double-cross. Jason Dante, befitting of a goomba weasel stereotype, cares more about his boots than the life of his companions, and Marisa Chase plays the standard “save the female” role who doesn’t like guns but always seems to get in trouble type. They don’t inspire the same bond as say Elena Fisher – the character development isn’t at the same level found in the Naughty Dog games. Luckily, and old friend of Drake’s stops in at the game’s halfway point to save the day, witty banter included. At that point the game really starts to shine. The entire ten or so hour package is every bit of what you’d expect from the a game bearing the Uncharted namesake.

There’s bad guys, too. There has to be. Guerro, an ex-general who’s after treasure (duh!) and is giving Drake and friends a really difficult time. He’s not quite as imposing of a threat as Katherine Marlowe is, but he does fine making Drake’s life a living hell. A plot twist halfway brings another villain into the fold, but we’ll leave that for you to discover on your own.

Drake can approach Guerro’s henchmen stealthily, confront head-on with guns a’ blazing, or a mixture of the two. Vertical shootouts from Uncharted 3 make an appearance, and help to add variety to areas that are combat heavy. The pacing between shooting, platforming and climbing is perfect. On the subject of climbing, the Vita really makes the climbing seem less tedious. Simply brush your finger along the ledges and Drake follows the path you’ve outlined. When I demoed Uncharted: Golden Abyss previously, I though I’d never use this feature. But the ease of it and how smoothly it works cannot be overlooked. Touch controls are added to a number of actions, as are motion controls (used for swinging, walking across logs, etc.). The Vita’s capabilities are fully explored.

Exploration is a stronger theme in Uncharted: Golden Abyss than with its PS3 big brothers. Treasures return adding replayability, but are a bit different. They’re in sets, rather than just a long list of them. And that’s not the only thing you discover. Using Drake’s camera, you have to take snapshots of certain locations throughout his adventure. Zooming is done best with the rear-touch panel, and for using it you unlock an aptly named “Touch My Rear” bronze trophy. Drake keeps track of everything in his journal, but the journal is more helpful as it tells you which chapter each opportunity is lurking at.

Puzzles are here too, but they’re not as plentiful as you may be used to. At least not in the traditional Uncharted sense. A lot of them have to do with the charcoal rubbings Drake takes of statues and hieroglyphics found around the environment. Shredded documents or maps must be rearranged as if they were actual puzzle pieces. And all of the rotating and maneuvering is done using the Vita’s touch screen. There was one puzzle, in fact, that used the PlayStation Vita in such an interesting way, my jaw hit the floor.

From start to finish, Sony Bend has captured the essence of Uncharted. They hit the nail on the head with the gameplay, environments, and combat. The story and the characters don’t quite live up to the high bar set by the PlayStation 3 games, but they’re still better than most portable games. At times, you forget you’re even playing a portable game. Thanks to the Vita’s dual-analog sticks, the Uncharted: Golden Abyss experience feels more like what a home console can produce, but with a touch (pun intended) of smartphone-like gameplay elements.

Uncharted: Golden Abyss is – hands-down – a must-own for anyone at all considering a purchase of a PlayStation Vita. It shows what that little portable with plenty of power can do, from the graphics, to the controls, to the Vita-specific touch features – it’s truly amazing. More impressive is the fact that, at launch, the PlayStation Vita has a title as packed with greatness as Uncharted: Golden Abyss, but I’d expect nothing less from something bearing the franchise namesake. If you’re looking for a reason to convince you to buy a PlayStation Vita, look no further than Uncharted: Golden Abyss. As the bar has been set by Uncharted on the PS3, so it has on the PlayStation Vita as well. For a launch title to be this impressive, it speaks extremely well of the future of the PlayStation Vita, and it solidifies Sony Bend as the go to studio for forging blockbuster games on portable platforms.

PlayStation LifeStyle’s Final Score

+ Worthy of the Uncharted name.

+ Takes full advantage of the PS Vita’s capabilities.

+ This is a launch title?

9.5 out of 10