Sony’s Gamescom Proposal to Buoy the PlayStation Vita: All Hands on Deck!

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There’s this mega-gaming show going on in Germany right now, the European equivalent of our own E3. You’ve might have noticed it echoed on a handful of game blogs, as those who made the trip across the pond attempt to telegraph any headline-grabbing stories: The Last Guardian‘s been M.I.A. because much of it had to be rebuilt. Dead Space 3 hits Feb. 5 in North America. Star Wars 1313 still looks “amazing.” Just Dance 4 has, wait for it, a setlist! Grand Theft Auto V will be out in…okay, we still have no idea when.

I actually went to one of these things back in 2007, when it was called GCDC (as in “Games Convention Developers Conference”), before it switched from Leipzig to Cologne and became known simply as Gamescom. The actually interesting bits involving developer panels and roundtables, which took place days before the dog and pony floor show (and still apparently do), were pretty much ignored by the gaming press then as now. Who wants to hear about “craftsmanship vs. art” when you can show more footage of stuff blowing up in Call of Duty: Black Ops 2?

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Anyway, Sony‘s there, and during its big press show on Tuesday night, it devoted a significant chunk of time to its sales-sluggish PlayStation Vita. Just in case you had doubts about Sony’s commitment to the Vita, here’s what Sony Computer Entertainment Europe president Jim Ryan had to say at the show’s outset: “Tonight, we’re going to start front and center with the newest member of our PlayStation family, PlayStation Vita.”

“Front and center”? The very opposite of Sony’s PS3-focused E3 2012 show, then. Dare we hope?

Game-wise, Sony led with LittleBigPlanet for Vita, a game we already knew plenty about, though Ryan added that this version “plays more naturally than any of its previous iterations on static console” (out Sep. 25, 2012). Then we got another look at PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, a crossover fighting game for both the Vita and PS3 starring everyone from God of War‘s Kratos to LittleBigPlanet‘s Sackboy to BioShock‘s Big Daddies (out Nov. 20, 2012). I’ve never been into all-stars brawlers myself, but the audience reaction to this one was definitely positive.

Sony’s upcoming PS Vita system update was next, version 1.8, which adds a slew of new features, including — and it’s about time — PlayStation One support (coming Aug. 28). That’s a biggie, even if Sony’s still dancing around the elephant-in-the-room fans really want: PlayStation 2 support. It seems like we’ve been at stuff like Final Fantasy VII, Tomb Raider and Twisted Metal 2 forever via the PS2, PS3 and PSP, so their absence when the Vita launched earlier this year was an inexplicable negative. Adding it now really just level-sets things.

Other additions: Vita video will now support variable speed playback, fast-rewind, fast-forward and repeat-play, and you’ll be able to import music playlists from the PS3 or iTunes (no complaints here). And Sony’s adding a “Cross-Controller” button that’ll let you play PS3 games using the Vita as a controller. Probably not to play a game like Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 instead of your DualShock 3, but probably to threaten Nintendo, whose Wii U GamePad is only slightly bigger (a 6-inch touchscreen vs. the Vita’s 5-inch OLED) and lacks the Vita’s rear touchpad and standalone software processing capabilities.

The update adds at least one feature that doesn’t quite add up: the option to control the Vita’s home screen and app features using the Vita’s control buttons. And this is in any way better than tapping the effortless touchscreen how, Sony?

In other “it’s about time” news, Sony’s bringing PlayStation Plus support to the Vita this year (no launch date yet), which, if you’re not familiar with that service, is Sony’s $50 a year “deals” club, doling out freebies, price breaks and early game access to members. Where Microsoft’s locked you’ve-gotta-pay-for-them-too services like Netflix and Hulu Plus behind its $60 a year Xbox LIVE paywall, Sony’s approach with PlayStation Plus is more consumer-friendly, leaving those services outside the paywall and instead offering more Sony-centric deals to members, so it’s nice to see the service finally making its way to the Vita.

Speaking of deals, Sony’s rolling out an ambitious new “Cross Buy” feature, where if you buy a game for the PlayStation 3, you’ll get the Vita version for no extra cost automatically. This could be a huge PlayStation selling point if Sony can deliver games that let you shift from playing PS3 to Vita and back again seamlessly. That’s something no one else in the industry is doing. Not Apple. Not Microsoft. Not Nintendo. No one. It’s part of Sony’s belief that gamers want continuity between static and mobile experiences — the best of both platforms, no compromises.

And then Sony turned back to games, focusing on a handful of titles, most of those repeats. LittleBigPlanet I already mentioned, but we also saw a bit more of Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation (definitely want, though the “touch to kill” bit makes me worry it’s been nerfed) and not so much a peek at as a promotional spot for Call of Duty Black Ops: Declassified (there’s a bundle-pack with the Wi-Fi Vita in the offing for launch this November, so why didn’t we see any game footage, Sony?).

That said, the new stuff Sony showed was precisely what the system needs: like Tearaway, a game from LittleBigPlanet creator Media Molecule, described as an “adventure through a vibrant papery world” where you’re doing stuff like sticking your fingertips in the game world using the Vita’s back panel, or blowing on the system, Zelda DS-style.

And last but not least, Sony announced Killzone Mercenary, the Vita take on that series, which looks pretty much like Killzone with touchscreen-swipe moves.

Don’t look for either of these until sometime in 2013.

All told, it’s a respectable showing, but either the company’s going to win the lottery with LittleBigPlanet, Call of Duty Black Ops: Declassified or Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation, or we’re still a few (dozen) games short of a hit library — one the Vita desperately needs to justify its existence.

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