The reaction to reports last week stating that component shortages and other factors could potentially hold up the European release of the PlayStation Portable for another three months has been one of apathy and antipathy. Indeed, the most positive response we've seen was one of, "Who cares? WipEout Pure's been delayed anyway." When Sony's American arm revealed last Thursday that it planned to charge $250 for the machine at the tail end of March - with software costs to be added on top of that - there were few besides those brave enough to import who had anything particularly positive to contribute. If we'd been sat at our PCs when the news originally broke, we may well have been in amongst the crowded forums and comment threads blurting sanctimonious babble about Europe retaining its reputation as Sony's Third Place.
But, as it happens, we were not. We - this writer, at least; Kristan was even further afield in Dubai - were sat in a remarkably comfy chair in a boardroom on the fifth floor of Sony Europe's Soho headquarters, utterly oblivious - as, it would appear, were our hosts - to the American announcement bouncing around our inboxes at the other end of the Jubilee line. And we were being impressed. With questions of release dates and pricing firmly batted away before we'd even stepped out of the elevator, we were left to concentrate on nine games that will be among the very first Sony will publish for the PSP in Europe this... whenever. And despite reservations, sneaking suspicions about ports masquerading as new games, and a debilitating weariness only partly dispensed with by a steady stream of that most evil of liquids Coca Cola (weariness courtesy of insomnia, since you ask), we were wide-eyed and attentive. Europe may be the Third Place for hardware, but on this evidence it could well be the first place we look for our PSP games.
Of the nine we saw, six are being developed in the UK, and the other three are amongst the best the PSP already has to offer in Japan, where Sony recently revealed it has now sold some one million units of PSP hardware. The latter three were Everybody's Golf, an instantly enjoyable, graphically and aurally endearing little golf game using the outmoded two-tap control mechanism; Ape Academy, an anarchic compilation of bizarre monkey-flavoured mini-games that may have received an unduly fair rap in the past going on our first impressions in Soho; and the already much-loved Ridge Racers, shortened to "Ridge Racer" for its Western release - apparently to ensure brand recognition - and still the best thing Namco has done with its arcade racing series since the enjoyable yet disappointing Ridge Racer V.
We'll talk some more about Everybody's Golf and Ape Academy once our import UMDs turn up (yes, um, Sony's show-and-tell drove us to spend yet more money) and there isn't much left to say about Ridge Racers that we didn't cover in our import review just before Christmas. But, much to our surprise, it was some of the European-born titles we played last week that held our attention the longest.
Of WipEout Pure, WRC, Formula One, MediEvil, Fired Up and World Tour Soccer, going hands-on with three of them was revelatory, one of the others demonstrated tremendous potential, and the other two were surprisingly pleasurable experiences despite obvious teething issues. Who would have thought that Fired Up, for example - the successor to the PS2's widely ignored and panned Hardware Online Arena - would linger in our minds longer than the rest of a line-up that, at various stages, had us commenting on the Nintendo-like catchiness of the music in Everybody's Golf, the ingenuity of a football game not featuring the words "Evolution" or "FIFA" in the title, or a mini-games package predicated entirely on the antics of cheeky monkeys?
If there's a word that characterises the current approach to PSP development amongst Sony's European first-party studios then it's probably "accessibility", but we were also taken by the potential longevity. As a stream of producers entered and exited the boardroom and plugged preview copies of their games into PSP debug stations - surprisingly cute little beige towers with battery-less PSPs fed power and video through chunky cables - the common theme was one of trying to tailor games for easy access, quick thrills and genuine progress in short spells of play. Not content with that, most were also aiming to improve on or refine whatever had come before in a variety of ways, but also to make each of them a valid purchase for the average potential PSP owner. Some of the better Nintendo DS games have been accused of lingering on one trick for the whole game and stopping too short, but the amount of content in the nine titles in Soho seemed to be closer to what a PlayStation 2 owner would expect.
Having taken quite a lot of jabs from Nintendo in recent months over the PSP's battery life, perhaps Sony's speech-writers might like to fashion a retort along these lines. You may have to recharge the PSP before you've gotten halfway through the single-player mode in Fired Up, for example, but thanks to the game's wealth of content you'll still be playing it when you come to recharge it a second time. And, thanks to an expansive wireless multiplayer mode that builds on the strengths of Hardware, perhaps even the next time it needs plugging in. By comparison, we ostensibly finished Feel the Magic on the DS between lunch and hometime one December afternoon. People in glasshouses, Ninty.
But enough of the preamble; onto the games. Starting with WipEout Pure, we'll be running through first impressions of all of these in the near future. Keep checking back this week for more.
- WipEout Pure (Liverpool Studio)
- WRC (Traveller's Tales)
- Formula One (Traveller's Tales)
- MediEvil (Cambridge Studio)
- World Tour Soccer (London Studio)
- Fired Up (London Studio)