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Hands on a Vita: Touchin’ Back in Toronto

Posted by on October 18th, 2011 | 0 Comments | Tags: , , , , ,

Sony brought sexy back; you can touch it if you like. In fact, you may have to.

Now before I start getting slapped with lawsuits claiming I encouraged hapless readers to engage in sexual harassment, allow me to explain: today was Sony’s second annual Holiday Preview Event in Toronto, Ontario (Canada). It’s a chance for both the media and the general public to get a taste of what’s going to be draining wallets come shopping season. Naturally, games like Uncharted 3 and Twisted Metal were playable, as were upcoming third-party titles like Assassin’s Creed Revelations and Need For Speed: The Run. There were also demos of Sony’s “frat-room-ready” 3D display (which honestly does have an working two-players-one-screen option), the Android-powered Tablet S, and a 3D headset which was the best damn implementation of 3D I’ve ever worn. These were all well and good, but I didn’t show up at this event to stare at big screens and press some buttons. I had my eye on a baby with back.

So, Playstation Vita. It’s surprisingly light; I expected heft like a first-generation PSP, but it’s somewhere between PSP-2000 and PSPgo in terms of its weight. It’s also thinner than I expected; still thicker than most phones, but far more reasonably sized for a handheld than initial images had made it out to be. The d-pad and buttons are smaller than those on the PSPgo, but they provide good feedback and are easy to reach. The thing that really threw me off was the rear touch surface – it’s the same size as the unit’s screen, and this thing has a big damn screen. There were definitely times when I touched it when I wasn’t meaning to, but so far, everything I played was very forgiving about accidental backtouching. With such a sensitive area right underneath gamers’ fingers, most Vita devs are making sure their games are not led astray by a few misplaced digits.

Videos of Vita games in action really do not do justice to the quality of the system’s screen. It is a thing to behold, on par with today’s high-res superphones. Escape Plan looked stunningly detailed, and Sound Shapes’ retro style looked positively vibrant. It performs very well as a touch surface, resisting even my oily fingerprints. I got hands-on time with only two titles, both of which are slated to launch with the Vita itself (whenever that will be).

Sound Shapes has gotten a lot of attention on this site, the official Playstation Blog, and the wider internet. If you’ve ignored all that, let me brief you: Sound Shapes is a platformers where the levels and the music are one. I don’t mean to say that there’s some arty connection between layout and sound, or that the game is some sort of synaesthetic experience (well, it kind of is). The levels and the music are one: every platform, pickup, and hazard has an associated sound that layers on each other to create the game’s soundtrack. It’s a difficult experience to convey in an article, so I won’t try. The experience is pretty aurally stimulating, especially when levels have elements added to them just to convey cool beats. Everything about the game exemplifies the theme of awesome tunes, right up to the record player level-select screen. Playing this game with a good set of headphones will be necessary (and it’s a shame they can’t include one in the package). My time with Sound Shapes was cut short by some local TV coverage, so unfortunately I missed my chance to check out the level editor. However, Queasy Games is local to Toronto (they are actually two floors up from the game studio where I intern), so don’t be surprised if a more in-depth hands-on article appears in the near future.

Escape Plan, in contrast, doesn’t seem to have been getting quite the amount of attention. However, it should be. Made by Fun Bits (formerly Atomic Operations; you know, the guys who made Fat Princess?), the game is a monochromatic exploration of sadism and salvation. More correctly, its the best parts of a graphic adventure puzzle game mixed with Lemmings in a black-and-white world fraught with peril. The twin characters Lil and Laarg are less controlled and more “influenced” by gestures on the front and rear touch surfaces (and sometimes by tilting the system). More importantly, the environment responds to these touches, and it’s important to make sure objects are touched the right way. Plenty of objects (like metal plates, platforms, and the every-deadly bucket trip hazard) have to be tapped from behind. This is pretty intuitive once you get your head around it; the direction you poke an object from relates to how that object is going to change in the environment. There are even a few times when you need to pinch an object on screen; it makes a very convincing case for all the new control inputs on the Vita.

Fun Bits CEO Chris Millar walked me through the first few levels and then handed the system off to see how well I could do. I failed pretty quickly, allowing Laarg to get crushed by a metal plate I had lowered too early. Despite looking like a very simple, static black & white game, the visuals will surprise you. The environments are fully 3D; the twin analog sticks manipulate the camera, allowing you to easily spot what elements are in the foreground and background. The deaths are animated with a malicious glee; Lil and Laarg appear to be made of a sort of viscous oil that splatters in a most satisfying manner. The pair each have a number on their chest representing the amount of times they each have perished due to your negligence (or maliciousness). Chris informed me that their goal was to have 75 levels at launch, each with a method of escape and a method of death. Did a room seem particularly easy? Replay it and try to find how to bring doom to your hapless charge instead. The game tracks all sorts of statistics, like how many taps & swipes it took to find a solution, though Chris wouldn’t mention anything about online leaderboards. If you need a game that justifies the purchase of a Vita, that shows off what a developer can really do when they explore this new hardware, then Escape Plan is it.

LittleBigPlanet was also being shown at the event, but I sadly had no time to check it out. I will close this article with two thoughts: One, the Vita can’t get here fast enough. Two, Ratchet and the Journey-thing can really cut a rug.