June 05, 2014

That's A Wrap: Uncharted: Golden Abyss

warning: may contain spoilers

For my first foray into the PSVita I chose a game that I'm familiar and comfortable with elsewhere: Uncharted. Please bear that in mind as you read, as many of my opinions may actually be Vita-related rather than game specific, since I'm still getting accustomed to the console. Apologies if this annoys you.

My first impression of Uncharted: Golden Abyss? I miss the 50-inch telly. It's significantly harder to clock headshots on this tiny screen with finicky controls. But other than that, the game looks familiar, sounds familiar, plays familiar… by all means this is an Uncharted game. I noticed there seems to be less combat, and it's much easier to complete melee or stealth attacks in this version. Also, there is much, much more to do in Golden Abyss by way of treasure hunting. It was clearly designed for people who wanted Uncharted exploration on steroids. I quite enjoy these aspects of Uncharted though, so this is shaping up to be a great game!

Uncharted has the unique distinction of being one of the first games on both of Sony's (at the time) recently released consoles. Drake's Fortune (insert shameless self-promotion) had the honor of breaking ground for the PS3, and Golden Abyss was one of the earlier titles for the Vita. Certainly between the two, the game looks infinitely better on the PS3, but I commend the artists of GA for their stunning backgrounds and competent level design.
It's not all gravy, though. Some levels are quite dark, and with the pre-existing inhibition that is the tiny screen, it makes some areas of the game very difficult to navigate and sometimes impossible to get your bearings, even for this master explorer. Also, I found I need to be in a very particular setting to play GA; if I'm in a well- or naturally-lit room, no dice. I need to be able to control the light surrounding me in order to feel comfortable playing on the Vita. Additionally, the Vita is a rather quiet console, so playing in public without a pair of high-powered (dodgy-looking) headphones is not a privilege for this blogger.
Character design is… well…
Yikes. Time to visit the dentist, guys. And maybe the optometrist. 
…a little tragic. I recognize that this was one of the earlier games made for the Vita, so there was probably still a lot of experimentation to be had, but this Nate - man, I used to tease my boyfriend with Nate Drake, but this guy gives me nightmares.

Regarding sound, GA will sound very familiar to Uncharted fans. It's good and bad: it's nice to feel at home with a game but it's a little sad they couldn't come up with something a little newer and more exciting, and perhaps unique and fitting for the levels. There are quite a few tracks in GA that are recycled from earlier titles. On the Vita, the soundtrack sounds quite a bit brighter, and at times the actor for Nate doesn't even sound like he did in the other games. In regards to effects, I jotted down a note that reads "Nate is a lot more annoying than I remember..." but apart from this, another solid effects track, complete with silly, empty threats from enemies!

In this episode, our charming treasure hunter goes into business with an old pal, and as per usual, things get twisted and we end up saving a damsel. The story in Golden Abyss is meant to take place before the events in Drake's Fortune, so our hero hasn't quite learned to get all the facts before following someone into the jungle yet.
The writers knocked it out of the park with classic Uncharted dialogue. This is the Nate I fell in love with years ago, and it's nice to see the continuity between developers.

Apparently, everyone is referred to by their last name in this game, apart from our happy-go-lucky protagonist: Nathan Drake, treasure hunter extraodanaire and casual history buff. Then we meet our shady new guy: (Jason) Dante, who - in spite of looking like Trevor from GTAV - manages to keep up with Nate more often than not. Then we have our apparent bad guy, (Roberto) Guerro, who bears striking resemblance to Fidel Castro causes us all sorts of trouble. Enter our shiny new lady-friend: (Marisa) Chase; token super-annoying, virtually useless damsel in distress, but without her - or rather her grandfather Vincent Perez - we wouldn't have much of a story. And lastly, our resident badass,  the always reliable (Victor) Sullivan, a.k.a. "Sully" returns to kick some ass and make us laugh. As much as I love Nate, I'm not even sure the game would have humor if not for Sully. But my favorite character in GA by far, is the parrot, apparently named José.

Like the previous titles, gameplay and combat are intertwined in GA, and the game plays just like I remember. That said, I find Nate to be a little clunkier in this game; his actions are a bit over exaggerated, like he's never jumped from a high place before... this mixed with the aforementioned annoying effects just leaves Nate feeling a little foreign to me at times.
The game is also quite a bit longer than previous titles, on paper anyway. There are 34 chapters in Golden Abyss, however many of them go by rather quickly, even when you take the time to search for treasure or other goodies, via your book.
Combat is congruent with the previous games, but with extra Vita-ness. In GA, you can melee or stealth attack by simply tapping the enemy, however I found this to be unreliable. While we're on the subject, it's worth noting that melee is more complex altogether, since you rely on more than just mashing buttons. You also reload your weapon by tapping the icon at the top-left of the screen, which can be super annoying when you're in the middle of battle. Otherwise, Nate will reload when the clip empties. Picking up ammo is automatic now, so long as you have the gun in question equipped, and you can swap for a new gun by pressing triangle, just like before. As always, you can carry one handgun and one long gun as well as four grenades, which you launch by tapping the icon in the lower-right, or tap-and-drag to aim it.

When first being introduced to the Vita controls in GA, my thoughts were "Jeez, it's so complicated!" There are two ways to do most anything! GA makes use of the Vita's touch screen, tilt feature, rear controls and even light sensitivity. At times, this was infuriating. I kept accidentally throwing grenades and switching guns by touching the sides of the screen. Also the rear touch is tricky since I hold the Vita there; and I'm frustrated by the fact that I can't play while laying down or on any sort of incline because the Vita thinks I'm tilting it, which makes climbing a chore.
There's a plethora of times you'll need to rely on the Vita's exclusive actions, and while tapping will solve a lot of your problems, occasionally you'll have to master the Vita's rear touch controls, like when climbing ropes or checking out artifacts; swiping actions, when using your machete or making a charcoal rubbing; tilt, when crossing a log or soaring through a river rapid (which I found to be the most difficult to use); and other touch screen fun, like cleaning artifacts or deciphering a combination lock.
There's another addition using these features: throughout the game you have the option of participating in a sort of side quest in which you take pictures of various predetermined things. While your camera is out, the Vita functions almost like a real camera. If you move to the left, the viewfinder will too, and you can use the rear touch to "toggle" your zoom; naturally, the RT is your capture button. Not an exact replica but still a neat integration!
And of course, after an entire game of shooting people with guns, your final bosses are swipe fights. Naturally.
Beyond that, controls are very predictable, triangle picks up weapons (or you can tap); square is melee (or you can tap); circle takes cover or rolls to avoid attack; X is input and jump and so on, but while climbing you can use the Vita to lean by titling the system. As always, your left stick controls our melodramatic leading man, and right stick will occasionally control the camera… I noticed many places in which I could not. As per Uncharted history, your left trigger will aim and right will fire, and as I said before, you tap to reload. You use your D-Pad to access your weapons. All very familiar to Uncharted fans.

Speaking of Uncharted tradition, there is no real menu, just your book. However the book is accessed via a mini menu which you call up by pressing select. This is where you'll find your camera as well and a couple of other actions that you won't really need unless prompted: your machete, your rubbings paper, pick-up treasure, swap guns or offering a hand (if someone should need a boost, for example). The book has its own little menu, so you can organize your collections by chapter, 'mysteries' subject, treasure etc.

As I mentioned before, there is a great deal of treasure hunting and optional questing to do in GA, and this is presented and organized for you in the form of a book.
Your book breaks down all the "mysteries" by their specific title, as well as by chapter. That is, the book tells you exactly what you need to find in each chapter, so getting everything is laborious but relatively easy. Mysteries are usually found in 4 forms: treasures, pictures, puzzles and charcoal rubbings. It's all very 'Uncharted' but a little overwhelming at first, until you learn to recognize the instigators: treasures, like before, are found scattered in odd areas of levels as little glitteries in the walls or ground. The pictures you have to take are shown to you in the book, in black and white; as you approach the area you need to take the photo in, your camera button will prompt you and once again show you the reference photo. You have to match it exactly. At first I thought this was really tricky until I realized the game gives you the required zoom aspect and you pretty much only need to match that, since your placement is already set by the game's prompt. Puzzles are typically found automatically, it's just up to you to piece them together and charcoal rubbings are made at many points in the game where you find symbols of interest. Like with pictures, as you approach a charcoal worthy area you are prompted to do the rubbing, and in many cases you'll need several from the same area to complete a charcoal puzzle.
There are a couple of other sides that I didn't fully explore. There seems to be a bounty hunting mini game of sorts - sometimes when you defeat an enemy you'll pick up a bounty card, and it seems when you defeat certain other enemies in the game the card cashes in for silver or something. I regret to inform you that I didn't pay enough attention to this to really describe it confidently.
There also seems to be a related card game. Throughout the game you pick up a few seemingly random cards, and as you complete the side quests, the cards power up. It turns out this is all about the splinter game Uncharted: Fight for Fortune, which - once again - I know too little to discuss for you. It did garner a pet peeve out of me though: it takes you to the card screen after every find. Surely some of us don't care about the card game, and just want to move on without having to wait the extra "two-mississippi" for the card to load. Nevertheless.
For anyone who, like me, is a treasure hunting whore, it's worth noting that if you've missed something, the game allows you go back and replay previous chapters!

Since this was my virgin experience with the Vita I chose 'normal' difficulty mode, just in case. The last two installments of the Uncharted series toyed with me a bit in the difficulty department, but typically, normal mode in Uncharted games is rather easy, and GA was quite manageable after I got into the swing of the Vita. For your entertainment: very easy, easy, normal, hard, and crusher modes are available. You will have to unlock "crusher" by completing the game on hard mode.
I think GA feels more like Drake's Fortune, in difficulty and tone. Whether you like it or not, the game teaches you quite a bit about South America, Mayan/Aztec et al. and Spanish history, as well as a few old school archeological tricks. They really capitalized on the Vita's capabilities with this too, for example: having you do charcoal rubbings. I think this is a really great subject matter for an Uncharted game and really gets back to the game's original vibe, which makes me happy.

GA has no game clock, which I don't necessarily appreciate, but between twitter and a little searching online, I reckon I finished Golden Abyss (with 100% completion of the book) in about 14 or 15 hours. I got addicted, so I did this over the course of maybe 4 days. It's fast and fun, like its namesake titles, so it's hard to put down.
Overall I have to say I'm pleasantly surprised by Golden Abyss. I had relatively low expectations of this game and while the Vita hindered my enjoyment slightly, I have to say this game is as addicting as the others. If you enjoyed Golden Abyss, you're going to adore the other Uncharted games, particularly Drake's Fortune and Drake's Deception. That said, GA is so jam packed with exploring that I kind of feel like "once is enough," for a while anyway. This might make a great "minor distraction" game for me someday, but I can't see myself blasting through it for story only, as I feel like that would be a bit of a waste, since there is so much to see and learn if you pursue the game wholly.
Regarding possible areas of improvement, the game could certainly use a face-lift (queue 'Psycho' sound effect and close up of characters). The mechanics of Nate could be tighter and a little more realistic. I know it's the goal of the developers to make Drake seem more human and less a superhero, but they went a little overboard with the lack of poise. I fell off a cliff more than once due to his melodramatic actions.

  • There is at least one level in which you're are treated to a lengthy scene, and you'll notice treasure glints at the same time. You're meant to pick these up during the scene (tap tap tap!) as you will not have the chance to after.
  • It may take more than one try to get all the mysteries in a chapter. Sometimes they're just listed by the subject they pertain to, so it takes a bit of exploring to figure out whether it's a treasure you're looking for, or a puzzle or charcoal rubbing. If you're struggling with the game, but adamant on getting 100%, try changing the difficulty of the level (you can do so by accessing 'chapters' in the game menu) so the combat is a little less daunting and you have more time for exploring.
  • TAP THE PARROT. Do it.

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