Let's be honest, things haven't been particularly rosy in PSP land so far. Although blessed with some great launch titles (I still play Ridge Racer to this day), the rest of its opening year has been pretty damn piss poor. While the Nintendo DS has pumped out some stunningly original and truly compelling titles - often boasting brand new styles of gameplay and truly cutting edge online components - the PSP has pretty much just sat around on its arse doing fuck all.
What few releases we have
seen are often little more than scaled down ports of PS2 and Xbox games too, which while technically something to be admired, has ultimately resulted in a complete lack of any vague excitement in the gameplay department.
Don't worry though all you PSP owners, in your tumbleweed-tainted wasteland, our prized handheld is finally getting some much deserved love. New releases are hitting store shelves as we speak, and I've grabbed a fuck load that took my fancy to chat about today. Are we talking more of the same, or are these finally
the much yearned for handheld beauties we so desperately seek? Read on and find out.
Street Fighter - Alpha 3 Max
The Street Fighter series continues to mark its territory over every single platform ever devised. Rather than spray urine around haphazardly though, it's done it in the form of Alpha 3 Max - a wondrous compilation of almost 40 Street Fighter toons from the various different games, bundled together into an orgy of dragon punches and spinning bird kicks.
There's absolutely tons of modes on offer here - arguably too many - so I won't even begin to list them all, but at the end of the day, Alpha 3 boils down to the same old 2D fighting action we know and love in slightly differing incarnations. The most interesting and off-the-wall mode though must be the option to play 2 on 1 battles, Darth Maul style.
|2 versus 1 battles ain't something I've seen a particularly huge amount of in the 2D beat 'em up genre before|
Considering Capcom's complete and utter failure to impress with their previous PSP fighter - Darkstalkers - one might approach Alpha worried how the controls turned out, but personally I have no qualms whatsoever this time around. The ability to reconfigure the buttons is a blessing, meaning those heavy punches and kicks can be mapped to the face buttons where they belong, with no fiddly reaching for the triggers at split second times of crisis required. More importantly, the ability to use the analogue nub if you so please is a true saving grace in regards to firing off Street Fighter's classic array of special moves too, as the D-pad often fails miserably for such things. Rolling those fireballs off and slinging across Sonic Booms becomes thankfully do-able as a result, even if it doesn't quite match up to something like the old SNES pad from back in the day
It's worth noting there is a 3rd party Capcom add-on available for use in this game, a joystick attachment which snaps onto the front and makes these special moves 10 times easier on top. Personally though, I have no issues with switching between the analogue nub and the D-pad as needed, and really don't need such a device uglying up my pretty PSP.
For an older title, graphically this looks surprisingly slick it must also be said. It's smooth as a baby's arse for one, and the vibrancy and clarity of the PSP's luscious screen makes those beautiful cartoony colours and timeless characters jump right out of the screen at you. It's razor sharp and truly quite the site. This really is Street Fighter on the move, and it rocks.
Best of all, it makes losing that Super NES emulator in my recent 2.60 firmware upgrade a heck of a lot more bearable too...
|Exit is a simple yet highly stylised little platforming puzzle game, that's also immensely entertaining and bloody good fun|
I think on the whole, the PSP has proven that flashy cutting edge 3D games with complex graphic engines just aren't what we want out of our handhelds. While Prince of Persia, King Kong and Star Wars Battlefront look nice enough sitting in the palm of your hand, the pick-up-and-play nature of a handheld just isn't particularly well suited to these types of hardcore titles when you're out on the move. Playing them at home is all but pointless too, when many of us often have much more powerful systems rigged up to our tellies offering the same exact titles.
Compare that to the DS. It's more streamlined and simplistic games may come off visually inferior, but they simply make for far more interesting and downright fun handheld
games, a trait which the PSP seems yet to grasp for the most part. On the rare chance it has
embraced this concept however - the example that springs to mind being Lumines - a similar twinge of greatness has started to show.
And that's what's great about Exit in my book. It treads a similar path of simplistic 2D fun, with small, enjoyable levels that offer quick-fire blasts of bite sized action just perfect for a handheld console. It proves that a big, well-known franchise with a complex, detailed graphics engine really isn't needed to make a solid PSP title...and in fact, isn't particularly wanted either.
Exit's essentially a puzzle game disguised as a platformer. You play a private detective of sorts, working your way through buildings while completing simple objectives along the way. In practice this involves saving trapped kids, putting out fires and carrying wounded burnso victims to the exit. This is far more enjoyable and engaging that it sounds, and is surprisingly addictive too.
|It's your job to push crates, navigate obstacles and put out fires in order to escort trapped peeps to each exit|
While considerably more simple than the average looking PSP title, the visuals still come off as surprisingly decent too, thanks to some gorgeously original art design and super slick animation. It uses a sort of quasi-3D engine with 2D assets, similar to something like Viewtiful Joe, coupled with a bold, cell-shaded feel that's wonderfully zany and pretty. Most pleasingly of all, this all blazes along at a super smooth 60 FPS at all times with absolutely zero slowdown.
That previously mentioned animation in particular is what stands out for me though, reminding heavily of the good old original Prince of Persia games from back in the day, rotoscoped then stylised in a manner that comes off like some kinda living, breathing graphic novel.
One of the other pleasant surprises for me was also found while exploring the games' intro menus on my first day. I stumbled upon an online download feature, offering up brand new - and more to the point, free - missions right over the internet from launch day. The ability to bolt on more and more such levels as time goes on is a most welcome feature, sprucing up an already rather long puzzle game with potentially limitless longevity.
All in all Exit is a fab little title, one that puzzle fans and platform addicts are sure to gobble up. More than that though, anyone simply game for something different and flat-out fun on their PSP could do a heck of a lot worse than check this baby out.
Splinter Cell - Essentials
I guess you have to admire Ubisoft for really going all out with this game - they sure give it their best shot, and if nothing else, it's an easy A for effort. They cram in everything you'd expect from a Splinter Cell title, from the kick arse gadgets, to the various vision modes, to the dynamic lighting effects, to the awesome big-name voice talent. Unfortunately they just don't do it in a way that's compatible with the PSP's controls, and as a result, your first impressions of Splinter Cell Essentials are absolutely terrible
|SC on the PSP has its issues. Namely annoying controls and waaay too much darkness|
The game takes place after the upcoming Double Agent game, and basically tells the career long story of how Sam Fisher got to be where he is. Flashy in-game cut-scenes and slideshow cinematics detail this, in a way far more stylised and comic book-like than in any of the other Splinter Cell games. Missions take the form of flashbacks, starting in Sam's Navy Seal days, then working up in time to the present, with one or two being nicked straight from earlier titles in the series. For the most part however, these are brand new missions exclusive to the PSP. That's great.
What isn't great is just how damn hard it is to play at first. Once again, the PSP's lack of a second analogue stick comes back to haunt it big time, as you essentially have no way of moving Sam and adjusting your camera at the same time. Moronically, you have to toggle a "camera mode" whenever you want to look around, which can result in a rather monotonous experience that goes something like this; move a little, stop to adjust camera, move a little more, stop to adjust camera, move another bit, stop to adjust camera, move a bit more, turn off PSP in frustration. Patience truly is a virtue with Splinter Cell Essentials, and if you don't have any, move on right now.
I also have to gripe about the sheer darkness of the damn thing. Even day time missions are bathed in huge strokes of pure blackness, and it's really only Sam's ever reliable night-vision mode and thermal visor that make the game viewable at all.
Due to the above, it really does seem utterly disastrous on your first go, a feeling further compounded by the piss poor opening level. Splinter Cell has always been about sneaking through fortified buildings and government HQs for me, something it does far better than any other game or series, yet for some insane reason this particular instalment opens up with a big huge outdoor mission set in the jungle. It actually feels more like the opening from Metal Gear Solid 3 than any Splinter Cell game, and the fact that the PSP doesn't have the muscle to pull off any kind of convincing foliage or wide open outdoor environments results in a very ugly and sterile opener that looks as bland as it plays.
|Stick with it, and Splinter Cell turns into one of the PSP's finest. It'll sure take some patience though|
Now that all said, if you can grit your teeth and plough through the first level or two - familiarising yourself with the craziness of the controls in the process - you can
learn to enjoy the heck out of this game. The level design improves dramatically almost the second you leave the jungle, and once you get the knack of combat, gadgets and sneaking around in the shadows without letting the camera get the better of you, it starts to click on a level you just seldom get with such complex, hardcore PSP games. It truly feels like genuine handheld Splinter Cell goodness kicking off in the palm of your hand at times, and for that reason, I've started to really kinda dig the heck outta this game, faults and all.
While I foresee the controls being a bit of a deal breaker for many, it is worth bearing in mind that the Splinter Cell series is a much slower and more methodical take on the third person action game, so as annoying as this cumbersome control setup is, it doesn't actually adversely affect your skills as a stealthy predator when all's said and done. You can still stick to the darkness, sneak up on your enemies and take out foes in a manner to your pleasing, it just takes a heck of a lot longer here due to your constant need to tweak the camera all the damn time
. I just dunno how many will have the patience to sit through that rocky opening and get used to how oddly it all works, which is a shame really.
On the whole, Splinter Cell Essentials is by far the best handheld game in the series so far, blowing away the appalling DS version. Then again that's not saying too much really is it? Die hard Splinter Cell fans like myself - blessed with a huge dollop of patience - will find this a fabulous outing on the whole, one that provides some good old Sam Fisher goodness when out on the move, while simultaneously filling in some nice storyline blanks from over the years too. Newcomers and those who easily give into frustration will just flat-out hate it however, and as a result, it's a wee bit of a disappointment on the whole.
I must also mention that the masses may have been far more receptive to this game if the one hovering beneath it in this list wasn't coming out simultaneously...
Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror
|While not as pretty as Splinter, Syphon Filter is on the whole a far superior third person PSP outing|
While I dig the Sam Fisher big time, Syphon Filter is how a portable third person action game should
be done I'm afraid. Syphon Filter is an ancient Playstation series that actually pre-dates Splinter Cell, but I'll admit this is my first encounter with the franchise in all my years. That said, you really don't need any experience before diving in, it's a stand-alone adventure ripe for newbies such as myself.
Unlike Splinter Cell, Syphon opts for a far more pleasing control scheme. You have full motion of the camera at all times while moving, plus firing and gadget use remain pleasingly intuitive too. Produced by Sony themselves, it - unlike Essentials - feels built somewhat specifically with the PSP in mind, and controlling your toon never feels particularly fiddly or tricky. In fact, it's pretty bloody fun.
Whereas Essentials treads a more stealth-heavy and methodical approach, Syphon opts for more of a head-on full frontal assault style. Combat and feel bears more of a resemblance to Ghost Recon or something like Mercenaries, with big, noisy SMGs available at will, and even a nice "raise the gun for a zoomed in view" attached to the top left trigger that adds a bad arse over the shoulder Resi-4 style vibe. There is
an auto-aim function, but really the manual mode is far more rewarding and works surprisingly well in my book.
I guess there is room for choice as to how you wish to approach combat in this game if that more full-on guns-blazing approach isn't for you. You do have sniper rifles, mines, toxic darts and other sneaky gadgets at your disposal, but really these feel more like harmless bits of fun to add some variety than firmly integrated stealth tools that you're forced
to use. You'll even find boss battles here, which kinda sums out how different it is to Splinter Cell at the end of the day.
|Syphon's vision modes are absolutely awesome to look at, and pleasingly useful to boot|
Graphically the levels look pretty good, if a little cartoony, but the overall visual effect is slightly ruined by the somewhat poor character models and bland lighting. That said, the inclusion of full on rag doll physics pretty much makes up for this completely, and although the framerate can start to chug a little when a grenade sends four bad guys hurtling off into the air - legs and arms flailing as they do - the fact this is all happening on a fucking PSP
makes it pretty damn forgivable.
The vision modes deserve an extra mention too, with the night-vision coming off particularly beautiful. The modes also tend to be something you want
to fire up and use, as opposed to something you're forced into, and the fact they can also tie into solving some of the more sneaky environmental puzzles is rather ingenious, it must be said.
All in all, Syphon is an absolute blast, and probably the PSP's best action game yet. The world at large will tell you this game thrashes Splinter Cell here on the PSP, and indeed they'd probably be right. As a Fisher fanboy, I enjoy both games about equally, and I'd also have to stress that this game falls drastically short in the story and character department in comparison to Cell, but it more than makes up for it in pure fun, not to mention the mere fact it lacks all those troublesome little niggles that plague Essentials.
For the more cash strapped PSP fan who's torn between the two, I'd say go with Syphon in a heart beat. It's ace, whether you want sneaky gadget fun, or just all-out gung-ho craziness.
Outrun 2006: Coast to Coast
This one however, I just don't dig. Outrun certainly falls into the "scaled down port" category mentioned earlier, and it's ultimately a solid console game that's just lost something in the move to handheld.
|A fab title on the main consoles, Outrun's sloppy framerate here on the PSP is something of a bummer|
I love Outrun 2, don't get me wrong. That super slick arcadey drift racing is pure gaming nirvana to me, and I don't wanna tell you how many hours I've put in with last year's Xbox game. This new version is heavily spruced up with tons more courses and online play, which incidentally I'm sure is all ace on the PS2 and Xbox, but the problem with the PSP rendition is simply one of performance; it really can't cope with all the action on screen, regularly halving its framerate and providing a horribly wobbly experience in return. Controlling those epic drifts around massive beach-encapsulated corners subsequently becomes a constant tussle between unresponsive controls and slide show visuals, rather than, well, your skills as a driver.
If you can deal with this, Outrun isn't all doom and gloom, and on the rare occasions where the performance holds steady, you do get brief glimpses of its daddy's true beauty. This particularly rings true in reference to the aforementioned online multiplayer, built for up to 6 participants at once, an all-too rare feature among fellow PSP titles.
That said, it's no Mario Kart DS in this department either, as I forever have a nightmare of a time finding just a single other player on there to match up with. This is a problem that forever plagued FIFA's online mode too, and it makes me wonder...do PSP owners just not dig the online? Still, if you're lucky enough to track down a couple of rivals, portable online races are a bit of a blast.
On the whole though, while Outrun 2 diehards will no doubt mop this title up, as someone who enjoyed that game from perhaps more of a distance, this port leaves me a little cold.
Me & My Katamari
|Them bizarre Japanese ball-rolling antics return in Katamari for the PSP. Unfortunately it's let down by the PSP's design more than anything|
Me & My Katamari is the third and by all accounts last in the series of whacky, non-sensical Japanese puzzle games. For those new to the series, it's almost impossible to describe while doing justice, but you essentially have to roll a ball around these crazy 3D worlds, snowballing mounds of rubbish into a big huge ball in the process, while reaching a specific diameter within a set time limit. The brilliance comes from the huge levels and beautiful physics though, and since its PS2 conception a few years back, it's become a bit of a cult classic across just these three games alone.
As much as I love Katamari however, after said three games, it's all starting to feel a bit old now to be honest. Compared to how I felt back when I fired up the first game a couple years ago, that amazing sense of zany wonder is all but gone here. The originality and flat out eccentricity were really part of its charm, as you'd never seen anything vaguely like it before, and now that the series has been repeated over and over and kinda pummelled down our throats to a certain extent, Katamari finds itself unable to rely on that mouth dropping weirdness, and instead needing to survive solely on good old fashioned playability.
Not that that's a bad thing, Katamari has always played rather brilliantly of course, but unfortunately on the PSP it shines that little bit less thanks to - yet another - fiddly control scheme. Sense a pattern here?
Katamari was another game literally built
around a dual analogue gamepad after all - arguably more so than any other game ever. Without said second stick, the PSP forces you to use the D-pad in conjunction with the face buttons. It works, but it does take some major getting used to, and once again you really can't expect instant gratification from this thing.
|Graphically it impresses, but much like Outrun, the effect is ruined by iffy performance|
In addition the levels don't quite impress so much this time around. There's huge amounts of cross-over between each level and the next - so much so that it almost feels like you're playing the same one over and over at times - and they're all ridiculously easy too, with pretty much zero challenge whatsoever.
Visually, the beautiful off-kilter world of Katamari comes across stunningly well in handheld form. It's razor sharp, gorgeously colourful, and always wonderfully busy. The downside is the consistent framerate drops, which can crop up quite regularly on some of the latter levels. It's another downer that adds to the aforementioned jaded sense of d?j?-vu hanging over this otherwise pleasing game.
As a result, it's hard to know who this game will catch on with. Long-time fans of the series like myself might be growing a little tired of the ball rolling sexscapades at this point. Newbies have a beautiful new world of interesting gameplay and off the wall sites and sounds to experience here - and maybe it's those who'll get the most mileage from Katamari - but I can only really recommend those with patience and a love for zaniness pick it up due to the inaccessibility of them bloody crazy controls.
A pretty good bash all in all, and one I have to award some additional kudos too due to featuring 100% original levels that aren't simply nicked from a PS2 game, but on the whole it's not as essential as Syphon, or indeed...
I love this fucking game. Jak & Daxter is one of the most prized PS2 franchises for me, and the thought of handheld adventures in that relentlessly crazy universe was one of my primary reasons for buying a PSP in the first place. While it's taken a heck of a long time for this fucking thing to finally show up, I can tell you it's been worth the wait. This is another genuine killer app to sit alongside Syphon Filter, Lumines and GTA.
Daxter's a third person adventure game with heavy platform elements. Set between Jak 1 and 2, the main man himself is currently out of action, resulting in Daxter shooting off on his own wee adventure here. You run around a beautifully colourful 3D cartoony world, interacting with others and exploring stunning locales in the process, and it's unquestionably some of the best fun I've had on Sony's handheld yet.
|A funny and highly playable cartoony adventure game, Daxter flat-out rocks. Unquestionably one of my fave PSP titles|
Controls handle brilliantly for a change, with an auto adjusting camera that can be further tweaked at any time via the top triggers, and the graphics in particular stand out as borderline perfect. In fact, this could be the prettiest of the PSP's library so far.
Daxter himself looks simply splendid, decked out in stunning fur effects that look almost pre-rendered at times. The human characters are a little simple in comparison, but they're more than made up for by a truly stunning looking 3D world that feels like World of Warcraft's exaggerated angles and cartoony vibrance, crossbred with Star Wars-esque futuristic sci-fi technology. This gorgeous presentation is rounded off with full voice acting and incredibly detailed facial animation that results in arguably the only PSP game that looks borderline identical to something on the PS2.
It's not just the visuals that impress though, in terms of sheer playability this also feels like a full-on adventure game with zero concessions made for its handheld outing. 3D platforming has always been tricky on a handheld, let's be honest, with even the much loved Mario 64 DS being a bit of a pain in the arse at times...yet Daxter really does pull it off spectacularly well.
If you were as gutted as me by how utter tripe both Death Jr. and Medieval Resurrection turned out, rejoice in the fact that Daxter is everything those games should have been and more. The PSP has its platforming mascot, and I couldn't dig it more; here's a wonderful title that I can't recommend enough.
Revenge of the DS
And just like that, the PSP has struck back with a vengeance. Has it blown its sticky wad though, or is there more greatness yet to come? Sony have hinted at some fabulous upcoming features that will tie directly into the PS3, along with official PS1 emulation via memory stick and even an EyeToy peripheral, but the underlying emphasis on quality games remains murky. Sony seem almost hell-bent on pushing the PSP as a multimedia device and a lifestyle accessory, when the one thing we all bought the machine for feels under-delivered at times.
At long last, things are finally starting to look far more rosy than they have been though, thanks really to all of the above, and as a result I'm steadily falling back in love with my black gadget of goodness after almost a year's vacation.
Let's hope the big S can keep it up in the long run.