I’m not a big handheld gaming guy. For one thing, I sometimes leave the house specifically so I can write instead of play games. For another, I don’t always feel like making the transition from a top-tier title built on today’s latest super-technologies to an abbreviated experience. Because, like it or not, using a smaller device always meant playing a smaller game.
Not a murder simulator!
Don’t get me wrong. A lot of very smart designers have made a lot of very good games working inside portable limitations. In fact, it’s usually when they get too ambitious that cracks start to show. But maybe you noticed my use of the past tense above — handhelds meant a smaller game.
At a PS Vita press event earlier this week, I finally saw the technology catch up to the ambition. Imagine my surprise. I held a full-bore console in my hands and played some full-bore video games.
No lie, you can run some of the best console games of yesteryear over on the Nintendo 3DS, but the Vita looks forward. And the people creating games for it are building around the hardware in very smart ways…ways that actually make me, of all people, consider a Vita purchase. Here are three reasons why:
1. You get the game you want
If you and Sully escaped from a burning chateau in PS3's Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, then chapter 3 of Vita's Uncharted: Golden Abyss — aptly titled “Why’s the Building On Fire?” — will feel like home. The more combat-heavy sequences developer Bend Studio showed off at the E3 trade show earlier this year weren't on display this week in San Francisco, CA, but I can vouch for those, too. Unlike platform-specific interpretations like the stylus-based Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword on the Nintendo DS, Golden Abyss looks and feels exactly like the Uncharted you know.
Likewise, if you play Resistance: Burning Skies, you're playing Resistance, period. Crossing a Chimera-infested bridge, I pulled out the franchise's signature Auger rifle and plugged those mutants through a few walls, easy-peasy. Grenades and secondary-fire options are all touch-based. Drag a frag right to your intended target. Press and hold to tag him for homing bullets. It works, but your hand leaves the camera and trigger for a few precious seconds.
Veterans will find these games, their graphics, controls, and rhythms instantly familiar…sometimes to their detriment. Resistance still relies heavily on caging you in an area until you've killed three waves of enemies. Golden Abyss throws out the most groan-worthy deus ex machina in recent memory — your companion "remembers" the huge pile of explosives in the back of an enemy truck just as the wind whips off its canvass cover to reveal them. The gameplay, however, remains completely intact.
I can’t claim either title will live up to their console big brothers quite yet, but if they don’t, the fault won't lie with the Vita.
Die, Hawaiian-shirt man!
2. It does online connectivity right
Most developers stay cagey about online modes until the last second in case something gets cut — developer Nihilistic wouldn’t go on the record for Resistance in typical non-denial denial fashion — but it’s the central draw of Zipper "SOCOM" Interactive's third-person shooter Unit 13. Pay close attention, portable-gaming industry.
Unit 13, which desperately needs a better name, presents 36 non-linear missions you can tackle in any order. The higher the number, the more difficult the level, and they unlock asymmetrically. Complete mission 1, and numbers 2, 3, and 13 become available. You can pick up co-op games with anyone regardless of whether or not they've unlocked that particular stage. If they complete it with you, it'll unlock on their system as well.
It gets better. "High Value Targets," nine additional super-tough missions, unlock as you earn stars (similar to Call of Duty's Spec Ops levels). Once you've accessed a target, you can issue a one-time-only pass for that section to any of your Unit 13-playing friends, giving them a taste of what's to come.
As for support, Zipper plans to alter one of its standard 36 missions every 24 hours as a special one-day-only challenge (similar to Left 4 Dead 2's Mutations). The game even features its own Street Pass-like function, ripping off (or paying homage, if you prefer) the best 3DS feature to further your own player circle.
Of course, Zipper positioned your soldier center-screen, occasionally obscuring the view until you go iron sights, so that's an issue. And the beautiful way in which this game exists as an online presence won’t do much good unless it picks up a devoted following. But as-is, Uncharted and Resistance both trail Unit 13 (which really needs a better name) where multiplayer and connectivity are concerned, and I mean by a lot.
3. Welcome to the new house of ideas
While the big-money franchises usually turn out reliably good games, the real innovations and risks now happen almost exclusively in smaller, downloadable titles like Limbo and From Dust. A platform like PS Vita might just offer the best of both worlds, and I submit Gravity Rush (the game formerly known as Gravity Daze) as Exhibit A.
Sweet! I can see through her clothes and…is that her kidney?
The plot should trigger endorphin rushes in any JRPG fan: Amnesiac girl wakes up in mysterious city under siege from mysterious alien baddies, and a stray black cat bestows some super powers upon her. P.S., girl's name is Kat. With me so far? Beautiful cartoon-like graphics flow into comic-book-slide cut-scenes that tilt as you move the Vita, but let's get to those powers. Kat can become her own center of gravity.
Hit the right trigger, and Kat becomes weightless. Aim the reticule anywhere in the sprawling city, pull that trigger again, and she'll hurtle right at it until she lands with a satisfying whomp. Whatever it is, that's her new "ground." It's seriously thrilling to traverse an open-world city this way, whether you're escorting (i.e., dragging) a civilian caught in your gravity field to a waypoint or taking out stray balloons. Gravity-kick combat will also play a part.
I'm not sure I'd put Gravity Rush's central mechanic quite on a par with Portal's, but out of the dozen-odd games at this event, this one singled itself out as the most memorable. Oh, and did I mention Gravity Rush's lead designer? It's Keiichirō Toyama, creator of Silent Hill.
Oh yeah. Now you want a Vita, too.
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