Previously on PSP Games To Watch in 2005: Racing games, Sports, Extreme Sports and Puzzlers, and The One That Doesn't Fit Anywhere Else...
And now the concluding chapter...
The Big One
Grand Theft Auto (Rockstar/Rockstar Leeds/Rockstar North)
European release date: TBC - estimated around launch
The announcement last week that Rockstar intends to bring Grand Theft Auto to the PlayStation Portable was not unexpected - nor was the total lack of details - but the very fact that the biggest-selling and most consistently entertaining game series of recent years is on its way to the PSP more than merits its lofty position on this listing. All we really know is that it will be set in Liberty City - the New York-inspired setting for the game that triggered the series' ascension, Grand Theft Auto III - and although it's assumed based on comments made by Sam Houser and execs at Rockstar's Leeds outfit that the game will be fully 3D, as it should be, we can't even say that for sure at this point. If it is though, and it achieves even a fraction of what most recent PS2 instalment San Andreas managed to accomplish, it will not only be one of the best games on the system, but it could be the killer application to signal a shift in the balance of handheld power from Nintendo to Sony. And that really would be a grand theft.
This 2D beat-'em-up is unlikely to inspire a huge amount of interest in the average gamer, given Darkstalkers' absence from release schedules over the past few years, but then in a sense that could work to its favour. It's a compilation of previous efforts' characters and ideas, with a couple of new game modes - one of which is a Survival-style affair that involves negotiating the various foe-ridden floors of the eponymous tower, and the other of which features oodles of unlocked bonus content exploring the origins of the series. Hopefully we'll be getting our hands on the Japanese version (known as Vampire Chronicle) shortly, so we can find out whether the combat is as well balanced as Capcom's beat-'em-ups tend to be, and whether the wireless multiplayer works as well as it should do, but on the evidence of what we've heard it's destined to check the box on the launch line-up marked "beat-'em-up" with a flourish. It's also home to some, er, distinctive characters. The sort of game where you might find yourself fighting a tap-dancing vampire, or a dolphin in a cagoule, or a schizophrenic zookeeper dressed like Kenny G, or something.
Okay we made those up. But take our word for it; some of them are "outlandish".
Viewtiful Joe (Capcom)
European release date: TBC
Another Capcom PSP title that we know very little about, it's still hard to imagine this being anything less than brilliant. The first two big-console versions are gorgeous examples of how a bit of imagination and a strong sense of humour can rescue even a tired genre like the scrolling beat-'em-up from the doldrums, and they were gosh-pretty to boot - in a timeless, stylistic sense more than anything. We'd fully expect VJ PSP to build on the existing gameplay and VFX powers (the duck-and-jump-over-attacks-and-build-up-combos-in-slow-mo stuff is a dead cert, surely), and perhaps we might even see some wireless co-op here too. VJ2 may have had to drop it for whatever reason, but perhaps on a smaller scale it'll prove a bit more manageable? Who knows? Until Capcom says something concrete, we certainly don't. But we can't wait for them to open up. Baby.
It's vehicle combat with big guns and huge explosions from the Hardware: Online Arena PS2 team in London, which ought to give you an idea of what to expect. The premise of the single-player aspect is that resistance fighters are striking back at "a faceless aggressor", and in joining them you roam huge, open-ended urban and countryside environments picking up weapons and unlocking unnamed extras. But equally significant will be the WiFi multiplayer component, which will be able to cope with up to eight players battling in deathmatch, CTF, King of the Hill, Bomb the Base and other modes. Sony's also talking about the possibility of making downloadable maps available post-launch, although that's still in the balance at the time of writing.
So are we keen? Well, sort of. We didn't think Hardware was that great, all things considered, despite the quality of the PS2 Online implementation, but given a bit of TLC this could turn into something quite enjoyable. It all depends on how you feel about vehicular combat, really. There's promise here, but we'll wait to see, hear (and hopefully play) more before we get particularly excited. Stash it under "Could be good".
Coded Arms (Konami, screenshots)
European release date: TBC - due in the States this summer
Konami hasn't actually said whether we'll get to play this in Europe just yet, but we're confident - it is, after all, set for release in the US. Shown off last week at CES 2005 in Las Vegas, it's a first-person shooter featuring some 30-plus weapons, four-player wireless multiplayer, and some pretty sharp visuals featuring spidery-looking robots in rundown futuristic environments where "girders" appear to be the decor du jour. Since you're probably wondering, in the absence of a second analogue nub the PSP's face buttons are used for looking around while the nub handles actual movement and strafing - said to make the tried and trusted practice of circle-strafing pretty intuitive - while the D-pad is reserved for changing weapons and toggling crouching and standing. Triggers, naturally, are bound to those other rather important functions: jumping and, oh yes, shooting. We could do with a better idea of what this is beyond a futuristic FPS, but given that there don't appear to be too many (or indeed any) other efforts gunning for the same genre, we'll be keeping an eye on it. As should you.
Infected (Majesco/Planet Moon)
European release date: TBC
We like the sound of this for several reasons. But we're not going to tell you what they are! Hahaha! Haha! Ha! Ha-er oh. That kind of chafes. [Just keep typing or I'll make the incision. -Ed] Infected is a - where the hell did you get a knife that big anyway? Infected is a third-person shooter from Planet Moon, the chaps (and chapettes for all we know) who made Giants: Citizen Kabuto and Armed & Dangerous, which were both fun and funny, and is the first game the indie dev has spoken about since it announced its decision to go PSP-only last year to save on overheads. That was an interesting decision, you know. It wa-EEEEEE! Okay, okay, the game, the game.
It puts you in the role of a New York police officer called Stevens, and for him there's good news and bad news. The good news is that while the rest of the population of the city have succumbed to a mystery virus, he is bafflingly immune! Yay! The bad news is that said virus seems to compel them all to get up and try and kill people who haven't got it. So, in time-honoured fashion, our hero gathers his wits about him and sets off into town armed with a pair of "viral guns" that fire bullets built around his own blood, which seem to do a wonderful job of dispatching the infected of the title. Given Planet Moon's pedigree when it comes to third-person games, it's probably not hard to work out why we like the sound of it...
AAAARRGHHH NOT THE FACE-and there's another reason too.
The multiplayer side of things. Obviously it's WiFi-compatible, so you can kill your friends at it, but more interestingly you'll also be able to "infect" their PSPs with your own custom avatar, which spreads via WiFi to your victims' machines. You can then check your stats and even find out how far your "virus" has spread, which is a nice idea. We look forward to finding out more about Infected in the coming months.
Can I go to hospital now?
This writer never played the original MediEvil, but the tale of a knight remembered for heroics he never performed and then resurrected to make amends as civilisation finds itself imperilled by his cowardice is two things: a bit of a run-on sentence, and fairly promising. MediEvil PSP will see players take on the role of the undead Sir Daniel Fortesque as he travels across Gallowmere fighting his way to the evil Sorcerer Zarok. Fans of the PSone versions will be pleased to hear that the game will be populated with new characters and bosses strewn around new levels, fought through with new combat moves, but that the team has managed to retain the original voice of Dan for his PSP adventure. Obviously multiplayer is a bit harder to do in this sort of action-adventure, but that hasn't prevented Cambridge Studio from having a go, with several multiplayer mini-games and a checkpoint-style race mode using the game's levels where one player's success penalises the other's time. Oh, and you can save anywhere you like, which ought to make it nice and travel-friendly.
Death Jr. (Sony/Backbone Entertainment, screenshots)
European release date: TBC
Death Jr was the first PSP title anyone ever saw in action at last year's GDC, giving us a good idea of the level of graphical quality that Sony's handheld was capable of and demonstrating that there would be at least one genuinely new game on the release list come the end of 2004. Somewhat annoyingly though, we've heard absolutely sod all about it that we couldn't have guessed ourselves in the intervening period, and it's second only to the ranks of "name titles" like Winning Eleven and Viewtiful Joe stirring in the depths of the release canon in terms of how little we know about it.
What we can tell you is that you control Death Jr, the son of the Grim Reaper, who is on a quest to clear up his father's domain after rather ill advisedly opening an EVIL BOX on a visit to the Museum of Supernatural History. In essence it's a combat-driven platformer with a quirky sense of humour (C4 Hamsters, anyone?), set across 18 levels that see us seeking out Soul Pieces to try and put the seal back on evil, but beyond that we couldn't tell you too much. It's surely only a matter of time before Insomniac, Naughty Dog or Sucker Punch come out with something, but for the moment this is one of the few platformers on its way to the PSP that we're aware of, and that coupled with the fact that it's something new and different means we're quite keen to get a handle on Death Jr as soon as we can.
Turn-based strategy games have done surprisingly well on the Game Boy Advance, and this crossover of Konami's excellent Metal Gear Solid series and that unpredictably bankable genre looks like it could replicate that success. It's somewhat difficult to work out whether we like it based on the Japanese version, given that significant elements of instruction and the hopefully twisty-turny plot are blotted by the language barrier, but its base elements are certainly praiseworthy. The idea is to pick cards to dictate Snake's moves around each environment, marshalling his various weapons, items and sneaking tactics without overexposing him to the projectiles and roundhouses of the patrolling guards. There are different sorts of cards to take into consideration, the repercussions of moving on his status bars and how many turns his actions will allow the guards to take thereafter, and other carefully balanced elements to be mindful of, and on that basis this has the potential not only to be a very good game in its own right, but form the cornerstone for a genuinely impressive spin-off series. Not bad going, really. We can't wait to play it in English.
Dynasty Warriors (KOEI, screenshots)
European release date: TBC - estimated launch
Translating the vast, strategic real-time warfare of a game like Dynasty Warriors to a handheld was always going to be difficult. It is, after all, a game where you race around on foot trying to keep everybody's morale up, waving lances and swords around while simultaneously micromanaging troop movements and the like. Even with the PSP's sleep function to save you losing your place all the time, conquering enormous battlefields in fits and starts would be like watching a film with ad breaks that last longer than the main feature - you can imagine yourself doing it, and perhaps if you're trying to book-end a Sunday lunch with the missus' in-laws it's unavoidable, but why the hell should you when there are so many more concentrated alternatives better catered to your mood and circumstance? Like the Paramount Comedy Channel?
Fortunately this has obviously occurred to KOEI during the course of DW PSP's development, too, which is why this - loosely based on the third game in the PS2/Xbox series - splits the battlefield into zones that you gradually conquer one by one, allowing you to keep track with greater ease and dive in and out of it on a train or bus without worrying too much about the bigger picture. In fact, to us it almost sounds better than the original approach - and coupled with the (toggle-able) on-screen mini-map it should give you a better idea of how your troops' morale is doing, and allow you to picture the whole thing in your head at once. Oh, and as you can see from the screenshots, the need to have plenty of troops and big effects on-screen at once hasn't scuppered the visual side of things to any great degree. It's still demonstrably Dynasty Warriors, and yet through necessity could possibly end up a nice change of pace and style for fans of the series. Worry? Er. No.
Armored Core Formula Front (From Software)
European release date: TBC
The idea of building up a mech using all sorts of imagined parts and customisations and then taking it into battle against AI-controlled adversaries has seen the Armored Core series through plenty of iterations, and the series' fanbase has probably done more for the dev teams' bottom lines than a lot of their other projects over the years - so much so that this latest PSP endeavour seems to be aimed squarely at the people who spend most of their lives in the mech garages tinkering and toiling their way through all the different permutations. Anybody who was with it for the actual combat now seems to have been left by the wayside, as Formula Front dispenses entirely with this side of things, leaving you to design your mechs, pick from various battle strategies and adjust AI settings and then have them duke it out with the AI while you watch. A sort of Championship Manager for mechs in a sense, then, with a league to compete in, and a nice "match engine" to show off the robo-fisticuffs. We understand it will also link up with other PSPs and the PS2 version of Formula Front, although to what degree remains to be seen. If Armored Core tickles your axels, this could be something to keep you occupied.
Crisis Core - Before Final Fantasy VII (Square-Enix)
European release date: TBC
Square Enix' resurrection of its best-loved title continues apace, but Crisis Core isn't the remake of the original game that many hoped for. In fact, we're not really sure what it is; it fits into the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII project which includes the Advent Children movie, Before Crisis mobile phone game and Dirge of Cerberus action game, it's an action-RPG, and it's reportedly set before the events of the original game, so those hoping for the return of Cloud and his enormous chopper will probably be disappointed. However, original FFVII director Yoshinori Kitase is in charge, and character designer Tetsuya Nomura is on board, so it seems fair to expect great things from Final Fantasy's first PSP outing.
Untold Legends: Brotherhood of the Blade (Sony, screenshots)
European release date: TBC - US launch, and probably European assuming SCEE and SCEA can get along
It sounds clichéd, but it does seem to be one of the few (if not the only) games qualified to go by the name hackandslash, and the idea of a Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance style action RPG with wireless co-operative multiplayer is something we could quite happily get onboard with. We'd be the one with the axe. None of this druid nonsense. That said, you will get plenty of choices if you prefer potions to pokage, as there are four playable (and customisable) character classes - knights, alchemists, druids and feral hunters known as Berserkers. The back-story sounds typically boring on paper (save the world of Aven, "the last remaining stronghold of Good in a world of Evil"), but then they always do until you've had a chance to immerse yourself in them. Yep, we reckon this could be good, even if we're probably using that line as a bit of a copout because right now we reeeally need a slash. Ahem.
Devil May Cry (Capcom)
European release date: TBC
Dante lost some of his charm in Devil May Cry 2, disappointingly, but the third game in the PS2 series looks like it could be a return to form, and it's that and the original more than the middling middler from whence we're hoping this demonic handheld shooter-n-slasher will spawn. In fact, according to producer Tsuyoshi Tanaka, speaking at a press event recently, it'll actually be an enhanced sort of version of Devil May Cry 3 itself, which is potentially good news, and among the various unspecified improvements Tanaka-san mentioned we gleaned that a better camera system would be in there. What else Capcom has in store is anyone's guess, but the developer is firmly supporting the new handhelds, so we wouldn't be too surprised if the chaps working on it found some way to involve the WiFi aspect too. Given the DMC2 had two characters, how about some co-op, for example? We'd like that.
Harvest Moon Portable (Marvelous Interactive/Natsume)
European release date: TBC
We bloody love cows. And sheep. And ducks. Not in a physical sense obviously. Don't even try to imagine how to "bloody love" a cow. Not even we'd do a joke about penetrative sex with menstruating farmyard animals. But, after playing so much Harvest Moon on the Cube that we were even tempted to take up fishing for reel [my eyes are now rolling so fast that you could use them to sharpen wooden spoons into breadknives -Ed], and getting it orrrn with most of the village (girls), even the merest mention of a new one fills us with joy. Which is just as well, as that's all we've had so far. When we ran down the Top 50 Games of 2004, we said the Cube one was a sort of contentment simulator. That's why we care about this. The DS Harvest Moon will actually let us fleece sheep using stylus-controlled scissors, so the PSP effort clearly has to pull something impressive out of the bag (how about wirelessly linked cattle auctions or something? Downloadable tractors? Tractor racing!), but we're confident it will. And we look forward to it with much interest. Two Harvest Moons in the same year? You've got to love this job; you really do.
Join us again this week for the final bits and bobs in our Games To Watch in 2005 series...