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TGS 2004: Hands-on with the Sony PSP

Sony's Playstation baby gets its first public airing

Despite a spate of playable games on a variety formats, huge showings from the likes of Sega, EA, Capcom and Microsoft, not to mention an impressive array of scantily glad Japanese beauties in various states of undress; there was only ever going to be one star attraction at the Tokyo Games Show 2004. The Sony PSP. Having won domination of the console industry, the Playstation brand has now turned its attentions with predatory gaze on the successes of Nintendo's various gaming handheld devices. Of course, Sony publicly state that the PSP is not intended to rival Nintendo's various offerings, but comparisons are inevitable - especially as both firm's attempt to widen their respective audiences.

Nintendo are of course the company with the handheld brand and pedigree, and their cheaper DS is coming out earlier than the PSP too. That said, the specifications touted for Sony's competitor are formidable in the extreme - and you get the impression Sony are serious about making a splash in this burgeoning gaming sector. So, now we've played it, is it any good?

Well, the first thing to be said of the PSP is that there's a broad range of launch titles on the way, as demonstrated by the twenty-plus games in various states of playability available at TGS. Some titles are of course more original than others, and it was easy to note that at TGS most of the games seemed to cater for Japanese tastes, a series of RPGs and puzzle style games proving noteworthy if unexceptional in this respect. Then there are more predictable stalwarts of any new format, an EA racer, being the most prominent in the shape of Need for Speed Underground Rivals. I had a few minutes playing this game, and must say that for a handheld the graphics are looking lovely, the controls slick and all in all the game conveyed the impression that it could certainly match whilst not better many PS2 racing games.

Also on display and of note was Rez creator Tetsuya Miziguchi's Lumines, a bizarre puzzle game themed around issues of light and dark which certainly looked original, even if the quirky colourful gameplay coupled with Japanese language use did leave me feeling that what I was experiencing was somewhat lost in translation.

Metal Gear Acid also appears to be shaping up well - again proving graphically staggering (for a handheld), and offering the kind of rich gameplay previously impossible on a handheld system. That said, I didn't play enough to deduce whether Acid offered anything original beyond the Playstation favourites we're accustomed too - and this generally is one of my initial concerns regarding the games on offer - do they bring us anything new? Or are they, in the main, re-hashes of PS titles or variations on GameBoy games. We shall have to wait and see on this front - and indeed even if this does turn out to be the case, is it a problem - given that games this involving, diverse and eye-pleasing have never been possible on a handheld gaming platform before.

Having voiced this concern, I am pleased to report that there are some quirky, fun and original looking titles that do appear to be coming along nicely - in the main games not based on safe, established franchises. There was a Golf game (of Japanese naming) that was looking rather fun, not to mention the retro Vampire Chronicles, Lumines, and Armoured Core Formula Front, so I think we'll have to reserve judgement until release before debating Sony's software strategy.

On to the system itself then. As you'll see from the photographs related to this article, the PSP is a rather large 'handheld', certainly when compared to Nintendo's previous machines. It's actually rather heavy too. Of course, in return for this extra mass you get very well positioned and proportioned buttons / controls, and a huge wide-screen, which does wonders for the super-sharp visuals of the games. There's also a strange nipple-like joystick control, which worked okay in Need for Speed, but I can imagine working far better in games of another genre. Suffice to say, the PSP isn't quite as pocket-sized as many of you may have hoped.

With the power of the machine also comes another problem - the power. Admittedly, the PSP I played was - I was told by my guide - not a final version, but still the battery life was only estimated at two-hours, and for a machine supposed to be only two months from launch this isn't a good sign. I was however told that discussions regarding battery life were ongoing and that the final version of the hardware may benefit from longer playing time. Let's hope Sony can improve this, as two-hours seems rather short to us. Popular Science magazine this month counters this situation too, citing experts who suggest the PSP will last eight hours gaming, and ten playing music - which is far better than my demonstrator this afternoon implied!

So, all in all my brief gander at the Sony PSP was a highly interesting one. All appears to be going well on the games front, and I'm convinced more titles will be revealed in due course, Sony ensuring an impressive roster of titles covering all bases. The size and battery issues are altogether more of a gamble for Sony, I think. It certainly looks the business: sleek, stylish and very expensive - but it isn't going to slip into a trouser pocket too easily, and some may find it too chunky for use as a music player too. This said, if the movie playing functionality lives up to expectations - then this may redeem the seemingly inconvenient size. On the battery front, we'll just have to wait and see, as reports appear conflicting at this stage. We'll keep you posted, naturally, and bring you more as we get it.

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