Handheld on a High: Did Sony Just Save PS Vita

What a difference an hour makes. Prior to Sony's Gamescom press conference, which it delivered in Cologne on Tuesday evening, PlayStation Vita was a dead man walking, spurned by consumers, shunned by third-parties and increasingly mourned by those of us that had once but feared for Vita's future.

And then, at 7:30pm, as the new trailer for Naughty Dog's The Last Of Us faded from view, the hall, and social media, was buzzing with excitement for Sony's handheld after a spectacular series of headline-grabbing announcements and hard-hitting stage demos.

Let's not get carried away. A confident presentation, however impressive, won't suddenly inspire gamers in their millions to beat down the doors of the nearest HMV and grab a Vita, sweeping armfuls of expensive games into a basket on the way to the nearest till.

But what does matter is perception. Existing Vita owners and prospective ones want to feel hyped about the platform and where it's heading. Since the system launched earlier this year, Sony has done a pretty rubbish job of that, nowhere more damagingly than at E3 where, on the grandest stage of all, Vita barely featured.

It's a bit like top level football. A big team goes through a poor patch of form and the next thing you know, commentators and fans are writing off their chances and calling for heads to roll. One massive, inspiring victory in a key match later and all is forgotten.

It’s illogical, but that's humans for you. And after Sony's Gamescom win, Vita is back in favour and climbing back up the league of great expectations. The challenge now is to keep up the momentum and convince us the portable is worth our time and money. Is it?

Key to the success of the conference was how much new stuff Sony had to announce – far more even than E3, which must surely be a first for the European event. It's tough to pick a star of the show, but I'm going with Tearaway, LittleBigPlanet creator Media Molecule's new, exclusive Vita adventure.

Its cartoon paper world drew appreciative "ooh!"s and "aah!"s from the audience at first. But when the demo revealed the player's fingers appearing 'in' the game world there were gasps all round. Magic.

Hardcore gamers, meanwhile, were treated to the first showings of two FPS powerhouses: Killzone: Mercenary and Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified. Neither, it should be stressed, is being developed by its original maker – Guerrilla and Treyarch respectively – but with Vita sold on its ability to accommodate great shooters and after the disappointment of Resistance: Retribution, both titles offer the tantalising prospect of better things to come.

A big aspect of Vita that's been desperately underplayed 'til now is its connectivity with PS3. Sony tackled this head-on in Germany, announcing Cross Buy and delivering a stunning demo of Cross Play in action.

The former means, for first-party titles first (and hopefully those from other publishers later, if they've any sense), if you buy a game that can be played across PS3 and Vita on one platform, you get the other free. A terrific initiative and an important one – no-one, after all, buys a game twice.

The latter, meanwhile, is what happens when Vita is used in conjunction with PS3, either as a controller, a 'second screen', or in multiplayer games against PS3 players. The standout demo of the entire conference was LittleBigPlanet 2 which, via a downloadable update, enables Vita to be used to enhance the experience in amazing ways.

Ways, more to the point, that flick two-fingers at Nintendo, offering a Wii U-like experience months before that console launches, with these features presented more impressively than anything the House of Mario has managed so far.

On top of that, new hardware bundles were announced, new app-style PlayStation Mobile games compatible with Vita (in an attempt to stave of the massive threat of iOS and Android), there was confirmation of PSOne classic re-releases (including FFVII), and news came of PS Plus for the handheld, free to existing PS3 subscribers.

The major missing piece of the puzzle now is price. It doesn't look as though Sony is ready to cut hardware or software yet, but both will become a necessity far sooner than the company wishes to admit – as Nintendo discovered last year, slashing a third off the price of 3DS five months after launch.

Nevertheless, the message from Sony's strong showing this week is clear enough. Vita, it insists, is here to stay, can do things no other gaming platform can, and has big games we'll want to play on the way.

Which just leaves the biggest question of all: is all of this enough to make you go out and buy one?


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