rating:4.5Having now spent two weeks in the company of my own PS Vita, and the eleven or so launch titles I have had the privilege of spending some time with, the time has now come to offer some concrete thoughts on those games, starting with probably the biggest draw of all to the console. The Uncharted franchise has been phenomenally successful on the PS3, with Drake's Deception roundly heralded as one of the finest (if not the crowning achievement) of last year's gaming market, and the decision to launch the Vita with a fourth title, set some time before Drake's Fortune was a no-brainer for Sony. After all, Uncharted is arguably Sony's flag-ship exclusive title, and there can be little doubt that the weight of expectation attached to the launch of the Vita can rest easily on Nathan Drake's shoulders, even if there will be some who complain that there hasn't been enough water under the bridge since Drake's Deception landed on shelves at the end of the Autumn just gone. Following the trend of its fellow franchise titles, Golden Abyss is a remarkably cinematic title: cut-scenes feature heavily, but are so well executed and involving that the need to skip is almost completely over-ridden by a desire to see the advancement of the game's narrative elements. This time out Nathan Drake finds himself in the middle of a quest to uncover the 400 year old mystery of a massacre of Spanish soldiers in Central America, at the same time caught between his old friend Jason Dante and Marisa Chase, the grandaughter of a mysteriously missing archeologist. And for the first time, Bend have made the decision to reward expositionary viewing, as players can collect treasure spotted during cut-scenes, so best not to skip them, even when the mythology gets a little uneven.
The Central American setting allows for some exceptional level design, and the Vita's impressive processing power lets the jungles and temples shine with incredible detail. The environments are certainly a little familiar, and the designs are far from open-world, but there is certainly more than enough variation on the familiar themes to make the old feel, if not exactly new, then as entertaining as if it were new. If there was any doubt that Bend Studios wouldn't be able to take the pressure of taking the reigns from original developer Naughty Dog, the experience of playing the game will put an end to them all. The transition is almost seamless: the story is perfectly Drakean, the environments precisely like those we have seen in Uncharted before and the essence of the game fundamentally feels authentic - there is no absence of spirit like there can be when a movie franchise changes director, or a game franchise changes development homes. And familiarity is a strong string to have to your bow when it comes to a brand new console platform: because the Vita feels largely familiar in the hands of any who have ever picked up a PS2 or PS3 controller (in terms of button lay-out anyway), the experience of controlling a familiar face on a new machine is not at all jarring. Drake's action-set is similarly familiar - as always he can run, scramble, climb and swing, and his behaviours in combat remain the same. What is different is the control set that dictates how each behaviour is managed. For those more comfortable with the familiar, every action has a traditional command - X to jump, O to duck into cover, R to shoot - and it is possible to get through most of the game's core gameplay without letting the Vita to flex its muscles. But though they remain optional, Bend have also included touch-screen command alternatives that let the player take advantage of both the front and rear touchpads. At first it's easy to forget that capability exists, but the on-screen prompts and the natural frequency of the touch-pad enabled sequences do help change the way you play, and as such Golden Abyss will play a fundamentally important role for those who chose it as their launch title to buy with the console. They will no doubt feel more at ease with the new set-up, which develops comfort through a mix of optional and compulsory touch-pad commands.
New features like touch-screen artefact inspection and charcoal rubbings add something new to the archeology side of things, without feeling too gimmicky, and the close combat system which requires matching a set of prompts to defeat foes actually adds a new level of immediacy to those situations that I hadn't felt since the last time I held a whole new controller in my hands. And in the rubbing in particular, and also in the bamboo-chopping machete moments the prompted touch screen commands add a further level to the secrets and collectible side of things. There's also a whole new camera system, which encourages the player to find pre-determined Glory Shots, matching ones offered as ideal by the game's developers with Drake's own camera, using a mixture of touch screen zooming and button-work. It can get slightly frustrating when your own offerings are only matching the ideal 95% no matter what you do, but I'm all for the kind of frustration that makes you want to come back and replay towards perfection. All of these new flourishes ensure that what could otherwise have been an overly cliched adventure game has more than enough new life breathed into it to justify the cover price, and the best thing that can be said about Golden Abyss is that it never feels like a dilluted hand-held variant of a "proper" console game. Mighty fine work, when you consider it was made by Bend, and not by Naughty Dog.
Uncharted: Golden Abyss is available to buy on PS Vita now.