It can also be pretty handy for sniping. In the end we preferred using the sticks, but the sensors are often quicker at picking out enemies against a big open landscape. And whichever way you have the aiming set up, the use of the back touchscreen to zoom in and out, by stroking a fingertip either up or down, is close to brilliant - intuitive, simple, and better than any way of doing it before.
The touch controls also give the lever-pulling, panel-rotating side of the game a boost. In fact this is one area where Sony Bend has really innovated, replacing Drake's regular journal (and, sadly, its opportunities for cloistered, clown-based humour) with a more comprehensive record of puzzles, photographs and collectible items from your adventure.
The photographs are another nod to the Vita's tilt functions, with you aiming the screen like a camera to recreate archive pictures of landmarks as you move through the levels. In other cases the touchscreen is used to give a fitting hands-on bent to Drake's extreme archaeology, twisting and matching fragments of maps and documents together, scrubbing clean muddied artefacts, and - definitely the most over-used - making charcoal rubbings of every flat surface in South America. Overall this expanded puzzling feels comprehensive rather than thrilling, but fattens up the play time and gives a bit of welcome depth to Drake's skillset.
Rest assured that the traditional controls hold up very well too, with the twin sticks (thanks to a sensitivity boost in my case) perfectly adequate for fast, accurate shooting after a little acclimatisation. Once you're comfortable with the touch controls the two integrate seamlessly - you'll slide into cover with the sticks, switch weapons by tapping an an-screen icon, fire a few rounds with the shoulder buttons, and throw a grenade with a fingertip.
The only area where Golden Abyss doesn't quite deliver is Uncharted's traditional strength - scripting and character. With the series' regular creative brain Amy Hennig missing, new female companion Chase struggles to define herself as anything other than a generic follow-along, especially given the game's prequel scenario (she clearly doesn't figure prominently in Drake's future), and one key villain in particular is such an empty stereotype that a balloon with an accent would've been a better bet.
It's down to Uncharted's stars to save the piece. This Drake feels like regular Nathan Drake, with the same quips, quirks and engaging vulnerability, and things feel much more assured and familiar once Sully turns up just past the halfway mark. The chemistry between actors Nolan North and Richard McGonagle, earned over the production of three long PS3 titles, is easy, animated and enjoyable to watch, and gets Golden Abyss out of a potentially damaging hole.
The end result? The story is so generic you won't miss the fact it's not mentioned here, and the gameplay takes its major cues from Naughty Dog's existing work. But at its best Golden Abyss feels like an authentic Uncharted experience, and the character of Drake - almost as big a draw at this point as the murder of countless hundreds - is intact and still sparking.
There's a wider point here about whether a handheld is the right format for an action blockbuster, as inevitably Golden Abyss can't romp into unbroken technical ground like the PS3 games habitually do and has to settle for a lesser accolade instead: "The best one you can play on the bus", or "Not markedly inferior to the others." But that's not something Sony Bend or its game have to worry about. The fact they've come up with a great Uncharted title while also catering to the demands of a new system, and given us a fat new puzzle book to play with, means that Golden Abyss goes down as a very impressive achievement.
Not quite up the standard of the PS3 games in either narrative or visual stakes - but then what it is? A triumphant outing for Drake, and Vita's best launch title.
- All but a couple of the touchscreen controls work very well, easing some longstanding frustrations with smooth, intuitive design
- The dual sticks - it's official, Vita can do shooters, and do them properly. After a short adjustment you're barely notice the difference
- Comparisons with the PS3 games take it too far, but this is visually the most impressive handheld title we've ever seen
- Naughty Dog's games sparkle all the way through. Here it feels at times like Golden Abyss is just treading water
- Tilt-control beam walking. If we ever have to stay upright by balancing a digital spirit level in public again we'll cry