Monday, 31 March 2014

Hardware tour: Portable vitamin injected gaming

So I bought a Sony PlayStation Vita...

...mainly because of WipEout 2048! Well it IS one of my favourite gaming series! More on that game further down, here's my thoughts and experiences with Sony's second generation of handheld systems. I first experienced this powerful handheld a year ago at a gaming convention, finally this year I bought one! How does it compare well with my last handheld, the PSP? Read on!

The Vita box in all it's glory!
Inside the box.
The cartridges are small!
I made the Vita look like something Sega made!
From PSP to Vita
In 2006 I bought the original Sony PlayStationPortable (PSP), together with the fantastic WipEout Pure and Ridge Racer games. And while I did enjoy the powerful handheld console, it had a few downsides. Many of the games were just ports of PlayStation 2 versions, it only had one joystick, videos had to be a certain format and the UMD drive was slow to load.

Luckily Sony have taken to heart some of these nuisances for the Vita. I'm guessing the system got a green flag mainly from Japan where handhelds are very popular. In the west, if you're not a huge fan of more obscure Japanese titles, the PSP left you with a slightly tame library of games. Usually they were just downgrades of games available for the PlayStation 2. The PSP seemed to take a few years to build a decent amount of games, and towards the end of it's lifespan it had a very decent number. I'm guessing the PSP was fairly fast and easy to develop for. The Vita is quite powerful and the games, I'm only guessing here, probably take more effort and money to make.

The first and most obvious change from PSP to Vita is the addition of a second thumbstick. If you recall the PSP had problems with bad controller setups without this. The "thumb-nub" from PSP is gone too and in it's place are the two true thumbsticks. They feel far better than the nub and give way for dual-stick controlling, especially important for third and first person shooters. The thumbsticks feel precise and have a fair travel distance considering their size. They really help shooting games get the feeling of being on a large console. The physical UMD disc format is also gone, in it's place are small cartridges, which should help for battery life. Though we are still hampered by fairly lengthy load times for my taste, which is disappointing.

Vita's screen is far superior to the PSP one, with a sharp and colourful OLED screen (which has been replaced for LCD in newer models). My version has the OLED one. It's a touch screen and the Vita even has a touch panel at the rear too. Although I rarely use the panel at the back, the touch screen is really useful for navigation in menus, 
bridging the link between handheld gaming and mobile phone navigation.

The main OS menues on the Vita are fast and responsive, not that the XMB type menu of the PSP wasn't either (ed. XMB is the name of the menu first introduced by Sony in their PSX media box and used further for PSP and PS3, it lends itself also somewhat to the PS4 style too), though I'm finding the circular and wobbly bubbles for icons slightly cheap and childish looking. I mostly navigate using my fingers on the touch screen.

The design of the Vita lends a lot to the first series of the PSP and I really like that they have kept it. Much like how Nintendo kept the design of their handheld DS family. The Sony handhelds look far more stylish in my opinion compared to Nintendo's bulky and boxy look. I'm annoyed that Sony have gone for a proprietary system for memory cards, making the prices insanely high and leaving no room for competition by other manufactures. The physical size of the memory cars are also way too small, making them easy to lose.

Remote play
There's a really neat feature with the Vita built for the new Sony console generation; you can remotely play the PlayStation 4 with it! Either as a second screen or connecting through it and playing the PS4 offscreen. This works much like how the Nintendo Wii U controller does, however the Vita can also remotely boot up and play on your PS4 over the internet from any location. How responsive this is will determine on your internet speed, but is a nice feature to play PS4 games that are of a slower pace on holiday! I tried the new Call of Duty Ghosts with remote play, sitting in the same room as the PS4, and the game played with very little input lag. Although it reduced the framerate down to 30fps it looked incredible to have the PS4 graphics on a small handheld!

All in all I find the Vita a nice looking piece of hardware and it has some incredible power under the hood. The graphics are almost PS3/360 generation at times, and showcase how far small handheld devices have come technically. The high resolution and crystal clear screen makes the device perfect for modern games and watching movies on the move. The PS4 connectivity is a neat feature for extending the systems lifespan and use.

The only concern I have with the Vita is the lack of titles and especially unique ones that differ from the console variants. I've got a feeling that my library of games for this system may be fairly small in size. It's a difficult niche to build games for; they can't be so simple that people rather just play on their mobiles, and they can't be so technically heavy games that making gaming on the move tiresome. I feel that Nintendo have easier hit this sweet spot between simplicity and complexity though their handheld gaming library, but this maybe has a lot to do with the audience they are aiming at. Sony seem to be aiming at a stylish, more teenage and adult oriented look with the Vita, while Nintendo aim for the young audience of children. I think the Vita will sell less doing so, as there will always be more powerful consoles to buy at the same price for you living room TV.

If you often find yourself on the move, don't have access to a TV at any given time or rarely at home, the Vita is a good buy. The amount of typical Japanese games is an issue to consider, if you are into them it's definitely a system to pick up. There are many PSP titles available on the PlayStation Network to play on the far superior screen too, expanding the library of games even further! All in all the Vita is a powerful handheld gaming device, a great way of playing the PS4 offscreen and it will cover your social media and internet needs.

The games
A gaming system needs games, and great ones at that. I bought a few for the Vita and here is my opinion of them!

WipEout 2048

My main reason for buying a PS Vita was actually this game. I've loved the WipEout series since the first PlayStation. After the fairly recent, and fantastic, WipEout HD Fury on PlayStation 3, my hopes were high for this game. I found the HD tracks to look a little too futuristic and space-like. So when WipEout 2048 first emerged, a sort of prequel, with rumours of tracks that were more down-to-earth, I was very excited. The end result is both impressive and somewhat disappointing.

The good news first. WipEout 2048 looks incredible, it truly is one of the best looking handheld games I've seen. It may not run at 60 fps like WipEout HD, but it looks equally as good, if not more detailed. There's a large variation in race types, tracks and race crafts to choose from. The game takes place through three seasons of racing (year 2048, 2049 and 2050) with exceedingly faster leagues.

Sadly though, once again Studio Liverpool fails to make a WipEout game with a better learning curve. They add this "pilot assist" option, which really just messes with the feeling of the game, rather than making an easier AI, simpler and more clear tracks and far less weaponry. They could simply add more features and complicated tracks further on in the game. More often than preferable, the races end in random chaos events. Even though the tracks are far wider than before it seems that you end up in a cluttered group of most of the other racers, firing endless rockets at you. Winning or losing a race feels a lot of the time like flipping a coin; rather than actual skills being involved. 

Add to this chaotic racing some of the tracks, especially the Sol one, simply have no track side fences and there are annoying obstacles you ram into. There's some skill involved trying to keep your racer on the track, but little does it help when the other racers keep bumping or shooting you over the edge. At times the game almost reached SSX (2012) frustration; falling off ledges again and again.

It's a game that will punish you to annoying levels, and more often than I should have, I got stuck in the campaign. At other times I won an event after the other, but I'd love to have seen a more consistent difficulty, together with more clear track lay-outs and a slightly less aggressive AI. I learned over time a few tricks to improving my racing and ended up using the outside camera angle. It helps to get a better view of what is happening around the race craft. Once I mastered the game fairly well I got to enjoy it's excitement and fantastic graphics.

WipEout 2048 turned out to be Studio Liverpools last game, a choice I won't forgive Sony easily for, but sadly it didn't end on a perfect note and so WipEout HD remains as the last gem they made. However 2048 is probably Vita's greatest racing game and really should be played by fans of the series!



You can purchase and download a HD and Fury pack to play the tracks and cups from the PS3 wipEout HD game. If you own them from before, like I did, then they cost nothing! The WipEout HD singleplayer proves for the second playthrough that it was a better game and it's kind of sad that I've spent more time in it than 2048's singleplayer. The Fury pack shows the trend towards the more annoying and randomness of 2048. These DLC pack looks almost identical graphically to the PS3 version, though only 30 fps and on a small screen that conceals the slight downgrade of course! Amazing value for money and highly recommended!

Killzone Mercenary

Next to WipEout 2048, Killzone Mercenary is probably the other showcase game for the Vita hardware. It looks like a slightly downgraded version of Killzone 2 & 3 on the PS3! For a handheld it's an incredible looking game. The gameplay also feels a lot like it's console versions.

The game itself is a short, but enjoyable affair; it's a fairly straight forward first person shooter. The main singleplayer takes you maybe around 4-5 hours to complete; however it has a lot of replayability with the option to play each mission with various tasks. These tasks depend on the playstyle choosen before each mission. Either covert, demolition or precision. There's a wealth of weapons and armoury, which are purchased with money you earn in-game, that are preferred for each play style. Snipers, assault rifles, sub machine guns etc.

Collecting all weapons, gadgets and armoury will take a lot of time, yet KM also has comprehensive multiplayer to earn money in. If you are into playing online, and I'm guessing a lot of people only owning this system are, then this game is probably the best for the shooter genre on the Vita. Online has levelling and lots of unloackables, much like any other shooter post Call of Duty 4. However, I'm not sure a person that plays a lot online will be playing on a Vita much, maybe if they're on holiday?

If you're the kind of person that plays through games only once, then KM will seem fairly short, though it has a lot of variation throughout. For those looking to dig in to shooter on the Vita and want all the options a full-size console shooter has to offer, this game is warmly recommended.



Call of Duty Black Ops Declassified

CoD was actually one of the first games I tried on a Vita, a year before buying one in fact. It helped showcase that shooters work very well for the system. However going back to the game now and especially after playing Killzone Mercenary, it doesn't hold up very well. The actual CoD gameplay and gun feeling is in tact on the handheld and is perhaps the only good about the game.

The levels are tiny, often being just a few rooms and a small building, and the whole mission based storyline feels very random. There's just some narrative stringing each random mission together with the next, a huge disappointment considering this game bridges some of the Black Ops 1 & 2 storyline. The game looks okay, though it does nothing that stands out. The environments look lacklustre and have simple textures. I

The game bases itself on replaying missions over and over, trying to get higher scores or completing them on a more difficult setting. It quickly gets repetitive and frustratingly difficult. The amount of content we normally expect from a CoD game just isn't present. It feels as if they just wanted to release a game in the series for the Vita, without much thought going into it.

I would have preferred a CoD game based much close to the console versions, and although I was slightly warned through bad review scores; I'd hoped this CoD game offered more that just a good gameplay feeling. It's definitively got potential if they make another version for the Vita; just fix the singleplayer and make the levels far bigger.



Saturday, 29 March 2014

Starry reviews

From tens to stars

Just a quick update here on my reviews system, there's a lot of great stuff just around the corner though!

I've reviewed since the beginning of my blog with the "out of ten" system. However, I find it difficult to precisely distinguish games from being for example a 6 or 7 out of ten. What makes the 10% difference? Even worse are rating systems based on a percentage out of a 100, it's just a ridiculous system. A good review should explain in it's text if a game is good or not and why. A rating system in my opinion just ends up as a way fanboys can argue about which game is the best. Not to mention what makes a game a perfect 10/10 or 100%? It's usually a matter of opinion. No game is perfect, but it can be a game that really does everything really good, is excellent value for money and ground breaking in it's genre. A game that gets top reviews should be a game that is good in many years to come, a classic.

To give some indication though, I've opted for the six star system. It's a simple system, that opens way for a score that distinguishes games simpler, yet with not so many levels of options. You'll be seeing it in my reviews from now on. I will change them for previous reviews too.

So to put it in words:

 = Terrible
A game so bad I just won't give it any credit, but I doubt I'll be playing anything like it.

 = Bad
A game you should avoid, that probably has flaws and gaming nuisances that take the enjoyment out of playing it.

★★ = Not good
A game with many faults, yet somehow has some features that are not completely useless.

★★★ = Good
Straight up average game, doesn't do things necessarily bad, but excels in doing nothing special. It may well be enjoyable for people that are fans of the series or genre.

★★★★ = Very Good
A solid game, doesn't do everything without some disspointments, but is definitely something to check out.

★★★★★☆ = Really good
A game that really does everything excellent, a must-buy, even though it may not be pushing new frontiers or perfection.

★★★★★ = Excellent
A ground breaking game that excels at it's goals. The gameplay, story and content is amazing. A game you simply cannot miss! This will be seldom given to games!

So that was the update for now. Take this review system or leave it! Top tip though; never let scores be the judgement of a game, and never go by them alone to make up an opinion. Read the reviews, get a sense of what is good and bad; even get to try the game out at a friend or through a demo. Then you'll get a sense if the game is for you. Everyone has there own taste and a game that others find bad, may be really good for you!

Stay tuned!