Hands-on: Ubisoft's 'mixed bag' Vita launch line-up
2nd Feb 2012 | 09:00
With the PS Vita's February 22 launch approaching, a clearer picture of its initial line-up of games is steadily emerging.
Ubisoft held a preview showcase in which we had a good play of the five PS Vita games it will have on sale at launch: Rayman Origins, Lumines: Electronic Symphony, Michael Jackson: The Experience HD, Dungeon Hunter: Alliance and Asphalt: Injection.
As you would expect for a day one lineup, they represented a mixed bag. Here are our impressions.
Michel Ancel's latest opus pleasantly surprised a lot of gamers in 2011. It didn't exactly appear to be the most futuristic game, essentially adhering to the ancient 2D platform blueprint at first sight, but it still managed to add to Ancel's reputation as one of the industry's most influential and original developers.
Its mix of surprisingly surreal cartoon-style visuals, deliciously freaky level design and fierce, uncompromising difficulty levels proved irresistible to hardcore gamers. The good news is that Rayman Origins, as far as we could tell after hacking through a number of levels in a half-hour session, has made the transition to PS Vita without apparently being compromised in any respect. Which ought to make it one of the most popular launch titles.
Rayman Origins was always cleverly designed to be portable across platforms - it doesn't exactly push graphics processors to their limits - and we struggled to see any drop in visual quality on the PS Vita in comparison with the Xbox 360 or PS3.
Happily, Ubisoft has resisted the temptation to shoehorn in dubious support for the PS Vita's more esoteric features, so it plays pretty much the same as it does on the consoles: you move Rayman using the left analogue stick, make him jump with the X button and punch (including a press-and-hold power-up) with square or circle. And that's it: in the levels we played, there was no extraneous support for touch-screen or rear touch-pad. Just good, old-fashioned, fearsomely hard platforming, with long stretches between checkpoints.
The anarchic and fun co-operative modes from the console versions are present and correct on the PS Vita, and there's a single-player Ghost mode which lets you race yourself. If you already own a console copy of Rayman Origins, you won't find anything earth-shatteringly new or different in the PS Vita version, so you probably won't want to lash out on it - unless the prospect of playing it on the move is too alluring. But if you don't already own a copy, you simply won't find a better platformer on the Vita.
Lumines: Electronic Symphony
Tetsuya Mizuguchi's blend of Tetris-style block-building, trademark trippy visuals and dance music has received a pretty major makeover for the PS Vita - developer Q Entertainment intends it to be a proper sequel to the original, and first hands-on impressions suggest it has succeeded in that aim.
The gameplay, of course, is reassuringly familiar: you have to rotate and drop dual-coloured 2x2 blocks so that when they form a square of four or more blocks of the same colour, those blocks (and others touching them) disappear. On the PS Vita, you can use the touch-screen to rotate, drag and drop the incoming blocks, but we preferred to use the D-pad and X button to rotate them.
At the bottom left of the screen, you have your avatar, as in Lumines games of yore, but this time it actually has a purpose, namely launching your special ability. The one we had was Hold The Line - which temporarily froze the timeline, providing a bit of breathing space when things were getting hectic. Occasionally, you get Shuffle Blocks -- which shuffle everything around randomly -- and special blocks which eliminate all touching blocks of the same colour, regardless of the shape they make.
Another major change - rendering Lumines a little less fierce in difficulty terms, or at least giving you more rewards for your efforts than previously - is the addition of an XP system. So, no matter how far you get, you earn some points towards new skins, music tracks and the like.
Structurally, it's familiar, too, with four self-explanatory game modes in Master, Duel, Stopwatch and Playlist. The latter should prove popular, allowing you to customise your skins and the music.
Gameplay-wise, Electronic Symphony is best described as classic Lumines - it manages to be both restful and frenetic at the same time. Musically, it returns to Mizuguchi's trademark house/trance sound (with extra samples launching when you destroy blocks).
Visually, it's absolutely sumptuous: one skin we saw provided a Japanese calligraphy-style backdrop, while the blocks, properly modelled in 3D despite their small size, seem more tactile than ever. Overall, if you've enjoyed Lumines games in the past, you'll love Electronic Symphony, and it definitely provides the ideal introduction to the world of Lumines. We're not 100 per cent convinced it's a PS Vita must-buy - it's one of those games you'll either love or won't see the appeal of -- but it's certainly a top-quality effort.
Michael Jackson: The Experience HD
This struck us as a rather odd title to bring to the PS Vita, given that on the consoles (particularly the Wii), this rhythm-action game was all about emulating the late Jacko's unbelievable dance moves. Having played it on the PS Vita, we're still of the opinion that it's a rather odd title.
Diehard Jackson fans, of course, will love it. As will anybody else whose idea of fun is rubbing their stomach and patting their head at the same time. Because that, essentially, is what it's like to play. We swiftly discovered that it's best to play it with the PS Vita placed flat on a surface. You launch a Jackson song and then lead him through his dance routine by making prescribed gestures on the touch-screen.
Obviously, timing is the key to nailing them, and Michael Jackson: the Experience uses a clever means of communicating how to time your gestures, with two symbols per gesture which get closer to each other, finally overlapping at the point in time when you're supposed to nail them. Circles, for example, denote a touch, while arrows show the direction of the swipe you need to make.
You also have to make curved swipes, and sometimes must touch two parts of the screen simultaneously. Typically for a rhythm-action game, every input you make is rated, and you earn points accordingly (as well as allowing Jacko to get through his dance routine).
The game has two modes: HIStory (which lets you choose any of the tracks from that album) and Battle, for head-to-head play either locally or via the PSN. There's also a Backstage menu option which should keep those fanatical fans happy. And that is much-needed, given that they are the only PS Vita owners likely to buy the game.
Dungeon Hunter: Alliance
When we fired this hack-n-slash up, we were instantly met with a dread word: it was developed by Gameloft, Ubisoft's mobile phone development wing. Yep, it's an iOS game that has been upscaled for the PS Vita, making it more of an exercise in launch window box-ticking than a credible contender.
In gameplay terms, it was beguiling enough: basic, unsophisticated but satisfying enough dungeon-based hack-n-slash action seen from a three-quarters top-down viewpoint. With a convoluted storyline in which you play a king resurrected after 25 years, whose ex-wife has ruled tyrannically in your absence, you initially decide whether to play as a Warrior, Rogue or Mage.
It's pretty bog-standard stuff, with the main concession to the PS Vita's unique input possibilities being use of the rear touch-pad to control the movement of the fairy that accompanies you (which you mainly use to find hidden treasure). There's some use of the touch-screen, too: you can pinch to zoom in and out iPhone-style, and double-tap to launch your fairy's spell. The touch-screen also comes in handy when managing your inventory.
All the hack-n-slash clichés are present and correct, including pressure-plates that open doors and treasure chests. There are, of course, boss-battles. Dungeon Hunter: Alliance, then, is hardly an essential purchase - although it will presumably have a price-point that reflects its mobile phone origins. One for those who prefer skulking around virtual dungeons to interacting with the real world.
The first thing that came to mind when we fired up Asphalt: Injection for the PS Vita was that Asphalt had been a launch title for the appalling Nokia N-Gage. It wasn't any cop then - nor, sadly, is it now, even on what represents the state of the handheld console art.
As with previous iterations of Asphalt (again designed for mobile phones and upscaled to handhelds), it provides racing at its most bog-standard and humdrum. There are boost pick-ups and money to collect; when you completely fill your boost gauge and hit the right bumper, you get an Adrenaline mega-boost with an accompanying night-time-style visual effect.
There are short-cuts, elimination and Timed modes and you get to drive a virtual Mini Coupe. The handling doesn't quite give you such a pronounced feeling of floating above the tarmac as previous versions, but it's still pretty ropey. You rarely need to brake, at least in the earlier stages. There are 15 tracks, each set in a different city (including New York, Monte Carlo and Reykjavik).
Frankly, you'd have to be desperately addicted to driving games to buy this (unless it ends up being particularly cheap). Particularly when the likes of Codemasters' F1 2011 and WipEout 2048 are PS Vita launch titles.