In a bit to recapture the portable gaming market Sony is reaching out to its classic gaming core wit a next-gen handheld gaming devices of ludicrous power.
There’s no denying the world of handheld games has been shaken of late thanks to the rise of smartphones and tablets.
The arena is now a far more casual affair, the charts topped by belligerent birds and produce - crazed ninjas – touch screen trifles created to make waiting for the bus a little easier. With the PlayStation Vita Sony is looking to take the mobile gaming space back for the traditional gamer while netting that lucrative social market at the same time.
The company has plenty of experience in both ends of the pool, with the PlayStation brand as strong as ever and Xperia smartphones making decent headway in the mobile area. The company has even tested the convergence waters recently with the likes of the PlayStation – certified Xperia Play, a smartphone built to play mobile – optimized titles from the original PlayStation library. But the PlayStation Vita is the most ambitious stop on the company’s mobile gamine roadmap thus far, a single bit of kit designed to be all things to all gamers.
To hear John McLaughlin, a producer working with various game studios on the new device, tell it, this attack strategy already has the industry’s minds abuzz with possibilities.
“Everyone is really excited by what this new machine can do, whether you’re after a PlayStation 4-level experience or a more casual multi-touch smartphone game, the Vita can do it,” he enthuses. “I’m seeing developers not just coming up with new games but new ways of playing existing games and new ways to use the old tools.”
What the company is rather eager to get across is how close it’s come to providing a gaming experience on par with the PlayStation 3 that you can carry around with you. It’s a claim that seems faintly absurd until you actually lay hand on the machine. The 3-inch OELD screen channeling the power of a four-core ARM Cortex-A9 MPCore processor, is dazzling, large and definitely up to pocket-PS3 claims.
The device’s chops were demonstrated with what will no doubt be the Vita’s flagship title, Uncharted: Golden Abyss. The mobile version of a blockbuster home console series like Uncharted would traditionally be a dicey affair – if it held together well enough it would be considered a success, but an experience on par with its bigger brother was unfathomable. Not any more, thanks to the Vita.
The shrunk-down version of the action-adventure franchise lacks none of the visual richness, slick mechanics or polished production of its PS3 counterpart – times to coincide with the series’ crowning glory. Drake’s Deception, that’s not small praise.
With twin control sticks emulating the conventional controller style it is easy enough to adapt to portable for but the Vita’s unique features also allow the game to be played in new ways.
Its multi-touch screen lets players literally guide the character through the level by pointing the way, with Uncharted hero Drake following finger taps to navigate the land in context-sensitive ways (climbing ladders, shimmying along ledges, jumping chasms, etc.) It offers dual analogue sticks for the hardcore gamers, simple touch controls for the newbie and both without altering the core mechanics of the sophisticated series; quite a balancing act.
Hoping to have roped in the usual gaming crowd with fabulous specs and trusted franchises, McLaughlin says Sony also has its sights trained on the casual sector, which prefers to consume games in app proportions.
“If you look at smartphones you have lots of people playing different kinds of games but they are all tiny, they’re snack-sized. With the Vita we can do those but we can also do your big PlayStation 3 experience too.”
McLaughlin works as part of Sony’s Xdev, or external development, team helping independent developers ensure their projects work within the company’s network. This is particularly important with the Vita as in features a raft of different connectivity options not seen before in handheld gaming.
For starters the machine is the first of its kind to offer a 3G connection for what the producer calls the ‘constantly-connected experience’. While the network isn’t up for fast-paced multiplayer death-matches, it is hand for all those increasingly popular social functions. The device can be used for your basic Facebook, Twitter and Skype duties and it also packs a host of its own gaming-centric social extensions.
PlayStation New lets users share what games you’re into with friends and strangers in the general vicinity; LiveArea broadcasts whatever software is currently being used; Party invites nearby users to join a game and Activity announces in-game achievements in real-time. It’s certainly the most extensively connected gaming machine around, which could be a blessing in term of finding opponents or a curse when it comes to spam.
Perhaps one of the Vita’s most nifty tricks, however, is the cross-play feature that allows it to synch up with certain PS3 games (Wipeout 2048, Hustle Kings confirmed so far). When used in tandem with the device’s cloud-saving functions, McLaughlin explains, these features cast the very idea of mobile gaming in a new light.
“Not only can you use your Vita to play against your buddy on his PS3 but you could save your PS3 game to the cloud, head out on the bus, load that game up with the Vita and keep on going.”
Packed with enough power and features to please all takers, the Vita’s hardware does not disappoint. The ball in not in the development community’s court to find creative ways of using this immense toolkit to seduce the hardcore and casual crowd alike.