Uncharted: Golden Abyss Hands-On Preview [E3 2011]

Although teased and briefly shown off earlier this year, Sony finally came out during their press conference at this year’s E3 to formally announce what their ‘Next-Generation Portable’ would be called and reveal some of the first-party titles that would be released on the PlayStation Vita later this year. One of those high profile titles is the newest title in the Uncharted series, Golden Abyss. Behind closed doors, we were able to get an exclusive sneak peek at the upcoming title from Sony Bend Studios.

For those unfamiliar with the developing team working on the new Uncharted sequel, Sony Bend were responsible for making a portable tie-in to another Sony franchise, Resistance: Retribution. Given how much detail the team has put into the previous title, it should come as no surprise that Uncharted: Golden Abyss is shaping up to be one of the best looking games to launch on any platform.

The gameplay demo that I had a chance to experience was the same that was shown off during Sony‘s presentation. It opens up with Nathan Drake already within the walls of a nameless temple trying to sneak past guards from a faction that’ll be revealed closer to the game’s release. (Sorry, but I don’t plan on spoiling everything all at once). One of the first things I noticed was how animated Nathan Drake was even when standing still. Many of the basic animations may look like they were taken straight from the first two games, but that’s part of the life they imbue on the characters.

Once I got my hands on the game, it didn’t take anytime at all to get adjusted to the new controller. With the twin stick configuration on the PS Vita, Uncharted: Golden Abyss certainly felt just like a true Uncharted title. Movement and aiming is just as fluid as before, although it did take some getting used to how sensitive the sticks were used. What would’ve been a gentle nudge to one side on a standard dual shock controller instead made Nathan swing around in shock. I didn’t have a chance to check the options menu for a sensitivity option, but it’s a guarantee that it will be included in the final release.

True to the developer’s word, Golden Abyss takes full advantage of the PS Vita’s motion and touch control. One of the coolest things about that is there is no need to choose whether to play the game using purely one or the other. The controls are closely integrated in such away that one can freely switch between the two without any pause in the action.

Combat feels largely similar to the previous entries. Nathan can hide behind cover and pop out to shoot enemies as needed. To make up for the lack of the L2/R2 and L3/R3, Sony Bend has opted to include touch controls into the action. Reloading and swapping weapons is as simple as just tapping the respective icon on the screen. Melee combat is done in the same fashion. Once you’re close enough to an enemy, a fist icon will appear beside your target. QTE-like icons will then appear around the enemy to tap for each strike, similar to pressing the melee button at the right time in previous titles.

The grenade mechanics probably show off the touch controls the best. Simply tapping the grenade symbol will make Nathan automatically throw it towards whatever enemy is closest to the center of the screen. For a bit more precision, you can drag the icon across the screen to adjust trajectory and distance. The new touch controls were quite accessible and made the game feel a bit faster, especially with not having to fumble so much with arcing grenades over cover.

When traversing across ledges and balconies (believe me, there’s a lot of that in Uncharted: Golden Abyss), I went about it in the traditional sense of climbing across using the analog stick and action buttons. One of the developers was kind enough to demonstrate a feature using the front touch screen, something that he referred to as ‘painting a path’.

By running my finger along the front screen from one point to the next, it illuminated a series of footholds in gold as Nathan automatically moved across to where ever the path ended. It seems like a nice touch, but I could feel that it would make the game a little too automated if used too frequently. Jumping between ledges was a different matter. To get Nathan to make the jump, I had to physically tilt the console towards the other ledge and then swipe the screen. Overall the touch controls for movement may feel like a sort of novel gimmick, but nevertheless there stands to be a sort of innovation that will hopefully be indicative of future Vita titles.

The finale of the demo closed with a sniping battle between Nathan Drake and a crew of enemy soldiers. With gun in hand, I got into position to take aim and fire. Sniping gunplay is probably the single most technical part of the demo and was a bit confusing when it was being explained at the press conference. But, actually getting a chance to play it made all the difference. I wasn’t just using the analog sticks to move and aim. Instead, I had two fingers on the shoulder buttons to look into the scope and fire, two on the rear touch screen for zooming in/out, and tilting the system at the same time to aim.

Utilizing the Vita controls to zoom, I had either the option to use a slider on the left side of the screen or, what I felt more intuitive, sliding my fingers together or apart along the touch pad on the back of the system to adjust my scope. All the while I had to tilt the system slightly to move the crosshair across the screen. I could see it being a hassle trying to play in a moving vehicle, but for just sitting down it was easy to adjust. The whole experience only needs a little tilt in either direction; nothing like the full-body rotation needed for some titles on the Nintendo 3DS.

On the whole, the brief demonstration with the upcoming PlayStation Vita exclusive, Uncharted: Golden Abyss was an enjoyable experience. With the multitude of control options available to the player, it stands to be accessible to anyone interested in just picking up and playing. The game is very promising, as is the PS Vita and I’m very excited to get my hands on the full package once it releases.

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