The date that started well
This portable Uncharted iteration feels a lot more casual than its console brethren. By that I mean the tone is more relaxed, as it always feels as though there is less at stake. Only one recurring character makes an appearance and this really adds to the sensation that Golden Abyss is supposed to be taken as a stand-alone narrative. Much like the Indianna Jones and James Bond films, there's very little continuity to worry about and for a character like Nathan Drake -- who I would argue shares a lot of qualities with the afformentioned film heroes -- this approach to the story works reasonably well. The developer has commented that this instalment isn't necessarily a prequel, and you really could slot this tale into any part of Drake's saga prior to Drake's Deception (not that this couldn't have happened afterward mind you, it's just that I envisage most would like to have seen a "Happily Ever After" following the events of the third game).
The supporting cast is relatively small and is a mix of the charming and forgettable. The chemistry between Drake and love interest, Marisa Chase is thoroughly endearing, and she can confidently stand with Chloe and Elena as another strong, female protagonist. The villains in this instalment aren't particularly memorable, but they get the job done. I would have liked a more detailed insight into the history shared by Dante, Drake and Sully, but the theives' apprenticeships are, for now, a missed opportunity. General Guerro is a ruthless and somewhat cliched South American dictatorial figure that's a combination of Hugo Chavez, Castro and your typical 80s action villain rolled into one portly package.
Drake himself is made more likeable thanks to the noticeable shift in pace for the first half of the adventure. You'll still kill your fair share of mercenaries, but as per my last post, there's much more exploration and adventuring to be found in this instalment. Dusting off artefacts and re-assembling destroyed documents create a welcome change of tone that casts Drake as a history enthusiast moreso than a treasure-hungry murderer. He comes off as somewhat more believeable too, trying to discourage his companions from wandering into deeper trouble. For the first part of the game, Nathan Drake transforms from gun nut to history buff and amateur archaeologist, making for a character and experience that differs sufficiently from the series' home console brethren.
From the opening scene, Uncharted: Golden Abyss will blow you away with its scale and beauty. It may not be on par with Naughty Dog's technical prowess, but the game doesn't fail to impress. There's no portable game I can think of that compares in terms of visuals, and the soundtrack is up to the series' high standard. Perhaps the only blight in terms of presentation is the lacklustre fire effects. Traversing structures set ablaze with blocky red textures is perhaps the only wart on this visual and aural powerhouse.
Like a breath of fresh air
I've complained before that the platforming in the Uncharted series has become more and more unnecessary as the series has aged. The touch controls for platforming seem to alleviate this concern, as you can power through these segments faster than ever before. Having to swipe up to regather your grip after false handholds predictably give way also served to reignite my interest in this aspect of the game.
Touch controls have also been integrated into melee fighting as well as being used instead of button presses for quick-time events. It's in these particular instances that the additional control methods form a bit of a Frankenstein's monster. Having to switch beween buttons and swipes in the heat of battle rarely works in the player's favour. There's also a few of the adventuring segments which aren't particular practical when gaming on the go (for examples, please check my previous post). The implementation of a litany of control methods was at times ill-considered to say the least.
At just about the halfway point, Golden Abyss shrugs off this mostly-peaceful premise and becomes a full-blown shooter like its predecessors. Increasingly frustrating firefights are punctuated by rote platforming sections which I've seen and played to death. The arsenal is sufficiently varied, but proves to be just as tired as the combat scenarios that define the second half of the game.
The shooting controls are responsive, but the mechanics of combat can be wacky depending on the situation. For example: there are quite a few times you'll be tasked with shooting small groups of enemies while hanging from a rope. If you happen to run out of bullets for your sidearms during these situations, an extra clip will find its way into your gun. The damage model is also a little inconsistent. I could often survive a direct hit from a rocket, but one shot from a sniper rifle meant certain death. Even the touch controls respond reasonably well when weapons are drawn, it's just unfortunate that the physics governing combat don't deliver logical outcomes.
The swipe heavy quick-time events -- that simulate actions like boosting and cutting, as well as pugilistic boss fights towards the end -- are repeated ad nauseam in the final chapters. Bend Studio will have you swiping up to break walls even at the sake of momentum and most certainly at the expense of fun. The touch screen is for the most part responsive, but failure in some of these sections towards the end of the game often resulted in me having to replay lengthy segments of gameplay. What could have been a fun diversion often led to frustration.
Maybe we should try this again?
While the final chapters feel tired and the progress in terms of characterisation ends up lost in a sea of blood, Uncharted: Golden Abyss is well worth your time. It's a strong showcase of the Vita's potential, and the first half of the game is just as, if not more enjoyable than its home console counterparts. For all of the issues with control and mechanics that I encountered towards the end of the game, I feel like Golden Abyss has the potential to take the series in a promising new direction that focusses more on adventure than cold-blooded killing.