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PSP: one year on

Our longterm test of Sony's handheld

PSP: one year on
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PSP

Like many of you, we've had our PSP for exactly one year and a weekend. It feels like the right time to look back to get some perspective on how Sony's handheld has evolved over the last 365-odd days.

Let's not beat about the bush. There's been a fair bit of backlash recently. Major game publishers have publicly stated their disappointment in PSP's retail performance to date. Sony has been criticised for providing shipping (rather than sell-through) figures only. Indeed, anything with a Sony badge on it has come in for harsh treatment from both press, industry and gamers in recent times – criticising PlayStation-related products is this season's new black.

But let's not order the coffin just yet, eh? We're not here to defend companies, but we've never bought into the fanboy mentality of judging game systems based on the manufacturer, either. If they're good, we'll play games made by anyone and on any system. And though PSP unquestionably faces some issues, an objective outlook concludes we're considerably further away from mourning its demise than the sensationalist headlines would have you believe.

With that in mind, what we've tried to do here is to give you a sensible overview of the PSP's first year in Europe – what it's been through, where it's at, and where it's headed.

FUNCTIONALITY

What is the PSP like to live on a day-to-day basis?

All the great games in the world will never make up for the fact that you're having to buy a new handheld because the buttons keep falling off it. In our original review of the PSP, we praised aspects of its build quality and questioned others, but one year on everything is still where it should be. There have been reports of broken analogue nubs on the Net, but, along with all of the other buttons, ours remains firmly in place and barely shows signs of usage.

The latter could in part be due to the nubs' positioning, which continues to cause cramps, meaning that when possible we opt for D-pad input. Not that it's an approach that solves every problem, as its limited responsiveness (due in part to its short travel and dubious design) proves a hindrance in a number of games (namely beat-em-ups, which tend to require a level of precision neither of the PSP's directional inputs is seemingly able to provide).

PSP D-pad

The control set-up we all love to hate

But niggles over control sensitivity and ergonomics aside, build quality – despite 12 months of very considerable use – remains impressive.

Which is still the best way to describe the screen. We've yet to take its size for granted and we've yet to scratch it – our very first thought when it emerged from its box. If there is an area for criticism, it will be the brightness level, which in circumstances of high light intensity (such as outdoors) can prove inadequate, and is further hampered by the screen's highly reflective nature.

Regrettably, that shiny surface, though unquestionably attractive when clean, is highly adept at displaying thumbprints with the kind of clarity that would put the CSI team out of a job. We have no desire to work out how much time we've spent wiping the PSP's face back to pristine condition in between gaming sessions.

Equally, finding out the (undoubtedly depressing) amount of minutes of our lives that have been lost to UMD loading is not part of our plans.

It would be easy to say that the situation is getting better, with recent releases showcasing shorter loading times, but that would be a lie. We're still at a stage where for every dream-like loading performance of, say, Tekken: Dark Resurrection, there's a Formula One 06 dragging us back to reality. It depends on the type of game, of course, but generally, lengthy loading times continue to be an issue. And it's not necessarily one that will ever be fully resolved.

That's also about the only thing you can say concerning the lack of a second analogue nub. Why Sony decided against including this remains as mysterious as how Stonehenge was built, particularly when you consider the strategy of porting so many PS2 franchises across (not to mention the promise of downloading the PSone catalogue).

First-person shooters are immediate, obvious casualties, but even third-person adventures such as Tomb Raider: Legend, in which the camera needs to be controlled intuitively, are affected. Admittedly, some developers are increasingly designing their games around the lack of a second nub, but many PSP games have already been severely hindered by it and more will undoubtedly suffer.

On a more positive note, battery life has been surprising in that it has genuinely not proved a nuisance, as initially expected. We've been caught out a few times, granted – particularly because during play your right hand tends to obscure the flashing battery indicator warning that the time to attach to a socket is nearing – and there's obviously been plenty of charging, but it hasn't proved particularly disruptive.

Perhaps it's the games we play or how we play them (usually with headphones and offline) or the fact that we live our lives never too far from a constant supply of fresh electricity.

Having said that, an average of four hours' usage per charge is hardly transcontinental flight material (not that anyone will be able to use handhelds on-board commercial flights soon anyway) but there are a variety of solutions available that can considerably extend battery life.

Those issues aside, life with the PSP has been a mostly pleasurable experience. The handheld continues to feel solidly built, its interface is no less intuitive than it was 12 months ago and setting up online and ad hoc games is usually a breeze.

As a gaming platform, then, it does a lot right.

SOFTWARE

Lack of original software? Don't be silly

The primary focus of a handheld gaming device should obviously be games. Like any console, fast hardware may take half a nanosecond to calculate the logistics involved in the next NASA Moon landing, but that's of no use if the quality of the games isn't there.

At this point, Sony will of course argue that the PSP is a multimedia device, but Pocket Gamer's interest clearly lies largely in the games PSP plays, and from a gaming perspective, the sooner Sony alters its mentality, the better (see below).

In Europe, things didn't exactly start off promisingly. Sure, Lumines had everyone excited, but despite a healthy number of launch titles – arguably the only advantage of having to wait months longer than Japan and the US for PSP – it stood alongside Archer MacLean's Mercury as the only truly original offerings.

Conventional options such as Ridge Racer were accomplished and entertaining, but nevertheless familiar, and other than as a showcase for the handheld's relative technical prowess they failed to inspire the many who expect new hardware to bring an invasion of innovation.

WipEout Pure

WipEout Pure typifies much PSP software: technically very competent but also very familiar

To compound matters, the first quarter of 2006 saw little action with regards to release frequency. Furthermore, too many of the few titles available during the period were lukewarm extensions of PS2 franchises – easier and quicker than developing an entirely new concept, after all. That said, there have been a number of PSP versions of PS2/Xbox games that match, and in some cases better, their console counterparts – an uncommon achievement for a handheld.

From Easter onwards, ignoring the traditionally barren summer period, things have certainly picked up. Granted, PS2 'conversions' continue, though generally speaking their quality has improved considerably – take your pick from OutRun 2006: Coast to Coast, Daxter, GTA: Liberty City Stories, Monster Hunter Freedom, Championship Manager 2006, Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror, and Tekken: Dark Resurrection, to name one for each day of a gaming week, and you're unlikely to be disappointed.

But particularly encouraging has been the increase in original concepts like Exit and Pursuit Force, joined more recently by PQ and the magnificent LocoRoco, alongside PSP-exclusive reworkings of innovative franchises, such as Me & My Katamari and the forthcoming Gitaroo Man Lives!.

LocoRoco

We love LocoRoco but you lot don't: sales have been slow

Looking ahead suggests this influx of innovation is more than a short-lived knee jerk reaction to the predictable, mostly regurgitated experiences initially available for PSP. The likes of Every Extend Extra, Hot PXL and Traxion are on their way, while a further indication that developers are beginning to think about tailoring their concepts around the PSP can be found in, say, Pilot Academy, Thrillville and Killzone: Liberation.

After a period of adjustment, development teams are not only getting to grips with PSP technically, but conceptually, too. (Notice how, generally, online/wireless functionality in games is also getting progressively better.) That's perhaps the biggest shift from the landscape some 12 months ago.

Obviously, conventional titles ensuring the staple gaming diet of sports, racing, shooting and so on will continue, but that shouldn't be seen as a negative. For one, it only adds to the scope of PSP software – something the forthcoming ability to download PSone titles promises to bolster on a massive scale.

But even aside from the potential influx of a ready-made software library, PSP owners should take comfort from the impressively wide-ranging gaming landscape already available for their handheld. And more so in the fact that things are undeniably improving, with more promising made-for-PSP titles on the way. Crucially, widespread publisher support continues, too.

CONCLUSION

A decent first year, a promising future

Sure, UMD films proved a resounding failure. That's neither a surprise, nor an indication that PSP is bound for the same fate.

"But just look at how quickly PSP releases are disappearing from publishers' release schedules", say the critics. It's an almost entirely false accusation.

Earlier this year, a representative from Electronic Arts went on record saying the company was disappointed in PSP's commercial performance to date, and that a move was underway to focus on developing for DS instead. Granted, EA is the world's largest publisher, but that doesn't mean a format is doomed without its support. Especially as for now it continues to publish on PSP.

(Cynics would also rightly point out that the major publishers are engaged in a constant tussle with the format holders they rely on, of which this was undoubtedly another minor skirmish).

More recently, the UK sales manager from publisher Koei openly announced his regret that the company's Gitaroo Man Lives! is coming to PSP and not DS, citing the disappointing UK sales of LocoRoco (just 30,000, he said) as a forecast that Koei's cult rhythm action game is likely to suffer a similarly discouraging retail performance.

In this case, two mistakes have been made. The first is to compare sales of LocoRoco with the excellent performance of something like Brain Training or Nintendogs on DS, because ultimately we are talking about two very different audiences.

And, absolutely, that is Sony's fault.

The demographic the company has marketed PSP to isn't necessarily open to leftfield gaming ideas – they're serious, probably professional types, with conventional gaming tastes. They like the idea of a multimedia device; they're by no means traditional, dedicated gamers.

It's a generalisation, okay, but a defensible one nonetheless.

Here's another: by contrast, the DS audience laps up LocoRoco style games because it is partly composed of dedicated gamers – the DS doesn't play music, movies or display photographs out of the box, after all, it's been designed to first and foremost play games – and partly because the big, quirky games – such as Nintendogs and Brain Training – have been designed and marketed squarely at the DS' equally large non-gamer contingent.

Also – and this is crucial – the oddities of the DS's functionality (stylus and touchscreen, dual-display, microphone, and so on) were rapidly exploited by developers, and so DS players were quickly conditioned to accept wildly different gaming notions. As a result, they're far more likely to buy into offbeat concepts.

Like this, Nintendo has skilfully reconciled two very different audiences with one machine, with impressive results at retail. It's a stunning achievement, we agree, but it's not one that necessarily tells us anything about the PSP's future.

The main issue Sony is facing with PSP is one of image and education. It can't, and shouldn't, compete with something as integral as a touchscreen input (though it's nevertheless pleasing to see the functionality of peripherals such as the camera and GPS receiver being integrated into games for potentially novel experiences – both Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops and Minna no Golf Portable 2 will make use of the GPS function). But Sony does need to distance itself from the multimedia-focused marketing message it's adopted to date, and instead concentrate on promoting the PSP's gaming virtues to a crowd that already owns an iPod, a digital camera and DVD player. (And, maybe, a DS.)

PSP girl

Sony's big mistake with PSP was to go for the lifestyle market too early

Promoting the games means getting people to play them, of course. In the same way that it's been efficient at providing regular firmware updates – the latest of which enables game demos to be downloaded directly onto the handheld – Sony needs to ensure PSP owners get to sample the experiences it creates, particularly the new, more unique offerings.

To date, aside from June's demo of LocoRoco, World Tour Soccer 2 is the only playable alternative available. Apart from doing little to showcase Sony's commendably wide range of PSP titles (and driving some hardcore PSP gamers into the comparatively exciting embrace of homebrew), the lack of demos also does little to argue gamers away from the generally held notion that the publisher's attention to games is being overly diluted by the handheld's multimedia capabilities. Indeed, the non-believers will immediately put forward Nintendo's attentiveness in this area as an example of the correct approach.

Which, finally, brings us back to the pundits' second error, which is to compare PSP with DS at all. PSP may be trailing Nintendo's console in terms of sales and game innovation but let's keep things in perspective – Sony hasn't sold hundreds of PSPs, it's sold millions. Not as many millions as Nintendo's DS, sure, but millions nonetheless.

We're so obsessed with winners and losers that we've effectively lost sight of the fundamental issue: the PSP and DS are simply different propositions. They always have been and they remain so.

And isn't that a good thing? After all, would you rather have the opportunity to buy into two formats knowing that you're covering the broadest spectrum of games available, or own two handhelds that offer access to a mostly similar range of software? What's wrong with having a choice?

The clue is in the name: PlayStation Portable. By definition, you'll expect such a device to offer a software range largely similar to that you'll find on PlayStation consoles. And largely, that's exactly what you'll currently find on PSP. Yet, encouragingly, things also appear to be diversifying, with PSP now able to count an increasing number of unique gaming experiences.

It's not dead. It's not dying. After a slow start, it's finding its feet. The software line-up has matured and it's beginning to develop a character of its own. A year on, our PSP is now in more constant use than ever – not just through work but choice, too.

No, it's not and will never be a DS. It's different. And to our mind that's precisely the attraction.

Keep tabs on what's coming for Sony's handheld with Pocket Gamer's our dedicated PSP section.