TROUBLE CITY

MCP: SONY'S FIRST PARTY PARTY

Master Control ProgramRuss FischerComment

While Devin spent the early part of this week in Romania, I went the other direction. Sony held a two-day press event (four days with travel, ultimately!) to show off all sorts of new code for the PS3 and PSP, and even a couple things for the PS2. Altogether, this is a more impressive lineup than what we've been used to dogging for the past year. I'm still not certain that it's enough to sell the PS3, but there are more than a couple games on this list I'm anxious to play.

(I had planned to link to trailers on GameTrailers and elsewhere for each of these titles, but those guys have conveniently put up a single page collecting all their stuff from the event. In the interest of saving time, just click here.)

Um, Guys, We Really Need To Sell Some PS3s.

 When Sony last showed off a collection of first party games, Lair seemed like one of the better offerings. It had good SixAxis control, nicely modeled dragons and the sort of seamless air to ground mechanic I've wanted to see since Panzer Dragoon. Now, Lair seems like the least of Sony's lineup, which says a lot about how far the company has come in six months. I'll probably play Lair when it hits, but the build now seems clunky and a bit too aimless.

Warhawk, on the other hand, is fun as hell. I spat all over the game when it was just an offline dogfighting sim, but the change to Battlefield-style, online-only play has done it a great service. The game just works, whether you're on the ground trying to snipe, or jumping into a tank, jeep or stationary gun emplacement. All that sounds pretty Halo-riffic, and it is, but the tipping point is the Warhawk gunship. These planes are ultra-fast and maneuverable -- almost too much so, as I found myself careening around wildly during the learning stages. It'll take some dedication to master the controls, but if that work pays off, Warhawk could be one of the best aerial combat games around.

 One of the neat surprises was Folklore, which some were saying was nestled into TGS last year under a different title. If so, I totally missed it then, but was happy to play through both halves of this demo. I say 'both halves' because the story in Folklore is split between a male and female character, each of whom has to help solve a series of murders by delving into the world of faerie. Once in the magic lands, they capture the IDs of local creatures and then press them into service as weapons. Practically, what this means is that during combat you'll capture the spirits of enemies, Ghostbusters-style, then assign them to face buttons to launch different attacks.

Yeah, it's like Kameo in a way, but here the two lands are vastly different from one another (if each vaguely game-cliché in it's own right) and, more important, the creature design is unique and frequently pretty damn good. Folklore's got the action RPG angle down pat, it seems, and if the story isn't too irritating I can see getting sucked into the collection aspect pretty easily.

 I'm not sure yet what I think of Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. On one hand, the acting and animation we've seen so far are top-notch. Really, some of the physical movements are the best animated, or at least the most lifelike, I've seen in a game. But then there's the gunplay, which is currently average at best, and the setting and underlying action, which rely very heavily on Tomb Raider boilerplate. Granted, in Jak and Daxter Naughty Dog managed to elevate routine platforming mechanics, so it's possible that they can do the same for jungle exploration in Uncharted. But based on the relatively short demo I was able to play, I'm definitely on the fence.

 Heavenly Sword was finally brought back to light with a new demo that was several steps ahead of what we last played. Now the God of War combat is eeven more pronounced, though you can hold down two different shoulder buttons to activate the Ranged and Power fighting stances, essentially tripling the number of combos and animations. There are also action sequences where you'll follow face button prompts to navigate areas -- pure Dragon's Lair/God of War/Spider-Man 3, sure, but the execution seems tight. And the fluidity of the game's movement has only been increased. My main problem: I kept picking up things during combat (button mashing, yo) and then finding myself unable to perform a normal attack because I was holding some soldier's nail file. That was really irritating, but I'm sure I'll eventually figure out how not to grab things whilst killing.

 SOCOM was shown off in a couple versions. First, in a set of video-only animation displays that, frankly, didn't much convince me that the PS3 version would be any different from the last couple PS2 games. But the PSP version, which lets you control a four-man squad and emphasizes Full Spectrum Warrior type tactics, seemed pretty cool. I kept sending my guys to the wrong part of the screen, but that was just when I grabbed a random PSP and started playing. The graphics and presentation were pretty solid, especially since most of the commands were nicely explained contextually, so I'll be more eager to play this one than the PS3 code.

 My favorite old-timey platforming series, Ratchet & Clank, gets a makeover in Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction. The demo was not playable, sadly, but what we saw was a real callback to the first two games: colorful, whimsical and goofy, with a healthy dose of bizarre weapon violence and robotic enemies. Everyone will make a lot of the Groovitron, basically a bomb which distracts enemies by making them dance, but I'm down with the very MegaMan style saw blades. I hope they unbalance this game as much as they did MegaMan 2. And if nothing else, this is one of the only next-gen games I've seen that fulfills the promise of offering gameplay that's as detailed and impressive as top-flight CGI. Yeah, Ratchet looks that good.

 The God of War PSP game, subtitled Chains of Olympus, finally got to show it's face in public. Developed by the same folks that did a generally fantastic job with Daxter, this is a prequel, essentially -- you'll play Kratos between the time he whacked his fam and the beginning of the original God of War. That might make for some grim playing; while I'm sure they'll cram in a lot of beasts to fight (dragons are confirmed) I'm worried that a game that takes the story-based tack we're used to with the series might be a little too grim if you're tagging humans rather than minotaurs. And if we're supposed to be playing as Kratos under Ares' command, you know there's going to be some nastiness.

A couple things were MIA. Primary among them was Killzone, which based on the original game (crap) and PSP release (mostly good, but frustrating) I'm not terribly keen on. Also not shown was the revamped PSP, which no doubt is being held until the industry-only E3 later this summer.

The PlayStation Network Lives!

Meanwhile, over on the internets, the PlayStation Network isn't exactly jumping all over Xbox Live, but it is making small strides. I'll admit that Home doesn't do much for me; I can't imagine using it on a daily or even occasional basis, and it's certainly the sort of thing that will require constant attention to get much out of. But for the millions of Sims addicts out there, it might actually be the hook into the system they need. I'd think it amazingly ironic if Home ended up being the mainstream killer app for the system, but stranger things have happened.

 I finally got a chance to play Little Big Planet -- I didn't go to GDC, so had to be swooned/confused by the video like everyone else -- and I loved it. During the presentation half of Day Two marketing prez Peter Dille showed a LBC video that was basically the game's little doll characters playing dress up to the tune of a great Go Team! song. That's neat and all, but it highlighted the big question for the game: is it more than just a tech demo?

When I got to play, finally, that question wasn't entirely answered, but I had such a good time that it didn't matter. The physics are responsive and fun, and while the controls remain a little sticky (I grabbed onto other players as much as the things I was trying to hold) the frantic competition/cooperation of playing with four people was great. (There are some collection objects that award individual scores, but to fully explore all areas you'll have to cooperate with others. There's a potentially great dynamic there.)

 Also appearing on the Network will be Pain, which is like the ragdoll mini-games from FlatOut made into an arcade/party game. Fling a little dude into a cityscape, the goal being to ricochet him off objects, racking up thousands of points as you do so. The landscape is filled with obvious targets: a giant donut and massive bowl of cereal, panes of glass, a mime. But it's the ability to grab objects and carry or fling them that turns into the hook. After five minutes you'll end up trying to string together a multitude of hits, kinda like trying to extend a Line Rider run as long as possible. Question is, will anyone want to play it for more than fifteen minutes without heavy doses of alcohol involved?

 There were a handful of other items, like the Asteroids/Geometry Wars hybrid that I enjoyed but never got the name of (Super Stardust HD, as it turns out), and a bowling game that's easily as good as that in Wii Sports. In fact, since you have more spin and directional control over the ball in Sony's version of the game, I think I like it more.



Oh, Right, There's A Third Party, Too.

Day two saw a sizeable collection of third-party titles added to the mix. Most of them, however, weren't anything that really grabbed my attention. Manhunt 2 looked old and washed out, though just as brutal as the first. I got tired of Bully pretty fast, and watching this demo I don't know if I'll even shell out for Manhunt again.

Same goes for Devil May Cry 4, which in this demo (essentially an expanded version of the TGS one) still looks like an upgraded Xbox title, not a triple-A PS3/360 game. I liked the giant boss that threw Dante around, eventually crushing an entire town, but otherwise there was little to make me revise the opinion of the series that Slater and I share.

I didn't get to spend much time with Fantastic Four (yawn) or Conan (more than mild interest) because I was distracted by the first public display of Hellboy running on the PS3. While the game doesn't seem to reach far beyond third-person action basics, it's got the character's humor and appeal in spades. The attack animations, which mostly involve pounding enemies and objects into pieces, were fun in this short dose. Since the build was obviously an early one, I'll reserve judgment on the slightly choppy performance.

Konami also had the PSP rebuild of Castlevania: Rondo of Blood (known as Dracula X to most people) on hand. That got my attention, though I would have really liked to see what sort of content has been added to the version of Symphony of the Night that will also adorn the disc, along with the original version of Rondo. Three (more or less) Castlevania games for the price of one? Yeah, I'm a sucker. Whip me.

Timeshift has been totally rebuilt, but I'm still not interested enough in it to care without having final code in hand, and Stranglehold was shown…yet again. The big news this time: a special PS3 edition will ship with both the game and Hard Boiled on a single Blu-Ray disc. That's kinda cool.

There were a handful more non-Sony games on display, but those are the highlights. A red-eye home has left me with a few memory gaps, so I'll hit my notes again later and update if there's anything else I missed.