Uncharted: Golden Abyss: review

Despite a new platform and developer, Golden Abyss feels like a true Uncharted. Naughty Dog may be absent but Bend have proven themselves a capable stand-in, careful to preserve the essence of the series while also making worthwhile additions of their own, resulting in a game that will be remembered long after its fellow launch titles have faded from memory.

Golden Abyss sees charismatic treasure hunter, history buff and lovable serial killer Nathan Drake up to his old tricks. What starts off as a routine trip to a South American excavation site quickly turns into something far more serious and Uncharted-like. Racing towards a lost city of gold, Drake must rescue new friends and battle old ones, as well as taking on the remnants of a revolutionary guard – basically just another day in the antiquity business then.

The faux-historical backdrop is rather confusing and at times dull, but then the quest for treasure has never been more than a secondary concern, outshone by engaging characters and believable relationships. Drake’s new female sidekick and semi-love interest is archaeologist and firecracker Chase, but fans of Elena need not fret, as the on-screen chemistry never really blossoms. Dante is Drake’s untrustworthy but ever entertaining partner/employer and General Guerro the forgettable antagonist.

The dialogue doesn’t quite pop as in Uncharted 1-3, although the early back-and-forth between Nate and Dante has its moments. Fortunately, Sully comes to the rescue later on, bringing with him the witty dialogue of old. Few relationships are more believable and warming, nor chemistry more real, than that shared between this pair of lovable rogues and in Golden Abyss they are as inseparable as ever.

Uncharted: Golden Abyss looks stunning, making the most of the Vita’s impressive OLED screen, with the vibrant colours and backdrops of the early levels being particularly striking. A certain amount of detail is lost in the move to portable, no more evident than on Drake’s relatively expressionless face, but this still ranks as a significant visual achievement, one that makes you wonder what developers will be able to achieve once they are more familiar with the hardware.

The South American setting is a bit samey – it doesn’t reach Dragon Age 2 levels of repetition, but the constant jungle-cliff face-caves-ruins cycle does grate. Unfortunately, there isn’t a memorable urban level to speak of, which is a shame as town and city based stages have traditionally been amongst the finest of the series. The best Golden Abyss can muster is a dreary shanty town, all mud and darkness; a criminal waste of the OLED and Drake’s free-running talents.

Although there have been changes, the basics of combat and traversal will be instantly familiar to fans of the series. The arsenal is much the same as ever, offering balance and suitable kick, and the controls intuitive. As for the climbing, whether you are doing it the old fashioned way or utilising the touch screen, it is as simple and as satisfying as ever. Touch controls make descending cliff faces a far less tedious affair, as you need only drag your finger along the preferred route and Drake will obey.

As is to be expected from a launch title, Golden Abyss goes to great lengths to incorporate as many of the interface features as possible, some more successfully than others. In combat, the rear touch screen is put to good use for zooming in and out with your rifle and the simple touch controls work great for silent take-downs. The two final, boss-like showdowns are entirely touch controlled and it works really well, putting you much closer to the action and better conveying the desperation of the fighters. Less impressive is Bend’s insistence on making touch controls compulsory in all other regular, melee encounters, which succeeds in taking all the fun out of one of the most satisfying aspects of traditional Uncharted combat. The decision to make grenades usable only via the touch screen was not a good one, as more often than not your finger ends up obscuring your view of the grenade’s trajectory, leaving you unsure if it’s going to land at the feet of a mercenary or rebound off the ceiling and straight back into your lap. You will likely adopt certain aspects of touch controls and reject others, but it is a shame that the decision to touch or keep your hands to yourself is not always yours to make.

Treasure hunting makes great use of the new input methods. Finger swipes will trace glyphs and other markings of interest, clean hundreds of years of debris from a rare artefact or slide together the pieces of a torn document. One puzzle utilises the rear camera, having you hold your Vita up to a bright light to solve a mystery. These features really add to the experience, though less said about the beam-balancing gyroscope controls the better.

Treasure hunting is more of a feature than ever before, implemented in a smart and entertaining way. No longer are you simply looking for unrelated shiny objects with no link whatsoever to the narrative, but instead piecing together a range of mysteries that shed light on characters and locations. The sheer volume of treasure to be found and mysteries to be solved can overwhelm, but Bend should be commended for offering compelling reasons to search every nook and cranny and reach every ridge. Unfortunately, the Black Market treasures, random in-game drops that are traded through Near, are little more than a pain and make 100% completion needlessly time consuming and confusing

While the new additions are hit and miss, Golden Abyss succeeds in replicating the charms of its big brothers whilst being a full and engaging showcase for the power and possibilities of the Vita. This is not just Uncharted-lite with touch controls, but a thoroughly worthwhile entry in the most consistently brilliant franchise of the current generation, and an adventure that no Uncharted fan will want to miss.

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Written by Matt M

Matt has been a gamer ever since Father Christmas left him a Master System II in the early 90's. Santa was clearly a Sega fan, as a Mega Drive and Saturn would follow in later years. Matt has long since broken free from the shackles of console monotheism and enjoys playing a wide range of games, almost as much as he enjoys meticulously ordering them on his living room shelves.

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