I wouldn't blame anyone for approaching Uncharted: Golden Abyss (the second new Uncharted game in three months) with a touch of resistance, but fears of this handheld adventure being a straight-to-DVD sequel in comparison with the series' PlayStation 3 blockbusters can be put to rest.
But it's not all good news, as developer Bend Studio's writers and directors can't go pound-for-pound with Naughty Dog's finest in this prequel title, and its treatment of Nathan Drake and his new (old) chums is a fragile emulation of the series' former highs. In walking the hallowed jungles and mud paths of one of Sony's most cherished franchises, the studio most famous for the characterless but mechanically sound Syphon Filter series ensure a cosy, safe but sadly unambitious stewardship for Drake's first portable outing.
This is a tale designed by committee and checklist, and so Uncharted: Golden Abyss finds itself in a handful of exotic Central American locales (check), matches Drake with a new smart-talking love interest to banter with and rescue from peril (check). Then there's a touch of double-crossing, a nefarious warlord after an ancient city of gold, and about 6-8 hours of the series' well-worn formula of action, traversal and some very gentle puzzling (check check check).
So far, so Uncharted. For a series that trades almost entirely in big-budget spectacle, Golden Abyss' downsizing remains impressive, even if it cannot compete with the more elaborate set-pieces of Uncharted 2 and 3. Drake gets to shoot, shimmy and dangle his way across some suitably exotic rainforests and mountain ranges, and the game makes good use of rocky chasms and burning buildings. Your world still crumbles in Golden Abyss, then, but in smaller pieces and much less often. Framerate is occasionally sacrificed to benefit the game's impressive fidelity, too, and in spots the system simply cannot keep up with the more hectic firefights.
As Sony's jewel of the PlayStation Vita launch line-up, Bend Studio has used the system's various doohickies and wotsits (perhaps under duress from suited executives) to crowbar in a variety of touch and gyro features. You'll be tapping to pick up treasure and weapons, swiping to clear dense overgrowth with a machete, and rubbing the screen to clean dirty objects. The latter would be the most unnecessary and unwanted addition to Golden Abyss were it not for the maddening abundance of puzzles requiring you to reassemble torn documents by spinning and placing them on a grid, a drab exercise that makes you wish the villains had just made use of a paper shredder.
Even the more fundamental parts of the game can be played with the Vita's new input methods, allowing you to climb by drawing a line across the screen, engage in melee combat, or aim with the gyro rather than the right stick. Traditional methods of control still exist - the Vita's second analogue stick is one of its biggest back-of-the-box selling points, after all - meaning those used to playing with two circular blobs and a few buttons will be right at home, but the ease and accuracy of readjusting a sniper crosshair with tactile movement should silence even the most vocal sceptics of motion controls.