"UK Indie Retailers Downbeat On PSP Go" Edge Online Article

June 25, 2009 § Leave a comment

Remember when I advanced some skepticism towards the PSPgo’s digital distribution-only model and its price point? Well, heeeeeeeeello! This, from Don McCabe, joint marketing director of indie gaming store Chips:

At the moment [PSP hardware and software sales represent] about five to six per cent of our overall turnover. You’d never throw that sort of percentage away – they’re not flying machines but they’re nice and steady. [But] on hardware [alone] you make next to no money and in some instances we actually lose money on each piece of hardware we sell, so if you’re going to just sell a piece of hardware and then never see that customer again, from a retail point of view you might as well just shoot yourself in the head. [my emphasis]

Ouch. But he’s absolutely right: why stock hardware which actually takes away business from you instead of giving it?

Supposedly, North American retailers have been taking to the PSPgo much more enthusiastically, and that seems to be in a great deal down to the PlayStation Network cards which you can buy in stores and redeem online. At the moment these cards don’t exist in Europe, but there’s no reason I can see for Sony not releasing them here. I would say they have to if they ever want to stop the product tanking before it’s even released.

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PSP2 Rumours

February 26, 2009 § Leave a comment

An expansion of my comments here.

To my understanding, the PSP has sold over fifty million units so far. That means that there is a huge market audience out there with the console, and hopefully, willing to pay for games on it. There isn’t much the PSP could benefit from apart from a better control layout and a new storage format. I still believe that the PSP has the technological capabilities to be a great portable console. The problem isn’t so much with the console, it’s the way games are designed around it.

First off, I would say a significant portion of home console games don’t suit the concept of a portable console – a platform which must deliver high-bursts of short, segmented pieces of gameplay as its bread-and-butter. I bring my PSP on the bus, into town, on holiday and on the train; therefore, I need games which I can start and stop playing at any moment, and where I can get my thrills instantly. This doesn’t mean that designers should start doing endless clones of Wii/DS-style mini-game challenges; we can still have RPGs, racing games, strategy games etc… Depth shouldn’t be shunned in favour of shallow gameplay, I am not saying that it should at all.

Console games and portable games provide, in general, two seperate and different experiences. Because of the technological advancements with the PSP, a lot of developers have become blinded to this fact, and instead have become intent on trying to cram their PS3/360 game onto a UMD. I understand that portable consoles are used indoors and not always when in transit, but the thing is this: if I have a PS3 with Resistance 2 in my living room, why would I play an inferior version of that game on my PSP? It doesn’t make sense.

If developers want a portable game to be a success, while using some existing intellectual property of theirs – for example, the Resistance licence – then they need to think about redesigning that game from the ground up with that portable console in mind.

If Sony were to make a new PSP though, there are two additional issues that need to be dealt with: the first being the lack of a second analogue nub; the second, the issue of game piracy and copy protection. Touch-screens and motion control are interesting features, but I believe they are only secondary in importance to the points I have outlined above.

The Return to Midgar

February 17, 2009 § Leave a comment

I have recently had the opportunity to go back to playing Final Fantasy VII again – not difficult considering my currently unemployed status. There were two things I noticed in the first couple hours of play or so. The number one thing I noticed – and which I had forgotten about – was how hideously intrusive and disruptive random encounters are. It’s a real shame because Square Soft obviously went to some lengths to create atmosphere in the game through the music, the artwork and the dialogue. All these efforts are severely undermined by the random encounters, which throw you from the game world to the battle screen with a deafening, ‘whoooshing’ noise. It’s very distracting and makes being immersed in the game difficult.

The second thing, and this came as a bit of a surprise, was that the plot and the dialogue wasn’t half as amatuerish as I had expected it to be. There are some quite mature themes embedded within the story: terrorism, and its effect on a society, being one of them. Obviously, the game is no great treatise on this subject, but it does at least approach it. In the beginning, a question is raised regarding your actions as having taken part in terrorist attacks; the game, after all, does inform you that civilians have been killed as a result of the attacks. There is a question of justification: of whether these acts can be forgiven as long as they are for some greater good. Avalanche – the terrorist group behind the attacks – believes that Shinra is destroying the planet, and that if nobody does stop them, everyone will perish. Ultimately, the game does side with Avalanche, and places you and several members of the organisation under the moral banner of the good guys. While there is little moral ambiguity over who is good and who is evil, I still think it was rather bold of Sqaure Soft to add this shade of gray to their game.

The thing is, don’t all terrorist organisations consider their goals and ideals to be supreme and above all others? Don’t all terrorist organisations believe that their actions are justifiable, as long as they are for some perceived greater good? Like many terrorists, Avalanche see their hand as being forced by some corrupt authority. They are therefore not to be held responsible for their own actions, no matter how appalling the outcome may be. Parallel to this, one of the game’s main characters blames Shinra for forcing him, and his terrorist organisation, to go to such extreme measures in the first place – because remember, it’s not him who’s responsible, noooo, he was forced to do it; it was all Shinra’s fault, don’t you see?

One could perceive Avalanche as a group of violent eco-zealots, willing to sacrifice human life for some very vague notion of saving the planet. They only happen to be the good guys because they end up being right.

'Exit' PSP First Impressions

February 9, 2009 § Leave a comment

In a sentence: Competant puzzle/platformer but with clunky controls and irksome AI.

'God of War: Chains of Olympus' PSP Review

January 17, 2009 § 2 Comments

The God of War series has made its mark on the Playstation 2 platform with its combination of intuitive combat mechanics, simple puzzle solving and less than annoying jumping sequences (an exception to the trend, I know). Interestingly, this game in the series is made by Ready at Dawn studios, not SCE Studios Santa Monica – who made the last two games in the ever expanding saga. Ready at Dawn Studios is mostly comprised of ex-Blizzard and Naughty Dog employees, their previous and only game to this date being the critically acclaimed Daxter for the PSP. Taking into account the talent at work here and the studio’s currently unspoiled track record, it comes as no surprise to hear that God of War: Chains of Olympus is nothing short of being a terrific success.

This iteration once again puts you in the boots of Kratos – our friendly neighbourhood, pissed-off anti-hero – whose only motives are revenge and a lust for chopping people’s heads off. The story itself is set ten years before the first game in the series, and as we start the game, we see Kratos defending Attica from – what seems like – the entire Persian army. As he is doing this, he notices the sun going down and disappearing from the sky. It turns out that Helios – the god of the sun – has gone AWOL, plunging the world into darkness, and Morpheus – the god of dreams – has used this opportunity to lull the other deities into a deep slumber (that naughty tyke). Who is behind all this mischief? That’s what Kratos is sent to find out: discover the evil behind these events and destroy it – in probably the most gruesome manner possible. The story continues from there, heavily invoking the Greek myths and legends as an excuse to throw Kratos into some epic locales against some truly collossal enemies. The story does provide some entertainment value, and there is a nice subplot involving Kratos’ lost daughter Calliope, which adds a softer shade to his character, as well as the possibility of redemption. Ultimately though, it’s the usual guff about God’s behaving badly, an overwhelming evil that must be destroyed etc… and if you’re not interested in that, then you can switch off, as I did, without the game being too intrusive in wanting to tell you its story. All you need to know is that Kratos is a pissed-off badass whose job title includes kicking arse, taking names and generally butchering anyone who gets in his path.

So with the story out of the way, we can consider the action itself. Chains of Olympus is a 3rd person beat ’em up whose closest relatives are probably the Lord of the Rings games. You’re usually outnumbered by the enemy, but overpowered against them, and armed with a variety of weapons and combat techniques to slay your way to victory. The player is able to parry and evade most enemy attacks, and as you collect the souls of your disposed enemy, you are able to upgrade your items, granting you access to a greater variety of combos and special moves. In this manner, the game does have a very light RPG element attached to it as the player will inevitably prioritise certain weapons over others for upgrading. Along with the conventional battle sequences, there are the – now dreadfully overused – quick time events, which I imagine players will either tolerate or be generally frustrated by. Luckily, most of these events aren’t compulsory so you can avoid them if you wish; although, often, they can be a shortcut to victory . It’s strange that what was once hailed as an immersive method of interaction for the player has turned into one of the most vilified and hated game mechanics employed today.

Technically, this game is a graphical marvel. I don’t think I’ve seen a game on the PSP that looks as good as this. Of course, compared to the current crop of consoles, the textures on the surfaces of objects look horribly basic, but you can’t help but be impressed by the sheer scale of the levels, which aren’t hindered by constant loading sequences as you might imagine. The developers have pulled a clever trick in compartmentalising the game into small sections – often, where you are forced to defeat a certain number of enemy foe before progressing onto the next area, but somehow this doesn’t go against how utterly seamless the transition feels, as the player progresses through one part of the game world to the next. There are save points in the game, but there are no levels per se; there is just one giant narrative, one giant world to get lost in, in which you go from one end to the other, and it works really well.

None of any of this would really matter unless the controls were any good and, thankfully, they are. At no point during the game did I feel cheated by the controls. For the most part, they work in a very graceful manner, the only issue being the analogue stick, which is used for movement. This is a fault though that rests more with the inherent design of the PSP, rather than the developer, as using the digital pad would not have been sufficient to allow for the level of manoeuvrability needed to control Kratos under the stress of combat. The analogue stick is functional enough, but because of its small surface area and the way it is placed on the PSP shell, your thumb does feel the strain of it, and over a long period of time it does get quite tiring. Luckily, this issue with the PSP hardware doesn’t impede majorly on your enjoyment of the game.

Also of mention is the difficulty level. I played on the normal setting and it was challenging without being too easy or too hard, and this makes a change from a lot of games made now which are either firmly based in the latter or former camp. The segments of combat are engaging, and the few instances of platforming are quite fair to the player. The puzzles are generally simple affairs of destroying/activating an object to open up a gate so you can progress, and are nothing to really keep the player stumped. I say this as a good thing because, in a game like this, part of the enjoyment to be had comes from the fast pace of the action, and so you don’t want to be stuck for hours on one insiginificant little puzzle.

The music in the game is the usual fare which you’ve probably heard hundreds of times before in films like Gladiator, Troy, 300 etc… but it is standard for this genre and no real complaint can be made about that. Likewise, the sound design is good without being overly remarkable. The voice acting is actually quite decent despite the somewhat cliched dialogue and subject matter.  Talking of subject matter, the game can most definitely be regarded as a real ‘man’s game’, as it is often fairly misogynistic, sadistic and crude in its narrative. In the very first section of the game you have the option of a quick time event, which involves a threesome with two harems – writhing on top of each other naked, no less – and an instance where you crush the head of a mini-boss with a heavy chest, repeatedly, while he cries for mercy. This could all be seen as being in bad taste, but this kind sleaze and gore is so over the top to render it absolutely innocuous and, in reality, hilarious. In fact, it gives the game an added sense of levity which helps offset the po-faced seriousness of the bleak, mythical storyline.

I can honestly offer very few criticisms of the game beyond the sometimes slightly awkward controls. On occasion, the save points are placed a little capriciously, giving you frequent opportunity to save when you don’t need it and not enough when you do, but this is not a frequent occurrence. I have also heard comments about the game’s length. The same criticism was issued towards Call of Duty 4 and you know what these two games have in common? No filler. Both games skip on the lazy to make sure that they are exciting and fun the whole way through, and if I had a choice between quality and quantity, I know which one I’d sacrifice at the expense of the other (hint:  it’s not quality). I see the shortness of the game’s length as complimentary, not as a criticism.

The only thing I feel I must mention is that I don’t feel this is really a game to play on-the-go; I’d play it at home, lying on a comfy sofa or bed, but not while travelling on the train or bus. True, the action is often short and sweet enough to start and stop without too much lost in the process, but it’s simply not the game I’d want to play in transit. It requires a lot of concentration and focus which I don’t particular want to spare when I’m on my way to somewhere. Again this is not a criticism: to say that a game is too engaging, and levy it as condemnation, borders on the ridiculous. The game is an incredible achievement both technically and design-wise. Nonetheless, I can’t shake the feeling that it isn’t a game best suited to a handhold console. With a game like this, you want to play on a big-ass screen, with an ear drum shattering sound system, while stretching out on a sofa in your living room. You don’t want to play it on a crowded bus or noisy train; you just wouldn’t get the most out of it that way. Personally I think developers need to start thinking (and some already have) of creating more high concept games for the PSP that utilise the console’s graphical abilities, while understanding the limits of a portable device. Games like Lumines, Every Extra Extend already do this and are good examples of that kind of thinking.

What else? Hmmm, nope, that’s it. Somehow, Ready at Dawn Studios has done what up to now has been impossible for most developers: make a scaled down version of a console game that works well, and without compromising too much on design. Despite what I’ve just said in the above paragraph, it’s an excellent game and I think every PSP owner who’s a fan the genre should consider it a must-buy.

'Every Extra Extend' PSP Review

January 9, 2009 § Leave a comment

Every Extra Extend, hmmm. This is a game I can see myself playing while on a train waiting for the next stop. It is an extremely simple high-concept game that turns most ’shumps’ on their heads, and this is partially why I love the game: for its originality in its approach. The other reason why I think it’s great, and this is something that borrows from other classic puzzle games, is that it forces the player to adopt a risk/reward strategy in their approach to the game. This is present in Tetris, it’s there in Lumines and it is here now in EEE, and I think this is the strongest aspect of its appeal. The game forces the player into a situation where he must take risks in order to rack up a high score large enough to make it through the level. But to get a high score is almost beside the point. If you’re like me, you’ll take the high risk/high reward strategy any day of the week for the mere thrill of ‘getting away with it’. It’s like scoring a long-range goal in football or putting your chips down on a big hand in Texas Hold’Em. Here, instead of the glory of scoring a great goal or raking in the cash from your big win at the table, you instead are served an exquisite feast of pretty colours and rhythmic sounds, as the chain reaction of explosions you have just set off fulfils itself towards its inevitable end.

I am tickled by the way the game turns the convention of its genre up on its end, but there is something poetic I find in the concept of the game. At the risk of sounding pretentious, I am going to invoke a sexual analogy here. Think about it, you start with the build up where you are forced to be patient; you don’t want to blow up too soon otherwise you’ll waste a life. You wait, patiently, until the perfect moment comes when it all comes together, and you trigger the self-destruct, destroying yourself, but setting off a chain of explosions throughout the screen. It’s that idea of waiting, of being teased, until the moment comes resulting in a plethora of sensations — in this case: merely visual and auditory. And then you’re dead, your avatar respawns and you do it all over again until you eventually reach the game over screen. And that’s it; that’s the game. The reason I was reminded of this analogy was because of that phrase the French have of la petite mort or ‘the little death’, or as wikipedia coldly puts it: “the refractory period following sexual orgasm”. When I first heard of the game and played it, something struck me that I couldn’t put my finger on, and I still feel this way now to some degree. Regardless of any ideas of Freudian psychoanalysis, though, something of the idea has a weird melancholic serenity about it which I still find charming and utterly spellbinding.

I only have two complaints against the game: the lack of levels and the poor presentation. It feels like a barebones DVD release of a film; the fonts are ugly, the menu is functional but not particularly attractive, and the game only has (I think) nine levels — two of them only being reachable by besting the game at hardest difficult level. In short, it looks a little low in production values, a little rough around the edges. Irrespective of these complaints I have against the game, though, it’s actually a lot of fun to play. To illustrate how short the game is, I received the game in the post today and I have finished it on the same day. Will I play it again, though? Probably many times over because the core gameplay is just really fun.

Now, if only Tetsuya Mizuguchi would port Rez over to the PSP, God if only. That would be awesome.

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