With the PS Vita's February 22 launch approaching, a clearer picture of its initial line-up of games is steadily emerging.
Ubisoft held a preview showcase in which we had a good play of the five PS Vita games it will have on sale at launch: Rayman Origins, Lumines: Electronic Symphony, Michael Jackson: The Experience HD, Dungeon Hunter: Alliance and Asphalt: Injection.
As you would expect for a day one lineup, they represented a mixed bag. Here are our impressions.
Michel Ancel's latest opus pleasantly surprised a lot of gamers in 2011. It didn't exactly appear to be the most futuristic game, essentially adhering to the ancient 2D platform blueprint at first sight, but it still managed to add to Ancel's reputation as one of the industry's most influential and original developers.
Its mix of surprisingly surreal cartoon-style visuals, deliciously freaky level design and fierce, uncompromising difficulty levels proved irresistible to hardcore gamers. The good news is that Rayman Origins, as far as we could tell after hacking through a number of levels in a half-hour session, has made the transition to PS Vita without apparently being compromised in any respect. Which ought to make it one of the most popular launch titles.
Rayman Origins was always cleverly designed to be portable across platforms - it doesn't exactly push graphics processors to their limits - and we struggled to see any drop in visual quality on the PS Vita in comparison with the Xbox 360 or PS3.
Happily, Ubisoft has resisted the temptation to shoehorn in dubious support for the PS Vita's more esoteric features, so it plays pretty much the same as it does on the consoles: you move Rayman using the left analogue stick, make him jump with the X button and punch (including a press-and-hold power-up) with square or circle. And that's it: in the levels we played, there was no extraneous support for touch-screen or rear touch-pad. Just good, old-fashioned, fearsomely hard platforming, with long stretches between checkpoints.
The anarchic and fun co-operative modes from the console versions are present and correct on the PS Vita, and there's a single-player Ghost mode which lets you race yourself. If you already own a console copy of Rayman Origins, you won't find anything earth-shatteringly new or different in the PS Vita version, so you probably won't want to lash out on it - unless the prospect of playing it on the move is too alluring. But if you don't already own a copy, you simply won't find a better platformer on the Vita.
Lumines: Electronic Symphony
Tetsuya Mizuguchi's blend of Tetris-style block-building, trademark trippy visuals and dance music has received a pretty major makeover for the PS Vita - developer Q Entertainment intends it to be a proper sequel to the original, and first hands-on impressions suggest it has succeeded in that aim.
The gameplay, of course, is reassuringly familiar: you have to rotate and drop dual-coloured 2x2 blocks so that when they form a square of four or more blocks of the same colour, those blocks (and others touching them) disappear. On the PS Vita, you can use the touch-screen to rotate, drag and drop the incoming blocks, but we preferred to use the D-pad and X button to rotate them.
At the bottom left of the screen, you have your avatar, as in Lumines games of yore, but this time it actually has a purpose, namely launching your special ability. The one we had was Hold The Line - which temporarily froze the timeline, providing a bit of breathing space when things were getting hectic. Occasionally, you get Shuffle Blocks -- which shuffle everything around randomly -- and special blocks which eliminate all touching blocks of the same colour, regardless of the shape they make.
Another major change - rendering Lumines a little less fierce in difficulty terms, or at least giving you more rewards for your efforts than previously - is the addition of an XP system. So, no matter how far you get, you earn some points towards new skins, music tracks and the like.
Structurally, it's familiar, too, with four self-explanatory game modes in Master, Duel, Stopwatch and Playlist. The latter should prove popular, allowing you to customise your skins and the music.
Gameplay-wise, Electronic Symphony is best described as classic Lumines - it manages to be both restful and frenetic at the same time. Musically, it returns to Mizuguchi's trademark house/trance sound (with extra samples launching when you destroy blocks).
Visually, it's absolutely sumptuous: one skin we saw provided a Japanese calligraphy-style backdrop, while the blocks, properly modelled in 3D despite their small size, seem more tactile than ever. Overall, if you've enjoyed Lumines games in the past, you'll love Electronic Symphony, and it definitely provides the ideal introduction to the world of Lumines. We're not 100 per cent convinced it's a PS Vita must-buy - it's one of those games you'll either love or won't see the appeal of -- but it's certainly a top-quality effort.