Analysis: PS3 goes Beyond, but Sony fails in Vita rescue bid

Tuesday, 5 June 2012 07:41 GMT By Rob Fahey

You’re watched the media briefing and read the headlines, but what does it all mean? Rob Fahey breaks down Sony’s E3 2012 and finds much to praise – but fears for a certain portable.

Note the glaring, howling omission from the first-party line-up. Aside from a mention that PlayStation All-Stars will be coming to Vita as well as PS3, Sony had no new software to announce for its new handheld – which seems like a fairly shocking omission given the ongoing worries about weak sales of the hardware.

For Sony, it was all about the games. There are years when E3 press conferences start to echo one another, almost making you wonder what the point is of having multiple platform holders if they just do the same stuff. This isn’t one of those years. After Microsoft’s conference, heavy with technology announcements, non-gaming entertainment and casual titles, Sony took entirely the opposite track – opening with a giant montage of gaming spread across the siege wall of screens that made up its conference stage, and mostly staying game-focused for the rest of the 90-minute show. There was major new IP alongside proven franchises – but the company gave no hint of how it plans to rescue its struggling handheld, PS Vita.

One of the most heavy-hitting new IPs came early in the show, with the first game on stage being new PS3 exclusive Beyond, which is being developed by Heavy Rain creators Quantic Dream. Like Heavy Rain, it looks likely to be a divisive title among gamers – but it takes the technology of Heavy Rain (and Quantic Dream’s more recent tech demo) to the next level, using it to capture the performance of Oscar-nominated actress Ellen Page as lead character Jodie Holmes. If you liked Heavy Rain, that’s great news, because one of the weakest parts of that game was the often terribly shonky voice acting performances – and it’s clear that Beyond doesn’t repeat the mistake.

The lengthy scene we saw was spooky, atmospheric and pitch-perfect, and the montage shown afterwards suggests a much more epic and action-packed narrative than Heavy Rain. Half the gaming world is still going to despise it, but the other half are going to love it intensely – which qualifies it as a pretty good thing with which to kick off a press conference. I’ll take games which are loved and hated over bland games which inspire nothing but “meh” any day of the week.

Of course, the sight of Ellen Page in the game brought to mind another of Sony’s eagerly awaited titles – Naughty Dog’s The Last Of Us, whose female companion character recently changed her formerly very Ellen Page-like appearance (I guess now we know why). The Last Of Us, appropriately, didn’t show up until the end of the conference, and was demonstrated in a gameplay scene which started with exploration of a beautiful, ruined city and ended up with a brutal and nail-bitingly tense combat sequence against a group of scavengers inside an abandoned hotel. The game’s Uncharted heritage is clearly on display, but the combat has been totally retooled and the presence of your young companion changes things up significantly. It got an immense response from the audience, and rightly so – it’s one of the most exciting things we’ve seen at the show so far.

Beyond: Two Souls drew heavy applause.

Those two made solid slices of bread for either side of Sony’s presentation sandwich, but the filling was a bit more questionable in places. PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale looks absolutely fine, and it’s clearly a perfectly well-executed clone of the Smash Brothers formula – double-edged praise, certainly, but ripping off Nintendo isn’t an easy task and they’ve done it well. God of War Ascension also looked perfectly well-executed and fan pleasing, but in an E3 which has been dominated so far by updates to very lengthy action franchises, it was a little hard to get truly excited about it. Then there was Wonderbook, an EyeToy and Move title which builds on the EyePet idea by making storybooks interactive. It’s one for the kids, and the incredibly long demo was probably misjudged given E3’s audience, but JK Rowling’s involvement with the first book in the series, The Book Of Spells, probably guarantees that it’ll sell by the cartload this Christmas – by which stage the team will hopefully have tweaked the technology, which looked a bit shonky and temperamental in the demo.

Those five titles completed Sony’s first-party line-up – not disappointing by any means, but perhaps a bit leaner than we’d expected. Some kind of update on The Last Guardian (even a bit of reassurance that the apparently troubled game is still coming along) would have been nice, but more importantly, some more new titles would have filled out the event. To its credit, Sony did highlight some of the innovative indie titles it’s releasing, like recent bestseller Journey and Unfinished Swan, but didn’t demonstrate them. It was left to third-parties to fill in the gaps with four titles – mostly Ubisoft, with whom Sony seems to have a budding romance and who provided three of the four games.

Note the glaring, howling omission from the first-party line-up, though. Aside from a mention that PlayStation All-Stars will be coming to Vita as well as PS3, Sony had no new software to announce for its new handheld – which seems like a fairly shocking omission given the ongoing worries about weak sales of the hardware. The third-party game line-up was at least a bit more impressive, with Ubisoft showing Assassin’s Creed Liberation and Activision announcing Call of Duty Black Ops Declassified, both due before the end of the year – but the Vita felt like the elephant in the room for much of the conference. Few of us expected a price-cut (for reasons related to financial regulations, that’s often the kind of announcement made to shareholders and investors in Tokyo, not to gaming media in Los Angeles), but some hint of how Sony plans to pull its arm out of the fire would have helped a lot.

… perhaps not as much as The Last of Us.

We did get technology announcements, which the company kept mercifully brief. PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale provided an opportunity to talk about cross-platform play between Vita and PS3, and the ability to use Vita as a controller for the PS3 – Sony’s answer, essentially, to the Wii U controller and Microsoft’s SmartGlass tech alike. The “second screen” is definitely the theme of this year’s E3, but Sony was bright enough to announce it, show it off quickly, and move on without making too many big promises it won’t be able to keep. Also announced for Vita owners was the availability of PS1 classics for the system, although while welcome, since that’s already possible on the venerable PSP, it’s more of an “about time” announcement than anything else.

Sony’s conference raises a conflicted mixture of reactions. It’s great that it was focused almost entirely on games – that’s what E3 is meant to be about, after all – and the company is brave to aim squarely at big new IP rather than playing it safe with nothing but sequels at this late stage in the console cycle. Nobody could call E3 2012 a damp squib for Sony after seeing the footage of The Last of Us and Beyond. Yet the million dollar question before this conference was “what will they do about Vita?”, and nobody was willing to offer an answer. PS3 owners will be pretty happy with what they saw – but if you’re a new Vita owner, you’d be forgiven for feeling like Sony hung you out to dry this week.

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