I’ve just completed Uncharted: Golden Abyss, and while I was taking it on easy mode to make treasure hunting easier, all throughout the final chapters I’ve had sweaty hands. Thankfully, the PS Vita is not like my Win Phone, because when I get sweaty hands while gaming with my phone, that sucker is like a bar of soap in a bubble bath. I digress, I was taking the game easy to ensure that I could collect all the little artifacts and statues hidden in each level, and so I could take photos of…but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Before I really begin, I want to warn y’all that this is a LONG review. Some game reviews are like “It had pretty graphics, and I shot some stuff. It was great! I give it a 9.5!” But I’m a blabber mouth, and I want to talk about more than just the game play and graphics. I will cover those, and favorably in most cases. But I also want to talk about the story, which wasn’t so hot in several places. I will try to avoid spoilers, though, so you folks who haven’t played yet won’t feel cheated.
So, moving on, not having played any of the PS3 Uncharted titles, this is my first entry into the world of Nathan Drake. Drake is a brash treasure hunter who fancies himself as a “nice guy.” That he’s a tomb raider and a killer with a bigger trail of bodies than some horror movie monsters is somehow not important to this nice guy presentation. But I actually kind of like this because he’s not a completely good guy. No one in this game is truly good, except perhaps Marisa Chase, but I had more problems with her story than with anyone else in the game. More on her later.
The story opens on a prologue chapter, using a sequence that you’ll also play later in the game. In the prologue, the treasures and other objectives are removed to create a tutorial level about working the controls. This is where you first get used to the platforming and combat aspects of the game, and where you learn how to use the touch screen for interaction. Now, on my phone, touch gestures are sometimes iffy. I’ll swipe the screen for a jump, for instance, and have no response from the game. But there was never a time where I got tripped up by simple swipes to accomplish some goal in the game. The only time it tripped me up was when it wanted something like a curvy Z or figure four shape drawn, and that happened because my thumb gestures were too clumsy. So I had to let go of the unit on one side to use my finger. Thankfully, all of these complex swipes take place when you’re not in danger, and they don’t have to be done fast. They also aren’t life or death swipes. When those happen, you usually need swipe straight up, or to the side. It’s like quicktime events, but with a screen gesture instead of a button press.
The thing about this game that really pulled me in was the graphics, and the emphasis on jungle-choked temples is so exotic and beautiful that I sometimes walked right off a cliff because I was looking at the mountains and waterfalls in the distance, and not the ground right in front of poor Nate. This however, is not a complaint, more like an observation that the game is pretty to the point of distraction. There’s so many pretty places in this game that after you clear an area of threats and treasures, you may just walk around to admire the view.
Most of the story is revealed as you play, but there are several mystery subplots that you unlock by finding clues, or by taking photos. For instance, to sort out what happened to the mining company that got ran off by guerillas, you collect items like a GPS with a bullet hole in it, or take a picture of a mining company truck. And then other times, you’ll find a torn up document and have to piece it together like a puzzle. The touch interface here really shines, and I LOVED the larger puzzles whenever I was given one. Given my love of puzzle games and jigsaw puzzles, I may be biased. Thus, your mileage may vary.
Another touch screen-based part of the game is finding faded stones and taking charcoal rubbings. These can be damned hard to collect in some chapters, but the reward of finding that one last rubbing after replaying the level a few times is extra special. Lastly, some artifacts you collect will be covered in dust, and you use the front screen to wipe the object clean while you use the back touch panel to move the object. This too was something I enjoyed, but not quite as much as the puzzles.
The platforming is nice whether you use the screen for input or the dual sticks. I did note that in some places, my thumb sticks went wonky, and I had to switch to the touch screen and tilt-axis gestures to navigate these tight spots. But I think these were a glitch made by the tricky camera angles. The game uses a combination of chase cameras that follow the character and fixed angles during certain scenes. Sometimes this is a trick used to hide treasures or the entrances to secret areas. On this point, I’m not so fond of the game because I had to jump out of the game’s action movie pace on every level to run around in circles looking for all the extra artifacts.
Briefly bringing up the tilt controls again, there’s a recurring situation where Nate must cross a beam, and then loses his balance. This, of all the added goodies, felt pointless to me, and I’ve felt the same way when games ask me to wiggle a stick to maintain my balance. It doesn’t really add any sense of immersion, and since it gets overused so badly, I end up being pleasantly surprised on the one or two beams or logs where the game doesn’t make me slip to use the tilt axis to balance again.
Another aspect of the game is taking photos as evidence, and you use the back touch panel to control the zoom. These pictures are supposed to match up with the samples in your journal, and if you’re graded badly on a photo, you have to retake it. You can touch the little stamp of an image to get a larger black and white preview of what your photo should look like, so you aren’t flying blind. For the most part, I found getting the right position and zoom level were easy, and I liked the addition of taking photos of the game’s various locations. I just wish the “sweet spot” that causes the camera icon on the right hand side of the screen to pop up was a leeeetle bit bigger. You HAVE to hit these spots to find the right place to take a photo, and it’s all too easy to run right past the right spot, or to circle around it without actually hitting your mark. You can’t just enter camera mode on your own, or those pics will get added to you journal as being unrelated to the mission objectives, even if the picture you take looks dead on balls accurate to the B&W reference photo. (That’s a scientific term, by the way.)
And in between all this item collecting, photo-scrapbooking, and platforming are the combat sequences. You carry whatever guns that Nate’s opponents drops, which offers you a range of machine and sub-machine guns, handguns, and shotguns. You also get to chuck grenades, and you use the touch screen to direct where they land. In later levels, you get a few nicer toys to blow shit up with, or an electric chain-gun that mows down even armored enemies like a weed-eater passing over green grass, but these are only offered in a few places. I like that, though. If you could use the RPG just anywhere, why would you bother picking up any handguns? There’s also a handgun that launches grenades, and you only get to use that twice in the whole game. But when you can, oh, what a satisfying weapon. Oh, and then there’s the sniper rifle, with the zoom feature tied to the rear touch panel just like the zoom on the camera. Normally, I’m not a fan of sniper rifles, but the improved aim I got from motion controls, plus the simplified zoom controls, made every chance to snipe into a fun challenge.
Almost from the start of chapter 1, guerrilla fighters are shooting at you, and your first “guide” Dante has a lot to do with that. His hired guards have angered a local warlord, “Generale” Roberto Guerro, a deposed dictator who continues to operate a resistance movement in the jungle. Guerro is a nasty guy, someone who likes to use fear to control his people. So during the first parts of the game he makes Nate and Dante look good by comparison. Dante quickly proves that he’s also a scummy dude, and this comparison again leaves Nate smelling like a rose. (Even if Nate is a bit of a dickhead.)
Dante introduces Nate to Marisa Chase, or just Chase, as she’s called throughout the game. This is fitting, because her name is pretty much her only role in the game until the very last chapters. And here is where I have to stop and complain. People, do y’all remember when we used to have games where there was a male and female, and you chose which one to play? Like in Resident Evil, where the two characters are split up, and each got a slightly different story? Man, I loved those games that let me play as a woman who is equal to the male hero.
Well these days, women in a lot of games have been reduced to a lower status as sidekicks to the male heroes. Now please note, I’m not saying the formula can’t work, or that it shouldn’t be used. I gave a positive review to Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, and one of the games I’m anticipating this year, The Last of Us, (Also developed by Naughty Dog, who developed the Uncharted franchise. (Golden Abyss is actually made by Bend Sony, for those wondering.)) will also use this companion method of storytelling. But I don’t really like when these games turn the “little woman” into a panicking idiot who NEEDS a man to always save her. I had the same complaint about the two times Trip did it in Enslaved, and Chase becomes an extraordinary idiot many, many times in the game. So you will literally spend a lot of time chasing Chase, and picking off soldiers from around her before they can run up and strangle her. Yes, they have guns, but they prefer murdering women with their bare hands. No clue why. I suspect a man in charge of the story thought this was heightening tension, but I just found it irritating.
To be clear, Uncharted tries to break up this “rescue the woman” stuff by pairing Nate with male sidekicks, but he’s usually rescuing them too, and during one sequence where you’re partnered with Dante, you’re STILL having to save Chase from a horde of soldiers. You have always have to save Chase because Chase won’t use guns.
*Slight Spoiler* This ADAMANT stance also leads to the worst part of the story during the final levels, when Chase picks up a freakin’ Desert Eagle hand cannon and starts shooting guys with Nate. Her accuracy was way better than either of the men I’d been paired with, and twice, her sniping with the handgun saved my life. BUT, this is a problem in writing because Chase has never handled any firearms, and suddenly she’s Sly Stallone? WTF? About the only attempt the writer makes to balance this out is Chase commenting, “My hands feel like they’re about to fall off!” Yes, but isn’t it amazing that no one had to warn her about the kick of a large caliber handgun, or give her lessons about squeezing the trigger instead of jerking it? She just takes to a hand cannon like Paul Atreides took to the ways of the Fremen. GASP! Maybe Chase is the Kwisatz Haderach!
Anywho, the story brings in another character mid-game, Sully, who I assume Uncharted fans already know. He reminded me a lot of the actor Stacy Keach, and his role can be summed as “old man who makes a lot of ‘that’s what she said’ jokes. When I was “forced” to leave Sully behind near the end of the game, I gotta admit, I didn’t miss him that much. Sure, as a sidekick, Sully is an improvement over Dante, but that’s like saying dog shit tastes slightly better than cat shit. Either way, it’s still shit. I kid, but yeah, Sully’s sexism was grating after five minutes, and I had to put up with him for a few hours.
Since I’m complaining, I may also point out how everyone in Guerro’s Columbian army speaks fluent but accented English, even when talking to each other. Guerro only briefly speaks Spanish, and once Nate reveals that he knows Spanish, Guerro reverts back to English. I need to point this out because I had subtitles turned on for my game, and every time some dude spoke in accented English, and I kept wondering, “Would it have killed them to hire a voice Spanish speaking actors to improve the realism a little bit?” It’s not like they couldn’t use subtitles to translate, since subtitles are a part of the game already without being obtrusive or distracting.
I should hit on Dante, who Nate claims is a gambler who needs to pay off his bookie. Yet Dante is filthy rich, so much so that he can hire a small army, arm them with the best gear, and rent helicopters for transport. He’s so fucking rich, you have to wonder why he’s wasting his time hanging out in a jungle shack looking for ancient treasures. I know that rich people are never rich enough, but I find it highly unlikely that a guy this well heeled is also a low-life thug with a Jersey accent. It’s a HUGE contradiction in character, so Dante often threw me out of the “flow” of the story for being so unbelievable.
And regardless of which companion you’re traveling with, their REAL purpose in the game is to push you to “hurry up and keep going,” so that you will guaranteed finish every level with most treasures, photos, and clues missing. The game also tries to get cute by putting a treasure right on top of the trigger for a cut scene, and once the scene is done, fuck you, gamer. You have to go back and replay the level to get back to this one spot. And you may have to do this several times before you sort out how to avoid triggering the cut scene until after you’ve completed your scavenger hunt.
Now just stop and think about how stupid this really is. “Yeah, General Guerro, I see you right over there holdin’ a gun to Dante’s head, and I’ma let you finish. But first, I just wanna climb this cliff side to explore for some turquoise, and then maybe snap a picture or two behind you. You won’t mind just standing there doing nothing for ten minutes, will you?” And he really doesn’t mind. That’s a metric fuckton of stupid. (Like dead on balls accurate, a metric fuckton is also a scientific term.)
And finally, there’s Nate, whose pithy comments reveal a lot of ignorance and privilege on his part. He’s not opposed to making a fat joke here and there, and the people in Guerro’s army are called brats, idiots, and losers, without Nate ever once acknowledging the impoverished conditions that all these men live in. This is even more pathetic because many of the chapters take him throughout the soldiers’ compounds, so it should be obvious to see how their loyalty to Guerro is impoverished desperation. These are hungry, angry men who may have valid reasons for their outrage. Yet, Nate, great scholar and detective, can’t sniff out the blindingly obvious. So yeah, he said some ignorant things throughout the game that made me so mad, I walked Nate off the nearest cliff intentionally. Okay, like I said, I’m cool with him not being a good guy, but his bullshit does get a little grating when he’s trying to cast himself as a “nice guy.” Nate Drake ain’t no nice guy, and the only people who would agree with him are other “nice guys.” Which I think is enough said about that.
The thing is, this whole game was written on a stale Hollywood formula, the Indiana Jones model. So there has to be a pretty and helpless female for the hero to woo. The hero is always right, even if he’s a privileged white guy in a foreign country killing brown people indiscriminately. Every few jumps, the game has to add a slip or something to add an element of illusory danger. The whole plot is one long cliché after another, so if you’re looking for originality, this is not that great a game. Also, you know how some video games overuse the word fuck to establish who’s a badass? Well this game doesn’t do that…no, they just drop a shit bomb instead. At a certain point, I would have liked a fuck added here and there, just to break up the monotonous shit, pun intended.
And on the character designs, while the facial expressions and body animations were superb, I really didn’t like the way the eyes looked for any character. They often have black splotches of shadow in the corners that makes their eyes look messed up, and while it’s not quite as bad as having dead eyes that don’t move at all, often those shadows ruined what otherwise might have been a perfect presentation. (But ignoring the eyes, the facial animations are really good. One character makes a wincing smirk during an early chapter that almost looks like a real person instead of a CGI model.)
Setting those complaints aside, the game play was engrossing and immersive, and every chapter had gorgeous scenery to keep me entranced and focused on solving the mysteries and finishing the game. Aside from the occasional “waves of enemies” set pieces, I enjoyed the combat aspects, both ranged and melee. The motion controls are FANTASTIC for improving aim, and where I usually have to aim for center mass when playing FPS games with a twin stick gamepad, I was soon confident enough in my aim using motion controls that I was racking up trophies for head shots.
Then again, I also got a Master Ninja trophy for 70 stealth kills, accomplished by sneaking up behind someone. If you catch them unaware, Drake will alternately crack the back of their head or snap their necks. If you fail to sneak up, a fistfight occurs, and sometimes you win right away. Other times, your opponent will get an arm hold on you. This will activate an arrow swipe, usually in a diagonal direction. This is easy to do with either thumb, so you don’t have to let go of the unit or reposition your hands.
The arrows! I almost forgot to complain about them. (And what a tragedy that would have been.) Whenever the game wants to you do some touch gesture, they run a big yellow arrow over the middle of the screen, blocking all the gorgeous graphics. These prompts really needed to be moved to the top or bottom of the screen, because they’re so big as to be annoying. They aren’t used all the time, so this wasn’t a deal killer for me. But during moments like a near fall where a swipe would get my other hand on a good handhold, the arrow is so big it covers my character and the object he’s clinging to. Very ugly, especially compared to all the other prettiful things going on in this game.
But ignoring the arrows being way too big, this control system is so simple and fluid that I could beat the shit out of one guy, shoot another in the head, spin to pummel the dude trying to sneak up on me for a flanking attempt, and then make a running leap for the next cliff to take on more of Guerro’s gauche guerrilla army. Credit for this speedy pace goes less to my leet skills and more to the Vita’s smooth controls. The four face buttons, despite being small, rarely caused me to suffer fat finger syndrome. (But when I did press the wrong button, oh, fuck was it ever wrong!) And the shoulder buttons are easy to use for taking aim with the left and firing with the right. It is also possible to shoot “from the hip,” but I found this to be such a huge waste of bullets that I never used it past chapter 4.
The boss fights (there’s only two, and they’re both near the end) are all finger swipes, made fast one after another. This is not a problem because you aren’t expected to press any other buttons or move around. So for these fights, I held the unit in one hand and left the other free to make fast finger swipes in any direction. You have a set of Xs at the bottom of the screen representing your number of failed strikes. Fail a strike and you’re treated to a scene of Nate being used like a punching bag. Higher skill levels will give you less Xs to work with, and the time delay for the swipe gestures isn’t as generous. Still, I liked this style of boss fight, especially compared with the fights in Enslaved, which were long slog fests that left me aggravated and with sore hands. (And recall, that’s a game I LOVED.)
Something else I need to mention is replayability. I was all the way up to chapter 6 in the game before I sorted out the treasure hunting and photo taking aspects, and I decided to go back and make sure I collected all the goodies from every level. This, was not so easy, and I had to keep playing the prologue and opening chapters in an effort to get everything. AND THEN I realized that once a chapter is completed, you can go back to it and collect missed treasures without needing to finish the level. This freed me to really enjoy the movie aspects of each level. Then when I was done, I could look at my journal and see how many treasures I’d missed.
Around chapter 12, I discovered that Sony put out a treasure map for the game on their online market. You download it, and it adds a graphic to your journal, a map of all the treasures, photos, and artifacts. For 99 cents, it sounds like a great deal. There’s just one small problem. The map is microscopic, and there’s no way to pinch zoom it or touch the items to get a closer view of the rooms. So this means that even with a map, I was often running around the same levels over and over and over and… but I didn’t really mind so much because I didn’t have to finish the whole level, just find what I’d missed, quit to the main menu, and then continue the game’s next chapter.
In fact, I’ve just finished the game, but now I want to go back and start over on normal mode. I’ll never make it to hard or crushing modes, as I’m not that good a gamer. (Just look at how many of my reviews involve me giving up and watching the rest on YouTube as played by someone with better skills.) But I could see repeating this a few times without it feeling old or tired. That may change after the fourth or fifth full replay, but my point is, I already want to play again, even with the criticisms I’ve given about the plot and characters. The story is so Hollywood that I’m forced to forgive it and admit that Hollywood writing is still a step up from what many video game companies call good game writing. So comparing this to some lamer stories I’ve seen in video games, (Remember Bionic Commando’s plot? Yeah, now that was shitty game writing there.) the story line in this one wasn’t so bad.
And so, this is why I’m giving Uncharted: Golden Abyss 4.5 stars out of five. It’s a great game that shows off the Vita’s graphics and interface nicely, and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a fun adventure game. And now, I apologize for the length of this review, but upon finishing the game, I felt inspired to gush. But please, don’t take my word for it. If you’re hesitating on getting a PS Vita cause there might not be any good launch games, I can point you to at least one launch title that I felt WAS worth the price of admission. And I mean both the cost of the game, and of the Vita itself. Uncharted was really fun, and I hope Sony is able to produce more action games with this caliber of graphics, a passable story, good voice acting, and engrossing game play. Have I gushed enough? Probably not, but I will shut up and leave you in peace.
Okay, now I’ll really shut up.