So much for pocket gaming. The first thing that strikes you about Sony's NGP (a name whose days are numbered, with a sexier and more practical alternative likely to be unveiled at E3) is its size. Larger by some measure than its competition, the NGP's closest comparison in handheld history is Atari's Lynx.
That's an association Sony would likely prefer to avoid, along with the more obvious point of reference: Apple's iPad. The NGP's 5-inch OLED screen certainly holds its own against that particular device. And while the 960 x 544 display doesn't pop quite like the iPhone 4's Retina display, it's a world away from its dedicated gaming opposition in terms of resolution.
The 24-bit colour is deep and rich and the screen's size excuses the NGP's unwieldy proportions, seeing as much of its surface is given over to the display. It may lack the stereoscopic fireworks of the 3DS but it's shiny enough for you not to care. Besides, the NGP has a fair few gimmicks of its own.
The handheld's touch screen and touch pad both work with the same fidelity as Apple's offering, and the OLED display remains unblemished even after suffering the sweaty pokes and swipes so many NGP games demand.
The rear pad is inconspicuous to the point of anonymity and slightly awkward to use. It does offer some interesting options for developers, as hinted at by the early software line-up. It's certainly the most intriguing of all the NGP's features.
These of course include those long-awaited dual analogue sticks. They feel disconcertingly small at first, their convex nature allowing blundering thumbs to slip off them all too easily. They can also seem a little light and insignificant, and there's an initial concern they won't offer the resistance required by precision shooters.
However, those concerns are neatly washed away by five minutes of duck and cover in Uncharted: Golden Abyss. With a little calibration of expectations, the analogue sticks are unlikely to disappoint.
What's interesting is how they will play to the more traditional console experiences expected on the NGP. The planned Call of Duty will really put them to the test, but for now it's a challenge Uncharted has no trouble in rising to.
The NGP's own layout will never feel as comfortable as a DualShock Ė the size of the thing and the contortions it occasionally demands make sure of that. All the same, it's certainly a cordial host for third-person shooters.
That Sony's NGP can play host to the kinds of experiences we'd expect from PlayStation 3 is no longer in question. Any lingering doubts are extinguished not only by Uncharted but also wipEout, which runs side-by-side with its PS3 brethren and comes off favourably.
The real question is whether people want that experience from a handheld, especially in light of a market which is unrecognisable compared to the one PSP launched in six years ago. There's no word yet on how Sony will sate the growing appetite for bite-sized games or how the PlayStation Minis might adapt, but at least the more leftfield games on show give a hint of what to expect.
If Sound Shapes (as it's temporarily titled) is anything to go by, the NGP will foster come creative gems which make the most of the handheld's own idiosyncrasies. The work of Riff: Everyday Shooter's Jonathan Mak, the game continues the synaesthetic concerns of its PlayStation Network predecessor, this time transposing rhythmic abstraction to the platform genre.
Levels are comprised of pulsating backdrops drawn from stark lines and flat colours. Each object on-screen corresponds to an instrument featured on the game's minimalist soundtrack. It plays out like Rolando by way of Mondrian, the player tasked with moving a throbbing blob from one end of a single-screen level to another. The game's real charm, though, comes through its use of music.
In Sound Shapes each screen is an interactive music sheet. Pitch is defined by the placement of enemies and platforms. This makes for plenty of fun when exploring the developer's own creations, but the real brilliance lies in the user-generated content elements.
Here the front touch screen comes into its own. It provides a swift and natural interface for using a simple suite of tools. The end result is equal parts level creator and music maker.
The NGP's networking capabilities open this up into a world of possibilities, and one which Sony intends to explore fully. Tracks and levels can be downloaded, remixed and uploaded once again, taking the play/create/share ethos of LittleBigPlanet and giving it a brilliantly hip makeover.
Sound Shapes makes modest but smart use of the NGP's many unique features. Elsewhere the myriad control options collide together in surprising, delightful and often eccentric ways.
Little Deviants has a crack at utilising every single one of them throughout the three mini-games on display. It's at its most effective in Hole Roll Control, a game that throws some real-time terraforming at Marble Madness's simple format. There are few surprises when it comes to basic play Ė rolling a hole into a ball is, as the name suggests, the order of the day Ė but the terraforming itself is a revelation.
Here the rear touch pad comes into play, with strokes of the NGP's smooth rear deforming the landscape. It's joyfully malleable and gives a good account of the accuracy of the pad. This goes to show how tactile the NGP can be and suggests the potential for the rear touch pad to add a new level of connection to game worlds.
Elsewhere, Little Deviants is a little less inspired as it ticks through the rest of the handheld's feature set. Depth Charge uses the tilt controls to guide an avatar through a mine-filled maze. While this is painfully simplistic it does at least show that the tilt works with an impressive level of accuracy.
Bots Blast is the last of Little Deviant's mini-games currently on show. It's an augmented reality shooting game that uses the NGP's rear-facing camera. Throw in some motion controls and you've got an experience that flies close to that of the 3DS's built-in Face Raiders, but any similarities illustrate how Sony's tech is several steps ahead of Nintendo's.
That fact is driven home by Reality Fighters, the new project from Invizimals developer Novorama. It's another augmented reality game, this time projecting two virtual fighters into the player's environment. The characters themselves are detailed and fully customisable, and one of the first options presented gives you the ability to map your own face onto an avatar.
Reality Fighters does an incredible job of incorporating its combatants into the backdrops, and it's a feature that's disarmingly charming: it's possible to project a 30- foot version of yourself onto the horizon and fight against a similarly proportioned astronaut. The camera and motion controls do well to keep the action steady.
The actual sparring runs surprisingly deep, with 16 fighting styles that take in everything from capoeira to zombie, ballet and breakdance, each sporting 80 moves and all pulled off with the traditional method of quarter circles and button combinations. It's a solid 2D brawler with a deft AR flourish, and the real sting is tucked away in one of its menus.
There's an option to fight using pre-captured backdrops, excusing the need to prance about in the sunlight. There are pre-loaded examples, although it's possible to upload 360-degree photos of your own. These can work in tandem with the Near app, allowing photos to be tagged with locations and possibly stored for other players to pick up.
It's another smart feature that has potentially far-reaching consequences Ė with the right application backed up by the NGP's networking, the sharing of 360-degree photos could be another hook for those wary of picking up what looks like, in some lights, merely a beefed-up PSP.
Sony has piled enough into the NGP to guarantee that such a dim impression doesn't last for long. After an afternoon in the company of the handheld it's hard not to marvel how much has been fitted into the device. It's a Swiss army knife of a handheld which can lay claim to best-in-class visuals, augmented reality features that go above and beyond the competition and networking capabilities in line with contemporary expectations.
To borrow Sony's own phrase, it only does everything. The question of cost still hangs over the NGP's head, however. In this brave new world of portable gaming, the price will have to be appealing enough to attract consumers already juggling several devices on their person. Being able to do everything may not be enough.