It doesn't take long for Uncharted: Golden Abyss to show off the Playstation Vita's rather stunning graphical and control capabilities. Within the game's first fifteen minutes you'll be maneuvering through a beautifully crafted environment, shooting enemies with dual-analog stick controls, and utilizing some of the Vita's many additional control options. The game's first few minutes are a true marvel, as they deliver a gaming experience that's completely unprecedented for a handheld, and the truth is, despite a few nagging issues, that sense of wonder never really lets up.
Golden Abyss is set before any of the other games, though it has no real connection to its predecessors, and Nathan Drake is no less capable than he's always been. As usual, Drake and a few buddies have to go after some long-lost treasure and avoid the clutches of a maniacal warlord in the process. But also as per usual, the game features plenty of amusing dialogue and great delivery in order to keep the plot engaging. It's best to describe the latest adventure as fun but forgettable; it's unfortunate that it doesn't reach the apex of characterization that Uncharted 2 did, but it wisely avoids the laughable attempts at self-seriousness that dragged its immediate predecessor down so much.
While Golden Abyss also keeps the Uncharted series' now-standard gameplay formula - a combination of climbing, shooting, and puzzle-solving - the usual fare is made all the more impressive simply through the fact that you get to play it all in the palm of your hand. The game's platforming elements continue to entertain despite their relative linearity. Sequences in which you climb up huge set-pieces, take daring leaps of faith, or high-tail it to avoid a heavily armed group of enemies always prove to be thrilling, and the incredible sense of urgency these sequences provide further their success.
Where the game really steps out of its pre-established comfort zone is in its spectacular combat. On the surface, the game plays out much like most modern third-person shooters - the use of cover is heavily emphasized, and if you do find yourself outside of a safe spot, it should only be to run to another one or engage in some quick melee combat. However, Golden Abyss sets its gunfights apart from the competition through great use of the Vita's control options. Melee attacks and weapons swaps can be done on the Vita's touch screen (as well as through traditional button-presses, for purists), and arcing the trajectory of grenades tosses is handled entirely with the Vita's touch controls. The real revelation, however, is the game's use of the accelerometer. While aiming handles just fine with the right analog stick, you can make subtle adjustments with the device's SIXAXIS controls. While this may seem like a relatively small addition, it ends up giving Golden Abyss by far the slickest and most engaging combat the Uncharted series has yet seen.
Unfortunately, the game's puzzle fall short of the precedent set by its entertaining platforming and combat. For the most part, its because of needless gimmicks built solely to capitalize on the Vita's touch controls. You'll be stopped fairly often in order to do mundane tasks such as making charcoal rubbings (done simply by swiping your finger across the touchscreen), or cleaning dirt off of an artifact (done by swiping back touchpad). Not only are these small interruptions devoid of fun in their own right, but they can be detrimental to the snappy pacing the game shoots for. One segment early in the game breaks up well-crafted cutscene no less than three times for these throwaway uses of the Vita's tech. The game's major puzzles are certainly better, but they still aren't all that great, and often feel like just as intrusive a stop as the aforementioned touch screen gimmicks. On the whole, these segments feel so archaic and unrewarding that it's hard to wonder why they're there in the first place.
Continuing the game's detrimental use of touch controls are the few dragged-out quicktime events that show up towards the end of the game. These moments are essentially fill-ins for boss encounters, but are handled extremely poorly due to their unnecessary length and difficulty. They probably would've been more fun to watch as cut-scenes than play as exercises in frustration.
Setpiece moments are practically the lifeblood of the Uncharted series, and even though technological limitations keep the game from showing off huge moments like a cargo plane wreck or a collapsing building, Golden Abyss still features plenty of great moments that spice things up. There are a few adrenaline-pumping chase sequences, an on-rails shooting sequence, and some pretty massive environments to behold. Nothing comes close to being as breathtaking as the console entries' most impressive segments, but there's some surprising moments to be found nonetheless.
Though Uncharted games have always featured a bunch of collectibles hidden throughout their respective environments, the staggering number of hidden goodies in Golden Abyss is almost intimidating. There are well over 100 secret artifacts, gemstones, bounties, and photo opportunities in the game, and while most people may not feel the need to track down all of them, they can certainly pad the 12 hour playtime significantly.
On a presentational level, Golden Abyss is pretty much unparalleled on portable systems. It features great animations, an incredible amount of detail on character models, plenty of expansive and varied environments, and some well done lighting effects. There are few graphical shortcomings to be found; the game uses lame 2D backdrops in place of sprawling vistas when you get to a spot with a nice view, and the particle effects are straight out of 1999. Despite those minor problems, however, Golden Abyss is easily the best looking handheld game on the market, and is more or less on par with early Playstation 3 titles.
The same goes for the game's audio. Whereas the console Uncharted titles benefited from having huge set pieces with which to show off their sound design wizardry, Golden Abyss keeps things relatively basic. Still, the voice-acting is just as great as it always is, and the music is similarly inspired.
Uncharted: Golden Abyss is something of a reluctant killer-app for the Playstation Vita. On one hand, the game looks and sounds incredible, delivers plenty of thrilling moments, and features some great uses of the Vita's many control options. However, there are many more instances of the portable's touch controls being used as throwaway gimmicks that serve to break up the game's pacing and add some unneeded frustration. The game goes to great lengths to get players to realize the Vita's capabilities with widely varying success. Though it is a shame that Sony Bend couldn't exercise a little more restraint in its uses of the Vita's tech, Uncharted: Golden Abyss is still a perfectly worthwhile game that shows off the massive potential behind Sony's latest portable.
+Unparalleled portable presentation
+Great combat that features superb use of the accelerometer
+By far the lengthiest Uncharted game
-Minor graphical flaws
-Gimmicky, adverse use of touch controls