Uncharted: Golden Abyss (Vita)  

SCREENSHOTS AREN’T IMPORTANT

Uncharted: Golden Abyss is a bad game.

That doesn’t mean the animation is bad, although characters’ eyes do look kind of funny. The music and voice acting aren’t bad, either. Golden Abyss is a respectable resume entry for the audiovisual team. It’s the design team who botched this one.

On the surface, this game follows the Uncharted formula. You explore and climb through scenic linear stages, then you have a shooting scene. And don’t forget the intrusive cutscenes! An Uncharted game with unfettered gameplay simply wouldn’t be an Uncharted game. Now imagine putting all of that on a portable. There’s no reason the exploration scenes should be bad (they are — more on that in a moment), but there’s a reason the FPS never took off on the PSP. And they won’t take off on Vita, either. The screen is simply too small for scoring headshots or picking off distant targets. Uncharted: Golden Abyss is loaded with distant targets, and they’re often placed behind obstacles, just like in a console shooter. But this isn’t a console shooter; it’s a portable game with imprecise aiming. Golden Abyss’s designers clearly didn’t consider the limitations of the system.

Now, about those exploration scenes: instead of pressing buttons or moving the analog stick, you can just draw a line on the screen with your finger and Nathan Drake will automatically climb across sheer rock walls like Spider-Man. Fewer button presses was the last thing that the Uncharted series needed! Players who want some actual challenge and don’t abuse the new touch controls will be disappointed to discover that invisible walls protect us from failure. If a game expects me to leap onto rocks to cross a river, that’s one thing; if it’s impossible to lose my footing and plunge into the water, then it isn’t even a game anymore. It’s just a movie where you keep pressing “X”. (Disclaimer: In some scenes, you can actually plummet to your doom. In others, you can’t. Hurray for consistency!)

Dead or Alive Paradise’s pool-hopping is more complex than Uncharted: Golden Abyss.
In Paradise, you can actually fall into the water.

Golden Abyss’s designers didn’t just screw up the concept of walking through linear stages. Here’s what else they got wrong:

1) They brought back motion control. Remember in the first Uncharted, how you had to walk across logs while tilting the Dualshock back and forth to keep your balance? That part sucked and Naughty Dog wisely killed it in the sequels. This game’s designers have resurrected Naughty Dog’s bad ideas. Except here you’re not just tilting the controller, but the whole screen. For example, there’s a raging rapids scene where you have to tilt the Vita left and right to avoid rocks, so you don’t even get to admire the awesome water effects.

2) They botched the concept of looking at items. Yes, that’s right, the Golden Abyss team screwed up ITEM VIEWING. While exploring, Nathan Drake occasionally finds an old tablet, and you have to rub your finger all over it to remove dirt and get a good look. Then Nathan finds a Spanish helmet, and you have to rub your finger all over it to remove dirt and get a good look. Then Nathan finds a legendary sword, and you have to rub your finger all over it to remove dirt and get a good look. The last thing I want to do with my awesome high-res Vita screen is rub my finger all over it just to accomplish the worthless goal of 100% DIRT REMOVAL (required to progress in the game).

3) They included stupid touchscreen “mini-games”. There are bamboo-slicing scenes that are kind of like Fruit Ninja (ugh), except without any challenge (double ugh). An even dumber example is the combination lock “mini-game”. Golden Abyss doesn’t actually expect you to know how a combination lock works . . . your buddy verbally guides you through the whole process with “turn it clockwise to the first number” and “now turn it the other way to the second number”. This isn’t challenging, and it certainly isn’t fun — this is a waste of time. How about just letting me shoot off the locks like I did in Uncharted 2? That would be quicker and a hell of a lot manlier.

4) They further waste my time with jigsaw puzzles. These (simplistic) puzzles are scattered throughout the game, and you have to use the touchscreen to assemble all the pieces. This includes rotating each piece before moving it into position. This sucks. If I wanted a jigsaw puzzle, I’d buy that awesome one I saw in Japan of Mari Illustrious Makinami in her pink plugsuit. I sure as hell wouldn’t buy a puzzle of a map.

One of these jigsaw puzzles is cooler than the other.

5) They impose touchscreen combat on players. In previous Uncharted games, you could gun a few people down and then run over to physically beat up other foes. This concept worked — after all, both types of combat used the buttons that were underneath your fingers. In Golden Abyss, physical combat is performed by — surprise! — rubbing your finger across the Vita’s awesome high-res screen. In other words, not by using buttons that are already underneath your fingers. This is madness; Sony Bend Studio has made combat more cumbersome simply because they wanted to flaunt the Vita’s touchscreen. Hey, design team? The eight-year-old Nintendo DS has a touchscreen, too. You’re not impressing anyone.

6) They relied on follow-the-leader level design. Many levels — all the way into the end chapters — have Nathan following behind one friend or another. Joe Musashi didn’t get a guided tour through New York city when he fought ninjas and lizardmen in Shadow Dancer . . . but Nathan Drake isn’t smart enough to climb a rope unless he’s seen someone else do it first. This is an annoying reversal of the infamous “escort mission” concept, and it made me feel like I was being led through the level, instead of enjoying it at my own pace.

Bombs are exploding all around me! I follow the leader. The game makes me swipe my finger across the touchscreen to climb a wall! I follow the leader. The bridge is collapsing! I follow the leader.

Sony Bend Studio was hyped in marketing materials as “award-winning” because of their work on the Syphon Filter series, but their new game is lousy. Devs: get a clue and learn that producing nice audiovisuals doesn’t make you good. Half of Uncharted: Golden Abyss is a poor shooter. The other half is a glorified iPhone game, and contrary to popular investor belief, mobile games are not the future. I also have to wonder what kind of oversight Naughty Dog provided here. Did they even realize they were credited with overseeing this game? Uncharted: Golden Abyss makes both studios look bad. Coming on the heels of the disappointing third episode, it’s clear to me that the Uncharted series has fallen into the . . .

. . . abyss.