Today Sony unveiled their “Next Generation Portable,” previously known as the “PSP2,” which, like the embattled original PSP before it, looks like another attempt to bring a compromise-less home console experience into the portable marketplace.
Just by looking at the NGP, it’s clear that Sony’s learned a lot from the mistakes they made with the original PSP; for one, the system sports dual analog sticks, both of which seem to be far more substantial than the original PSP’s awkward analog “nub.” Furthermore, the game also sports both an OLED touch screen and a touch sensitive back panel, both of which allow for gesture based controls– a Sony rep demonstrated one of the possible uses of the back panel during a demo of a NGP version of Uncharted (which looked beautiful, by the way,) by moving his hands along the back of the unit to simulate the movement of climbing a rope. In addition to the traditional and touch control methods, the NGP also uses the same “Sixaxis” motion controls that are built into PS3 controllers, which will hopefully be implemented less awkwardly then they were in most PS3 games (Flower being the exception, of course).
Another change it the lack of a UMD drive: optical, disc based media was arguably the original PSP’s biggest weakness hardware wise, and nobody enjoyed having to sit through long load times or installations on their handheld, so Sony has wisely decided to ditch the format for high capacity, proprietary Flash based cards, similar to the DS and the 3DS. Obviously the lack of a UMD drive means your library of old, disc based PSP 1 games won’t be backwards compatible with the new system, but I think the trade off is more than worth it.
But the most noticeable and expected change is obviously the increase in power: The NGP manages to completely overwhelm the previously impressive (now primitive looking) 3DS in terms of graphics, with visuals that were almost indistinguishable from the PS3. Straight ports of MGS4 and Yakuza were shown as tech demos to demonstrate the power of the system, and they looked virtually identical to their home-based, HD counterparts. It wasn’t all “bullshot” non-playable videos either, as Sony showed equally impressive footage of Uncharted running on the actual NGP hardware.
Overall, the NGP is a substantial improvement over the PSP; its wealth of control styles and seemingly more ergonomic design seem to address the (valid) complaints of how uncomfortable the original PSP was to hold after extend play sessions (especially Monster Hunter, which required players to deform their hands into the infamous “claw” formation to control movement and camera at the same time). Sony’s press conference was also entirely focused on the gaming applications of the NGP, a far cry from the PSP’s original marketing, in which Sony tried to sell it as a multi-purpose, iPod killing multimedia device. Sony’s obsession with trying to sell UMD movies and music on the original PSP arguably distracted them from the main draw of the machine (i.e. games,) so it’s nice to see that they’ve realized that the PSP should be a games system first and foremost and not some sort of trojan horse for media delivery.
Two aspects of the system that Sony didn’t touch upon though could end up being the NGP’s achilles heel: the price and the battery life. The NGP is absolutely loaded with new tech, and obviously this means that the price will be high and that the battery will be drained quickly. Sony seems keen to avoid these topics for now in order to let the hype build up before the delivering what will no doubt be a painful pricing announcement, but if their pricing is in scale with Nintendo’s similarly expensive 3DS, we’re in for the first handheld generation that’s more expensive than their console counterparts. Sony reps have reassured the press that the price will be less than the PS3’s original (unreasonable) launch price of $599, but I can see Sony having a tough time selling the NGP to an audience that’s suffering through the worst recession in recent memory if the price goes above $350.
The NGP, like the PSP before it, is dedicated to making a console-like experience portable, and this again may pose a problem for the system: The PSP was inundated with sloppy, half-assed ports of console games ill-suited to be played on a portable environment, and likewise, the NGP presentation today showed off a lot of PS3 ports. Of course, this is to be expected with any system’s launch (see also: 3DS, 360, etc.) but a library reliant on ports was always one of the biggest weaknesses (or strengths I suppose, if you enjoyed buying Disgaea multiple times,) of the original PSP.
Furthermore, a lot of publishers were burned on the original PSP, which more or less tanked in every territory except for Japan, leaving many publishers, like EA and Konami, (whose last high profile PSP game, Metal Gear: Peace Walker, flopped in the US, and even Monster Hunter, which is the PSP’s most popular series, failed to sell on the PSP in America,) with piles of unsold games and lost profits. The general apathy that the system felt at retail was only compounded by the PSP’s infamously high piracy rate, which saw more people torrenting PSP games than buying them. Even Capcom, arguably the PSP’s biggest supporter, stopped just short of committing the next Monster Hunter game to the system, only announcing that a “downloadable” entry in the franchise would be made available for the system at some point. Taken on it’s own merits, the NGP arguably does everything right, but if Sony is going to turn their new system into a success, they need to spend some time reassuring both gamers and game publishers that the NGP won’t follow in it’s predecessor’s footsteps.
But still, despite those potential pitfalls, Sony succeeded in getting me hyped for the NGP. The graphics looked amazing, the social and mutliplayer features seemed interesting, and the controls seem like they won’t suck this time. At the very least, they showed off a machine that, in terms of hardware (though not necessarily sales/marketing or popularity wise,) will blow the 3DS out of the water. Of course, the NGP has all the same advantages that the PSP had over the original DS, and we all know how that turned out, but Sony has won me over in recent years with how they’ve handled the PS3, and I’m optimistic that they’ve likewise learned from the missteps they took with the PSP and now finally understand what a handheld gaming system should be. 2011 is suddenly looking like it’s going to be a very, very exciting year.