Uncharted hero Nathan Drake's first handheld adventure is the perfect game to introduce the world to Sony's PlayStation Vita, a powerful new portable game system launching next Wednesday.
It's a showcase for virtually all of the device's most alluring features, including its graphical prowess, precise motion sensors, interactive screen, rear touch panel, dual analog sticks, and camera.
However, its relentless mission to exploit the system's hardware comes at a cost to fluidity. It ends up an unbalanced adventure that doesn't quite live up to the legendary Uncharted name.
The game begins with our scruffy, lovable hero lured to newly-discovered jungle ruins by a sketchy acquaintance. Once there, he hooks up with the charming granddaughter of an accomplished archeologist and finds himself moved to help her complete her grandfather's final quest – discovering an ancient city.
It's a reasonable setup for an action adventure game, and it benefits from the series' reliably superb dialogue and voice acting. However, unlike other Uncharted games, it doesn't provide subplots to help the player glean a better understanding of its characters' motivations and flaws. It feels hollow.
Part of the problem could be that Naughty Dog, Inc., the series' founding studio, handed off development to one of Sony's internal teams specializing in portable games. These new handlers seem overly concerned with devising activities with the express purpose of showing off the Vita's capabilities.
Some evidence: Swiping the screen to spin and buff ancient artifacts isn't fun so much as a way to flaunt the Vita's front and rear touch surfaces. Faded parchment read by holding the Vita up to a bright light is simply a contrived way of reminding us that Sony's handheld has a camera. And keeping balance on shifting logs by tilting the Vita left and right is a dull utilization of its motion sensors.
Activities like these, while fine in small doses, pop up so frequently that they get in the way of what we really want to do: climb ruins and shoot bad guys. Because climbing and shooting is about as much fun in Uncharted: Golden Abyss as it is in any Uncharted game.
The Vita's two joysticks – one to control movement, the other to operate the camera – let us navigate the world and target enemies just as we would were we playing a game with a traditional gamepad. This is exactly the sort of intuitive control that serious gamers have long craved in a portable platform, and it feels fantastic. Sadly, this joyful experience risks going unappreciated much of the time, buried under a barrage of gimmickry.
Still, if you're going to buy just one game for your Vita, Golden Abyss should be it. It may not be the best game in the system's launch lineup (Ubisoft's musical puzzler Lumines: Electronic Symphony takes that honour), but it's still fun and does a fine job of showing off the hardware. More importantly, it foreshadows the sort of truly great games that are hopefully in store for Vita owners.
Uncharted: Golden Abyss
Platform: PlayStation Vita
Developer: SCE Bend Studio
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment America
Release: February 22, 2012