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What Should a PlayStation Vita Sequel Look Like?

Many people would say that Sony should abandon portable gaming altogether, especially given how much Nintendo has dominated this arena in recent years, and, more importantly, how mobile gaming now dominates both companies’ offerings altogether.  As I’ve waxed on before, I prefer portable to mobile (i.e. handheld console to smartphone), in large part because of the physical controls.  While the analog sticks, face buttons, d-pad, and shoulder buttons are all small on Vita, I will take these any day over using a touchscreen only.  As such, I want Sony to continue working in this admittedly dwindling market; here are my armchair ideas:

Screen

While the OLED display on the original Vita is quite rich, Sony was right to switch to an LCD panel in the revised and slimmed down Vita PCH-2000.  Two benefits arose: one, the unit was less expensive to manufacture; two, the battery life was noticeably improved.  A sequel to the Vita should just go ahead and retain this status quo (though a higher PPI and wide-angle IPS would be welcome.)  Size-wise, I would leave the dimensions alone.  In my pie-in-the-sky dreams, I would also like Sony to adopt a Gorilla Glass 3 panel, which will be scratch resistant and light, compared to the existing ones that use scratch-prone plastic.

Controls

I believe the best addition the Vita brought to market was a second analog stick, which was lacking on the PlayStation Portable series.  This allowed for true 3D gaming, which greatly paid off in many of Vita’s titles.  But while the handheld attempted to mimic a DualShock 3, it was lacking in a few areas: first, the face buttons could stand to be about 20% larger than they are now.  Same goes for the d-pad and analog sticks.  There is way more bezel on the Vita than there needs to be, so there is room to invade those areas.  Second, the sequel needs to somehow account for L2 and R2, as well as L3 and R3 (i.e. triggers to go with the shoulder buttons, and clickable analog sticks).  As it stands today, those missing input methods are simulated with various touchscreen or rear touchpad taps. Again, we want physical controls.

Additionally, let’s mimic the DualShock 4 and offer Share and Option buttons, instead of Select and Start.  As Vita has today, we’ll retain Sixaxis support as well.

Cameras

I really can’t justify the inclusion of a rear camera.  Who is using his or her Vita to take snapshots?  I would think the Venn Diagram of Vita owners who also own smartphones overlaps quite a bit.  As for the front camera, I can see some utility in treating it like a PlayStation 4 Camera, though it’s field of view is much tighter than its home-console counterpart.  I would consider that front one optional but probably unnecessary: we don’t need to be video conferencing on this device.  It’s for games.  Dropping these will save a fair amount of cost.

Touch Input

Keeping the touchscreen makes a lot of sense for menu navigation.  Also, it’s a good way to simulate the DualShock 4’s touchpad, so I say leave it in.  The reach touchpad, on the other hand, is useless.  Lose it and save the money.  Doing so will reduce power consumption and save space.  Further, not having this input method will reduce spurious inputs to boot.

Processor

This is a big one: something Sony should do is use ARM processors in the next Vita, instead of proprietary ones.  Sony realized the value in switching to an industry-standard x86-64 Intel-compatible processor in the PS4; it should do the same in its handheld by embracing the industry standard in mobile computing.  ARM processors are incredibly powerful now, and better still, they’re incredibly power efficient.  Moreover, adopting such a ubiquitous architecture will simplify development and encourage mobile developers to consider porting their games to this new handheld.

Wireless

This console needs to adopt at least 802.11n (as should the PS4, by the way), but 802.11ac would be even better, obviously.  High-speed, reliable WiFI will help make it an even better Remote Play device than its forebear.  Secondly, let’s not even bother with cellular networking.  The extra cost from a manufacturing standpoint, as well as to the consumer, is not worth it for the limited functionality it offered in the 3G Vita.  Most people have hotspot access on their smartphone plans now anyway.

Storage

Sony’s decision to employ a proprietary memory card in the Vita is simultaneously understandable from a business angle and deeply anti-consumer from a customer’s.  Worse still, these cards were shockingly expensive for their limited storage: the 32GB capacity was a staggering $100, while its SDXC card equivalent was less than $30.  Today, a 64GB Vita card has taken that $100 position, but an SDXC card of that size is $25.  Absurd difference.

Either use SDXC with an industry-standard encryption (perhaps AES 128 or 256) to prevent save-file manipulation and piracy, or only use internal memory and obfuscate the whole thing.  If Sony were to choose the latter, however, this console could not have less than 64GB; ideally, it would be 128GB.  That could get expensive.  I saw Sony should simply employ the SDXC cards.

Game Distribution

The use of game cartridges is woefully dated; let’s drop that altogether and save money on manufacturing and retail distribution.  Further, leaving that out reduces the cost of this console further and frees up more space.  Instead, all games will be digital only, as it is done on mobile now.  Will this alienate people who don’t have reliable access to broadband or maybe have data caps?  Sure.  This would be a good way to loop in retail partners by having “download kiosks” where customers can hook their new Vita sequels to and download them directly.

PlayStation Now

Time will tell if Sony’s investment into Gaikai will pay off in the form of PlayStation Now, but the technology itself appears sound to me.  But to make this Vita sequel a good citizen of this service, the hardware ideas from above will need to be there: one-to-one DualShock mapping is necessary.  Do that, and this console could potentially rule the roost with a subscription service that will hopefully open up to most PS1, PS2, and PS3 games.  Such a library would be incomparable.

Naming

Heretofore, I’ve been calling this proposed handheld the Vita sequel.  I actually don’t think it should use that name at all, since the PlayStation Vita has an underserved reputation as an overpriced, under-supported platform (well, kind of).  Instead, let’s embrace the highly successful PlayStation Portable brand and name this next console PSP4 (to align it with the PS4 product cycle).1

Pricing

This console must, must, must come in under $200, even if that’s $199.99.  Eliminating the cameras and rear touchpad, committing to LCD, dropping the game cartridge slot, and slimming the whole unit down due to the afforded extra space, should go a long way.  From a development standpoint, leaning on well-understood technology like ARM processors, as well avoiding superfluous application development (like an email client, calendar, and other quasi-smartphone apps) should help, too.

Final Thoughts

The console should look and feel like a premium device.  I would adopt the two-tone and matte-like finish of the DualShock 4, reserving the piano-black to a small bezel around the display.  Let’s round the edges like the Vita slim to try to make this thing as comfortable as can be.  (It should go without saying, but I’m going to do so anyway: the PSP4 should employ a common connector, like micro-USB, just as the Vita slim does.  Let’s support 2.4A fast charging at the same time.)

This should be thought of as a hardcore device, but if it’s priced in a competitive way and has strong support for retro-games, I believe it could do well.  It may never sell 100 million units, but if it somehow reached, say, 25 million, that would be worth the effort.

Most PlayStation Vita owners love their handhelds: the game-attachment rate is especially high: last I heard, it was over a dozen gamers on average.  (This exceeds every home console and competing portables.)  Indie developers have realized the value in tapping into so loyal a fanbase, and those companies have flourished there.  My vision for PSP4 should continue to attract those vital creators but also (hopefully) entice interest from developers who have expansive back catalogs, or ones that are interested in mobile development already.


  1.  Sony could justify it as the fourth PSP since it’s the successor to the PSP-1000/2000/3000, PSP Go, and PSP-E1000.  (I know that’s pushing it logically, since all of these are really the same handheld, but compare this to Microsoft’s numbering for Windows, which has not made sense in a long time.  It is what it is.)
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Written by Michael

21 September 2015 at 8:00 pm

Ads are the New Malware

Until recently, I’ve tolerated web ads because I understood that nothing is really free on the Internet.  For as magical as the web seems, there are thousands of miles of fiber running underground and through the ocean, centers full of power-consuming server clusters, and scores of people whose job it is to keep all this running.  (And that’s a grossly oversimplified summary.)  This is all before we even get to the web designers and content producers out there who build everything on top of this infrastructure.

In other words, I am sympathetic to the very real costs the Internet represents, and how many creators rely on subsidizing their content through sponsorships.

What is unacceptable, however, is that these ads have become increasingly more obnoxious and intrusive, and not just in the creepy way they track you so the advertisers can build demographic profiles — but, to add insult to injury, these ads are stealing more than just your screen real estate and assaulting your senses.  Smartphones are becoming the predominant way the web is consumed (cf. the United Kingdom), and these ads are now causing the web to load slower, stealing CPU cycles and drain you battery faster (tangibly), and even consuming an inordinate amount of data.  Worse still, they pose a serious security risk when malicious code is hidden in them, which is then disseminated across the Internet through ad networks.  See “Malvertising” if you want a good scare.

I am all for the idea of sponsorships (transparent, honest ones), but these privacy invasive eyesores are to this era what worms were to the early 2000s.  Ubiquitous, retarding, and dangerous.  Ad-blockers, which I used to be uncomfortable with, are this generation’s antivirus.

And just as it is with traditional malware1, this whole thing is turning into an arms race.  While one company might institute a Do Not Track preference for cookies, another might find a way to circumvent this.  Jim Gordon’s words about escalation from Batman Begins ring in my ears.

So, what can be done?  Perhaps we need stricter laws, maybe we should boycott sites and services that use these highly questionable tactics, whatever — but under no circumstances should we just accept it.  One bit of good news, in the meantime, is that iOS users will benefit from an important new feature in version 9, set to come out today: Apple has added Content Blockers to mobile Safari, meaning you’ll now be able to download ad-blocking extensions on iPhones and iPads.  I’m beta-testing Purify now, and I’m very pleased with its performance so far.  (I’m also using uBlock for desktop Safari.)  For the Android users out there, extensions of this nature have existed for awhile, but I think you’ll need to do some digging to really pull the tendrils of Google (and your manufacturer, and your carrier) from your phone’s heart.

If there are websites that you really believe in and want to support (especially if they employ tasteful and noninvasive advertising), then you can whitelist them.  That’s great.  But I would rather support sites I love by purchasing merchandise or services from them, rather than play this game we now find ourselves in.

As far as I’m concerned, the time for tolerating this is over.  We need to protect ourselves.


1. I’m comfortable comparing banner, splash, and pop-up ads to malware because they meet most of the criteria: “any software used to disrupt computer operation, gather sensitive information, or gain access to private computer systems”.

P.S.  I am keenly aware that WordPress employs ads in order to subsidize free publishing, like this blog uses.  I apologize for the hypocrisy.  If it counts for anything, I’m starting to think seriously about changing this situation.

Written by Michael

16 September 2015 at 10:00 am

Platinum Review – Minecraft: PlayStation Vita Edition (PS Vita)

One of the best advantages to the PlayStation ecosystem is something called cross-buy: many titles, especially small-studio ones, will include a game’s release on every platform for which it’s available.  In this situation, I purchased Minecraft: PlayStation 3 Edition and received Minecraft: PlayStation Vita Edition for free.

The Vita Edition is a bit of a mix of the PS3 and PS4 versions of the game: like the PS3 Edition, this version features a single map-sized world (8642 meters), whereas the PS4 is 36x larger than this.  However, the Vita Edition takes its trophy list from the PS4, which is longer and is thus slightly more difficult.

Best Trophy: Zombie Doctor (Gold) — healing a Zombie Villager of its affliction is actually a complex process that requires a good understanding of multiple game mechanics.  You need a Golden Apple (which means you have to mine for Gold and chop down Oak Trees), a Splash Potion of Weakness (which means a trip to the Nether to build a potion stand), and a covered area to trap a Zombie Villager in and protect it from the sunlight (which typically requires building and planning on your end).

Worst Trophy: Passing the Time (Bronze) — this trophy is borderline dreadful.  It’s one you should eventually pickup by just playing, but the idea of passing 100 days in-game is kind of obnoxious on a portable device that you will probably use to drop in and out of in brief stints.  And you can’t accelerate these 100 days by sleeping through the night: the game literally requires you to play for 30 hours in realtime.  Unless you’re especially dedicated, this one will take weeks to acquire.

Special Mention Trophy: Renewable Energy (Bronze) — I like this one a lot because smelting wood trunks into charcoal makes all the sense in the world to me, since trees are plentiful and easily accessible in the game.  Amazingly, only 29.4% of players have this trophy.  Seriously, are the other 70.6% only using coal?  That’s a lot of mining.

Rating: A — I’m actually rating this one slightly higher than the PS3 Edition even though “Passing the Time” is worse than “Return to Sender” (my least favorite from before).  The new trophies more than make up for it, etching out a comprehensive map for players to follow to really learn the many different aspects of Minecraft.

Written by Michael

15 September 2015 at 8:00 pm

Snap Judgment – inFAMOUS: Second Son (PS4)

The first time I saw a preview for inFAMOUS: Second Son, Sucker Punch’s third entry into the series and first on PlayStation 4, I was compelled to go back and make sure I finished the original PS3 titles.  If you’ve read my judgments on those (first and second), you’ll know I thoroughly enjoyed them, so I was definitely salivating for this one.

Look at any snapshot or gameplay video and you’ll realize immediately that this game looks ridiculously great.  For the first time in the series’s run, the setting is a real: Seattle, home of the creators.  While Empire City and New Marais were both fun locations to explore and wreck havoc within, running around an almost photorealistic city that is incredibly faithful to the real thing takes the impact to another level.  One of the best side effects of modeling a real city is that this one feels more alive and more varied from area to area, especially compared to some of the monotonous streets of the previous titles which featured numerous reused assets.  Now, Seattle gets a bum rap for being a rainy city (it was actually ranked 44th among major U.S. cities in 2010), but Sucker Punch was sure to include at least some of that world-famous precipitation in the game, and to wonderful effect.  The morning sunlight mirroring off scattered puddles during an early part of the game looked stunning; truly, this is one of the most beautiful games ever made.  Just scale a tall building and look over Puget Sound and have your breath taken away.

From a gameplay standpoint, the new protagonist, Delsin Rowe, has a far greater trove of powers to harvest.  I don’t want to spoil too much, but he possesses the ability to copy the powers of any conduit he touches, so as you progress through the game, whole new power trees will open up for you to invest points into.  (This is done with blast shards, but the manner in which you collect these is a so much better than the PS3 games.)  This upgrade system feels much more dynamic than ever, and the delineation between Good and Evil Karma powers is appropriately distinct.  Another massive improvement is environmental traversal: while inFAMOUS had decent climbing mechanics, there were times when it just didn’t work the way I wanted, or when it felt annoyingly slow; inFAMOUS 2 improved up these greatly, introducing a couple of powers towards the end of the game that really made cross-city travel much easier.  But inFAMOUS: Second Son puts both games to shame as each power tree that Delsin acquires has some kind of fast movement option that allows him to scale buildings with little effort, or cover ground with blazing speed.  Best of all, Sucker Punch does not hold back on giving you these abilities; you will be master of Seattle from the get-go.

The voice acting is quite good, featuring the incredibly talented Troy Baker in the lead role.  (Hardcore fans will recognize his work from The Last of Us, BioShock: Infinite, Batman: Arkham Origins, Far Cry 4, Batman: Arkham Knight, and what seems like a million other titles.)  That said, the dynamic between Delsin and his brother Reggie isn’t quite as good as was found between Cole McGrath and Zeke Dunbar from before, but the playfulness was still quite enjoyable.

Storywise, Second Son felt like a smaller plot than either previous inFAMOUS game, both of which felt like they had world-altering consequences.  Instead, Second Son feels like the world has already changed and the presence of conduits is simply a way of life now, something to be dealt with by law enforcement.  In fact, Delsin’s motivation for the entire game is considerably more tangible in its small scale, much more personal than Cole’s far more epic journey.  There are certainly pros and cons to both kinds of stories.  Similarly, alas, the villain comes off as considerably one-note throughout most of this game as well, similar to how antagonists were treated in earlier titles.  That’s okay, but the best villains are the ones who think they’re the heroes of their own stories.  Second Son’s Augustine borders on having that quality, but it remains unexplored until a brief expositional cutscene near the end, and even then, her methodology is inconsistent with her intentions.

Despite these shortcomings, inFAMOUS: Second Son is another incredible achievement.  Some reviews will probably note that the game is shorter than its forebears, but I happen to appreciate that.  Second Son feels about as on point as any game I’ve played in recent memory; as such, I would characterize this as a must-play for the PS4.  A

Written by Michael

11 September 2015 at 11:05 pm

Snap Judgment – inFAMOUS 2 (PS3)

The follow-up to Sucker Punch’s 2009 title, inFAMOUS, is better in just about every conceivable way.  inFAMOUS 2 offers higher stakes, better voice acting, improved graphics, sweeter music, and far more interesting karmic choices compared to its forebear.

I don’t want to spoil anything about either inFAMOUS game, so I’ll just say that the sequel takes lead character Cole McGrath from Empire City (i.e. New York) from the original title, to New Marais (i.e. New Orleans) in this 2011 game.  In many ways, this is a vast improvement because Empire City itself felt highly repetitive, architecturally, whereas New Marais offers greater variances between its five districts.  The stark contrast between, say, Ville Cochon (an upscale area) and Flood Town (a disaster zone that was destroyed by a hurricane before the start of the game) is perfect.  There are also a number of great landmarks, like St. Ignatius Cathedral, St. Charles Cemetery, and dilapidated Plantation homes for you to explore.  Each is highly detailed.

The characters themselves are quite a bit more complex and sympathetic, even the ones who are cast in the roles of antagonists. A couple of new friends Cole makes early in the game end up providing the different karmic paths for you to follow; one will almost always suggest a heroic route while the other a villainous one; and boy do they not get along.  Also, a returning fan-favorite character from the first game provides much of the game’s comedic moments and endows inFAMOUS 2 with its heart.

One of the biggest improvements is something that initially sent fans of the original title into an uproar: Sucker Punch replaced the voice actor for Cole.  (Any other returning characters retained their original actors.)  While Jason Cottle provided good work for inFAMOUS, one which many fans grew attached to, Cole came off as one-note and gruff-voiced, exhibiting little emotional range.  In inFAMOUS 2, Eric Laden created a Cole with a lot more depth and variety, portraying a playfulness in some lines that really bolstered the cutscenes.  Even without the gruffness, his Cole still displayed a wonderful dose of menace.  The chemistry between this Cole and the other characters is far better realized than was achieved in the first title.

Mechanically, inFAMOUS 2 features a higher polish.  Traversing New Marais felt a lot more comfortable than Empire City, and the new powers unveiled in this sequel complemented this well.  Just about every frustration I had with inFAMOUS was addressed in the second game.

That’s not to say that the sequel is perfect; it certainly has its rough edges.  Its attempts to rope you into playing user-generated content missions (a neat idea in itself but a largely forgettable one) are a bit of a nuisance, though you can disable them.  One of the antagonists could have featured a bit more development — Sucker Punch teases you with a tantalizing realization about one this bad guy, that for all the terrible things he does, he takes those ill-gotten gains and uses them to improve the lives of the citizens of New Marais.  Sadly, the studio never pulls that thread all the way out to really flesh out the character.  Instead, Cole ends up brushing all of this aside.

In any case, inFAMOUS 2 is a brilliant follow-up to what was already a pretty great achievement.  It does something rare in video games (or really any other medium): it delivers on the promises and foreshadowing that the first game teased, and then wraps a big bow on it all in a way completely satisfying way.  The vision of both of these titles culminates in an incredible conclusion to Cole McGrath’s story.  A

Written by Michael

5 September 2015 at 12:43 am

Posted in Games, Reviews

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Snap Judgment – inFAMOUS (PS3)

Sony was victimized one of the worst data breaches in history in 2011, impacting some 77 million users. Recognizing the seriousness of the situation, Sony shut down the PSN for a staggering 23 days while it rebuilt its security architecture to ensure nothing like this happened again. To apologize, Sony offered a Welcome Back promotion that included a number of gifts.  Among these was inFAMOUS.

I had heard good things about the game but hadn’t paid enough attention to actually buy it myself. In fact, it sat unplayed on my hard drive until 2013 when I started getting hyped for the PS4 and realized there were a number of cornerstone PlayStation franchises I hadn’t yet experienced.  I’m really glad that I finally did because Sucker Punch’s inFAMOUS is an incredible title that succeeds in making you feel like an actual demigod, like an unstoppable force of nature, in a way that few other games achieve.

inFAMOUS follows Cole McGrath, a bike messenger in Empire City (a quasi-New York), who’s been given a package to deliver at the story’s outset. Little does Cole know, that package is actually a weapon of mass destruction that detonates once he reaches his destination.  The ensuing blast doesn’t kill him, as it did millions of others, but rather activates a latent “Conduit gene” that causes him to evolve into something far greater.  As the game progresses, Cole makes multiple “karmic choices” that will not only influence the game’s plot and how other characters react to him, but also direct how his powers continue to evolve. They’re all based on electricity but vary between precision and large-scale carnage. These choices will either lead Cole to become a hero or villain.

The game is mechanically imperfect (some of the platforming aspects are awkward), and it features several one-dimensional characters, but it is clever overall. It especially excels presentation-wise with its comic-style cutscenes, which are accompanied by dramatic music and voiceovers and combined with slick camera pans and cuts to convey this tale.  While there is fair bit of formula followed in this plot, there are a couple of well-done twists and turns to keep everything interesting.

The biggest complaint I have about inFAMOUS (and its sequels, and frankly a lot of other games) is that the ongoing karmic choices are a bit meaningless. There’s no incentive to mix up your decisions between good and evil, and there are no neutral ones to make either. You’re either meant to be all the way good, or all the way bad. It would work better to have you pick a destiny right away and then etch out your own custom version of what it means to be a hero or villain. Better still, dispense with black-and-white choices altogether.

Even so, inFAMOUS is fantastic.  I hope Sony re-releases this game on PS4 someday, but even if it doesn’t, it’s available for streaming on PlayStation Now.  Go play it.  B+

Written by Michael

24 August 2015 at 10:50 pm

Posted in Games, Reviews

Tagged with ,

Platinum Review – Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune (PS3)

Uncharted was one of the top reasons I purchased a PS3 back in 2008, and boy was that a good decision.  Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune launched one of the best series of the last generation, featuring stout gameplay and cutting edge graphics to complement excellent voice acting, adventurous musical scoring, and fun storytelling.  Drake’s Fortune is also a pretty tough Platinum, more-so than its successors.  A remaster is due out in October, titled Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection, which will include the original PS3 trilogy to whet the appetites of everyone eagerly anticipating Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End.  I’m very excited to replay Drake’s Fortune and earn the PS4 version of this Platinum, but I’m also dreading it because of the Worst Trophy below:

Best Trophy: Charted! – Hard (Gold) — normally I would try to find a single objective to spotlight, but the game in its totality is so good that just playing through it is plenty reward in itself.  I selected the Hard version for my favorite because I think that the difficulty on this mode is spot-on: challenging but not beat-your-head-against-the-wall difficult.

Worst Trophy: Charted! – Crushing (Gold) — beat-your-head-against-the-wall difficult.  Seriously, there were set-piece battles that were so insane that they took me as many as thirty tries to finish.  (Looking at you, Blue Room from Chapter 5.)  In any case, I persevered and didn’t use any exploits, like the one mentioned at that link.  I might have used that had I known about it, though.

Special Mention Trophy: Grenade Hangman (Bronze) — of all the individual goal-based Trophies (including ones with getting a certain number of kills with a certain weapon, or finding all of the hidden treasures), this was by far the strangest.  To earn it, you need to hang from a ledge lob grenades at your enemies and kill ten of them.  As straightforward as that may sound, Drake’s Fortune had an unfortunate six-axis-only throwing mechanic, meaning that they were a huge nuisance to use sometimes, especially when hanging from a ledge that partially obscures your view and also makes the angle more severe.

Written by Michael

3 August 2015 at 12:24 pm