Ace in the hole

Ace Combat: Assault Horizon

In the late 90s I was exposed to the Ace Combat series after playing a demo on a friend’s PlayStation. I loved it. There was something about flying a plane without the multitude of button presses usual flight sims entail that really appealed to me. Not to mention the almost endless self-targeting rockets strapped to my wings. As the years passed, so did the Ace Combat games spanning a number of platforms but in recent years, arcade flying fans could only get their kicks on portable systems. As excited as I am every time a new Ace Combat is announced, I quickly grew tired of the series and since Namco Bandai shied away from home consoles, I figured so did a lot of its followers. Apparently not as the publisher has announced that total sales of the series has surpassed 10 million units worldwide, an impressive feat for any long running franchise.

Ace Combat started life as Air Combat in the arcades over 15 years ago and it was the comically dramatic story lines and increasingly striking graphics that prevented it ever becoming a cliche sim. The next in the series, Ace Combat: Assault Horizon, is the first multi-platform release and throughout its development has promised a new approach to an evidently popular but tiring franchise. Dog fights are said to be more exciting, the pace is supposedly faster and helicopters have been included to the flying arsenal. A few weeks ago, a demo appeared on Xbox Live and PSN which proved to be very successful in terms of downloads. Over 1.2 million gamers have had a taste of the game and puts Assault Horizon in a good pre-release position.

But there is a snag. From what I’ve read from commenters online, although so many have downloaded the demo, I’m yet to read a more than a handful of positive comments for it. That’s not to say the neigh sayers won’t pick up the game (we all know how quickly the Internet can dismiss things) but I too found Assault Horizon to be a little lacking. As promised, the adrenaline was heightened and the pace has gone up a couple of notches however it still felt like the same kind of game we’ve had for the past 15 odd years. Maybe the demo wasn’t great at showing how the series has moved on but what I got out of it was a stronger desire to play this kind of game on my 3DS. It’s meant to be coming towards the end of the year and right now I’m holding out for that version as Ace Combat has become the kind of game I want to pick up and play rather then dedicate lengthy amounts of time in front on my TV. Is that a bad thing? Not really although is quite interesting how I’ve wanted the franchise to make a triumphant return to home consoles and Assault Horizon is the closet thing to that yet I’d rather play it on a handheld. I wonder how the rest of the 1.2 million downloaders thought.

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The great porting dilemma

Lord of everything Street Fighter and all round funny chap Yoshinori Ono has told Joystiq.com what he thinks of direct console to handheld ports. In a nutshell, Ono thinks they’re dumb. He and his team at Capcom prefer to see the transition to a portable device include specific features to take advantage of that hardware. Cramming a console game onto a something smaller are meaningless to him.

“A lot of people, when they’re porting to new hardware, especially a handheld, they’ll talk about how it’s difficult because of memory restrictions or speed or things like that, and I haven’t found that to be the case,” Ono said. “We’ve been putting less energy into the porting process itself and more energy into adding additional features, because we don’t want to do a straight-up port – that’s silly and meaningless.”

Two of Ono’s games making their way to the PSVita are Street Fighter X Tekken and Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3. Both will feature additions that supposedly utilise the Vita’s many inputs much like Super Street Fight 4 3D did on the 3DS. Ono said how the 3DS game has helped with development as he’s already racked up some experience with a touch screen and making a game fun to play on it. But Vita’s multitouch capabilities offer even more cool opportunities for entertaining play although the rear touch panel is a bit trickier.

“The rear panel presents kind of a challenge for us, because when you’re playing a fighting game, given the button configuration you’re going to have your index fingers on the top and your thumbs on the front,” he said. “We don’t want a situation where you’re accidentally throwing shoryukens because you moved your ring finger in the middle of a bout.”

No, we certainly don’t and my thought is if it doesn’t work, don’t use it. The ethos of exploiting the new tech to its fullest is highly commendable of Ono but there’s a danger too that things may get a little silly with features shoehorned in for the sake of it. The great thing about Super Street Fighter 4 3D was how well it used all the best bits of the 3DS, the stereoscopic screen, boosted CPU, online mulitplayer, Street Pass and analog stick. Other than 3D, the Vita can do all those things for Street Fighter X Tekken and Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 and more – but it doesn’t mean it has to. If the feature set stopped there, I can’t imagine there’d be too much concern over an unused rear touch screen.

That aside, it’s the tailoring of games that will help the PSVita win over dubious consumers who aren’t sold on the idea of a pocket console. And I don’t mean handheld gamers, but those burned by the PSP which had too many titles trying to emulate home console games. The experience wasn’t right and the hardware couldn’t compete with PS2/3 graphics and controls so more often than not, things felt a little underwhelming. Not every game fell into this category and if developers continue to think the same as Ono, that category will become smaller and smaller.

PSValue

With Nintendo dramatically dropping the price of the 3DS recently, all eyes were on Sony to see if they felt like doing the same for their new system, the PSVita. But with the new handheld not even released yet, Sony don’t exactly feel like they need to do anything with the suggested RRP and are quite happy with the pricing. As it stands, the standard Wifi model will sell for €249.99 and both Wifi and 3G one will be €299.99. The UK hasn’t been given any figures at the moment but the you can expect the PSVita to retail for around £220-£280 with these figures likely changing right up until a week before the system goes on sale next year – much like the price of the 3DS did this year.

A number of experts and analysts suggested that Sony follow Nintendo’s lead and lower the PSVita’s RRP now rather than risk causing another blow to dedicated handhelds and launch a system too pricey for today’s more economical gamer. However, regardless of the jump in sale for the new cheaper 3DS and boost in the company’s shares, Sony aren’t budging. In an interview with Eurogamer, worldwide studio head, Shuhei Yoshida confirmed the decision to stick with the current structure:

“We are totally happy with the price we put. Personally, I was expecting Nintendo might move their price, but I wasn’t expecting them to move at this time. We didn’t price Vita relative to 3DS or those other devices. We plan the value we want to put in to the Vita and the price people would perceive the value would be. Nothing changed since the announcement. We are totally happy.”

The ‘other devices’ he’s talking about are mobile phones and tablets and it’s been well documented that the PSVita is equal if not more powerful and feature packed then a lot of the popular devices. While Sony may say the competitors didn’t have an effect of the price of the PSVita, right now, they are the biggest threat and being more affordable and desirable than those who are slowly eating into your market is something the new handheld must do as quick soon as possible. But no matter what the hardware cost will be, it’s the price of games which in this day and age is causing the biggest debate. I’ve always been a strong supporter of higher-priced, traditional games and the platforms you can play them on due to their execution, narratives and tactile buttons for greater immersion (if you are having problems and concentrating on controlling a game then how can you truly be immersed?). But the slip in quality from some developers and greed that drives publishers to screw over gamers with £40 titles that have £20 experiences, or less, just makes it harder for Sony and Nintendo for that matter to persuade consumers to buy their products.

But where Sony may succeed where Nintendo struggled is in early software that shows real potential and not just updated older titles (no matter how good they actually were). Uncharted: Golden Abyss, Resistance and LittleBigPlanet are just three of the laundry list of titles said to be coming out alongside the PSVita so the hardcore gamer crowd and early adopters should have plenty to keep them occupied. But this then causes somewhat of a catch 22 situation. Having games worthy of the higher price pushes them closer to being home console experiences and potentially puts the PSVita in the same ill-fated position of the original PSP. Again Sony have been smart with the launch line up ensuring games that are in addition to existing mega franchises are front and centre which then helps make the PSVita look like an addition to the PS3 and its library.

So the question as to whether Sony would reduce the price of the PSVita maybe should have been whether or not you think they ever would? Sony is all about the expensive hardware and making products initially for a crowd who have money to burn. Though it’s less about duping the consumer (some would argue otherwise) and more so about the kind of technology used. The PSVita is crammed with everything you can think of for a mobile device covering all bases but dangerously becoming a jack of all trades, master of none. Whether or not it’ll end up that way is a different topic but the hope is that Sony are making damn sure their next handheld will be worth every penny at launch and not need a drastic price cut so soon after.

The highs and lows of Nintendo’s digital service

When you have to slash the price of a brand new piece of hardware and your managerial staff take considerable pay cuts to make up for losses, you would have thought Nintendo would be upping their game when it comes to 3DS releases, especially via the eShop. The DSi was and still is littered with low-tier titles through DSiWare and the hope was the eShop would begin a new period of higher quality digital downloadable games from the Japanese giant. However, coming this week is the GameBoy version of Pac-Man. For £3.70 (€4).

Now Pac-Man maybe one of the all time classics video games but the very week after pretty much admitting your new handheld has a problem with generating interest and consumers, isn’t the time to trawl through the back catalogue of over-played hits. I don’t doubt the release date has been around longer than the idea to cut the price of the 3DS but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have been pushed back to make way for one of the many more exciting classic GameBoy titles. Furthermore, charging £3.70 is baffling when you can buy newer versions with more features for much less on competing platforms. The mind boggles as to what’s going on at Nintendo HQ.

That being said, news that Nintendo is currently working on a transaction system enabling the 3DS and next year’s Wii U to receive premium DLC is also hitting the internet, lifting spirits dampened by silly eShop titles. In an investors meeting on Friday (via Andriasang) president Satoru Iwata said feature will be made available to developers by the end of the year allowing them to begin pumping out chunks of content presumably in-game for new titles and via the eShop for older ones. But we all know the shadiness of existing DLC services with things like unlock keys and purchasable stat increases and Iwata said these won’t be making an appearance on their platforms. Both he and Shigeru Miyamoto said they want to see content that will extend the life of a game – like new levels for example. Anything less than that they believe will damage any possibility of solidifying long term relationships with consumers and fans (ironic after the first two paragraphs of this post…)

Don’t expect to see free-to-play games appear on the 3DS anytime soon though as Iwata again down-played their importance. To him, a platform like that would undermine the premium value of Nintendo’s content. To everyone else, it starts to look like backward thinking from a company with massive potential to once again dominate the handheld space. I don’t go for free-to-play games myself but do understand their relevance in todays market and think that if Nintendo cherry picked the best ones for the 3DS and Wii U, it would do more good than not having them at all.

Wii U is pretty much Wii HD

The big reveal of Nintendo’s press conference at this year’s E3 was of course the Wii U, or rather, the Wii U’s controller leaving a lot of people wondering what exactly the hardware for the Wii U consists of. Nintendo boss Satoru Iwata spoke with the Evening Standard (via Eurogamer) about the announcement and how he regrets not focusing more on the Wii U itself. His reason for doing so wasn’t out of madness but common sense. To him and the rest of the company, the Wii U “is not drastically different and [its] about the controller. The console itself will be almost invisible.”

What we do know is that the Wii U will be able to produce the same kinds of graphics as the Xbox 360 and PS3 and is capable of 1080p video output. Whether it’s more powerful than the competition isn’t all that essential right now because for Nintendo, this isn’t about a new bit of hardware, it’s about technically catching up with those who are slowly chipping away at the lead they have in the market and be considered a serious piece of home entertainment.

The Wii U doesn’t need to be drastically different from the Wii either. How often have you found yourself thinking that a Wii game would look great in HD and that’ll you wished you could play it that way? Games like Super Mario Galaxy have that unique art style that makes us love Nintendo but imagine it in high definition. That, plus a better use of online (which we’ve already seen steps towards on the 3DS) would be enough for me.

But the real majesty of the Wii U is said to be in its controller – again, why Nintendo decided to put all the emphasis on it instead of the unit which would sit under your TV – and Iwata said people won’t truly appreciate how impactful it will be until they play with it. He believes the new way of traditional video game interaction it offers will once again allow Nintendo to dramatically influence the industry. Bold words but pretty much all I read regarding the controller is how brilliant it is so he may just be onto something with these claims.

However Sony has the opportunity to offer a very similar experience with the PS Vita if it linked seamlessly to the PS3. For all intense purposes, it comes with pretty much the same technology as the Wii U controller so like the PlayStation Move, we would see Nintendo’s idea replicated on a rival platform.

PS Vita ‘probably’ region free

There’s a reason why handheld consoles are called portables. It is, and this may shock you, because they are meant to be portable. So naturally, one of the bullet-points I’d be keen to find out regarding Sony’s PS VIta is whether or not it’ll be region-free. A simple request I know but when you think that Nintendo have only recently released the region-locked 3DS, I’m concerned that the PS Vita may follow in its territory-restricting ways.

But at a press session yesterday for European and Australian reporters (via IGN), Michael Denny, Sony’s VP of Worldwide Studios Europe, said that to the best of his knowledge, there will be NO region restrictions on the PS Vita. Such a quote would have been all the more impressive if he didn’t say ‘to the best of my knowledge’ because that indicates a final decision hasn’t been made or Mr Denny wasn’t given the memo saying otherwise.

The logic behind locking a portable device down to certain territories is a fairly backward one but with so many variations in law between countries, I do understand if Sony chose and Nintendo was forced to region-lock their devices. With the expanded content being offered on both PS Vita and 3DS, there’d be oodles of red-tape and paperwork to wade through in order to keep licence and copyright holders happy. But to us, the consumers, it doesn’t make it any less frustrating if you take your portable gaming system overseas and not be able to peruse the local game shops for a bargain or that particular title not available in your home country.

So lets just hope that Michael Denny’s knowledge is fully up to date on this one.

Why isn’t the 3DS selling in Japan? Goo can think of at least 20 reasons

After initially selling out at launch across Japan, just a few months on and the 3DS isn’t exactly flying off the shelves. To be honest, it’s not even outselling the PSP, a system over five years old despite having a considerably larger library of games if you take into account DS and DSi titles. However, that’s just what the people of Japan are doing when deciding whether or not to pick up a 3DS and more often than not, they chose not to. A survey carried out by Goo Research (via Andriasang) asked 672 women and 438 men in Japan their main reasons for not buying the new handheld and the number one reason is price. To them, it’s far too high and the prospect of a reduction is one they’d rather wait for. Over here in the UK, the cost of a 3DS is falling by the week with the Carphone Warehouse dropping as low as £160, a £70 drop from when the system was launched. And like the UK, Japan will be seeing – if it hasn’t already done so – a price drop for the DSi which brings us on to the second reason on Goo’s list; Japanese gamers are happy with the DS and DSi. As I previously mentioned, the lack of games for the new system means people are turning to older releases but the money savvy digital hobbyists are just as content with sticking with the older handheld too. Unfortunately, that’s just what happens when you build something as robust and popular as the DS. Nintendo has admitted they’re having a hard time promoting all the new features the 3DS has to offer but I’d imagine it’s only a matter of time for word will spread.

After all, numbers 11 and 13 on Goo’s list are the inability to play GameBoy Advance and GameBoy games. Odd that such a thing would put people off buying a brand new console, even more so when the last generation wasn’t able to play these games either. But the upcoming eShop launch next Tuesday should rectify that issue. Other reasons for the Japanese public to avoid a 3DS are things not so easily addressed as the size, weight, screen size and button layout are all apparently a problem. These kinds of criticisms can only really be sorted with a lite version, something I thought Nintendo wouldn’t have to do with the 3DS because I thought the system was pretty much spot on. It has the adopted style of Nintendo handhelds being a slick clamshell with a great analog nub and decent size top screen. It appears my neighbours from the far east think differently which could force a second version within a year or so. I doubt it would be sooner but then Sony is said to be releasing the NGP and that factors into the list also. The fourteenth reason for not buying a 3DS is that those questioned want to save their money for an NGP. Quite different from the response in March when Goo asked members online as to what system they’d buy next with the 3DS being number one receiving 14,668 votes leaving the NGP with only 5,200.

So what’s happened within such a short time that is putting Japanese gamers off a 3DS? If price wasn’t such an option then why is it now? Maybe the small number of games that have come out in that time did little to inspire the audience and the slipping of the eShop may have hurt those who wish to play classic titles. This year’s E3 will be very important for Nintendo and I have a lot of faith in them delivering another great conference with not only an official unveiling of Project Cafe but also we’re bound to see a whole load of upcoming 3DS specific games too. All it needs is the next Mario Kart, Pokemon or even Monster Hunter and we could see a complete change in opinion towards the 3DS in Japan. Hell, just show more of Beyond the Labyrinth from Tri-Ace. That game looks gorgeous and designed to make good use of the 3D capabilities which are yet to be truly tested.

Here’s the full list from Goo Research:

1. Price is high/waiting for a price drop
2. Satisfied by DS/DSi
3. Worried about eye strain
4. Worried about getting sick from the screen
5. Few launch titles
6. Will buy once a game I want is released
7. Satisfied by cell phone and smartphone games
8. Satisfied by PSP
9. The battery is weak
10. It’s heavy and I don’t feel like carrying it with me
11. Can’t play Game Boy Advance games
12. The color I want isn’t available
13. Can’t play Game Boy games
14. I’ll save my money for NGP, thank you very much
15. Waiting for a version with a larger screen
16. Because you can’t move your DSi Points over
17. The buttons layout looks hard to use
18. No Famicom/NES in the Virtual Console
19. The zoom view for DS games is hard on the eyes
20. Waiting until my friend buys it