I shall call it… mini-Drake.
Traversing a wall inside a burning building, Nathan Drake slides down a pipe to a lower level where he nimbly makes his way across some broken planks to a shiny object. Once collected, it’s revealed in his journal that it’s a small scale, the kind drug dealers use in movies to weigh cocaine or heroin. A note indicates that it may be significant to a previous plot-point. On closing the journal, Nate, ignoring the flames, makes a quip about the scale’s previous owner with Nolan North’s unmistakably glib delivery. Yep, this is Uncharted all right.
One thing’s for sure, Uncharted: Golden Abyss looks gorgeous. It’s so visually striking I must quote the fake Dairy poster-band White Gold, “Jealous angels cry, ‘It’s not fair!’“ Naughty Dog appears to have handed over their assets to Sony’s Bend Studio without a hitch. The environments are rich and colorful, and the characters appear to be as well. It boasts the same in-game animations for how characters run, move, and jump; the models and textures look like they would be right at home next to the PS3 entries. It’s Drake for sure, right down to the loosely tousled clothes; he just happens to be about an inch tall.
If the demo I played is any indication, that “smaller” identity also applies to level design. Here, Nate moves through a series of shorter, more self-contained set-pieces fitting for the handheld. The burning building section presents classic Uncharted platforming and climbing puzzles. (This level, Chapter 4, was featured in the first half of a video walkthrough on Playstation’s blog.) However, it was more restrictive in Nate's freedom of movement than the PS3 games—it wouldn’t even let me press the drop button, or as my college buddies called it, the “fall off cliff and die button”.
Navigation uses the traditional left analog stick for movement and the 'X' button to jump, until Nate begins to climb, at which point the touchscreen can also be used. It is kind of fun to run a finger along ledges and smugly watch Drake scramble along the glowing path left behind, but it was faster just to use the analog stick and jump button.
The second playable section jumped ahead to Chapter 10 and involved sniping at bad guys to keep them away from Nate’s new female companion, Marisa Chase, while she ran across a field to join him on a scaffold. When sniping, the left shoulder button opens up the scope. Along the right side of the touchscreen is a slider to adjust the magnification, and using the gyroscope, the Vita can be tilted or shifted to fine-tune the aiming in an extremely intuitive way, making it easy to snap off a shot with the right shoulder button to send the baddies into the dirt.
In addition to the action and platforming, there are also the exploration and collectible sides of the Uncharted series. Hidden in the backgrounds are shiny sparkles, hidden treasures, divided in the journal into two different types: a series of what looks like jeweled shards, and what appears to be items connected to the plot like the aforementioned scale. When the treasure is located, a strip of buttons appear on the right side of the screen that give the player the option to grab the treasure or check Drake’s journal. In some areas, that same strip has a camera button that opens a mini-game challenging the player (with the same controls as sniping) to take a picture of the environment and match it with a black-and-white photo on the left side of the screen.
More immersive is Drake’s journal, where the pages can be turned by swiping a finger along the touchscreen, and collected items can be examined by tapping on them. It wasn’t prompted; it just felt correct to try. It says something about how seamless the touch and gyroscopic controls are.
Since Golden Abyss is a prequel to the PS3 games, this could allow the story writers to build a history for Nathan Drake with a whole new set of characters, that may be developed into a semi-autonomous franchise, which would explain the presence of out-of-the-blue characters like the briefly mentioned Jason Dante and Chase, who is most likely the love interest. Have you ever seen the American Pie DVD spin-offs with Stiffler’s brother? I have, and they are exactly what they are supposed to be: direct-to-DVD-sex-farces with no shame about exploiting the popular features of the series. Let’s hope Uncharted: Golden Abyss is the less-overtly-sexual video game equivalent.
Uncharted: Golden Abyss may end up being Sony’s most recognizable—and gorgeous—launch title for the Playstation Vita. It already has an amazing degree of polish that shows off just what the device can do. Sony’s Bend Studio appears to have captured not just the look, but the feel of the Uncharted series, while strongly implementing the features of the new handheld. That alone makes it a must-have for all PS Vita owners.