Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Hands-On Previews: PlayStation Vita; Halo Anniversary; Journey

These previews are based on my day at this year's Eurogamer Expo, but since it has been such a long time since that event, the articles are now going to be written under a more generic banner.
This week, in the final report, the PlayStation Vita, Halo Anniversary and Journey go under the microscope.

One of the Expo's most densely packed queues - some lines were long, but this one seemed to have an inordinate people crammed within its barriers - was reserved for what was purportedly the first European consumer hands-on with Sony's new handheld, the PlayStation Vita, set for release in early 2012 in Europe and North America.
Even by the standards of a new console, it isn't difficult to see why the Vita is drawing such fascination: Sony seem to have crammed everything into its little black casing, from power supposedly near-equivalent to a PS3, to proper dual analogue sticks (as opposed to the 3DS' single analogue nub, plus ugly add-on for a second), gyroscopic sensors, touchscreen at the front and touch-sensitive pad at the back, plus all manner of non-gaming extras. It is a typical Sony approach of approaching competition (the 3DS, in this case) by going bigger and more elaborate in every conceivable department. Only questions over battery life and the requirement of an costly memory card to play many of its games have soured what would otherwise have been a total PR victory.

So what does it feel like in-hand? Light. Someone later told me that this was due to the absence of a battery - which would make sense, since all the handhelds were wired to the mains near their respective tables - but for what in pictures has looked like a fairly hefty device, the Vita felt smaller and more comfortable than expected. Even with the addition of a battery, the weight will surely not increase to the extent that it could ever be a problem.

The device is a nice size, with analogue sticks positioned to slide immediately under the thumbs, as any good games controller should, and positioning hands only a short distance apart. It is quite easy to reach the touchscreen with either thumb, if only the edges without stretching. The sticks themselves are a little bit plasticky in feel, but more satisfying to use in the midst of gameplay than the effective, but slightly too springy, 3DS nub. The face buttons depress with just a tiny amount of scratchy resistance, feeling a little strange at first but unnoticeable during play. The shoulder buttons, on the other hand, click down satisfyingly.

Everyone in the queue was offered the choice of a card, on which was printed the name of the game they were going to play. I missed out on Uncharted (but thankfully also the mini-golf game) but did score probably the second best option, Wipeout 2048. Since the PSP's Wipeout was also the first game I played on the Vita's predecessor, it seemed appropriate. Once finally allowed through the gate into the play area, each person was assigned and assistant and guided to a table, where the console's functions were explained and little plastic stools numbed the buttocks for the ten-odd minutes that followed.

My first lap of Wipeout - guess what, the track was a futuristic city - was played using traditional analogue controls to steer. It worked every bit as well as should be expected, with the upper analogue stick superbly responsive and manoeuvrable, and one of the excellent shoulder buttons offering vital (pun) support as the air-brake. I felt in complete control immediately, soon whipping around sharp corners with ease: one of the first thoughts which came to mind was how much more of a challenge the game would be using the 3DS' nubs, which offer a degree of resistance that the Vita's sticks do not.

The second lap was played using motion and touch controls, which were more problematic. These involve moving the Vita up and down at the sides to control steering, and keeping a finger on the rear touch pad for acceleration. In theory, there wasn't anything wrong per se, but as anyone who has played Mario Kart with the Wii wheel will attest, steering with motions is slightly too imprecise in its current form to be a viable substitute for analogue control. No matter how severely the Vita was jerked in one direction or another, it never seemed to result in the kinds of sharp turns hoped for. Small adjustments worked better, although brought the problem of requiring perfectly still hands to avoid breaking the racing line. In other words, the gyroscopes worked to a perfectly satisfactory standard, although as with the 3DS, it is debatable how integral they will be to any gaming experience, rather than just offering a lesser alternative to a traditional control method.

The rear touchpad was the real annoyance, even though all that Wipeout required was a finger rested on it to maintain acceleration. It worked, but while the surface of the pad feels slightly different to the rest of the handheld, it isn't so noticeable as to be completely certain during play where the touch-sensitive area begins and ends. For games requiring more precise manipulation of its surface, there will almost certainly be some paranoia as to how close an unwanted finger is to accidentally intruding on the action.

Lacking that knowledge makes holding the Vita a slightly more uncomfortable experience than it should be, with a constant worry about unintentionally scraping the side of the touchpad and causing some unexpected function to activated. The front touch-screen works better because you can see what you are doing, but the fact you are pressing the screen on which the game is playing (as opposed to the DS having gameplay on the upper screen and touch functions on the lower) surely limits its use for anything other than menu navigation and pausing. Touching the screen in the midst of play - which I tried, even though there wasn't any point to doing so in Wipeout - was an unwelcome visual and tactile interruption.

Graphically, Wipeout looked fine, although hardly up to the standard of power that Sony has suggested is contained within the Vita's narrow confines. The visuals were sharp and detailed, but also noticeably blocky at times (especially in the effects from deployed weapons) and with an inconsistent framerate. A noticeable upgrade on what the 3DS has to offer, no doubt, but not one as big as expected and, once in play, might as well have been the same for all the difference it made. On a small screen, the 'wow' factor is naturally reduced and while a game like Uncharted might perhaps offer a more potent demonstration of what the machine can do, Wipeout should have done better than it did - there's no shortage of opportunity for visual flair in a futuristic racer, after all.

After my ten minutes were over, my feeling for the Vita was that what it did well were by and large the same things that the PSP did well: improved graphical performance and control options over the competition, along with appealingly sleek design. Its new functions tended to seem superfluous, as per the gyroscopes, or obstructive to use in practice, as per the touch screen and pad. It will no doubt do its job as a games machine admirably and some inventive developer will find a way of putting those extra control options to good use, but what it doesn't feel like is anything new, or even particularly exciting. For a PR checklist of features, it sounds like a phenomenon. In-hand, it is just another new games handheld, shiny and with boosted performance, but ultimately defined by its familiarity.

HALO ANNIVERSARY (Bungie/Microsoft - 360)

As one of the most important gaming series of modern times, there is no doubt that Halo deserves its tenth anniversary release like few others outside Nintendo's canon. Returning to classic games often yields disappointing results, especially when those games were released in the recent past and progenitors of much of the progress that its genre has made in the intervening years. The absence of features added in subsequent features can feel like a loss that was never there before, while elements once astonishing in their innovative shine are reduced to a shrug of familiarity.
I don't know whether it is a compliment on what a superb game the original Halo was, or an insult to how excessively convoluted later entries in the series became without adding anything substantially new, but returning to the maps and weapons that were a mainstay of FPS gaming ten years ago did not prove the least bit disappointing. If anything, it was refreshing to enjoy a Halo deathmatch experience in its purest form, enhanced with a significant graphical overhaul courtesy of the Reach engine, but otherwise unmolested by modern complications.
The action in Combat Evolved Anniversary is just as it was back in the day and even fairly similar to how it is now: very quick, very visceral, with the advantage going to those who make the best use of the multi-tiered environments and nuances of each weapon. My lack of analogue stick expertise meant I was smoked with merciless frequency by more experienced players, but it is to the game's credit that each match was fun despite my staggering ineptitude. (If any of those players would like to take me on using pointer-based aiming, I suspect the score would be more even...)

All the familiar maps were present and with the visual enhancements adding a fresh spark to the likes of Battle Creek after a decade of waiting - I can only imagine how fanboys of old will feel stepping out onto a gorgeous HD recreation of Blood Gulch, still arguably the greatest multiplayer map for sniping ever created, even though I didn't get to play it myself. The sound is also much beefier, with weapons given a greater aural punch than was possible of back in the days of the original XBox.

There's not honestly a huge amount to say here: if you loved the original Halo, Anniversary will be nirvana. It is a beautifully crafted polishing of a classic, capturing the core appeal of one of the most important games of the modern era and proving not only how well it holds up to its successors, but even demonstrates how little they have been able to meaningfully add to its template. The addition of online play over XBox Live, not available in 2001, should make it an essential buy for nostalgic players and new fans alike.

JOURNEY (Thatgamecompany/Sony - PS3)

The final game in my Eurogamer Expo previews was the one I played first and was most looking forward to. Flower, Thatgamecompany's previous release, didn't delight me in the same way it did others, but the simple elegance of Journey's minimalist visual style, combined with the wordless mystery of its setting, seemed a more focused direction for the studio's evident artistic intentions. As it turned out, Journey was not what I had been expecting at all: my impression going in was that it would be a single continuous world, which the player would steadily navigate until reaching the glowing mountain in the distance and all the answers contained therein. Instead, its world is segmented into what might be called 'levels', each large and varied in content, but with clear limits as to how far you can travel beyond the playgrounds forming their centrepieces.

The surprising thing is that, once the area or path containing the level's key puzzles has been found, the urge to explore soon relinquishes its grip. Upon starting the game, all you want to do is go east, west, north, south, avoiding every landmark for fear of missing any treats hidden off the designated path. Yet while there are plenty of environmental tidbits to explore - crumbling temples consumed in sand, dunes to surf down, scarves flapping in the desert wind - it soon becomes clear that everything meaningful and tied into the mysteries driving the narrative (who is the robed traveller? Why happened to his civilisation? What is at the shining peak of the mountain in the distance?) has been helpfully contained within the places that the game naturally directs you to. There is an in-built spirit of rebelliousness to gaming, a desire to break the rules and do everything except what you are told. Journey allows you to indulge that spirit for as long as you want to, while hypnotically reassuring you that a better experience would be had by relaxing and following its lead instead.

It is not by any means a game to hurry through: in fact, if any criticism is to be made, it is that the traveller moves too slowly on foot, rather than when gliding through the air or across sandy waves. The uncomplicated thrill that comes from taking to the air or streaking down a rippling sandbank makes the considerable amount of running from one point to the next feel a little (whisper it) clunky. The game doesn't need more urgency, but does need to make its navigation a little more fluid. Wind Waker's boat travel was similarly measured, but exciting and while maintaining a zen-like tranquility. Journey needs a bit more of that and a little less running.

Fortunately, the gameplay finds the balance more comfortably. Puzzles are simple, usually a matter of interpreting the environmental interaction that the game wishes you to perform and then employing it to progress towards the gate to the next area. An initial task involves turning a set of scarves billowing through a desert basin into a bridge, by zapping it with the traveller's magic spell. Doing so grants you the ability to fly for a short period of time, making your trip to the next scarf a little easier and more fun. There's an unspoken majesty to reconstructing these fallen environments one step at a time, achieving your goal steadily but surely. The running can be a bit of a chore, but using the power of flight to its maximum capability, taking advantage of wind flows to prolong airtime, makes getting from one place to the next considerably more manageable and satisfying. Once the bridge has been reconstructed, crossing it is a reward within itself, regardless of what is on the other side.

Every gate to a new level / environment comes with a cut-scene where the traveller summons an ancient spirit from a shrine, who informs him (and the player) of a small part of the history of his people. This method of communication seems disappointingly direct: the game is more effective when saying nothing, allowing its story to be told through environmental details instead. A graveyard of a thousand headstones says far more, to much greater emotional impact, than any number of clumsy words.

While earlier environments revolved around finding a way of reconstructing an old pathway, the demo's final environment was a beautiful chase scene where the traveller pursued of a manta ray made entirely from cloth, who was diving and out of the sand dunes like a dolphin. The possibility, as always, was there to ignore the creature and do your own thing, but by that stage, the game had been a good enough teacher that the idea was never a serious possibility. All that mattered was not allowing the creature to slip out of sight while surfing up and down the dunes to see where it was leading you next.

The demo ended at a dark tower, which suggested that more malevolent forces could be at play in Journey's world. I hope not. This was a game whose pleasures derived from the absence of threat, where misbehaviour is not punished but made to feel unnecessary in a land that has already seen a civilisation fall, a place for discovery rather than disruption. On a showfloor where every screen competed for attention with increasingly bombastic action and garish visuals, Journey's peaceful rhythms hushed them to silence. By a comfortable margin, it was my game of the show.


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