Given my history with the Uncharted series, I wasn't expecting great things from Bend Studios' Uncharted: Golden Abyss for the PlayStation Vita. I'd grown weary of the series after playing all three of the main installments back-to-back-to-back, but thought
Golden Rainbow Golden Abyss might be a decent game to play on a mobile platform where my expectations might be a little more restrained, especially since it didn't cost me anything as a PlayStation Plus subscriber. It turns out even my modest "I'll enjoy it for what it is" attitude wasn't enough to prepare me for how utterly boring and disappointing Golden Abyss would turn out to be.
Thanks to the powerful graphical processing of the PlayStation Vita and its dual control sticks, Golden Abyss looks and feels very close to what you'd expect from the console games, but once you actually start playing it you begin to realize how streamlined and simplified the gameplay actually is. Like its elder brethren, gameplay in UC:GA basically consists of walking forward through linear paths, climbing and jumping across platforms, fighting tons of dudes, and watching cutscenes, but the gameplay is so pointless and unengaging that the only time it ever feels like you have any real control over the game is during combat.
Platforming, for instance, is totally without consequence -- there's virtually zero possibility of failure and Drake does virtually everything automatically. Often times you don't even need any sort of directional input to make a successful jump -- you simply press X and Drake jumps to the next platform automatically. Climbable ledges were always pretty obvious in the other games, but now they're made doubly obvious by the fact that they shimmer, an indication that you can use touch screen controls to make Drake climb an entire series of ledges by tracing the path of the ledges with your finger, in case you're too lazy to move the control stick and occasionally press the X button.
Much of the gameplay seems developed around the Vita's unique hardware and control mechanisms, as if Sony wanted to use their flagship series to showcase all of the Vita's capabilities as a marketing tool, without ever considering if those controls or gameplay elements added anything worthwhile or wholesome to the experience. In each case, the Vita controls feel horrendously tacked-on and serve little to no purpose besides calling attention to the device you're playing the game on, which only serves to distract you from the game you're actually playing.
Fortunately, most of the game can be played with the traditional control stick and button scheme, but you're often forced to take your hands off the controls and play a dumb finger-swiping mini-game to perform some trivial action like boosting your partner up onto a ledge or chopping down bamboo. The latter is particularly absurd when you consider that Drake has to stand there for several seconds methodically studying how he's going to cut the bamboo, rather than just doing it when you press the button. What's even more absurd is how much time you spend rubbing your finger all over the screen taking charcoal rubbings or wiping dirt off of tools and relics -- some of the most boring "gameplay" I've ever experienced in a video game.
At one point you even have to use the rear camera, holding the Vita up to a light to make hidden text appear on a piece of parchment; that's a novel idea, but it completely disrupted my immersion by redirecting my attention from the game to my environment, and became especially problematic when none of the soft florescent lights at the airport were bright enough to pass the event. Whenever you cross a narrow beam Drake inevitably loses his balance so that you can play a Vita-tilting mini-game to regain his balance, which would be fine if not for the animation before the mini-game showing him catching his balance and standing perfectly still for a few seconds, just so that he can deliberately lose his balance in the mini-game.
Drake's keen perception suggests a "Z" pattern is best for cutting down this particular bunch of bamboo.
The platforming sequences, in general, tend to feel gimmicky and unnecessary. On more than one occasion you're faced with a guy manning a 50 caliber machine gun and have to "find another way around" by climbing and shimmying along columns avoiding bullets, just so that you can flank the gunner and shoot him, when in reality it would be far simpler and easier to just run from cover to cover on the ground and chuck a grenade over the barricade. Making matters even worse is the fact that each action scene has some kind of idiosyncratic script you're supposed to follow, which completely kills the momentum when you try to perform a seemingly logical action and hit a metaphorical brick wall.
Everything is so tightly controlled and the game holds your hand so much that you rarely feel like you're actually in control. Combat is the only exception, since it's the one time in the game where you're free to choose where to go in each "arena," who to shoot, what weapons to use, and you're even free to get yourself killed if you're not good enough. Unfortunately, combat in itself isn't very satisfying because it often feels like a shooting gallery whop-a-mole -- ie, a simplistic, straightforward third-person cover shooter where you camp behind a chest-high wall and pop out periodically to shoot enemies as they stick their heads out from behind cover. Even then, many of the fights are ruined by the idiosyncratic script, which rigidly forces you to do certain sequences a certain way in order to progress.
Level design is totally linear, which is no surprise given the series' track record, but the environments in UC:GA feel particularly cramped because of the relative limitations of the Vita hardware. In order to make the graphics look as good as they do, they had to cut back on the amount of stuff being processed, and thus we don't get any of the big environments or exciting setpieces the main series is known for. Exploration is virtually non-existent because of the tight, linear corridors, and the optional collectibles lie directly along the main path. The puzzles, what few exist in this game, aren't even that satisfying because they practically solve themselves.
At least the combat isn't total garbage like the rest of the gameplay.
As the fourth game in the series, Golden Abyss feels totally predictable because it does absolutely nothing to deviate from the already-wearisome formula repeated almost verbatim in all three of the previous games. Drake goes on a routine, harmless archaeological dig, meets a woman, gets double-crossed by his partner, realizes he's stumbled into something big, has the villain show up to steal the relic just as he finds it, and then has to race to stop the villain from succeeding in his nefarious plans. This formulaic plot progression, along with the shallow gameplay, made me bored out of my skull and anxious for it to be over.
Golden Abyss looks and feels a lot like its predecessors, which means it suffers from the exact same problems that bothered me about UC1-3, except it's even worse than that, since virtually all of the fun elements have been stripped out in favor of streamlining the gameplay into something more befitting of a tablet or cellphone than a dedicated gaming device. Compared to its predecessors, UC:GA is a restrained, pedestrian experience that fails to excite or engage in any kind of meaningful way. If you enjoyed the PS3 games, it's a guarantee you won't enjoy UC:GA as much, but it makes for a decent handheld game simply because there aren't a whole lot of quality games on the Vita. If you're like me, however, and didn't care for the PS3 games, then be advised that UC:GA is a complete waste of time and money.