PREVIEW: PlayStation Vita and Its Launch Games

We feel the new handheld up all over its front and back. We also test out some games, including Uncharted: Golden Abyss and Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

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I think we’re all a little concerned about the Playstation Vita, Sony’s latest attempt to compete with Nintendo, the King of Handhelds. Or at least the iPhone, which by now at least qualifies as the King’s ambitious, scheming stepbrother towards the end of Act One. Having finally experienced the Playstation Vita for myself, I can say that it is a worthy contender for the crown. Not that it doesn’t come with its own share of problems, on a game by game basis at least. So let’s walk through the system and some of the games Sony was showing off, from Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 to Uncharted: Golden Abyss. And that’s just the “U’s.”

The Playstation Vita is a bulky device, a smidgeon larger than the Playstation Portable. It looks a lot like one too, as you’ve probably already noticed. The dual analog sticks are small but comfortable and responsive. At worst, jerking your thumb from the right stick up to the buttons is less than comfortable, but it gets easier over time. The system’s weirdest innovation is the rear touch pad, which is far more intuitive than taking your hands off the controllers to swipe the screen proper. It’s also motion-controlled, which is getting a little ridiculous. The Playstation Vita is clearly trying to incorporate every gaming innovation Nintendo had to offer, but most of the games I played, at least, either mixed them together well or allow you to turn off the functions that aren’t your thing.

Touch My Katamari, by Namco, doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it does allow you to stretch it. The game is basically just another Katamari, and with joystick controls plays pretty much the exact same way. I was rolling my little ball of sticky doom around the messy floor, picking up debris as easily as I did back on the Playstation 2, and having about as much fun. Turning on the touchscreen controls proved a mistake in Touch My Katamari. The intuitive dual analog stick controls are replaced with a single on-screen swiping area, which allows for interesting flick movements but makes movement far less precise, which in a game like Katamari Damacy isn’t much of a boon, although I’m sure some folks will get used to it. More entertaining was the rear touch pad, which allows you to easily stretch your katamari to pick up swaths of small objects littered across a wide area, or compress it soak up tall stacks of objects all at once, as opposed to the previous strategy of rolling into it, snagging the bottom objects and waiting for the ones at the top to fall on you. It’s a time saver, and contributes comfortable new element to the familiar, effective game dynamic. It’s worth a look when the system comes out on February 22.

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I also got some time with Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, which seems to mirror its Playstation 3 version damned near exactly, with one key difference: touch controls. I haven’t played the Street Fighter games on my iPhone, so maybe this is old hat by now, but playing Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 with just the screen – as I was actively encouraged to do – made the game blisteringly easy. Movement was fine, although attacking while crouching seemed unnecessarily difficult. Attack merely requires spamming the touch screen, which resulting in easy, perfect victories across the board. Again, I assume there are some ninjas out there who will or already have figured out a way to master the system, but it seems superfluous to include it on a console with more accurate analog controls. Otherwise the game seems like an excellent port, and well worth your time.

One of the original IPs I got to play was a fun Pikmin-styled action/RTS hybrid called Army Corps of Hell from Square-Enix. You start the game as a disembodied skull that falls to hell, quickly gets itself a body – I’m not entirely sure how that happened – and decides to run the place. So you enslave a small group of goblins with the sheer power of charisma and wander about the underworld, killing demons by arming your minions and basically throwing them at giant eyeballs, demons with what look like giant egg sacks on their backs, and regular giant boss battles. With the exception of the occasional mini-game involving the rear touch pad, the game played with conventional analog controls, and while the environments were exactly noteworthy – you hop from one rock formation to the other, at least in the levels they demoed – the gameplay started fast and entertainingly and got incrementally more difficult with each stage, giving the impression of a fully balanced game with the potential for a satisfying challenge. I was very pleasantly surprised by Army Corps of Hell.

Then there’s WipEout 2048, a game whose title was designed to wreak havoc with my spellchecker. This game boasted cross-console compatibility with the Playstation 3, allowing you to challenge your friend in one of four – and I am told only four – tracks that have been ported over to the Playstation Vita. The game does come with a plethora of new tracks as well, but only four can be played between platforms. WipEout 2048 was the game that seemed to make the most of Playstation Vita’s motion controls, and with the rear touch pad acting as the accelerating, a quick brush on the front pad for weapons, and movement controlled by manipulating the console like a steering wheel. Some people consider this franchise rather difficult, and I myself have never been a master at it. I found it easy to over-steer along the tracks using the motion controls, but by the end of the first race I was starting to adequately compensate for the discrepancy between how I imagined the game should be played, and how it was actually meant to. Again though, the motion controls are just an option. WipEout 2048 can be played with analog sticks as well, which seemed once again to be the more precise option, but I was still having a lot of fun with the motion controls on this game, so I suspect I might be willing and able to get really good at them if I brought this baby home with me.

The game I suspect you’re all waiting to hear about, Uncharted: Golden Abyss, was only available as a brief demo with two levels. In the first, Nathan Drake finds himself in a prison that is (in-)conveniently on fire. Surprise! You have to jump from pipe to pipe as the environment falls apart around you in order to escape. This process plays out exactly like the Playstation 3 versions of the game, which are getting a little familiar for my taste but still play very well. At one point in Golden Abyss you find a machete, but despite having several perfectly good buttons for attacking – which you use a few minutes later – you have to swipe the screen to cut down a piece of cloth. Three times you have to swipe the screen, and if you mess it up – which is surprisingly easy to do, not that it’s a chess game or anything – you have to try again. I’m okay with touch screen controls, but these parts of the game play like awkward add-ons, or longer, more annoying Quick Time Events. And for what? To slice a piece of cloth.

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The second level of Uncharted: Golden Abyss plays much better, and finally allowed me to shoot some guys as they attacked the hero’s apparent love interest du jour. The controls were just fine, and although the level was essentially a retread of the parts of Resident Evil 4 where you provide cover fire for Ashley Graham, I started having some fun. At least until the shielded turret gun started firing. My attempts to get a good shot were stymied until a cinematic was triggered, in which – oh, Uncharted, this is so you – a gust of breeze blew a tarp off of some conveniently-placed explosives near the enemy. You know where it goes from there. From what I could see, Uncharted: Golden Abyss is a perfectly decent portable version of the series, warts and all, with some unnecessary touch screen functionality thrown in once in a while, regardless of its impact on flow.

With any new gaming innovation comes a share of problems, not the least of which is a tendency for developers to shoehorn the innovation where it doesn’t necessarily belong. But from the games I was able to play at my hands-on demonstration of the Playstation Vita, I have to admit that they’ve got a solid crop of launch and near-launch titles, at least three of which – Touch My Katamari, Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 and Army Corps of Hell – I’d be particularly interested in picking up based on my brief experiences with them. All in all, the Playstation Vita made a solid first impression, although it doesn’t seem likely to change the industry paradigm based on the technology alone.