The truth is this might as well be my Vita Game of the Year Award. I have still not picked up a 3DS unfortunately nor have I played any new PSP or DS games this year. I do love the Vita though. Portable hardware doesn’t get any better than it. And I have played quite a few very good Vita games, so there is definitely some worth to this award… I swear! So here is my pick for Handheld Game of the Year:
Uncharted: Golden Abyss
I know me picking an Uncharted game as a GotY seems unsurprising, but there was a lot that could have gone wrong here. Golden Abyss is the first portable entry in the series and a launch title for brand new hardware. It also finds the game in the hands of a different developer than the one who created it. Luckily Sony put the game in the best possible hands given this scenario. Bend Studio proved they were Sony’s best handheld developer on the PSP (or I’d argue they were at least) and they even took on another developer’s property to good results before. In Golden Abyss, Bend has now created a game worthy of the series and a brilliant showpiece for the PlayStation Vita.
In some ways Golden Abyss feels like an alternate sequel to Drake’s Fortune. And given that development started before Uncharted 2 released, that makes some sense. I imagine because of this and the restraints of working on new hardware, GA is a much less setpiece driven game. But this really works in its favor. It doesn’t end up trying to compete with the spectacle of Uncharted 2’s helicopter chase or 3’s sinking ship which it probably would have struggled to do. But it does expand on some elements that the console sequels never did and it makes for an interesting and enjoyable take on the series.
The biggest example of this is found in the collectible system. Instead of just finding some random treasures, the stuff you discover has a much stronger tie into the narrative. A lot of them belong to sets. Some are just similar treasures grouped together. Others are what they call mysteries. So collecting various things all get grouped together to solve some extra mystery or just reveal more information which digs a bit deeper into the story. A lot of the stuff you find also has some information written about it in your journal and in some cases Drake even has something to say about them. They make finding them a bit more interactive as well. One thing I like is that they seem to hide them off on alternate paths a bit more often than in the console games. But it is more than that. Some collectibles require you to take rubbings from various spots and piece them together like a puzzle. Or you have to use your camera to take a picture of some spot on your adventure. None of it is game-altering really, but it all adds up to make you feel more like the treasure hunter that Drake is. Throw in that there are over 300 collectiibles in this game (as opposed to 101 in 2/3) and this is really the best collectible/treasure system in the series to date.
There are other things that feel different too. There seem to be a lot more opportunities for stealth (though the enemies vision leaves something to be desired). There is a bigger focus on the sniper rifle (I like to think this might be influenced by Bend’s own Syphon Filter series). They give a lot of opportunities for traversal combat which I love. I think everyone will agree that platforming in Uncharted is too automated and easy. That is still true here (and this game actually has a bit of that Enslaved “you can only jump where you are supposed to” thing which is unfortunate). But where Uncharted’s platforming works is when it is combined with the shooting and lends some verticality to enemy encounters. And they do a good job of this in Golden Abyss.
Otherwise, it is just a lot like an Uncharted game. Nate and Sully. Treasure hunting adventure. Funny quips. There is a new female love interest this time around (played by Al from that cheesy show Step by Step for those who care… you know you do). She is no Elena (who is though right?!?) or even Chloe for that matter, but she does a good job. New villains work well enough. The swipe based boss fights are probably a low point for the game (I could probably do without swiping in combat altogether for that matter), but otherwise the villians fare well enough. The game lacks the environmental variety of Uncharted 2 and 3, but much like Drake’s Fortune, they do a good job of changing things up within the confines of the jungle areas the game spends most of its time in. Also worth noting that it lacks some of the bigger, more open battles where I feel Uncharted’s combat shines the most, but the combat is still fun and performs well with the Vita’s controls.
The graphics aren’t quite on the level of the console Uncharteds, but they still wow for a handheld game and really show the kind of visuals the Vita is capable. I can only imagine what Bend will be doing on this thing in a few years. The score is impressive as well and might be the best in the series. Finally the game might be the longest Uncharted campaign to date which is surprising given that it is both a launch title and a handheld title. Especially after previous Sony series making the jump to the handheld. But again Bend seems to always deliver lengthy campaigns.
What you end up with is a great new Uncharted game that should satisfy fans of the series. It strikes a nice balance of being a bit different from other entries without being too different, all the while showing what the Vita is capable. It’s my favorite handheld game of the year and really just one of my favorite games of the year period.
What was your favorite handheld game of 2012? Let me know in the comments below. I will be back later this week with my Downloadable Game of the Year. I hope you all have a great Christmas and thanks for reading!