Sony’s promise for PSP has always been that players can pocket the home gaming experience and take it wherever they please. But it’s really only since Vita arrived with its dual analogue sticks that an FPS, such as Resistance: Burning Skies, has had the chance to establish whether that ideal really holds true.
Sadly, ‘compromise’ is the word that most readily springs to mind here. Burning Skies follows the antics of Tom Riley, an American firefighter and nonentity protagonist co-opted into repelling an alien assault that’s described in more comprehensive detail in other Resistance titles. It’s something of a rebuttal to Vita’s software vision – dual analogue sticks or not, this is a cursory offcut of the home gaming franchise we all know and, er, know.
The series’ modest ambitions are here scaled back to a glum inventory of FPS conventions, its spectacle dampened by hardware limitations and dormant art direction, and its platform-specific novelties largely revealed as fussy irritations, presumably born of a need to promote the struggling Vita’s features. Nor is this a highly finessed effort: invisible walls cheaply chaperone the player through the levels; textures occasionally fail to load altogether; enemies pop into existence when spawned, and pop out again upon death; AI allies and enemies alike face the wrong way or get stuck in run cycles against fragments of the scenery. There’s even that hallmark of desultory design: unskippable cutscenes after checkpoints. During the longer animated scenes, Vita’s power-saving feature turns off the screen unless you fiddle with the buttons.
But what really undermines Burning Skies’ claim to be the premier portable FPS is its lack of adventure. Its rhythm feels trite: a chain of stop-and-pop arenas, one much the same as the last, wherein you fight a few escalating waves of enemies and occasionally tangle with bosses, glowing weak spots and all. One ‘climactic’ wave-survival section goes on so long that even the dramatic music gives up halfway through. It sometimes breaks this formula to bushwhack you with instant death, either at the hands of an unexpected miniboss or a quick-reaction task requiring a fortuitous wrangling of the game’s cumbersome controls.
Other uses of Vita-specific functionality are better. Although using the touchscreen isn’t convenient during a firefight, it does offer something in return. Drag a grenade from its icon and you can lob it at a specific enemy onscreen – a neat metaphor for the throwing action, even if clipping errors sometimes leave the explosive embedded in the scenery right next to you.
Each weapon also comes with an alternative mode of fire that’s activated by touchscreen gimmickry. The Bullseye rifle enables you to select an individual enemy with a tap, so that your bullets home in, while a sweeping finger can also highlight multiple targets for your guided rockets. These are neat ways of getting round the Vita’s scarcity of buttons, and the discomfort of stretching a thumb into the middle of the screen is an acceptable trade-off, given the powers it affords.
Burning Skies’ arsenal, largely inherited from other Resistance games, is its best asset. Although you carry eight weapons, later firefights regularly require more ammunition than any one gun holds, forcing you to chop and change during every battle. Each weapon’s alternative firing mode extends range or adds splash damage to weapons that normally have the opposite specialities. It makes for an empowering toolset, and is the major dynamic factor in any of the game’s battles.
Also inherited is the series’ period setting and propaganda-reel framing device. While the latter makes for an interesting spin on your heroic actions, the narrative is risibly thin and peopled by characters of tremendous banality (and, in most cases, given creepy, slit-mouthed rubber faces, like melted sex dolls). The gameworld is similarly too bland and too crudely drawn to establish any real sense of time or place. Only the later levels, set in the bowels of some alien contraption, have any real character – and even they are a rehash of the metal-and-flesh grotesqueries seen in Quake, Prey, Gears Of War and countless other games. This serves as a reminder of how reliant the genre has become on a very limited palette of expression.
Even if the graphical resources of the PS3 were available to it, Burning Skies’ vision would be limited. On Vita, this sub-par instalment of an also-ran shooter finds itself cramped further by hardware limitations. It may be that people who already own Vitas are happy to accept compromised versions of home console games, but slow sales of the devices suggest that many aren’t. Vita needs a unique reason for its existence, but, on the evidence of Burning Skies, the promise of blockbuster titles on the go is little but hot air.