FEATURE: Love the Drake, big screen or small

Fans of the Uncharted franchise are in heaven right now. Basking in the afterglow of Uncharted 3 (with recent DLC and more on the way), we now have Uncharted: Golden Abyss as a leading launch title for the Playstation Vita. Such a strong exclusive franchise makes for a perfect comparison between the now-aging PS3 hardware and the newest console out, but it’s also a risk for Sony.

Uncharted 3 is the high water mark of the franchise: Here we see the pinnacle of action-adventure gaming rivalled perhaps only by Assassin’s Creed. The third offering of the franchise does justice to Naughty Dog‘s impressive environmental design, and somehow manages to up the ante on the spectacular cinematic set-pieces that the franchise has become known for. The gameplay is refined just enough; with sufficient balance between puzzle-solving, platforming and action, it caters to a wide variety of fans. The action is particularly satisfying: with nearly ideal level design and excellent cover and melee mechanics, the variety is almost endless. It has also nailed the multiplayer format, in both competitive and multiplayer modes. So it could hardly be improved upon.

Let’s face it: a handheld is never going to outdo a home console system: the best it can hope for is to do it justice and maybe introduce a few new features. We certainly can’t expect the high level of graphics, animation, or physics that you would get from the PS3. Hell, let’s be honest: if it doesn’t make us want to retch we’ll be happy. While some were merely underwhelmed by Resident Evil: Mercenaries on the 3DS, I found the controls so maddening that I rubbed my lamp and wished for a new peripheral to do justice to the shooter genre on a handheld.

Fortunately there is no need to shell out even more to make U:GA work – the dual analogue sticks on the Vita are perfect. In fact, since the action is my favourite part of Uncharted, I am pleased to report that this part of the game is near-perfect. The controls are smooth and precise, and the control system is no barrier whatsoever to enjoying the dynamic and fast-paced action. Even the loss of a second set of shoulder buttons is not fatal. This is countered with the touch-screen: reloading by touching the weapon icon in the top-left is easy. One minor gripe is that tossing a grenade during high action is less easy, as the touch screen is slightly unwieldy under pressure, but grenading from cover with touch-drag-and-drop is actually an improvement.

This is the main place where using the touchscreen(s) is essential; for the most part it’s optional, and you can use traditional controls if preferred. However it’s a mark of the success of the hardware that I actually found myself choosing to use the new controls. For instance, a gentle stroke of the rear touchpad enables climbing or rapelling down a rope, and sliding along ledges and ladders marks out a path for platforming which can otherwise be tiresome.

Actually, one place where the rear touchpad is essential is a highlight of the game: Canoeing down a river, you have to evenly paddle stroke using the rear pad and simultaneously shoot enemies attacking from the riverbank. It sounds too much but it works surprisingly well, and adds a tactile engagement to the gameplay which is a definite improvement on UC3.

Most gratifyingly, although Sony had this game developed in-house (by Bend), Naughty Dog obviously had enough oversight of the project to ensure that the high production values of the franchise were maintained. The graphics are as good as you can imagine on a handheld, and make 3D seem like the novelty it largely is. The environment is rendered with pristine detail, and although restricted control over the camera occasionally highlights the limitations of the hardware, particular vistas and set-pieces are almost as good as on the PS3.

The level design, writing, dialogue, and soundscape are exactly as good as you’d expect from an Uncharted game. Best of all, the game continues with the franchise’s pulse-pounding set pieces involving truck wreckages and collapsing buildings, and it’s almost possible to forget that you’re playing on a screen that is only a few inches large.

In fact, the beauty of the PS Vita is that it turns its major challenge into a positive benefit. Although the system is handheld, the game is as big as can be and still fit. Furthermore, it succeeds in doing something a home console never could: it makes the gameplay experience more tactile and more intimate than I ever thought possible. With such a great launch release that gives us the Drake we know and love, the future possibilities for this hardware are very exciting.

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