E3 2012: Sony press conference report
If you own a Vita, you have our sympathy. Sony's E3 2012 conference was expected to focus heavily on its ailing handheld; there would be announcement after announcement, surely, in a bid to revive the fortunes of a console which, in its native Japan, is regularly outsold by its predecessor PSP. Instead Sony announced a fighting game we knew about last month, outed a spinoff already revealed by Game Informer, and slapped a subtitle on the Call Of Duty game they announced last year.
To be fair, SCEA president Jack Tretton went a little further than that. Vita will soon play host to the PSone classics that have been available on PSP for years, while a DLC update will let you use its touch controls on PS3's LittleBigPlanet 2. "The Vita portfolio is growing every day," Tretton insisted, "to offer something to every gamer." Okay then.
Speaking of false promises, David Cage was there, announcing Beyond for PS3. "Over the past 15 years Quantic Dream has developed unique games based on interactive storytelling and emotions," he said. "With Heavy Rain and Kara we showed how realtime 3D could be used to create even more emotional experiences." Beyond has some interesting ideas, anyway, with players controlling Jodie Holmes, played by Ellen Page, in a tale which spans 15 years. "We will lead the life of a character," Cage said, "growing with her through happy and difficult times to help her become who she is." He praised her "stunning performance" ahead of a realtime demo in which she sat stock still and said four words. It's a step up from Heavy Rain in visual terms, with full performance capture, but as always with Cage's work we just want to see how interactive it is. Pressing X to Juno won't cut it.
Then came PlayStation All-Stars: Battle Royale, now confirmed for Vita, with cross-platform play and two new characters: BioShock's Big Daddy, and Uncharted's Nathan Drake. It's easy to scoff at the game, but developer SuperBot Entertainment has packed its staff with competitive fighting game players and clearly knows what it's doing. At this stage, though, it's hard to shake the impression that this is Sony Smash Bros with super combos.
Tretton said Battle Royale's cross-platform play was a unique feature that could only be done on "the industry's best online network," which is apparently now an acceptable way to describe PSN. He hailed the fact that 80 per cent of PS3s and Vitas are connected to PSN, which we were sure was rebranded as SEN a few months back, but it seems Sony has given up on that as well.
One thing Sony hasn't given up on is indie gaming, and the rapturous applause for the merest mention of Journey was more than justified. Dyad, Papa & Yo and The Unfinished Swan are on the way, all on PSN, which Tretton said will host more than 200 downloadable new releases over the coming 12 months. PlayStation Plus is on the up, too: there was no mention of the reported cloud gaming deal which would bring streaming backwards compatibility to PS3 and Vita, but there will be 12 free games for US subscribers on the store today, including LittleBigPlanet 2, Infamous 2, and Saints Row 2. More games will be added all the time, Tretton said, but Europe tends to get short shrift on this stuff, as a thousand angry PlayStation Blog commentors will attest.
Then came the big guns, or at least, what should have been the big guns, starting with Call Of Duty on Vita. "A triple-A, firstperson multiplayer shooter in the palm of your hands, with dual analogue sticks and seamless online connectivity," parped Tretton, revealing a name – Call Of Duty Black Ops: Declassified – and little else. Assassin's Creed Liberation certainly looks the part, and giving the starring role to an Afro-French female assassin is a brave and welcome move from Ubisoft, but both games reinforced the feeling that Vita was headed the same way as PSP, with endless spin-offs from blockbuster franchises farmed out to B-teams. The required avalanche of firstparty software support was simply nowhere to be seen, and it speaks volumes that Liberation will be bundled with the new crystal white Vita. Sony has nothing else.
Attention then turned to PS3, and time seemed to slow to a crawl as we were subjected to extended gameplay demos, starting with Far Cry 3's co-op mode. Four players stood, with heads bowed and feet shoulder-width apart, for ten minutes, looking like an animatronic boy band whose batteries had run out. Assassin's Creed III's nautical battle scene looked great, but like Far Cry 3 it's a multiplatform game, its inclusion here justified by some exclusive DLC and, in Creed's case, another hardware bundle. How unexpected that Ubisoft, following its own event that closed with the intriguing Watch Dogs, would be not only the star of the show so far but also of Sony's conference.
Andrew House seemed to have drawn the short straw backstage when he appeared to talk first about a smartphone deal with HTC – best read as a tacit admission that Sony Ericsson's handsets are terrible – and PlayStation Move. Wonderbook, though, is a decent idea that should do well thanks to a deal with JK Rowling, whose Book Of Spells will be first on shelves. The PlayStation Eye seemed as flakey on stage as it does in the living room, sadly, making for an awkward demo, but we're not the target audience. Is setting fire to a book, putting out the flames with your hands and wiping soot from its pages fun? We're not sure, but the volley of on-screen disclaimers hardly engendered confidence. Hats off to Sony London Studios' Dave Ranyard for dropping the evening's finest truism, expressing his surprise that the increasingly leaky Sony had managed to keep a lid on it all.
Then came God Of War: Ascension, which began in earnest Sony's psychological experiment to see just what a room full of people will rapturously applaud if you keep them sat there for long enough. There was no footage of the series-first multiplayer mode, with game director Todd Pappy instead playing through another ten minutes or so of God Of War's decade-old square-square-triangle combat. The same as ever, then, with the bonus niggling sense that they'd stripped back the HUD for the demo and there'll be many, many more QTEs in the final game. Applause.
Then, at last, came The Last Of Us, which at first glance appears to be as profoundly linear as Naughty Dog's Uncharted games but does things a little differently, with improvised weaponry and genuine tension as the two protagonists inched through a derelict house packed with bandits. Joel slammed an enemy's face into a sideboard, to troublingly rapturous applause. At the demo's end, he took a foe's head clean off with a shotgun, and the crowd went wild. Tretton: "There's another mindblowing example of the incredible talent at Naughty Dog."
And that was your lot. No true surprises, no grand new announcements, no disruptive cloud gaming deal. Just more of the same as Sony, like Microsoft, sought to paper over the cracks as it builds up to next gen. At least the focus was on games. "PlayStation continues to be the epicenter of gaming," Tretton said. "The journey has been fun but I promise: the best is yet to come."
House went even further: "At PlayStation we're always thinking about the future. We understand the way we game is changing: the way we play and interact, the way content is delivered to you. We're going to lead that future. I hope you're as excited as we are about the future." We would be, Andy, but for the moment we're wondering why we spent £220 on a controller for LittleBigPlanet 2.
Here's our take on Microsoft's E3 press conference.
Tags: Andrew House, Assassin's Creed III, Assassin's Creed Liberation, Beyond: Two Souls, E3, Far Cry 3, God Of War: Ascension, Jack Tretton, PlayStation 3, PlayStation Move, PlayStation Plus, PSN, The Last Of Us, Ubisoft, Vita