Game Review: Uncharted: Golden Abyss

Platform: PlayStation Vita

Style: 1-Player Action

Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment

Developer: Sony Bend Studio

Release: Feb. 22

ESRB: T

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Concept: This prequel adds touchscreen gameplay to the "Uncharted" formula while giving gamers a lengthy Central American adventure.

Graphics: There are some subtle differences, but this can stand beside the PS3 games. It's the best-looking handheld game ever made by a long margin.

Sound: The voice acting, score, and ambient sound is top-notch.

Playability: The basic controls work just fine, but all of the new camera and touch controls seem gimmicky and tacked on.

Entertainment: This game spends a lot of time trying to add new gameplay to "Uncharted," and in the process fails to deliver the truly epic moments that I expect from the series.

Replay Value: Moderately Low

The Bottom Line: 8/10

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"Uncharted" is one of my favorite series of this generation. Based on what I'd seen of Sony's new handheld, I was confident it was powerful enough to deliver a true "Uncharted" experience. In some ways, "Golden Abyss" lives up to my expectations and in some other important ones, it fails.

Let's start with the positives. "Golden Abyss" is visually stunning. Sony Bend clearly has a good handle on the Vita hardware, and delivers with graphics that are nearly indistinguishable from the PlayStation 3 games. You might notice some small differences in the facial animations, but when shrunk down to the Vita's small, vivid screen they are hardly worth talking about. I never thought I'd see handheld graphics like this in my lifetime.

The lengthy adventure delivers on most of the basics that longtime fans expect from the "Uncharted" series. Platforming, puzzle solving and gunplay are all found in abundance. However, if you've had frustrations with the series' gun mechanics in the past, those complaints are now magnified by the loose feeling of the Vita's analog sticks. I recommend tweaking the aiming sensitivity in the options menu just a bit higher than the default setting.

The plot a?" which is set prior to the original "Uncharted" a?" is the usual faux-Indiana Jones boilerplate, with Drake, love interest Marisa Chase and obnoxious New Jersey-bred treasure hunter Jason Dante exploring ancient ruins in Panama in search of the secret behind an ancient Spanish religious sect. A military dictator named Roberto Guerrero makes the quest a bit more challenging.

As a prequel, most of the characters you're familiar with are missing (save for a fourth-quarter appearance by a beloved regular), so "Golden Abyss" feels slightly disconnected from the rest of the series. The dialogue also isn't as well written as usual (there's a running bit using the "that's what she said" joke that is particularly bad), which isn't surprising since Naughty Dog and lead writer Amy Hennig weren't as closely involved in this game. Drake and Marisa generate some genuine chemistry, but overall "Golden Abyss" left me cold. I was also disappointed that, perhaps due to technical constraints, the game takes place entirely in Panama, robbing it of the epic, globetrotting feel that was so crucial to "Uncharted 2 and 3."

Sony Bend clearly intended for the game to be a showcase of the Vita's unique hardware functionality, implementing a raft of touchscreen, camera and tilt-sensor gameplay to mixed results. You use the touchscreen heavily in puzzle solving and the acquiring of artifacts. Common examples include using the touchscreen to take charcoal rubbings of symbols on various totems you find or cleaning off dirt from items you find. It's neat the first couple times you do it, but grows tedious. You can use the touchscreen for more basic gameplay as well, like rubbing the back touch panel to climb a rope or trace your path along a series of handholds while platforming. Most of the time, I found myself reverting to the traditional mechanics since the touch didn't add much to the experience. The worst new feature is the ability to "aim" your gun with the front-facing camera, which barely works at all. The touch controls also mar the hand-to-hand combat in the form of "swiping" quick-time events that you use to pull off special moves in a fistfight. This is a step back from "Uncharted 3's" hand-to-hand mechanics, which were the best in the series to date. I also grew tired of having to use the tilt sensor to balance Drake whenever he traversed a log or walkway.

It's easy to ignore these new gameplay gimmicks, but I can't help but wonder if they came at a price. For one, all these new mechanics must be introduced to the player, which means that instead of kicking off with an explosive action set piece, "Golden Abyss" forces you through a host of tutorials. This gets at my real misgiving about the game; it fails to deliver the big moments I've come to expect from the series.

"Uncharted" has never been a game about mechanics. At best, its platforming and gunplay have been competent a?" a means to an end. The series hooked me because it consistently delivers jaw-dropping moments. Here, the action is divided between standard platforming and simple "shoot your way in, shoot your way out" tomb raiding. Not a single sequence here would make my list of all-time "Uncharted" moments.

That's a shame, because there's much to recommend here. For the first time, you can play a handheld game with the scale and production values of a home console title. The base level of craftsmanship on display in "Golden Abyss" means you'll get your money's worth but not a penny more. I wish all the perspiration expelled in making the game was complemented by more inspiration.

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