Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Playstation Vita Launch Lineup

A Review of EVERY Day One Retail Release on the PS Vita

The Playstation Vita - Sony’s successor to the successful but not that successful Playstation Portable - officially drops in North America today, and with it, 21 retail launch titles that range from ass-kicking to downright craptastic. 

On the surface, the PS Vita launch looks pretty solid, but what launch title games are really worth your hard-earned moolah (and conversely, which ones should you steer clear from?) 

As a public service, I’ve decided to do mini-reviews for all TWENTY-ONE PS Vita games currently available for retail on the newly released system; as such, you’ll know which games are worth purchasing, which ones are worth picking up a couple of months down the line when the price drops, and which ones you shouldn’t even bother looking at through the in-store Plexiglas (hint: it probably stars Michael Jackson in it.) 

Anyhoo, here’s my day one buyer’s guide for all would-be PS Vita owners. We’re ranking these games on a scale from 1 to 10, with a 10 being absolutely life-changing and 1 being absolutely life-destroying; clearly, nothing you’ll see on day one comes close to reaching either of those poles, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a few great and really, really good games to be found on sale today (and on the opposite end of the spectrum, a few that are very, very lackluster and sub-par, too.) 

So, what are you early adopters in store for? Here’s my (somewhat) comprehensive and (extremely) opinionated look at the complete slate of first-run Playstation Vita offerings, in no particular order (well, except alphabetically, of course.)

 Army Corps of Hell

Now here's a game I really wanted to like more than I did. Heck, who in their right mind can't get behind a game that's essentially a hyper-gory reiteration of "Pikmin?"  

The problem is, while "Army Corps of Hell" has a lot of panache (and a really, really stupid name), it definitely lacks...ahem, guts...when it comes to game design. Ultimately, the title just sort of morphs into a very "Dynasty Warriors"-like experience, and while the "Patapon" inspired attempts to bring a little strategy to the hacking and slashing is mildly inspired, at the end of the day, the title just doesn't have enough going for it to make it a reasonable purchase.

SCORE: 5/10

   Asphalt Injection

Yeah, it's not really all that surprising to find out that this one is just a little lacking under the hood. 

"Asphalt Injection" (seriously, who's in charge of naming these things?) looks pretty damn good for a handheld racer, but it definitely hits more than a few snags when it comes to the game play department. It's clear that the game has aspirations of being a "Burnout" / "Need for Speed" type arcade racer, but outside of some nice blurring effects, this one stalls out before it even makes it a few feet from the starting line.

SCORE: 4/10


What is it with handheld console launches and formulaic racing games?

"Ben10 Galactic Racing" is a title clearly attempting to ape the more successful elements of "Mario Kart" and "Twisted Metal," but at the end of the day, it's not even good enough to qualify as a potent "Vigilante 8" successor. That, and the graphics are noticeably underpowered here, more closely resembling a 3DS port than a "built from the ground up" PSVITA offering. At first glance, you would think this is just another rushed out title hoping to capitalize on a fairly popular license...and at the end of the day, you'd be exactly right.

SCORE: 4/10

Blazblue: Continuum Shift EXTEND

Well, it's good to see that there isn't an overemphasis on fighting games in the day and age of next wave handheld systems, huh? 

Anyhoo, "Blazblue" is a pretty good game, and one that's even a potential purchase for hardcore fighting game enthusiasts. There are a TON of fighters to choose from, the graphics and sound are absolutely amazing (the frame rate is TRULY impressive here) and there's so much to unlock that you'll probably be able to play the game for a solid year without getting bored with its contents. The downside, however, is that the multiplayer aspect is a little lacking (and by lacking, I mean lag-tastic) and if you're wondering how you're supposed to juggle combos and pull off split second six-direction attacks with just four face buttons...that makes two of us.

SCORE: 7/10 

Dungeon Hunter Alliance

Admittedly, I've never really been a fan of dungeon crawlers, so I'm not the most unbiased source here. That said, there's a lot of negative things that can be said about "Dungeon Hunter Alliance," regardless if you're a fan of the subgenre or not. 

To begin with, the graphics are a tad underwhelming, and the gameplay - not really surprisingly - is quite repetitive. Furthermore, the analog stick controls or shockingly sticky, making movement (and especially attacking enemies) a major pain in the sphincter. If you've ever wanted to play the Facebook version of "Gauntlet Legends," I suppose this will do you - although, for the life of me, I could never understand why anybody would have such an itch to begin with.

SCORE: 5/10 

Dynasty Warriors Next

You know, I never thought there were enough "Dynasty Warriors" games on the market, so consider me thrilled and then some to see this not-at-all done-to-death franchise carried over to the PS-Vita. 

Really, you don't need me to tell you what to expect here: you create a character, fight waves and waves of enemies, and keep tapping the "X" button until you have a blister on your thumb the size of a peanut M&M. The graphics are remarkable, but the staid gameplay is anything but; for hardcore "Dynasty Warrior" fanatics only.

SCORE: 5/10

F1 2011

First off, if you're not a fan of CodeMasters' long lineage of kick-ass sim racers (going back to the days of Colin McRae on the PS1), you're probably a horrible human being. If you're a racing fanatic (and especially a Formula One nutso), then "F1 2011" is a title that ought to be at the top of your list when it comes to Day Uno launch games onf the VITA. 

The graphics are top-notch, the game play is very satisfying (although the analog controls are a little slippery at first) and the career mode - while not as in-depth as a "Gran Turismo" / "Forza Motorsport" -like offering - is still pretty deep and engaging. The multiplayer is decent, but once again, lag is a serious issue going into head-to-head races; ultimately, "F1 2011" is a possible buy for racing game fans, but most likely just an enjoyable weekend play for everybody else.

SCORE: 7/10

FIFA Soccer

If I had to go with just ONE launch game to take home with your VITA, THIS is the title I'd vouch for. 

Granted, being a soccer nut like me is a huge incentive to pick up the title, but even if you aren't a huge footy fan, I would still consider this to be the most impressive game available on the PS VITA, and the one that I think would give the average gamer the most long-term bang for his or her buck. The visuals here are stunning, and the gameplay is absolutely engaging AND addictive - it's just about the closet we've yet come to a full-fledged, next-gen sports game appearing on a handheld, and it's DEFINITELY something that will keep you glued to your new portable well after the UEFA finals. Man, I can't WAIT to see what EA can do with Madden and their NHL series on this thing!

SCORE: 9/10 

Hot Shots Golf: World Invitational

Awesome...another cartoony, arcade "sports" sim that brings absolutely nothing new to the table. 

OK, there are some positives about the game, but the moderately enjoyable gameplay is marred by a litany of problems, including some lackluster graphics, horrendously grating voice acting and an overly complicated menu system that makes just changing your shoe color way more demanding and draining than it should be. Granted, it's a playable title, but it's definitely not something that I think would have long term appeal for most new PS VITA owners.

SCORE: 5/10

Little Deviants

Now here's a game that makes full use of all of these additions to the PS VITA, like the touch screen and touch pad on the back of the system. The problem? Neither of them really add to the game itself, unfortunately. 

"Little Deviants" is a very simple game, consisting of a number of mini-games that bear mild resemblances to other popular "casual games," including a litany of Augmented Reality offerings on the 3DS and especially a certain monkey-themed puzzle title from Sega ("Shenmue," of course.) There's some mild amusement to be found, but none of it is really sustained for more than a few hours. I'd say this is nothing more than a glorified tech demo, but then again, I've actually played some glorified tech demos that were, unlike this one, actually sort of fun.

SCORE: 5/10

Lumines Electronic Symphony

Puzzle games have been standards for portable system launches since the days of "Tetris" and monochrome Game Boy screens. For that matter, a lot of people considered the original "Lumines" to be the killer app for Sony's first foray into handheld gaming. That said, while "Electronic Symphony" has a lot of positives going for it, it's also a game that has a couple of things working against it, ultimately making it a playable title, but probably not a buyable one. 

While the block dropping gameplay is as fun as ever, the gimmick - the whole techno-rave soundtrack thing - has become pretty old hat, and the developers of the game take far too few risks with the tried-and-true gameplay. "Lumines" is still a visual trip to play, but so little things have changed between this and the original game that you have to wonder what the point of this re-release is, anyway. If you haven't experienced "Lumines," you're probably better off just playing the original, because this "update" doesn't even attempt to change the recipe at all.

SCORE: 6/10 

Michael Jackson: The Experience

Far and away the WORST game available on launch day, and a title I wouldn't suggest even for the world's biggest MJ fan (and for that person, I would suggest "therapy" instead of picking up an overpriced re-release on a new handheld, anyway.)

Did you ever play "Elite Beat Agents" on the DS? Well, this game is sort of like that, except a.) the music is WAY worse, and b.) the touch screen controls don't work half the time you tap the system. So in addition to crappy graphics, repetitive (almost broken) gameplay and music that sounds like it's coming out of a speaker covered in Baconnaise, the title also has inordinately lengthy load times; if you're looking for the system's reverse magnum opus, I think we've found it right here.

SCORE: 3/10 

ModNation Racers: Road Trip

Hey! Who's up for a crappy "Mario Kart" rip-off with graphics substandard to most Wii offerings? 

"ModNation" is definitely one of the weaker games on the PS VITA on day one, and a game that I would ONLY suggest for parents with children that are easily, easily entertained (and they'd probably enjoy chewing on the game box more than they would actually playing it, for that matter.) The gameplay is stilted, the customization options are boring, and there's really nothing new here that you haven't already experienced in WAY better games a good half a decade ago. Is there a reason to give this game a fair shake? None that I can think of, honestly.

SCORE: 4/10 
Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus

OK, OK, so we've played "Ninja Gaiden" a few times before. OK, we've played it countless times before, on several different platforms. The fact remains, however, that despite being an almost ten year old offering, "Ninja Gaiden" is still one of our generation's greatest action titles, and a classic game made even more kick ass with this extras-riddled PS VITA re-release.

If you've never played "Ninja Gaiden" before, here's a heads up: this thing is HARD. As in, ridiculously, absurdly, stupidly difficult, but it's definitely WORTH the migraines it'll give you during the first couple of playthroughs. Granted there are still some graphical hiccups to be found here and there, but all of the added features (not to mention the fact that, hey, it's portable "Ninja Gaiden") makes this a game WELL worth picking up, pending you have a thing for games that kick ass (especially your own.)

SCORE: 8/10
Rayman Origins

"Rayman Origins" is a really fun platforming game that, while not really on par with the better Mario and Sonic offerings, is still a game worth a try, even if you think you are too old/cool for the material. 

"Origins" is a pretty faithful port of the PS3/XB360 title, and the controls are smooth and fluid. Granted, there isn't too much of a challenge to be found here, but there's more than enough unlockables and secret passage ways to explore that it ought to keep you playing for a few months. The touchscreen controls and other superfluous features really detract from an otherwise solid hop-and-bop adventure - it may not be a purchase right now, but when it comes down in price, I'd vouch for the aggregate gamer to give it a look-see.

SCORE: 7/10 

Shinobido 2: Revenge of Zen

Didja' grow up in the late 1990s? If so, you may recall a PS1-era game called "Tenchu," an early "stealth-action" title that allowed you to play as a homicidal ninja that killed people with, among other things, poison clumps of rice. Well, "Shinobido 2" is something of a spiritual successor to that game, although it comes with an absolutely massive caveat: the controls, in a word, blow

The problem with the game is that it utilizes way too much touchscreen stuff, which not only makes the game slower, but ridiculously stilted, as well, since you'll be stopping time and time again to set up an attack when just hitting the "X" button would have sufficed. "Shinobido 2" had the potential to be a decent game, but the horrendous control scheme absolutely cripples any fun that could've...and should've...been there in the first place.

SCORE: 5/10

Touch My Katamari

When the first Katamari game made it stateside in 2004, it was a cult hit, primarily due to its extremely out-there game play and even kookier presentation. Now, almost ten years down the road, the myriad "Katamari" games have turned the once unusual formula into a pretty predictable experience, and not surprisingly, the PS VITA debut for the franchise is anything but innovative. 

The dual analog control scheme works just fine here, but the graphics are disappointing, to say the least. While there's still some fun to be had with the title - if nothing else, you can enjoy it just for its soundtrack - the formula has gotten pretty stale at this point. If you've never played a "Katamari" game before, you'll probably enjoy the initial experience, but for people that have, there's pretty much nothing here that you haven't already played before...and most likely, in a better overall package.

SCORE: 6/10 

Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3

Yeah, yeah, you can complain about the lengthy load times and the static backgrounds, but at the end of the day, "Ultimate Marvel vs. Campcom 3" is just way too fun for any PS VITA owner to pass up. 

The game is, for the most part, a fairly faithful port of the PS3/XB360 game, albeit with a few graphical downgrades. The cast is absolutely enormous, and the frenzied game play (sweetened by some excellent multiplayer set-ups) is everything you'd want out of a button masher. Additionally, there is a metric ton of stuff to unlock, and the promise of perpetual network updates ensures that this is one portable title you'll be playing for a LONG time to come. It ain't perfect, but if you're looking for something that will give you months of action, this is one launch day offering you shouldn't skip out on.

SCORE: 8/10 

Uncharted: Golden Abyss

"Uncharted" is one of the prettiest handheld games ever made, and even if the game is subject to a few problematic spots - namely, all of those pointless "touch screen" mini-games that just slow down the action and exploration sequences you WANT to play - there's still so much to the package that it would be fairly unwise for the new PS VITA owner to pass on this one. 

As far as single player experiences go, this is probably the best the PS VITA has to offer on day one, even if the title itself is a little on the short side. Pretty much everything you loved about the PS3 series can be found in this shrunk down offering - the cinematic stylings, the stealth heroics, even the impressive physics engine - so I suppose you can forgive whatever shortcomings arise out of the experience. Obviously, it wouldn't be my first pick pending you were looking for some multiplayer activity, but if you're just trying to find a game that will give you a couple of hours of intense (and solo) downtime, this is probably your dia primera pick right here.

SCORE: 8/10

Virtua Tennis 4: Wold Tour

Admittedly, tennis has never been my (or really, anybody's) favorite sport, but it certainly lends itself quite well to video gaming - which is why all these years later, "Pong" is still an enjoyable and accessible game to just about anybody. 

"Virtua Tennis" is a really simple game, churched up with some completely needless touchscreen controls. The reality is, the game becomes a lot more fun and easier to play when you turn off the damn feature altogether, making this really nothing more than a slightly prettier PSP re-iteration. Granted, it's still pretty fun, but it's not worth going out of your way to experience, unless you're the world's biggest tennis enthusiast or something...which, yeah, you probably aren't.

SCORE: 6/10

wipEout 2048

A lot of people are going to overlook "wipEout 2048," and not just because it's last in line alphabetically. That's a shame, really, because it's one of the better games you'll find on the console for day one - and it certainly lays some groundwork down for some impressive games ahead of us, if absolutely nothing else. 

"wipEout," of course, is basically a high-resolution "F-Zero" (in fact, this is probably better than any of the "F-Zero" games Nintendo has ever released.) While fast, fun and furious, the game is pretty stunted by a lack of customization and too few track options, not to mention some courses that are EXTREMELY difficult. Furthermore, the load times are really long, and the multiplayer options are nowhere near as robust as you would have hoped for. All in all, "wipEout 2048" isn't the super-impressive technological juggernaut it could have been, but it's still a very entertaining game...I'm definitely looking forward to how a next-gen "Burnout" would look and and play on the VITA, that is for sure.

SCORE: 7/10

Well, now that you know what launch day games are great, really good, OK, and pretty blah, I guess my final duty is to give a brief prediction of how this newfangled PS Vita will fare in the extremely glutted handheld, mobile device market. 

For starters, it’s looking pretty clear that the PS Vita is following firmly in the footsteps of its PSP forerunner, providing gamers with outstanding sports, racing and compilation titles here and down the line; as these are areas where Nintendo’s handhelds have traditionally faltered, you can see where Sony thinks they can get a foothold here. 

The problem now is, the graphical distance between the 3DS (which, by the way, already has a pretty damn solid library) and the PS Vita is nowhere near as vast as the chasm between the DS and the PSP. Granted, the multifunctional nature of the Vita gives it an obvious utilitarian advantage over Nintendo’s competing handheld, but the exact same thing can be said of the PSP. Clearly, having a technological edge over the DS wasn’t enough to carry the PSP over its rival, and unless some major shakeups occur over the next few months, it doesn’t look like the Vita is going to be able to overtake the 3DS based on strength of technology alone. 

Even so, the graphical capabilities and multifunctional technological aspects of the Vita could give it a crucial tiebreaker over the 3DS, especially as it appeals to more mobile, non-hardcore gaming audiences like college kids and high schoolers, who are more about Facebooking and YouTubing than SHMUPING and dungeon crawling. Pending the Vita gets some of the more “hardcore” appealing licenses like “Call of Duty” and the “Batman” titles on the system - with a non-laggy online component, of course - the Vita may very well shape up to be a worthy contender to Mario’s handheld throne. 

Ultimately, it is WAY too early to predict the PS Vita’s fate at this juncture - but as far as first impressions go, I think it’s made a pretty damned notable one today.

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