PSP - Wait And See

Tom's had it for ages, but still says the time's not right to buy.

I wouldn't recommend buying a PSP. Not right now. Not for you guys.

"I know," you're thinking, "it's the launch line-up. Doesn't have legs."

Actually, I don't have a problem with the launch line-up. I thought it was odd that Sony VP Phil "lots of ducks" Harrison stood up in London this week and defended the PSP by arguing that launch titles don't define consoles. If I were he, I'd have defended what's actually on the shelves this morning. The line-up certainly has legs (better yet, in many cases it has wheels). Ridge Racer, WipEout Pure, Lumines, Everybody's Golf, Virtua Tennis - I'd recommend each and every one.

No, I'm not worried about the launch line-up. I'm worried about other things. For a start, I'm worried that in 12 months' time it's going to cost you 60-70 for a new game - because most of us still aren't ready to replace the home versions of games with portable ones.

Remember when Sony said it wanted to establish UMD as a format for films, and nobody could see the attraction of buying a DVD and a UMD? That's kind of how I feel about PSP - I'm worried that a lot of its biggest games in the next 12 months are going to be ports or facsimiles of the stuff you'll actually want to play on your PlayStation 2, Xbox 360, PC or whatever you have. We're already seeing examples of this - Pro Evolution Soccer 5 is going to be a close approximation of the PS2 version, but if you're a PES fan you're going to want to play it on your TV with your mates as well. That means buying both versions. Even if you'd written off the cost of the actual PSP hardware, you'd still be left paying a heck of a lot for one game.

You can argue, as Kristan has done in his conflicting editorial, that this doesn't apply to everybody. Of course it doesn't. Nor does the inclusion of progressive scan, widescreen and 60Hz options in PlayStation 2 and Xbox games. We argue for those features anyway, because that's what we want - and we're the buyer. What's relevant here is our desire to play games in the best possible way.

If we assume that most of the people buying PSP already own at least one games machine of some description - and it'd be incredibly speculative to suggest otherwise - either one version of a game has to cannibalise sales of the other, or everyone has to spend loads more money. The only other option is "PS2 and PSP" game bundles for less money. We might be able to get on board with that, but what right-thinking publisher is going to want to develop two versions of the same game and then slash the margin on both in order to sell either?

This concern will probably apply to virtually any PSP release from EA, Ubisoft, Activision, SEGA, and any number of other publishers. Of course, there'll also be ports of classic 3D games - Virtua Tennis is a good example - that'll seem worth buying, but that's because it's been a long while since you spent money on them. I'd consider paying 35 to play something like Vib Ribbon on PSP, but I'm not going to pay for Burnout: Revenge on PS2 and Burnout: Legends on PSP. I'm just not. And I'm also wondering whether a port of Gran Turismo 4 is something I want to buy barely a year after I did so on the PS2.

So then, for people like you and I, first party games and exclusives have to lead the way for the sake of our bank balances. It's truer for the PSP than for any other console. But it's not just a question of different formats battling with one another for shelf space and readies; it's also one of play habits, build quality, and the actual viability of some of its most noteworthy features.

For a large part, people are more likely to spend time playing PSP games indoors within reach of their other game devices than anywhere else. That's partly because it just makes sense - there are relatively few PSP games that you're going to want to just dip into for five minutes (180 pays for a much livelier five minutes in most contexts than you'll get out of a PSP game anyway), and extensive leisure time away from home is seldom spent alone or inactive.

It's also partly because the PSP isn't very robust. This isn't a rugged Game Boy or DS that you can take to the beach and shake the sand out of afterward. The screen scratches very easily, and the thought of dropping it on a hardwood floor makes us cringe. I've done that to my DS before and it was fine, and I'd take that anywhere. I wouldn't exactly throw it around, but I wouldn't worry about it. I do worry about taking my PSP out of the house, because I've seen what happens when you manhandle it or get it dirty - the analogue nub breaks off, the screen scuffs, the shoulder buttons stick. And that's ignoring the not inconsiderable worry that it's going to be a hotter item for quick-fingered thieves than the iPod ever was.

I'm not convinced by the prospect of wireless gaming on PSP either. I simply don't expect to randomly encounter many other people who have spent 180 on a console and 35 on a game, have both in their hands at the same time as me and feel like taking me on. And if I'm making special arrangements to play wireless Pro Evolution Soccer 5, why not just invite people round to play it on my PS2? The screen is bloody enormous.

It'd be fine if people were doing proper game sharing - allowing people to engage in multiplayer battles with just one copy of the game - but nobody has done so far, and given the PSP's technical superiority over any other handheld that's used this technique in the past, it seems fair to imagine that it will have to store a lot of data in the other person's PSP memory to facilitate proper 3D gaming. And it'll have to do this by sending the data over the slower of the two wireless networking standards currently available.

All of this talk and I haven't even spoken about the battery life, which is pretty abysmal and nowhere near enough for long journeys or days out; or the MP3 playback, which arrives just as free mobile phones start to offer same thing - and in a unit that's about five times the size and weight of 60 Compact Flash-based MP3 players that have 20 times the storage capacity out of the box. Movie playback is, as Kristan points out, a lot easier than it has been at times in the past nine months, but the larger Memory Stick you need to store that kind of file costs at least another 35 and probably more if you want any kind of headroom.

For the record, I'm glad I own a PSP, I highly recommend a handful of the games, and I'm dead keen on several of the others; but would I recommend spending 180 on it right now, and around the same picking up a selection of games? No. PSP is one of those ideas that sounds fantastic on paper, but right now it's too much of a gamble. There's too much fog hanging over its future. It's geek chic and it's definitely something you will appreciate if you do buy it - and I did buy one, lest we forget - but unless you're an exceptional circumstance like me, or you have lots of disposable income, you're going to be better off waiting until next year and reassessing the situation then.

PlayStation Portable is out now worldwide. For an alternative take, you can find Kristan's thoughts on it here.

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