Review by grasu

"The revolution could use some more reform"

Ever since 1989 Nintendo has dominated the handheld market. No competitor was able to ever match Nintendo's clever combination of graphics, battery, and games, all in one tidy little package. Well, not until Sony...

At E3 2004 Sony publicly debuted it's impressive handheld: The PSP. A mega powerful, all-around, media machine that was not only on par with the PS2 but better. Upon first seeing the PSP, I must admit, I did not believe that such a thing would ever be released publicly. The PSP looked so good that it could've only been a test machine that would cost $500. I was wrong.

The PSP made its stateside debut in March 2005. Praised by critics, loved by multi-tasking freaks, and adored by Sony fanboys, the PSP was where it was at. At a "mere" $250, you received what you paid for: The most powerful handheld on the market and the only intelligent alternative to Nintendo's handhelds.

Hardware: 10/10

The mere sight of this handheld is amazing. In the hardware department the PSP is among the most amazing things to come out since the first Gameboy. The PSP surpasses even the PS2 in power and the effects of this are visible at launch, with such titles as Wipeout Pure, which are much better than their console counter parts.

A quick break down of the PS2 vs. PSP hardware looks something like this:

PS2 PSP
294 Mhz Core 1-333 Mhz (scalable) core
32 MB 32MB
VRAM 4 MB 4MD Embedded DRAM

Although seemingly identical, the DRAM on the PSP is about twice as strong as the VRAM on the PS2, making it's worth 8, as compared to the PS2's 4. On top of that, the PSP also features hardware anti-aliasing, morphing, NURBS, T&L and 33 million polygons/second for EACH of the two graphics cores. This puts both the polygons and the actual amount RAM at the level of the PS2. Combined with the stronger type of RAM and all those other techniques the PSP is, technically, superior to the PS2 in just about every way.

But tech-speak is not enough to prove a system's worth. The PSP carries it's own weight and manages to deliver with superb graphics in many of its launch games. Wipeout Pure stands as a true testament to what the PSP can do graphically. The framerate is constant 98% of the time, the amount of effects on screen, the lighting which is subtle and able to emanate a "warm" feel and numerous well animated shadows, the quality of each and every polygon featured on the vehicles and the superb effect of coming out of a tunnel and being showered in light, all point to what the system can do in the future.

For every win, there is a loss however. All this graphic powerness could not be displayed on a screen the size of the GBA's. It just wouldn't be fair. And while the PSP's screen is beautiful, featuring a 16:9 ratio and is perfectly clear it suffers from a huge LCD problem: Dead pixels. The thing here is, that as much as we'd like to blame Sony, this problem will never go away. As long as there is a shortage of LCDs and both Sony and Nintendo are forced to buy whatever Panasonic and Samsung throw at them, this problem will always be there. Now, the problem affects a good 20-25% of PSPs, which is huge, but it's not all that detrimental to gameplay as one may think. Being the owner of a PSP with one dead pixel, I've thought of returning it many times, but many more times, I even lost sight of where the dead pixel is. So, while awareness is great, it should be taken with some consideration as this problem isn't likely to be solved until there are enough LCDs out there, and that may take 1, 2 or 10 extra shipments.

The PSP also dominates the sound category. With powerful speakers, clear and crisp sound, and a wealth of options of what to listen to the PSP is the leader in the sound department by miles.

For storage purposes, the PSP uses a new type of media format called the UMD. A UMD can store 1.8 gigs of data, including movies, sound files, music and games. For gaming purposes, the UMD is likely to revolutionize the market. With the UMD huge games, with a huge scope, FMV, symphonic music, and speech can all be delivered into the palm of your hand. In lay-mans-terms, this means epic RPGs and nerve-racking horror or FPS games can now actually make a stand in the handheld market. As another storage method, the PSP also uses the memory stick. Another of Sony's storage inventions, memory sticks run anywhere from 32MB (included) to 4 gigs and anywhere from $15 to $500.

Besides playing games, the PSP can do a lot more than one would expect from a handheld. It can play UMD movies (probably useless in the long run), or UMD CDs. It can also store pictures, movies and music on the memory stick. Movie and music storage is really a useful feature of the PSP, knowing towards whom this is marketed. With the ability to store about 4-5 low-quality anime episodes on the 32MB memory stick, the format limitations seem to not be a problem. Not to mention, the smaller size of the screen means that you won't notice the horrible resolution of those crappy DBZ RM files you've been downloading by the hundreds. Audio capabilities too are very welcomed. Although limited to a few formats, Sony's own new file format can shrink a whole album down to the size of 4-5 MP3s, which means LOTS and LOTS of music on an average size 256MB stick.

Battery life has become something of an urban myth. The PSP is supposed to have a 3-6 hour battery life, but that's less of a problem than one many think. First off, as long as the brightness and volume are not set to high (both of which are unneeded, especially in the brightness department) the PSP's battery life can be a good 6-10 hours. Second, there are so many accessories ranging from new batteries, to charger cases, to power bricks that if you are in the habit of playing 6 hours or more straight, you'll have what to supply your battery with.

Speaking of accessories, Sony and others can't stop showering us with them. Everything from a full metal case (solid aluminum for the love of God) and power bricks, to whipping cloths and cleaning kits is included. If you're into accessorizing your stuff, you've got a lot of company on the PSP.

Overall build quality of the PSP is pretty good, considering what a reputation Sony has. For the North American launch, Sony fixed the UMD, square button and nub problems that the original Japanese release had. Workmanship cannot be faulted here, but quality of the products used can, and should, be.

Control: 9/10

The little nub works like a charm for about 95% of all 3D games and it ultimately gives the PSP a huge control advantage. If programmers put their time in making the games control well, they really can do great things. It's due to that little nub that the PSP has the complete edge in 3D games, as its accuracy is hundreds of times higher than, say, the DS' touch screen.

Other than the nub, the PSP is pretty much identical to the PS2's Dual Shock in terms of lay out. The four Square, X, Triangle and Circle buttons are all laid out in the exact same order to the right of the screen, while the D-Pad stands to the left (exactly the same as the PS2's). On the bottom of the PSP is the volume, brightness and Start/Select switches, while on the side, to the right, you can find the Power/Hold button. The controls feel surprisingly natural and the only strain happens in Untold Legends, out of all of the initial games.

Overall though, control is not perfect. The eternal handheld problem is as glaring here as it ever was: Fighters. The D-Pad on the PSP, responsive as it may be, doesn't have the little connections in between down-back, down-forward, ect. that an ASCII pad does. For 2D fighters, this is criminal as dropping a QCB, QCF is nearly damn impossible. Another small problem deals with the R1/L1 buttons, which are a little flimsy and could've used some better placement.

Games: 8/10

I'm going to cut straight to the chase: If you don't believe the PSP has better games than the DS, the only thing you have to do is a google search. The PSP's initial line-up has been received extremely well, unanimously, with 6 games scoring high marks just about everywhere: Wipeout Pure, Ridge Racers, THUG2, Lumines, Twisted Metal: Head-On and NFSU: R.

It's already common knowledge that the PSP has had one damn good launch, but how does the break up of games really look? Well, the PSP does have a good amount of sports games, including NFL: Street 2 and NBA Street Showdown among many others like FIFA 2005 and World Tour Soccer all of which are pretty much unique in scope to the PSP. These sports games, whether or not they are your thing, are simply the best ever made for a handheld. Even crap like NBA (from 989, what did you expect?) is leaps and bounds ahead of something like Madden on the GBA. Not to mention, that finally sports gamers on the go can actually play a decent sports game.

For platformers, the only option on the PSP is Ape Escape: A good, but far from great, platformer. The future does look brighter though with such games as Death Jr. and a combined, unnamed (and unseen), project from Insomniac and Naughty Dog. Ditto for the action genre where the only option for the first few weeks is the, above-average-but-well-under-good Spiderman 2, which has the graphics but is about 4 hours long. There's also DW, but that game is so bad I'd rather just ignore it. Although, action fans will have it much better than platform fans with Rengoku scheduled for an early April release and Coded Arms dated for Summer '05.

Darkstalkers is the only representation that the fighting genre has on the PSP, and it's not looking real likely that this is going to improve. Darkstalkers does however, represent the genre well. While the controls on the original settings are wonky, the winning combination of easy controls, lots of characters and no lost complexity make Darkstalkers the best fighter on any handheld. The only thing that fighting fans have in the future (that has actual proof of existence) is a bizarre pseudo-first person fighter from Sony called Fighting Spirits. In all honesty, I don't have any hopes that this game will score more than a 5.

The RPG genre is represented, again, by only one game: Untold Legends. Untold Legends was received to very luke-warm reviews and was often compared to PS2 action-RPGs. To be quite honest, that's total bull. Untold Legends isn't RPG salvation, but it's by far the best handheld RPG since 2003. It's huge, featuring 4 different races, has over 100 levels and 110 monsters, and represents Diablo in the palm of your hand. True enough, this is pretty much Diablo in 3D (there's only one town) but equally as truthful is that there is no better ARPG on a handheld. The only problem I can see with the RPG genre is that there isn't much on the horizon. Tales of Eternia and Gagharv Trilogy are uncertain US releases, and FF7: Crisis Core along with Ys VI will take a while to come out.

The PSP has no problem in the racing department however. 3 racers and 1 car combat game for launch is down right amazing, especially when considering that all those games are actually very good. Wipeout Pure and Ridge Racers, canned as they may be, are a lot of fun on the road while NFSU:R and Twisted Metal have their own niches that they need to fill. As for the future line-up, everything from GTA to GT4 is included. A good estimate makes me believe that there are at least 40 racers coming out for the PSP.

Lumines and Metal Gear: Acid each represents their own genre, puzzlers and strategy. Lumines is widely praised as the best PSP game and MG:A is all over the map with reviews, ranging from people who love its stealth/strategy combination to people who detest it's steep learning curve.

When looking at each genre individually though, one might wonder what's so great about the PSP anyway? Who needs 6 sports games and 4 car games? The answer to that question is, people. People need to see something like a damn decent racing game or a real simulation game on a handheld. And scrutinizing every game at launch is not the idea, rather, taking it as a whole. With Darkstalkers, Ridge Racers, Untold Legends, Lumines, THUG2, Twisted Metal, etc. you have just about every genre represented by good to superb games. Something that the DS can't pride itself with and that the GBA hasn't been getting in a while. Of course, looking back upon this no one will want to buy Untold Legends when there'll be games scoring 90%+ on Gamerankings, but when looked upon from our standpoint, not only are games like Untold Legends perfect for launch but they represent genres that are absent on the DS and GBA (or have been in the last few months).

The PSP also launched with a full online line-up including the craptacular NBA and the superb Twisted Metal. The PSP is the first console to launch with online and the first handheld to make serious use of it's WiFi capabilities, including Xlink Kai tunneling service and regular Ad-Hoc/Infrastructure modes. Better yet plenty of good games make use of this.

The PSP's future looks equally as bright as it's launch, and it ... well... actually looks like something. There are many good games scheduled for release between now and the summer, some of which are heading for blockbuster status (Coded Arms is becoming the Halo of handhelds). Better yet, there is VISUAL or OFFICIAL evidence that these games actually exist. In between now and summer '05 the only games that have no pictures are GTA and Midnight Club 3. Much better, dare I say, than the DS' 200 titles out of which 195 are still 8 months to 2 years away or simply don't exist as more than titles.

Alas, nothing is perfect. Looking at the PSP's line-up, it's clear that someone went berserk with racing titles. It's quite annoying. Furthermore, there's no nice way of saying this, but for those looking for originality, you can look the other way. The PSP is a very standard machine... but as the DS proved, originality doesn't count for squat when you can't use it to make good games, something the PSP has a-plenty as of now.

I would also like to see a more console-like experience. The "revolution" isn't in control or rectal sensors for better force feedback, it's about getting a HUGE RPG or an enticing action game on the road and not just "portable" games that act like schizophrenic patients and must be played in short bursts. The PSP is clearly heading in the right direction with Ridge Racers career mode, GT4, and Untold Legends but the road is very, very long.

Value: 2/10

To be truly unbiased I have to be brutally honest: The PSP has almost no redeeming value (no pun intended) as far as costs go. Games retail at $40 and the unit is a whopping $250. Yes, you get a memory stick, Spiderman 2 (for the 1st 1 million), headphones, and carrying case but that doesn't much matter due to the screen's dead pixels. I should not have to pose the question of returning a $250 product a mere 4 hours after purchasing it, as much as that might not be Sony's fault.

True, the PSP can do many things, but most of them look really good on paper and on a message board, but are total failures when put to true use. For example, UMD movies are never likely to get off the ground, even if Sony does own half-the-industry and has a few other houses under their belt. As for UMD music, it's already dead.

If there is one thing that the PSP does do to deserve the extra point is that it features LOOOOOOOOOOOONG games. Ridge Racers and Wipeout will tax your nerves until you finish them, unlike Feel the Magic XX/XY or Warioware which are both 4-5 hour games.

Overall: 7/10

The PSP promised a revolution and I just wished it would've delivered a bit better. The handheld has a lot of games, and is very powerful but it will take a good while until Sony can truly proclaim that you're taking your PS2 with you on the road. In order for that to really happens, games on handhelds must be epic.

Sony is the only company interested in doing that, but, for now, they haven't succeeded.


Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 03/25/05


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