Let's get three commonly asked Uncharted: Golden Abyss questions out of the way. This is set before the events of the first game, there's no multiplayer, and it doesn't suck (although it's not on the level of the PlayStation 3 entries in the franchise).
Uncharted: Golden Abyss once again puts us in the half-tucked shirt of treasure hunter Nathan Drake. This time, an old friend named Dante needs help identifying some relics in Central America, a beautiful woman named Chase gets involved, and somehow we end up on the trail of a lost civilization. Oh, and there's also this dude who dresses like Fidel Castro.
Historically, this franchise's greatest strengths are characters and storytelling; gameplay takes a backseat. This outing -- the first Uncharted from Sony's Bend Studio -- flips that. The core gameplay is still the same climbing, shimmying and third-person gunplay, but the developers toss in a bunch of additions that make Drake feel more like an adventurer than ever before.
This could all play out with Drake just walking to shiny objects and us pressing a button, but gathering all these goodies actually uses the PlayStation Vita's unique features. You'll rub the touch screen to clean dirt off objects, drag and spin pieces of paper to reassemble a torn map, and use the rear touchpad to zoom in and out with the camera and nab the shot Nate needs.
I'm pretty anti-motion controls and usually against goofy gimmicks, but I loved doing this stuff in Uncharted: Golden Abyss. Not knowing what I'd use the Vita for next excited me. Even cutscenes have treasures hidden on desks and cabinets, so I had to be ready to tap and collect.
In Uncharted 3, it never made sense that Drake would crawl over to get a trinket when Sully's life was on the line. Here, Drake's wearing a backpack and seems genuinely interested in finding historical evidence. It's a new layer to the character that makes Golden Abyss feel more like a game in some ways than the Uncharteds that have come before. But that's not to say Golden Abyss is the best Uncharted game. While the majority of the touch gameplay entertained me, the forced touch screen swipes annoyed me.
See, you can use the touch screen for a variety of actions in Uncharted: Golden Abyss. You can tap enemies to melee them, trace paths for Drake to climb and touch your gun to reload. However, all of that is optional. If you like the traditional buttons that make all that happen, you can stick with them and ignore the Vita options. But that's not the case for every touch control. When you're fist-fighting, you're going to have to swipe the screen to counter enemy moves. When you want Drake to machete through vines, you have to trace an onscreen "Z." And even when you want to pry open doors, you have to do three forced swipes.
These are major turnoffs for me. Each time I came to a forced swipe, the action grinded to a halt and giant arrows popped up on the screen before I was treated to really stiff, awkward animations, something Uncharted has never been known for. These are the unintuitive gimmicks that make me roll my eyes and suck me out of the experience.
Luckily, forced swipes aren't around every corner, and the regular Uncharted gameplay shines through. I enjoy the platforming and third-person shooting, but I do wish the improvements we've seen in the series made the portable jump. Nate can't throw back enemy grenades like he can in last fall's Uncharted 3, and the enemies are dumb in Golden Abyss. There were times goons would take "cover" even though it clearly left the side Drake was shooting at unprotected.
Still, like I said, the gameplay is the standout here, and not the story or the characters. The problem with the story this time is that it just keeps jumping around. Nate starts by helping Dante, then by helping Chase and then it just keeps going. The end goal isn't exposed until very late in the game, so I was just playing to play for what seemed like most of the title. In the same boat, the performances of Nolan North as Drake and the rest of the cast are great, but I never fell in love with Dante and Chase like I did Sully and Elena in the PS3 games. Without a connection to them, the title is just a game rather than a story.
Part of Golden Abyss feeling more like a game than an Uncharted experience can be attributed to the game's 34 chapters looking a lot alike. Uncharted: Golden Abyss is set in the jungles of Central America, and that's it. There's no globetrotting to snowy mountains or desert landscapes; it's green and leafy the entire ride. Visually, that's beautiful. The graphics are on par with the first Uncharted on PS3 with my only complaints being eyes and hair not looking great and a noticeable halo around drake in certain spots. This is truly a great example of what the Vita's OLED screen can do, but even great graphics can get mundane if nothing's shaking up the color palette.
I don't mean to sound like I'm being hypercritical of Uncharted: Golden Abyss. The game is great and an impressive launch title for the PlayStation Vita. It's just that the Uncharted series has been known for being a story-driven experience, and Golden Abyss goes in another direction. It's a beautiful, fun game with tons of collectibles, plenty of laughs, and some cool twists on a franchise PlayStation fans know so well. It's just not an instant classic like the other entries in the series. Still, not too shabby for Sony Bend's first crack at the Uncharted legacy.