Games 2/21/11 (Part Two): Playstation Vita + Launch Game Roundup

Playstation Vita
From: Sony
Price: $250 (Wi-Fi only version) or $300 (Wi-Fi/3G version)

Even when it was brand-new, Sony’s Playstation Portable left something to be desired. With the Nintendo DS finally coming into its own, the merits of having a touchscreen were plain to see. And for a system attempting to distill the console experience onto a handheld with nothing lost, the lack of a second analog stick crippled the PSP from day one.

Until technology comes along that allows us to control games with our minds, the Playstation Vita has no such problem. It supports the tried and true, with a full complement of buttons and two analog sticks. It has a capactive, multitouch-capable touchscreen that vastly outclasses Nintendo’s resistive screen. It has an accelerometer for tilt control, a microphone for voice control and front and rear cameras for augmented reality. There’s Internet via Wi-Fi and, optionally, 3G. With a capactive touch panel adorning the back of the device, there’s even something brand new.

As pieces of hardware go, the Vita impresses in almost every major respect. Though a little larger than the PSP, it’s surprisingly light and comfortable to hold. The sticks and buttons look alarmingly small at first glance but prove comfortable and capable in the heat of gameplay, and the touchscreen and touch panel are pleasantly responsive (a credit, perhaps, to the snappy system software as well as the hardware). A glowing Playstation button provides easy access to core system functions, even mid-game, and the directional pad is better than the one on the Playstation 3’s controller. Only the Start button, on system’s far bottom right, feels awkwardly positioned. But it had to go somewhere, and like anything else, accessing it becomes second nature with practice.

On top of responding quickly and precisely to the touch, the 5-inch OLED touchscreen is roomy, bright and stunningly crisp. As the system’s launch lineup demonstrates multiple times, there is no barrier whatsoever to replicating a high-definition console experience on this screen.

The only potential dud on the hardware side are the cameras. They’ll more than suffice for augmented reality gaming purposes (a set of AR cards comes bundled with the system, though AR games weren’t available on the Playstation Store as of this writing), and if Sony introduces a video chat app, it should work for that as well. But if you have a smartphone made after 2008, you almost certainly have a better camera for picture-taking purposes than the ones packed in here.

Though responsive, unique and almost certain to improve through future firmware updates, the Vita’s system software isn’t quite as sparkling as the hardware housing it. Instead of the XMB that made the PSP and PS3 so easy to navigate, the Vita’s main screen arranges games and applications on the home screen as a series of orb-shaped icons, with no way to group them into folders or hide the built-in apps you don’t plan to use. Arranging the icons is tedious — in no small part because the home screen allows touch control only for some reason — and as you play more games and add more icons to the screen, things can get unwieldy in a hurry.

With that said, there’s an excellent reason icons for games you play stay on the home screen even when you eject the game from the system. In addition to save data, each game’s icon contains a Live Area — a screen where you can launch/resume the game, view your play/trophy history, check for updates, view the digital instruction manual, and access website links, bonus features or whatever else a game’s developer decides to put there.

For all the system software presently does awkwardly, the Live Area is brilliant. It’s unintrusive — your game state immediately freezes if you pop out to the Live Area and it resumes just as instantly when you jump back in — and always having the manual a tap away is the best answer yet to the decline of paper manuals. (Sure enough, Vita games are a dead tree-free zone.) Even downloading game updates no longer disrupts your game: Just initiate the download, jump back into your in-progress game, and apply the update at your leisure later on. How’s that for a night-and-day improvement over the PS3’s Byzantine update process?

As evidenced by the existence of a 3G version, Sony would like you to use your Vita for more than just games, and while most of the non-gaming apps have not appeared in the Playstation store as of this writing, the usual suspects — Facebook, Twitter, Flickr — are en route. For its part, Sony packs in a web browser that’s decent in a pinch but feature-deficient, and its Group Messaging, Party, Trophies and Friends apps are good for managing and enhancing your Playstation Network lifestyle. (All but the browser can be accessed without losing your place in a game, too) Music and video players do exactly what you expect them to do, and the Content Management app provides a reasonably painless way to transfer music, video and games from a PS3, Mac or PC.

(A few notes about the 3G version: A 3G plan — via AT&T — costs $15 a month but comes with no contract and can be activated and canceled at will. If your only aim is to play games, though, you probably should opt for the Wi-Fi version: Gameplay over 3G is untenable if it’s even supported, and the 20 MB download limit means you can’t even download most games unless you’re on a Wi-Fi connection.)

The oddest oddball in Sony’s initial app offerings is, by far, the Near app, a location-based program that aims to connect players who are nearby and reward them with discoverable bonuses for games that integrate its features. In its current state, Near is considerably promising but also considerably confusing — jumbled with enough vague icons and self-contained jargon to make it seemingly impossible to understand, but fun enough to try and figure out anyway. An expanded help section would go a long way in a future update, but for now, there’s fun to be had in figuring this virtual wilderness out.

Overall, the Vita’s upside far outweighs its downside, and the initial launch library is one of the best ever assembled for any system.

But there’s always a caveat, and in this case, it relates to storage.

Specifically, the Vita has no internal storage. To download, update and even save progress in your games, you’ll need a proprietary memory card. Many launch-day bundles ship with one, but it isn’t necessarily a given, and the prices for the cards (ranging from $20 for 4 GB to $100 for 32 GB) mean it isn’t a trivial expense. If you’re budgeting for a system, factor that in now so you don’t feel sticker shock later.

Uncharted: Golden Abyss
From: SCE Bend Studio/Sony
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, drug reference, language, mild suggestive themes, violence)
Price: $50

The Vita’s most prominent launch game likely will also be its most polarizing. For the most part, “Uncharted: Golden Abyss” plays like an “Uncharted” game, mixing lots of climbing and platforming with third-person, cover-based shootouts against legions of enemies armed to the teeth. In between, though, “Abyss” eschews the blockbuster set pieces of recent “Uncharted” games in favor of intelligence gathering — treasure hunts, charcoal rubbings, photography, examining and cleaning artifacts, a puzzle here and there — that utilizes the Vita’s other control inputs. On one hand, it feels like a textbook case of a big-ticket launch game using every piece of a new system by any means necessary. But “Abyss” doesn’t cram the stuff down players’ throats. A few of these instances lie on the storyline’s main road, but most are optional endeavors for those who enjoy the leisurely challenge of finding obscure pathways and gathering all the back story clues. “Abyss” makes it fun rather than a mindless chore to do so, so the gimmickry is forgivable. The core gameplay, by contrast, gets a best-of-both-worlds treatment: Traditional button-and-stick controls apply, but everything has a complementary touch or tilt method as well, and some of them prove surprisingly handy. You need not choose one or the other, either: Both schemes are simultaneously in play, and you can utilize and ignore methods in whatever fashion suits you best. Presentationally, “Abyss” upholds the series’ high values with an engaging story, a great cast of characters and some of the best voice acting in the business bringing it all to life. Not surprisingly, and much like its bigger console brothers, it’s one of the prettier games in the library thus far.

Lumines: Electronic Symphony
From: Q Entertainment/Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $40

If you ever had a PSP, you’re likely familiar with “Lumines,” which merged a falling-block puzzle game with a rhythmic music game to create an engrossing experience that stole the show during the PSP’s launch. Seven years, a few sequels and a new portable Playstation later, little has changed. In terms of features, “Lumines: Electronic Symphony” is a bit more substantial, thanks largely to a persistent experience points system that rewards continued play with new unlockable special abilities and levels (each accompanied by a completely distinctive visual aesthetic and song selection). Online leaderboards are ingrained into the interface, as is an amusing community feature where Vita players worldwide band together to clear millions of blocks in a 24-hour span. (What happens if they succeed is, thus far, a mystery.) Master and time trial challenges cater to advanced players who like clearing blocks under heavy pressure, while two-player local multiplayer (no online, unfortunately) follows multiplayer puzzle game conventions pretty faithfully. Ultimately, though, “Symphony’s” centerpiece remains its marathon mode, where players keep the playing field clear while the game cycles through levels whose audiovisual exteriors dictate the tempo of the action. (In turn, your actions in the game influence portions of that soundtrack’s construction. Hard to explain on paper, but you’ll understand once you catch onto it.) Much as “Lumines” was an audiovisual showpiece for the PSP, so too is “Symphony” for the Vita, and the game at the center of it all hasn’t lost a step. A means for playing using only the touchscreen is available if you need change for changes’ sake, but the classic tandem of D-pad and face buttons remains the superior choice.

Escape Plan
From: Fun Bits Interactive/Sony
ESRB Rating: Teen (suggestive themes, violence, blood)
Price: $15

The arguable oddball (in a good way) of the Vita launch? It has to be “Escape Plan,” which takes a simple premise — help best buds Lil and Laarg escape from a bizarre, factory-like prison laden with danger — and packages it in a wrapper that’s pretty, charming, twisted and the most clever introduction there is to the Vita’s touch (and to a lesser extent, tilt) control capabilities. You control neither Lil nor Laarg directly: Rather, using the touchscreen and touch panel, you swipe and poke at them to guide their movement and interact similarly with the surrounding environment to keep them from strolling into peril. Past the opening levels, “Plan” doesn’t tell you what to do: It’s up to you to look around the level and figure out what can be done — perhaps tapping a mattress from behind to push it over for a safe landing, perhaps holding a finger over a damaged pipe to block a gas leak while using another finger to guide the friends across — to escort them safely. As usual, easy early levels eventually give way to genuine brainteasers, and while you can cheat “Plan’s” three-star grading system by replaying levels once you figure them out, the real sport comes from keeping Lil’s and Laarg’s death count to a minimum. The number of times each character perishes is displayed prominently and humorously on their body, which is but one of the many darkly funny touches — Tim Burton-esque character design, a monochrome presentation that looks like a cross between 3D and charcoal art come expressively alive, a delightful appetite for slapstick, a classical music soundtrack that jubilantly belies the otherwise dark tone — that make “Plan” a beast of its own creation.

Wipeout 2048
From: Studio Liverpool/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (fantasy violence)
Price: $40

If you don’t follow the “Wipeout” timeline, you may not realize “Wipeout 2048” actually predates the original Playstation “Wipeout” game by a few years. What this means — in addition to a really impressive opening video that beautifully animates the evolution of the automobile into the hovering ship for which the series is known — is that “2048’s” tracks are a cool hybrid of regular concrete roads and the futuristic tracks that populate the other “Wipeout” games. Beyond that visual twist, though, this is as “Wipeout” as “Wipeout” gets — a very fast, very pretty and eventually very challenging futuristic racing game that will absolutely punish you if you don’t learn to use your ship’s air brake. Long load times between races — in the 30 to 40 second range — make “2048” the slowest Vita game as well as the fastest one, but if you can ride out the wait, the spotless on-track action is worth it. (Just be sure to stick with the tried and true: A tilt-and-touch control scheme is available as an option, but it holds no candle to the sticks and buttons.) “2048’s” customary career mode mixes races, time trials and kart racer-style combat events, all of which carry over to local and online play (eight players each). As a first taste of Sony’s plans to cross-pollinate the Vita and PS3, those who own “2048” also can race against those who own “Wipeout HD” on the PS3. If you own both versions, the two forthcoming downloadable packs of “HD” tracks are yours to download for free when they release for “2048” this spring.

Hot Shots Golf: World Invitational
From: Clap Hanz/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild suggestive themes)
Price: $40

Another Sony system means another place to drop a “Hot Shots Golf” game, and if you’re surprised at how safely “Hot Shots Golf: World Invitational” mostly plays its hand, you must not be very familiar with this series. But why fix what isn’t broken? Familiar though a lot of it may look, there’s a healthy amount of courses to play through, characters to unlock and tournaments to win in “Invitational.” “Hot Shots” perfected the recipe for accessible video game golf years ago, and that system — anchored by a default swing mechanic anyone can understand and complemented by additional and alternative methods of control for those who want them — shows no age here. “Invitational” iterates similarly, adding a new touchscreen swing option and letting players use the tilt and touchscreen to pan the course and plot a path to the tee, respectively. As always, if you play alone, there’s plenty to do in the career mode, but “Invitation’s” best features lie on the multiplayer side. Along with eight-player local multiplayer and 30-player online tournament support, players can enter a daily worldwide tournament. You play one round and get one chance per day to post a score to a global leaderboard. The top score gets fame and glory, while everyone else has to wait until tomorrow for another chance. No pressure.

Little Deviants
From: Bigbig Studios/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (animated blood, cartoon violence, comic mischief)
Price: $30

With every new system, there must be a minigame collection that doubles as a coming-out party for all the new features. The Vita bakes one into the system in the form of “Welcome Park,” but if you want something meatier, “Little Deviants” — a minigame collection that puts the touchscreen, accelerometer and camera through numerous paces — is it. Some of the games — including the showpiece game, which has you guiding a Deviant around an area by touching the back panel to “push” the land up and roll him along — are clever. Most — using augmented reality to blast robots flying around your own home, tilting the Vita to roll a Deviant around a maze or steer him through an obstacle course — are not. Almost all reside on the shallow side, as minigames tend to do. But if “Deviants” is more a statement about the Vita’s quality than a game you’ll still be playing months from now, it’s a pretty convincing one. Achieving medal-worthy scores in these games requires some pretty nimble Deviant guidance, and the precision and speed with which the system responds to touch and tilt may surprise even those with high expectations. The polished control makes “Deviants” fun in spite of how shallow most of the games are, and if you like a challenge, chasing the games’ gold medal score requirements most certainly is one. “Deviants” also does a nice job of integrating your friends list and Sony’s Near software: If you have friends or neighbors playing the game, you’ll be able to chase their scores and send them challenges to return the favor when you pass them.

Super Stardust Delta
From: Housemarque/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild fantasy violence)
Price: $10 (free with activation of a 3G data plan)

One of the PS3’s original standout downloadable games is now pulling similar duty on the Vita, which has the dual sticks to do it justice. In the vein of “Geometry Wars” and “Robotron,” “Super Stardust Delta” is a pure dual-stick shooter (left stick to fly the ship, right stick to aim and fire). Its primary gimmick — that the levels are spherical planets rather than flat arenas — gets put to better effect here than on the PS3, thanks to an ability to tilt the Vita to change the perspective from which you view the planet. Five offshoot modes take advantage of the touch and tilt controls, including a tilt-based game in which you control a rolling asteroid, a touch-and-drag game where you keep a blue disc out of harm’s way, and an amusing game where you pinch the touchscreen and rear touch panel together to “squish” asteroids like a god. But “Delta’s” main modes — a planet-by-planet campaign or an arcade-style marathon mode — are as pure in spirit as their PS3 counterparts. The Vita’s sticks are up to the task, the game is as polished and responsive here as it’s ever been, and the confluence of challenge, activity and special effects makes for an exciting and very pretty way to put $10 to very good use.

Army Corps of Hell
From: Entersphere/Square Enix
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, violence)
Price: $40

The wait for Nintendo’s third “Pikmin” game has entered its eighth year, and if you’re inpatient enough to play the best “Pikmin” game Nintendo wouldn’t dare make, this one has your name written all over it. “Army Corps of Hell” puts you in control of the literal King of Hell, but the real action comes from commanding a massive army of minions to do your bidding. The fundamental similarities to “Pikmin” are undeniable: You “command” minions by chucking them two or more at a time at enemies and other points of interest, and your duties as king revolve around keeping minions alive and managing different formations of sword-, spear- and spell-wielding minions. The primary difference with “Hell” is, of course, the theme: In place of “Pikmin’s” cute creatures and lush landscapes, “Hell” sets shop in a scorched underworld, populates it with hideous allies and enemies alike, drenches everything in blood, and wraps it inside a heavy metal soundtrack that’s so deliriously overt as to be amusing. Elsewhere, “Hell” is alternately a deeper and shallower game. Though level arrangements change and boss fights force you to consider new attack formations, there’s still little objective beyond killing enemies. On the other hand, you can level up your minions and outfit them with new weapons and armor. If you’re up to the challenge, there’s fun to be had in finding the perfect formation and putting it into play to finish a level quickly, forcefully and stylishly enough to get the highest grades. Should you wish to apply that knowledge toward destroying your friends as well, a local multiplayer option (four players) is on hand to let you do just that.

Shinobido 2: Revenge of Zen
From: Acquire/Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, violence)
Price: $40

One look at the graphics is all it takes to wonder if “Shinobido 2: Revenge of Zen” began life as a PSP game before rebuilding the deck and jumping aboard the Vita launch. Unflattering visual presentation aside, though, the move was for the best. The Vita’s dual joysticks prove to be a considerable asset in a game where you’re trying to maintain stealthy awareness in levels with multiple open ends. Similarly, while the touchscreen gets put to limited use and nearly every function has a button equivalent, they’re useful functions (calling up a map, honing in on a target’s general location when the game alerts you to his presence) that are easier to access this way than via buttons. “Zen” has some wobbly control working against it: Zen (that’s you) is a bit clumsy when climbing ledges and peeking around corners, and he’s downright messy when fighting an enemy who has spotted you and is fighting back. (Theres a reason your specialty is stealth, so just flee and try to surprise your enemies again. “Zen” and Zen, to their equal credit, are flexible enough that getting spotted isn’t a deal-breaker if you aren’t stubborn enough to admit your mistake and bolt for the shadows.) “Zen’s” action is fast, limber and engrossing enough to make even its control shortcomings pretty forgivable, and the story brings with it lots of control over upgrades, special moves and allegiances with different factions. It won’t make your newfangled handheld feel very new, but as stealth action games go, it offers a lot to like.

ModNation Racers: Road Trip
From: SCE San Diego Studio/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence)
Price: $30

The endlessly customizable kart racer makes a Vita debut that’s at once impressive, imperfect and incomplete. Outside of some occasional framerate stutters, “ModNation Racers: Road Trip’s” on-track action looks and feels as good as the original “ModNation Racers” did on the PS3. Better still, because both games feed into the same ecosystem, every one of the hundreds of thousands of karts, racers and tracks players created in the PS3 edition is immediately available to download for free in this version. The customization options remain enormous, and the track builder benefits from the optional touchscreen sculpting tools (though the traditional interface remains available as well for those who prefer it). On the other side of the coin, “Trip” sports some lengthy load times that lend an air of unresponsiveness to the touchscreen-only menu interface. And while “Trip” supports local multiplayer (four players) and mobile-friendly asynchronous online play via time trial challenges, the lack of head-to-head online racing is baffling considering the 2010 PSP version had it. There’s an obscene amount of content here for single and local multiplayer purposes, but if your primary goal is to compete online, another racer will have to suffice.

Touch My Katamari
From: Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (comic mischief, mild fantasy violence, mild suggestive themes)
Price: $30

“Katamari Damacy” — that bizarre game where you roll a ball-shaped katamari around and… forget it, just watch a video to understand it — was such a weirdly original stroke of genius that it remains beloved in spite of Namco’s inability to meaningfully improve it over the course of numerous sequels. “Touch My Katamari” is no different, and its self-aware storyline — in which the King of all Cosmos mounts a furious return to form after his once-loyal subjects declare him stale and washed up — might have been insulting if it wasn’t so sharply, hilariously on point. Like its predecessors, “TMK” resides at the three-way intersection between weird, genuinely funny and easy to play/hard to master, and there remains something compelling about rolling around a ball smaller than a bottle cap that gradually grows large enough to absorb cows, trains and entire buildings. The level count is low — only 12 environments — if all you plan to do is blaze through the story. But each level offers two additional variants upon completing it the first time, and beyond the pursuit of top grades and high scores, there’s a ton of hidden and unlockable content for completists to discover by replaying levels. As the name implies, an optional touch interface accompanies the traditional dual-stick controls, and you can switch freely between both. In a minor twist that’s useful and amusing all at once, you also can use multitouch to pinch or stretch the katamari to squeeze between tight spaces and/or sweep a wide area that would require two or three passes in standard ball form.

Asphalt: Injection
From: Gameloft/Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild violence, tobacco reference)
Price: $30

How much are buttons and sticks worth to you? In the Vita launch, no game contextualizes the 99 cent-versus-$30 price debate as pointedly as “Asphalt: Injection.” On its own merits, “Injection” is a well-made and well-rounded racing game, with 45 licensed vehicles, 15 cities’ worth of tracks, a comprehensive career mode with numerous event types and local/online multiplayer (eight players each). But “Asphalt 6,” available for a buck on iOS, offers most of these features as well. Support for Playstation Network features (friends, trophies, Near) aside, the primary difference is the ability to drive with the sticks and shoulder buttons instead of tilt and virtual touchscreen buttons. For many, that’s enough. “Injection” controls respectably with its optional tilt and touch control scheme, but it’s a superior experience with traditional controls, which are just plain better at handling a racing game that threads the needle between fast arcade action and consideration for vehicle weight and other simulation-like features. For those less concerned about acing “Injection’s” career and online arena, control precision may not be worth the 2,900 percent markup. And if that’s the case more than it isn’t, developers in Gameloft’s position have some stuff to ponder with regard to how they price their games.

Rayman Origins
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (comic mischief, mild cartoon violence, suggestive themes)
Price: $40

Pound for pound, “Rayman Origins” — the magnificently pretty 2D platformer that ranked among 2011’s best games — is as good as any game on this list. If you haven’t played it on a console yet, this port may also be the version to get. Though a lengthy game that easily commands its price, “Origins” also breaks into stages that are very portable-friendly. The 2D graphics look stellar on the Vita’s screen, and a new layer of touch controls enhance the experience without changing anything about the core gameplay. The only downside: This version doesn’t have the console versions’ two-player co-op support.

Ultimate Marvel Vs. Capcom 3
From: Capcom
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild blood, mild language, partial nudity, suggestive themes, violence)
Price: $40

Like “Rayman Origins,” “Ultimate Marvel Vs. Capcom 3” is powered by a hand-drawn graphical presentation that just looks awesome on this screen. Every feature from the console versions — 50-plus characters, eight-player online play, the Heroes and Heralds mode — makes it into this edition, and an accessible and flexible touch control scheme is available for casual players who want to pull off the prettier moves without putting in the effort to master them. (Competitive players, worry not: You can avoid these players online if you please.) Capcom has jumped on the cross-compatibility train as well: If you own the PS3 version of “UMvC3” and have purchased any downloadable content for it, that DLC is yours for free in this version (and vice versa).

Plants vs. Zombies
From: Popcap/Sony Online Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (animated blood, cartoon violence)
Price: $15

Because you can’t have a system these days without a version of “Plants vs. Zombies” on it, kudos to Sony Online Entertainment for having one ready to go right at launch. The Vita also benefits from all that prior porting: It has the console version’s controller controls, the mobile versions’ touch controls, and pretty much every important feature Popcap has built into the game since it first appeared. If you somehow haven’t played it yet, this may be the definitive version until a sequel comes along