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The Dawn Of Uncharted: Golden Abyss

Uncharted: Golden Abyss

Nathan Drake has explored many mysterious places, but his latest destination is the most unknown: the Sony PlayStation Vita.  Guiding the Uncharted franchise into the handheld realm for the first time, Sony's own Bend Studio has taken the helm for Uncharted: Golden Abyss with franchise creator Naughty Dog assisting in a supervisory role.  Can Uncharted really be Uncharted without Naughty Dog calling the shots?  1UP has a fascinating look into the creation of Golden Abyss and just how Bend crafted this new adventure from the ground up starting way back in 2008. 

Over the course of 2008 and 2009, the Bend team chipped away at the then-officially-untitled Uncharted project -- which at different points they called Uncharted: Project X and Uncharted: Dark Secrets, the latter of which may have been a better fit for Nintendo given its initials -- building a new engine, consulting with Sony, and setting up the mechanics that would make it feel at home in the series.

"We had been given such advanced access to SCEI and the hardware and the development tools very early on, so we were pretty much ahead of everyone," says [co-director Christopher] Reese. And for better or worse, or probably both, being ahead of the curve meant being a guinea pig for Sony's tech group.  "They were using us to help them refine and build the hardware," says [co-director John] Garvin, noting that the team would get new versions of the development kits every three months as the hardware became more stable.

Golden Abyss is drawing mixed reviews from some publications, and it seems that its biggest sin is that it wasn't developed solely by Naughty Dog.  I think it's unfortunate that there'a a perception in the gaming community that the key Sony brands such as Ratchet & Clank, Jak & Daxter, God of War, and now Uncharted are passed to lesser studios when it comes to developing for handheld hardware.  That perception is not helped by the notion that Bend is seemingly at a disadvantage with Golden Abyss, as today's audience expects to see the Uncharted franchise grow from Among Thieves and Drake's DeceptionGolden Abyss started development following the first game in the series, Drake's Fortune, and the Uncharted franchise has come a long, long way since then.  It's hard for me to shake the notion that it's shape stems from that first game more than any of the better sequels.  Here's some of what Kirk Hamilton had to say about Golden Abyss in his review over at Kotaku:

But the specters of past, better Uncharted games loom over Golden Abyss from start to finish. This game mimics the Uncharted formula to a fault—we all know the banter, the pacing; when a handhold is going to crumble, when enemies will turn up at an inopportune time.

More specifically, Golden Abyss is more or less an inferior carbon copy of the first game in the series, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. It takes place in and around a single jungle in Argentina, the cast is limited to four main characters, and there's even a bit where you pilot a boat down a river while blowing up guys with a grenade launcher. After spending Uncharted 2 and 3 going on globe-hoping adventures, it feels like a step backwards.

I need to play Golden Abyss for myself to form my own concrete opinion, but the impression that I'm getting ahead of actually doing that isn't a positive one.  It's difficult as a game player to see a studio create something new with a franchise originally created by a different studio.  Sometimes it works out in the end (Capcom did some interesting things with Nintendo's Legend of Zelda in the last decade for the Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance, for instance).  Unfortunately, it also invites (and even demands) comparisons between the smaller developer and the flagship with the famous name.  Bend Studio has done good work in the past, but they're not just competing with past Uncharted games here.  Bend is competing with past Naughty Dog Uncharted games.  That's a high mark to reach.  What I've read so far on Golden Abyss is that it's a fine try at matching the Uncharted experience, but it falls short of what one would expect from a Naughty Dog Uncharted title.  There's a reason for that: Golden Abyss isn't a Naughty Dog Uncharted title.  It's a Bend Studio Uncharted title, and that's a completely different thing by definition.  I'd think it should be judged accordingly.