Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Uncharted: Golden Abyss - Golden Abysmal

When the PlayStation Vita was released in February of last year, one of the launch titles was Uncharted: Golden Abyss, the subject of this review. As a PlayStation Plus member, I was able to get a few Vita games for free, which happened to include this one and Gravity Rush. While the release of this game wasn't exactly confidential, I decided to download it, figuring it had potential since I had played the other Uncharted games. Having finally gotten around to playing it (after moving my Gravity Rush save to make room on my ridiculously small memory card), I now think that Golden Abyss is great...as a tech demo.

Some time before the events of Drake's Fortune, Nathan Drake is following a man named Jason Dante to a dig site in Panama. During the trip it is shown that Dante's ropes have been cut, which causes Drake to suspect that the land owner, Roberto Guerro, doesn't want them there. Dante ignores this and presses forward until they get to the site, run by Dante's partner, Marisa Chase. When Dante leaves to discuss matters with Guerro, Chase reveals to Drake that she doesn't trust her "partner" and ends up discovering something significant about the site. The joy of discovery doesn't last long however as it quickly goes sour when Dante reveals that he's not exactly the most trustworthy person on the planet.

Now that looks like a guy you can trust.

Compared with the other Uncharted games, Golden Abyss is a bit lacking in the story department. While there is something interesting in the ultimate search for a Quiviran myth, the pacing is sometimes at odds, with a couple of time skips among some sections that last quite a few chapters (there are 34 in the game overall), all so the game can meet the two weeks present in the in medias res opening. That said, the characters are also a little underdeveloped. Guerro is fueled by a lust for power and Dante is a total asshat who is only concerned with monetary matters, specifically of the gaining kind. Nathan and Victor Sullivan are the only ones who comes off as complete, though that's more likely due to their established relationship in the game's console brethren. Marisa Chase, as the new female lead, is also a little worse for wear. She does have some rather interesting character moments, I'll give her that, but she's more consistently the damsel in distress compared with Elena Fisher and Chloe Frazer. When she's actually at your side however, she's actually a bit useless, having terrible aim (possibly excused by her lack of experience with a gun, but you'd still expect an AI partner to be at least helpful) and otherwise being a dead weight. In the end, the writing is overall pretty weak.

Of course I also need to discuss the gameplay, in which I found quite a few flaws. Since the control layout doesn't have the L2 or R2 buttons, they of course needed to adapt the familiar scheme to work on the handheld and they managed to do that pretty well. It's more akin to Drake's Fortune in that there isn't a whole lot of complexity, but this does allow the design to get pretty much everything in minus the "Look Mode" and change grenade throwing to a system involving the touchscreen wherein a tap of the icon will throw it toward the center of the screen but dragging the icon allows for more precise throws. In this sense, Golden Abyss works very well and makes it easy to get into the game.

Where it fails however is in the alternate control scheme, which actually runs simultaneously with the one I described. Confused? Allow me to explain. The alternate scheme includes the use of the touch screen, gyroscope and rear touch pad to navigate and aim. Touching a ledge while climbing or swiping (described as "painting") the ledges will make Drake automatically make his way there, which is actually pretty useful and I'd mix it up with real skill at times, but it still comes across as something introduced for the smartphone crowd. Then there's using the rear touchpad for zooming with a camera or sniper rifle, the latter of which was most annoying since not only are there times when you're pretty much required to use the gun, but the way my hands grip the Vita naturally puts my fingers on the pad, so my aim keeps changing unless I hold the system by the edges; not exactly convenient. Sometimes a sidebar also pops up on screen when there is an action you can perform, which works well until you need to use a turret. Until I knew exactly how to have my thumb on the right stick (admittedly the grip would be better of the sticks were concave but I do manage to make it work in the end), my thumb would keep pressing the exact part of the screen with the turret icon, exiting me from the turret and forcing me to work out how to keep my thumb down properly.

This is not natural!

The other great annoyance was the use of the gyroscope to aim, which I saw described on a forum as basically fine-tuning your aim after you use the right analog stick. My issue with this? I already know how to aim pretty well and I'm pretty sure that I know where I want my shot to be. The extra "fine-tuning" that the gyroscope may provide actually threw me off, causing me to turn off the feature to prevent further annoyance down the road. Because aiming was also pretty slow (especially when using the camera), I also had to increase the sensitivity to maximum just so it would be more expedient to aim before shooting. This is significant for me, since I never turn off or adjust options before doing a review, with the exception of turning on subtitles so I can better understand what someone is saying and better remember what's going on (as a result I'm annoyed when a modern game doesn't have a subtitle option, but I never address this for fear of coming off as nitpicking).

Melee is also pretty bad, since it's always three hits with the Square button, or alternatively three taps of the punch icon, and then one or two swipes on the screen. I didn't exactly enjoy this, since it made it rather monotonous and it was sometimes easy for the game to fail at recognizing my strokes. This is greatly disappointing, since the melee in Drake's Deception was absolutely amazing to the point where I actually made it part of my combat repertoire, and considering that this game came out after Drake's Deception, they could have altered the controls to better match this (then again I'm not exactly an expert on game development aside form the fact that maybe they were already too far gone in their decisions, so you can probably take that with a grain of salt).

When the extra features of the Vita aren't used in combat however, they are used elsewhere. For one, you cannot navigate menus except by touch, mirroring the Vita's main menu, which I think is a bad call considering my first instinct with any game is to navigate menus with the d-pad and make selections with the action buttons, not figuring out how to touch things and getting annoyed when I didn't make the exact motion needed in the exact spot (you can probably tell by this point that I'm not the kind of guy who plays a whole lot of smartphone games, though this is justified by me having an outdated "dumb phone" if you will). Touching the screen is also required for picking up treasures by using the sidebar, though I would have preferred the more expedient use of an action button. The sidebar also has other opportunities for more collectibles, including charcoal rubbing that requires you to rub the screen, which I actually thought was a pretty fun thing. Sadly, the screen/pad combo is used for rubbing an object clean, though this isn't for collectibles so much as it is for something that would advance the story; it's also used for observing objects for certain details, but I have no real way of determining how I get 100% at that stuff.

Not that bad, all things considered.

Then we have the design of the puzzles, which does everything in its power to make sure you use that touchscreen, because all of them do in some fashion. This includes opening locks by turning a dial (and having the characters explain how to do it every single time), moving items on a board (and making me wonder how Drake can do these amazing feats of strength) and reforming an image with torn pieces of paper through such an orientation that I had to turn my Vita on its side...like a smartphone. On top of this there is one puzzle that requires a light source hitting the camera, but since my house isn't the brightest, my brother had to a hold a flashlight under the system to prevent me from accidentally blinding myself on a super-bright bulb while still letting me see the end result. In the end I'd consider the puzzles, for lack of better words, uninspired.

Equally uninspired is the level design. It feels pretty safe without some of the complexities of the console games. Uncharted is also known for its action set pieces, and while there are a couple of great ones here, there weren't enough to keep me interested throughout the campaign. It also doesn't help that there aren't as many environments, though they are impressively detailed, and some might defend this by saying that the system has limitations, but I believe that if God of War: Ghost of Sparta could have amazing and more varied environments, and that was a PSP game for crying out loud, then SCE Bend Studio could have done better.

Actually pretty impressive.

One thing I can still praise this game for would be its voice acting, which is actually pretty good and shows how good the actors, especially Nolan North, can be, no matter how flat their characters are. The sounds were also on par with the console games and the music is actually pretty decent, if not exactly on par.

As a side note, you can also now, thanks to a patch, collect and power up cards for another Uncharted game called Fight for Fortune, a card game which I have no interest in playing, but I still felt was worth mentioning.

In the end, Uncharted: Golden Abyss is a game that's just okay. It's definitely not as good as the ones on PS3 thanks to not only an uninteresting narrative, but also some poorly executed features that manage to negate a portion of the good features present. I'd recommend this to fans of Uncharted, but only on the grounds that they really want to drop money on something this average. If you're not an Uncharted fan or willing to drop however much it costs, then you're much better off downloading it for free with a PlayStation Plus account. Even then, I can't guarantee that you'll enjoy the adventure.

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