If in doubt, buy your parents something you want and reclaim at a later date - a useful mantra handed down from generation to generation. I once bought my sister a CD that will remain nameless for shame purposes, even though she had no flashy machinery to play it on. But I did. So, when I suggested she hand the disc to me and keep the cassette recording I had selflessly made for herself, I was expecting nothing but cooperation. Bloody witch didn't see it like that though, did she? Threw a right strop. Ungrateful. But looking back at my foolish youth of yester-year I can see how much I have changed. She lives in China for a start, so no need to get her anything. Present for sister: tick.
Which all leads us rather nicely into our list of what to buy on PSP this Christmas (yes it does), as feverish shoppers brush up against you, busily bustling for elusive stocking fillers. A strong year the sleek Sony handheld has had, too, bolstered by early match-winning performances by Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth, Every Extend Extra and Crush. However, the biggest change in the last twelve months was the introduction of a re-designed SKU making it both slimmer, lighter, and mysteriously more alluring. Its insides also had a bit of a fiddling with so it can now output video to tellies, while removing the spring-loaded disc tray in favour of manual control.
Unlike its rival this is a very busy time for the PSP, as it gets swamped underneath a heavy release schedule with an alarming amount of variety. Gone, it seems, are the days of racing favouritism, with WipEout Pulse the solo representative in our list. In, instead, are cocky swaggers from gems like Final Fantasy Tactics and Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness, carefully remastered classics that fit handheld gaming like music suits alcohol.
Away we go.
Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions
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Unfortunately there have been some rather dreary rehashes of old Final Fantasy favourites, which for one reason or another were better left buried in their genre-building past. Useful, then, that Square Enix ignored criticism and decided to revitalise Tactics, because it is absolutely bloody marvellous. At its heart is a timeless and infinitely complex strategical blend of statistical know-how and battlefield panache, prompting evening-long discussions on the best way forward with bearded friends. You could take your PSP to the pub and play together if you like, pitting your best quintet against your so called real-life chums.
Better still is the care and attention it has been revitalised with, lavished with fresh cut-scenes for crucial points in the story and with much better translation than the PSone original. Its timeless hand-drawn sprites are as bright as ever and the Sakimoto and Iwata score is one rarely matched. But beware: it is rather daunting on first approach, but the rewards for persistence are endless. "Gorgeous, complex, well-written and beautifully presented, Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions has been polished and refined to make it into the best version of one of the best games of the 1990s," said Rob Fahey in our review. Well, forget 1990s, this is among the best on offer in 2008.
Off you go: tactics are what England should have used to get through to Euro 2008.
Syphon Filter: Logan's Shadow
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Syphon Filter waved some smelling salts under our noses last year with Dark Mirror and showed us the PSP was far more than handbag filler for Paris Hilton. It did things a shooter should, then crammed it all mystifyingly onto the limited array of PSP buttons without descending the whole package into a finger-dancing mosh pit. Thankfully, not content with its first outing, Sony Bend has crammed even more into Logan's Shadow, proving not all follow-ups have to be absolute rubbish.
It looks more impressive than the first, sounds better, and brings with it a fresh bag of tricks for protagonist Gabe to surprise naughty terrorists with. Going to blow a bus up? Bang, he'll use you as a human shield and take down your entire operation. Think you can put that nuclear bomb in the water? Nope, he'll fight you and maybe some sharks if they're asking for it. Jack Bauer would be proud, like a father. Shooters work on PSP, Syphon Filter: Logan's Shadow proves it. An absolute must for those with a gun hankering, and one you may even see the ageing PS2 glaring enviously at.
Stark raving: shadow people are beings said to exist without physical form, much like ghosts. Shadow of the Colossus and ICO both explore the idea, as has Dungeons & Dragons and Fatal Frame III.
Football Manager Handheld 2008
- Release date: 30th November
"For those who think they can do better," it should read on the tin. Come on, every football fan has an input at half-time on what changes need to be made or where the current game plan is going wrong. We all fancy we could put a team together to be as attractive as Arsenal and as successful as Arsenal and as good as Arsenal. You probably reckon McClaren was a smarmy hangover from the Sven days and we are better off without him. And you would be spot on.
Football Manager is well known to you lot, then, because it is the most in-depth and best management simulation around. Squeezing all of it onto PSP was always going to be a challenging and thoroughly alluring prospect - who wouldn't want to tinker with formations while relaxing in the lavatory? Two years Sports Interactive has tried and twice succeeded, honing its efforts effectively with each instalment. Football Manager 2008 should be no different, promising shorter loading times as a result of a better match engine as well as a scrubbed up and better looking navigation system. As sure as a sure thing gets, then, and the perfect train or toilet companion the whole year round.
Not you: Football Manager 2008 is exactly what Steve McClaren will not be. Sorry.
Monster Hunter Freedom 2
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Massive in Japan, and for good reason. Great modern role-playing outings want you to Hoover up loot from your fallen enemies like it were succulent meat and you a depraved carnivore, adorning your ever-growing hero with rarer and deadlier equipment as you change from farm hand to legend. The follies of loot-hungry MMORPG inhabitants can be heard for miles around the Internet, and seeing purple is what Monster Hunter Freedom 2 is all about. Every giant beast you hunt and kill will increase your power and heap treasure upon you.
Your preparation is essential, as you stuff bubbling potions into your expansive backpack, and you will need to enlist human help over the excellent multiplayer mode if you are to tackle the nastiest monsters around. It is a laborious and lengthy process, but the pay-off is sweet and to be cherished: loot like no other. The dangling carrot worked so well for games like World of Warcraft that it was only a matter of time before we saw it elsewhere, and it works to great aplomb here. Those with friends playing will extract most enjoyment, but the compulsive search for bigger and better is one treasure hunters should take a look at and pop on their Christmas list.
That's better: freedom is what cotton-knit under-shorts award you.
Worms Open Warfare 2
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Worms has had a turbulent time in the media since is rapturous eruption onto Amiga (sorry) all those many moons ago, falling foul of having little room to seemingly grow into - where exactly can a 2D turn-based strategy go? Well, 3D, naturally. And so it did, although the move is now lamented and commonly referred to as ill-advised. Back to 2D, then, and onto Live Arcade and handhelds! But here, too, we found holes in it and rued the stagnating premise.
Thank the things in the sky, then, for Worms Open Warfare 2. It is the freshest and most essential Worms outing in years, arguably as long ago as Worms 2. Themes like piratical levels with unpredictable rises in water or educational missions to dispatch wrigglers with limited means - like destroying a batch of worms on a cliff using only a bazooka - add spice and variety, as does a more considered campaign that moves through historical maps in chronological order. Chuck in buckets of customisation, multiplayer, and an intuitive level editor and you have arguably the most relieving return to form in years. Worms at its best.
Cheeky monkey: not to be confused with Guerilla warfare, where oversized monkeys charge from the trees led by Sigourney Weaver.
Capcom Puzzle World
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Sounds rather uninspiring, a little like a friend being sick in the toilet. But rummage through the contents and you will find a real treat: Super Puzzle Fighter Turbo II. Dressed misgivingly like a Tetris clone, the idea build blocks of gems from the pairs that fall from the top of the screen. Shatter these and an equal amount of Counter Gems are dumped on your opponent. Fill your screen up and you lose, loser.
It is marvellously simple but underpinned with the sort of strategical punch to keep you plotting for weeks. Counter Gems cannot be smashed for five turns, you see, so fighting back is paramount to winning. Do you build your stack so it harms your opponent if they dump on you? Eek. Or do you horde an immense block ready to smash as the clock runs down? Block, countermove, finishing flourish - as if it were a fighting game all along. Worth the asking price for Super Puzzle Fighter Turbo II alone, but also accompanied by three Buster Bros. (Pang) titles and Block Block.
Fatso: our world weighs 5,980,000,000,000,000,000,000 tonnes. It should work out more.
- Release date: 7th December
Give Sony Liverpool its homework back with a high mark and next time it will aim higher. WipEout Pure was fantastic and shone like a beacon of hope among an early PSP line-up. Follow-up Pulse has its rays obscured by a dense crowd of releases but beams brighter and more brilliant than ever, offering much, much more than incremental bells and whistles.
Hallmarks of the futuristic racing series are all here: the difficulty is judged immaculately and pulls you expertly through speed classes; levels are well-designed and compelling to return to with fresh knowledge of speed-boost layouts; and visually it is unrivalled on the PSP, putting even PS2 titles to shame. But this time the steering is tighter, multiplayer is in, more game modes burst from its seams, and it is arranged much better than Pure. Nevertheless it is still WipEout and instantly familiar to fans of the first. And while it will stand-out less than the original, this is still the definitive version to own and one of the best titles on the PSP.
Throbbing: to quicken your pulse either undergo rigorous activity or look at a sexy picture. Or combine... [Out! - Ed].
Warhammer 40,000: Squad Command
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Somehow THQ strode up to a table full of painstakingly painted lead miniatures and folded it up like a napkin to fit on PSP. And while it may have spilled decorative flourishes, depth of content and variation on the Games Workshop floor, it made absolutely sure kept the essentials and nailed the basics. The result are action points, terrain and distance all being accounted for; retaining the essence of tabletop tactics absent from conversions such as Dawn of War.
Guiding your squad of six nervously through precarious situations requires patience and planning, and sacrificing one will sharply decrease your overall chance of success. Progress and more unit types will become available, feeling you with the warm, fuzzy feeling of advancement as your Dreadnought stomps through walls. These always were my favourite lead miniature, those I sadly stared through the window at because they cost twenty quid each and I painted like a dog with hooves. And like a primed model the foundations for Squad Command are firmly set, just missing the final coat for the display cabinet. Still, pushing unpainted figures around was just as much fun.
Do it: command is what you will need if a troop of time travelling midgets burst through your wardrobe and steal you off on some mystical quest.
Silent Hill Origins
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About time Silent Hill popped its freaky little face up on PSP, and to fill us in on how the story all began nonetheless. Its chilling score and haunting atmosphere have made the spooky place legendary to us, as we creep in our minds through disturbingly warped hospitals, walls splattered with blood and ill intention, unlocking doors hiding chilling secrets to just what in the name of Santa Claus is going on. So iconic is the mysterious town on the hill it prompted a rather badly received film, although Uwe Boll had nothing to do with it. All of which points towards an incredibly successful formula and one developer Climax was keen to stick to for its first Silent Hill effort.
Turn away here if you are looking for monstrous strides forward in a much cherished series, then, but look again if a trip down memory lane sounds enticing to you, or if a jaunt into spooky land is just what you are after at 7am on your commute to work. It is the most accomplished survival-horror game on the PSP, and that in itself is a feat not likely to come around very often.
Oh yes, yep, of course, right, uh huh: despite the misleading title, hills cannot speak.
Pursuit Force: Extreme Justice
- Release date: 30th November
The world loves car chases so much that camera crews decided to follow police chasing villains through fields so we could watch it on telly. Masterful. Criminals use cars to getaway from justice, so we need justice to keep up. This is where Pursuit Force comes in; a squad of super cops who thunder after the perpetrators before leaping onto their moving vehicles, shooting crime in the face and impounding the guilty vehicle. A wonderful idea, and one improved vastly from the sketchy first-time PSP effort.
Extreme Justice handles better, has more vehicles, introduces a cast of supporting characters, looks better and has more engaging boss battles. In a way it is the game the first should have been, heaping variety and whisking us off to a 1990s SEGA-like world of arcade magic. However, it is not without its niggles and fails to really live up to its early potential. But what potential it has; so much you cannot help but enjoy what could be the start of something very special.
Ouch: extreme justice involves one of these, this, and a pot of Vaseline.
Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness
- Release date: 7th December
Afternoon of Darkness mirrors Final Fantasy Tactics in lots of ways. It's a remake of an old strategical role-playing game for starters, in this case the much hugged and fawned over Disgaea: Hour of Darkness on PS2. It also has new features to bring it line with a 2007 release; there's ad-hoc multiplayer as well as a new storyline revolving around what would happen if Etna had killed Laharl in the opening cut-scene. Disgaea does rather sound like diarrhoea too, which would account for those 60 minutes of anguish you would much rather forget. Somewhat unrelated, that one.
However, the most dramatic similarity is the attention to detail and determination to faithfully recreate a classic. The visuals are sharp and fit perfectly in your palm, while the short and sweet battles are a natural fit for sporadic pockets of gaming time. Without wanting to give too much away from our review, it is safe to say this is a title you will want to buy. Expect big things from a small package, a phrase not used for the first time here.
Sunshine go away today: eclipses are impossible on Mecury and Venus, but not in my heart.
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Yes I know it was released earlier this year but I felt you needed to be reminded about it. Crush is a puzzle platform game where to get through levels you will need to swap between three dimensions and two. So far so Super Paper Mario, or Psychonauts if you count the inside brain-world premise. But where Crush starts to realise the untapped potential of dimension swapping is in its ability to actually change the layout of the level by crushing it from a different angle. Squash it from the side and distant platforms get squished in close, or sandwich it from above and high peaks hit the deck.
It is incredibly clever and so refreshing to see developers like Zoe Mode tackle - no not just because they are Brighton based, promise. On a handheld not famed for innovation it is well worth picking up, and only short of true greatness because it perhaps shoots its load a little early by throwing complications in as you struggle to grasp the initial concept. Under the smooth exterior is real thought and attention to detail, proof if proof be needs be that it can be done.
Masterful: yesterday I crushed three bluebottles the size of messerschmitts by first batting them out of the sky then confirming their heads into the floor. Ask Chris if you don't believe me.