Sunday, February 19, 2012

REVIEW - Uncharted : Golden Abyss.

It's incredibly good-looking.

Uncharted: Golden Abyss does not make the best first impression.  While (nearly) all the mechanics of the PS3 ultragames are here - gorgeous but linear platforming, cover-based shooting, rudimentary fisticuffs and long, lovely leaps - it doesn't feel as instantly comfortable as the first three titles.  

It is, at first, like being read the next chapter in your favorite bedtime story by the parent who doesn't normally read to you - familiar but slightly off, in terms of feel.  The story, the game and you the player require some time to find their groove - but once Golden Abyss hits its stride and you find yourself speaking the game's language, it stops being a conversation about whether or not the Uncharted experience can be delivered on a handheld, and begins to sing

The biggest compliment I can pay Golden Abyss is that it does not feel like a B-side or some sort of alternate-reality Uncharted. This is Uncharted - a complete and respectable entry in its series - which, in some areas, actually outpacing some of its console brethren.  

Ah, the jungle.  This is definitely Uncharted.

Presentation is well in keeping with the series' stratospheric standards.  While there are fewer transitional and procedural animations than Uncharted 2 or 3, Drake's leaps, reloads and brawling animations are all smooth, familiar, expressive and iconic.  Sound design is excellent, from music to effects, and as usual the franchise sets itself apart from your run-of-the-mill triple-A fare by way of its sublime voice work.  

Thanks to a leaner script that doesn't weigh itself down with self-indulgent self-reflection (see: Uncharted 3), Nolan North is able to get down to the business of what he does best; cracking wise, staying casual and coming across as a normal, rather flippant fellow who just happens to jump twenty-foot gaps for fun.  

Golden Abyss also benefits from a smaller ensemble than Uncharted 2 or 3.  Like Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, there are only five named characters in Golden Abyss, and the narrative and play clip along with the type of exemplary pacing the series hasn't enjoyed since Uncharted 2. It warbles back and forth from tense gunfights to efficient stealth to lazy, backstroking platforming to easygoing strolls through (stunning) environments while exposition rolls, never spending too much time with one before moving on to another.  

Other reviews have passionately complained about the segments in the canoe.  I don't get what their problem is.

Finally, this game is gorgeous.  The only nits one could pick in terms of visual presentation is that the pixels on explosions tend to be larger than other pixels in the game, and the faces of the characters are not as minutely-animated as they are in the console entries.  Other than that, it's rather amazing. I was constantly interrupting play to take snaps with the Vita's screen capture feature, or simply marveling at what, it turns out, is possible on the device.

It took until 2010 for a PSP game to successfully realize a PS2-quality action title - five years into the platform's lifespan - and here we have a Vita game which actually looks far better than any PlayStation 3 launch title. 

It sets a marvelous standard.  As it glides from traditional Uncharted locales like jungles and temples to fare that's never been seen in the series - all of which are utterly breathtaking - Golden Abyss, if nothing else, speaks very, very highly of what we can expect from Sony's new handheld in the future.  

Hope you like swiping.

In terms of design, Abyss trips over itself a bit in the early hours.  There, it repeatedly introduces touchscreen mechanics for standard activities like countering an enemy's attack or boosting an ally up to a ledge.  While this feels very intrusive at first, it quickly becomes second-nature, and far more involving than a standard button press.   Thank goodness the Vita has no difficulty reading vertical, horizontal or diagonal swipes - otherwise, this forced use of motion controls would have been an irredeemable blunder.  

It attempts to sell you further on the Vita's unique functions with tutorials for rotating objects and wiping four centuries worth of detritus from them, or recreating the motions of charcoal rubbings.  Like the brawling, this feels forced and unnecessary at first - and it is - but after its opening hours, the game rarely requires you to make use of them without your consent.  

Instead, it offers them as voluntary side excursions from the time-tested core mechanics of the franchise.  As you wander the world, a little icon will pop up on the side of the screen telling you an opportunity is available to use your machete (swipe swipe swipe!) to cut some bamboo and reveal a hidden trinket, or a relief is near that you can swipe some charcoal across.  

This is a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, it often feels like unnecessary time is taken up with the slower swiping motions (and, for the record, rotating an object until the game arbitrarily decides you've seen one hundred per cent of it is just tedious).  On the other, Golden Abyss is absolutely packed with objects to find, secret paths to uncover and clues to ancient ancillary mysteries that wait for you off the beaten path.  

These optional detours, it turns out, feel more compelling when voluntary.  It's lovely to experience an Uncharted game that seems to have so much more to discover than I'm used to, and I'll admit I was shocked - shocked! - when the icon popped up on the side of my screen and I actually used the words "ooh!  Charcoal rubbing!"


Ignoring Abyss's unique side-content, it is - at its core - a great action game, well in line with the mechanics and balance we've grown accustomed to.  You climb stuff, you solve puzzles, you gun down enemies with very well-realized cover-based shooting - and while Abyss's gunplay and platforming isn't quite as elegant as the remarkable action of 2011's Uncharted 3, it manages to overcome this by slightly simplifying its mechanics while maintaining the feel of the franchise.  

The platforming is as basic as it's always been, with the ability to draw Drake's path up a wall throwing its linearity into stark relief.  In general, though, it still feels rather slick and engaging, despite its actual simplicity.  

Bend Studio - developers of the Siphon Filter franchise - attempted to add their own modicum of depth to the shooting mechanics by way of using the Vita's giro to allow you to fine-tune your aiming, but I found this to be an unwelcome addition, as involuntary movements would spoil my shots.  It's easily rectified by disabling it in the options menu, and afterward I discovered I was nailing headshots just as comfortably as I would, were I holding a Dualshock.  

By the time you've grown accustomed to the slight differences in timing and animation, Golden Abyss delivers a pitch-perfect Uncharted action experience.  It remains a vicious thrill to clear a room of all but one enemy, dash up to him while spraying blind fire from a pistol and slide between his legs at the last moment to punch him in the groin so hard he dies. 


Golden Abyss is a spectacular launch title, and - amazingly - one of the better entries in the Uncharted series.  It taps into the wide-eyed earnestness of Drake's Fortune and the exemplary pacing of Among Thieves, while sidestepping the ironic cynicism of Drake's Deception and, crucially, maintaining the unique feel of the franchise's action.  

More than just a great game, Golden Abyss asks and answers the question of whether or not there is a place for a dedicated, high-performance gaming device in a handheld market saturated with ninety-nine cent cell phone titles, and successfully makes an argument for the existence of the PlayStation Vita.  If nothing else, it says very, very good things about what we can look forward to on the platform.

Like the system itself, it's got so many bells and whistles that it's a bit off-putting, at first.  Once it gets down to the business of what it does best - polished, flying action and high adventure driven by charming characters and a lithe, sharp little whippet of a script - one quickly falls in love.


THE GOOD
  • very fun
  • absolutely gorgeous
  • an excellent cast
  • a lean, sharp script with great characters (I hope we see Chase again)
  • great music and sound effects
  • a ton of little hidden items to search for, off the beaten path
  • retains Uncharted's feel:
  • slick gunplay, which quickly feels very intuitive
  • easygoing, beautiful platforming
  • lovely art direction with lots of nice little touches
  • a nice variety in some phenomenally good-looking environments
  • using the touch screen for co-op moves and melee finishers actually works pretty well!
  • y'know what?  I liked the canoe sequences
  • aside from the opening, it has excellent pacing - always letting off the throttle before gunning it at just the right moment
  • I'm playing a really good Uncharted game on a handheld.  Oh.  My.  Gawd.  

THE BAD
  • the pacing in the game's opening is rather tedious as it introduces...
  • a ton of touchscreen/motion control stuff that may be off-putting to franchise vets
  • the action, while very, very good, isn't as polished as Uncharted 3's - but at least the script is way better

THE VERDICT
Golden Abyss is more that just a great game - it's a great Uncharted game, which redefines what one can ask of a handheld. 


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One more screenshot?  Well, sure. 

In-engine!

3 comments:

  1. Nice review. This is the first handheld system that I've had any interest in. I applaud your use "shocked - shocked!" from Casablanca. One of my life's goals is to transform this into a meme.

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  2. Thank you ^.^ I was worried this one went a little too in-depth.

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  3. I like your reviews because of their depth.

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