Uncharted: Golden Abyss hands-on preview

The most impressive PSP titles have always been those spun from first-party, console-spawned franchises. Ratchet and Clank, God of War, Resistance, and Motorstorm entries have all set Sony's handheld firing on all cylinders. Uncharted: Golden Abyss, a prequel to the PS3’s original Nathan Drake-starring adventure, seems to be continuing this trend as the PS Vita‘s early killer-app contender. Developed by Resistance: Retribution’s Sony Bend team, Drake’s jump to the next-gen portable platform seems to be retaining the series’ highly-produced, cinematic presentation, while complementing it with integration of the hardware's more notable and unique features.

While our demo showed off some of the franchise’s signature Indiana Jones-inspired action and platforming, it was clearly focused on highlighting the device's various alternatives to traditional controls. Set in a tropical jungle environment that could have been ripped right from Drake’s PS3 debut, we were tasked with shooting plenty of pirate-y bad guys and completing various platforming challenges, often with the assistance of the PS Vita’s touch-screen, rear touch pad, and internal motion sensors.

Scurrying across cliff faces, scaling rocky walls, and jumping over bottomless pits is effortlessly handled via the touch-sensitive screen. Using our index finger, we could either tap Drake’s destinations--identified by golden glowing objects--individually, or trace a more extended path for him to follow. Either way, the navigation felt smooth and intuitive, much like it does in the most responsive of iPhone apps. We could also tilt the device left or right to position Drake for longer jumps, and move it back and forth to gain momentum on swinging ropes. While these features offered a satisfying tactile sensation, they also yielded a more passive gameplay experience; while newcomers might dig the cool tech and the ability to practically let Drake control himself, more seasoned gamers will probably return to more traditional navigation once the novelty of the new stuff wears off.

While traversing Golden Abyss' treacherous landscapes had us utilizing the touch-screen almost exclusively, the duck-and-cover shooting incorporated a combination of familiar and new-fangled moves. Everything from occupying a cover point to targeting baddies and spraying them full of hot lead felt comfortable behind the analog sticks, face buttons, and triggers. Additionally, these DualShock-like controls were nicely complemented with the ability to pick up weapons by touching their on-screen icons and select grenade targets with a finger-point. The latter was especially effective at capturing thugs in our intended blast radius; rather than estimating a trajectory, we were able to essentially drag-and-drop the crater-makers exactly where we wanted them.

A bit more complicated, however, were the sniper rifle mechanics. Once armed and aimed, the ranged weapon enters a full-screen scope view; from here, we’re able to aim the barrel by moving the entire unit around. Much like using the periscope in the Nintendo 3DS’ Steel Diver, this mechanic allowed us to pan the landscape as we looked at the screen, almost as if it were actually a scope. Acclimating to this took some time, especially since we were tasked with taking on equally eagle-eyed enemies; once we got the hang of it though, we appreciated the added immersion.

Sadly, the effect was broken when we attempted to zoom in on a baddie using the rear touchpad. As our demoer explained, we were supposed to move our fingers--the ones clutched to the back of the Vita--toward the edges of the unit; this was to zoom the scope much as we would enlarge a picture on an iPhone. While the tech itself seemed to work, the execution felt extremely awkward.

This is probably a good time to point out that none of the platform's non-traditional controls have to be used in Golden Abyss. Players can leverage them whenever they’re available, in conjunction with regular inputs, or not at all. Based on our time with the title, we see ourselves probably adopting the second option; maybe taking advantage of the enhanced grenade targeting and some of the platforming features, but zooming sniper scopes the old-fashioned way.

Again, our demo was squarely focused on showing off how the Vita’s unique functionality could enhance Drake’s latest quest for fortune and glory, but it wasn’t merely a tech demo. While we don’t know exactly where Drake was or who he was fighting--the Sony rep overseeing our demo protected story details like a priceless ancient artifact--we did get an eyeful of the near console-quality presentation. From lush foliage and crashing waterfalls, to richly-rendered character animations and slick lighting and shadowing effects, Drake’s latest is drenched in stunning, cinematic details. Regardless of what control scheme you choose, Golden Abyss is shaping up to be the Vita’s first system-seller.

Jul 25, 2011

Matt Cabral
A full-time freelance writer based in Lizzie Borden's hometown, Matt Cabral has covered film, television, and video games for over a decade. You can follow him on Twitter @gamegoat, friend him on Facebook, or find him in the basement of an abandoned building hoarding all the canned goods, med-kits, and shotgun shells.