Consoul's Blog Consoul Games: April 2005

Friday, April 29, 2005

Australian PSP Launch Details

Just a quick post to mention that Sony Computer Entertainment Australia have finally announced an official launch date and price for the PSP. From the 1st of September 2005 (which is also the Euro launch date), the so-called "PSP value pack" (which includes the PSP and soft-case, 32MB memory stick duo, headphones with remote, AC adaptor, wrist strap, cleaning cloth and non-interactive demo UMD) will be available in Australia for AU$429.95. The standalone (non value-pack) PSP will not be available down under.

This announcement places the PSP at more than twice the price of Nintendo's DS. More significantly, it means that Australians can import PSP's more cheaply right now than they will eventually be able to buy them locally. Given that a PSP bought anywhere in the world can play games from anywhere else in the world, the region coding concerns that usually prevent casual gamers from importing consoles are not an issue for the PSP.

You can read SCE Australia's official press release here.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Bleach - Heat the Soul

Bleach is PSP's first 3D fighting title.
Is it to dye for? Or just a whitewash?

Fighting games and handhelds traditionally don't mix. That's not to say they haven't been done, they just haven't been very successful in the past. Handhelds simply haven't had the power or screens to do the fighter genre justice, and the fact that handheld gaming hasn't been readily conducive to multi-player gaming hasn't helped either.

Of course, things are changing rapidly in the handheld scene, and genres once bound to the loungeroom, like racing, fighting and first-person shooters are starting to go walkabout. Sure, the GameBoy Advance tackled all of these, but let's not kid ourselves, none of the GBA renditions could hold a candle to their home console counterparts. Handheld gaming is only now emerging from the shadow of the home console, becoming a truly comparable portable experience, rather than a poor imitation. (Well, until the next-gen hits at least...)

Capcom's PSP launch title, Darkstalkers Chronicle: The Chaos Tower (aka Vampire Chronicle in Japan) was PSP's first fighting game. While it was a well executed distillation of Street Fighter's little-sister franchise, it failed to really excite the public. As a port of a decade-old 2D arcade fighter, it just didn't have mainstream appeal.

While the PSP community eagerly awaits the announcement of Tekken PSP (or something along those lines), SCE have jumped on a hotly contested game licence to bring the first 3D fighter to the PSP's screen. Bleach - Heat the Soul is the first game based on Tite Kubo's popular Bleach manga series. The Bleach manga is now being serialized in English in Shonen Jump magazine. (If you're interested you can read some online here.) To be more accurate, the Bleach game is actually based on the anime, which is based on the manga. More on that distinction later. Currently only available in Japan, the chances of a wider release for Bleach on PSP probably hinge on the anime's success in western markets.

Bleach is the story of Ichigo Kurasaki, a 15 year old japanese schoolboy with orange hair (presumably explaining the title) who can see ghosts. Thanks to an encounter with a mysterious girl named Rukia, Ichigo gains Shinigami (Death God) powers, and protects the innocent by fighting off corrupted souls called Hollows. Supernatural, comedic and romantic hijinks ensue.
Disclaimer: I freely confess I am not a Bleach fan. That's not to say I dislike it, I just haven't been exposed to enough of it to have any extensive knowledge or appreciation of it.

Considering this is the first attempt at a 3D fighter on PSP, Bleach certainly looks very impressive. The detailed screen-filling characters are all cel-shaded, making them visually consistent with the anime. The look is reminiscent of the Naruto games on Gamecube (or the recent DBZ games on PS2), though the outlining is perhaps not as solid. The environments are non-interactive rectangular 3D arenas that feature invisible, or otherwise improbable walls (you can't fight beyond those witch's hats!) and they sport a decent amount of background detail as well as some occasional fog and lighting effects. The dynamic camera and variety of physical, supernatural and weapon-based attacks ensure that the game stays eye-catching. On the whole, it's bright, good-looking and faithful to the look of the anime. This Bleach is colour-friendly.

The framerate isn't perfect, but it doesn't hamper play either. The intro sequence looks great, and apparently features some new animation not in the anime's intro. Story mode is fleshed out by mostly static anime cutscenes between stages, voiced by the original anime cast (all in japanese, with japanese subtitles). The music is surprisingly good, both in-game and during cutscenes.

No-one will confuse Bleach with a hardcore fighting game. It's unashamedly lightweight, featuring about 30 simple combos per character. Nothing tricky whatsoever. The button layout features two attack buttons, one jump button and a special button, plus the left trigger allows side-running dodges. Filling up the power gauge allows execution of a special move. Most characters have only one special move, and all but one have some kind of ranged attack. The mechanics are very accessible. Beginners will be chaining combos in no time, but fighting game veterans will be left wanting more depth. Match progression is based on a slight variation on the usual best-of-three rounds system. Combatants begin a match with two power bars. Losing one results in a "crush". The battle then continues, with the winner of the first bout still on their first power bar, retaining any remaining health left. Knock off both your opponent's power bars to "break-out" to the next stage.

Modes include Story mode, VS CPU, Survival, Time Attack and Soul Versus (the wireless Ad Hoc 2 player mode). Unfortunately, I haven't been able to try out multiplayer. Being able to fight human opponents wirelessly would certainly add a great deal to this game's appeal. Bleach also has an Appendix featuring unlockable extras, such as artwork galleries, music, sound and voice archives, and a theatre mode featuring TV commercials and the intro and end-credit movies. The unlockables are driven by the Appendix's card shop. Playing in the main modes earns points toward the purchase of cards (identical to the japanese Bleach collectible game cards) from the shop. Collecting more cards unlocks more extras, including one extra character, his story mode, and eventually a bonus Arkanoid-style mini-game that supports two players on one PSP.

Unfortunately Bleach suffers from a number of issues that prevent it from reaching its potential. First and foremost is the character roster. You start with five characters selectable. There's only one more to unlock. Six characters is not nearly enough. Given that the game is based on the anime (which is far behind the manga in terms of story progression), it could be argued that there simply weren't enough other developed characters in the anime to justify inclusion in the game. That's not really a believable excuse though, as there are glaring omissions, like characters in the intro sequence that aren't playable in the game. The characters included are all certainly distinctive, but the game mechanics don't offer enough depth to make the small roster feel sufficient. Each character has only the mandatory two outfits (1P&2P) and there's only half a dozen arenas in the game. Characters don't have ending movies, they only have a final cutscene and some voice-over on the credits. It smacks of being rushed onto the market. The basics are there, but more development time was needed to fill out the content.

Load times are also disappointing, with a 20 second load between stages. On a home console, a 20 second load feels long. On a handheld, it feels even longer. The game is import-friendly, with all the menus in English, but story mode's (skippable) japanese cutscenes will be lost on many. If you have no familiarity with the Bleach manga/anime, you'll have no idea what's going on.

If on the other hand you are a Bleach fan, you'll get a lot more out of this game than I did. Much like the first Naruto game which only featured a handful of characters, I'd say there's a strong likelihood that this game is paving the way for further Bleach games that will address the shortcomings of this one. PSP's first 3D fighter shows enormous promise for the future of the genre on handhelds, but lets the potential slip through its fingers.

Bleach may appear stainless on the surface, but it isn't long before it's dark roots start showing.


Watch the Bleach - Heat The Soul promo video here.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Unlocking PSP's future

The general perception of PSP games right now is that they look pretty good. Pretty damn good. You probably wouldn't be surprised if I told you that PSP games are going to look considerably better in the future. It stands to reason that over time, games look better and better across a console's lifespan as developers become more accustomed to the hardware and learn to exploit it more effectively. The first-generation games might put just as much strain on the system as the late-generation games, but the tangible improvements come from much more efficient coding. The console's capabilities don't improve, only the software does. Such is the case with all consoles.

What if I told you that PSP was different? What if I told you that as well as enjoying the benefits of steadily improving software development, the PSP would, at some stage in the future (and without any modification), become capable of a hardware performance increase of fifty percent? That would be somewhat more surprising, wouldn't it?

Well, that's what I'm telling you. At this year's busy GDC (Game Developers Conference) in San Francisco, lots of companies gave lots of presentations. On Friday the 11th of March, between midday and 1pm, Sony Computer Entertainment America staged four different presentations simultaneously. Mark DeLoura, SCEA's manager of developer relations, delivered one of them: a rather dry and technical presentation called "PSP Advanced Software Overview". It seems that with so many talks vying for attention, this particular presentation may have slipped under the radar of the mainstream gaming press. What was revealed in that presentation however, is very significant.

DeLoura explained that the PSP's CPU and bus have software-configurable clockspeeds. The CPU core is currently locked to a maximum clockspeed of 222MHz, and the bus (typically operating at half the CPU speed) is locked to a top speed of 111Mhz. The GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) operates at bus speed, in other words, up to the 111MHz cap. The advantage of having configurable clockspeeds in a portable device is that power consumption can be controlled by adjusting the clockspeed to the demands of the software at any given moment. When the PSP is rendering complex in-game graphics at around 222MHz it will necessarily chew up more power than it would need to when displaying a simple menu screen running at say 5MHz.

The hardware specifications of the PSP were released last year. Since then it's been known that the PSP CPU's top clockspeed is 333MHz and the bus and GPU's top speed is 166MHz. See what's going on? Sony have deliberately locked the PSP's operating speed at exactly two-thirds of it's actual potential. They have an extra fifty percent of it's current performance ability simply waiting in reserve to be unleashed at a later date.

As I pointed out in my PSP Lowdown back in January, the graphical performance exhibited in PSP's launch titles looks like it's somewhere between PSone and PS2 standard. Now I understand why. The PS2's Emotion Engine (CPU) runs at 294.912MHz and it's Graphics Synthesizer (GPU) runs at 147.456MHz. While the PSP is clearly a more powerful device on paper, it's currently being restricted to a sub-PS2 standard of performance.

Of course, this begs the question: why? Why would Sony choose to cripple their own hardware? Well, the most obvious answer is that they needed to maintain an acceptable battery life. In the lead up to PSP's debut, it's battery duration was often quoted as it's single biggest potential problem. Had they launched the PSP with games running at a fully unlocked 333Mhz, the battery could have been dead in less than two hours. That just wouldn't do. Through capping the PSP's clockspeed (and enforcing other power-saving guidelines) Sony have achieved a respectable 4-6 hours of gameplay from a single charge. It now seems apparent that Sony have actually delivered a portable console whose capabilities are too advanced for current battery technology. Once that technology improves, it seems inevitable that Sony will release a higher capacity battery and unlock PSP's full potential.

The current performance cap may have other benefits in the long run. Rather than letting developers wastefully chew up the whole of PSP's hardware capability from the get-go with inefficient code, the restrictions essentially force them to code more efficiently from the beginning. Consequently, when the ceiling is eventually lifted, the developers will be ready to put the extra power to good use.

It has been theorized that the clockspeed cap is in the PSP's firmware, and will be removed by a firmware update. A developer at the gaming-age forums recently disclosed that this isn't the case. The restriction is actually being imposed at the game development stage, by way of limits in Sony's PSP libraries. The PSP devkits allow developers to constantly modify the CPU clockspeed settings from anywhere between 1 and 333MHz (or 0.5-166Mhz for the GPU and bus), but the current software libraries simply won't go above 222MHz (or 111Mhz for GPU and bus).

Initially restricting certain features of a console is not as uncommon as you might expect. As an example, the PS2 was restricted from displaying progressive scan for many years, though usually such restrictions are handled by the TRC process, not by a software restriction. The TRC (Technical Requirement Check) is the console manufacturer's checklist that games must pass before being published. Any developers who try to hack the current PSP libraries to exceed the clockspeed limits will undoubtedly have their games rejected at the TRC stage. Sony probably felt it would be easier to simply restrict the libraries than to ask the developers politely not to go above 222Mhz, and have to later issue a wave of TRC rejections. Sony will provide developers with new software libraries when they are ready to remove the restrictions. Games developed after that will be free to exploit all of the PSP's processing power. Ridge Racers' associate producer Hideo Teramoto recently confirmed in an Edge magazine interview that unlike the underclocked Ridge Racers, Namco will release PSP games in future that run at 333MHz.

When the time comes, consumers won't need to do anything. No firmware update should be required. Old games won't run any faster than they ever did, because the restrictions are in the game software, not in the PSP itself. The new games will simply push PSPs harder than ever before. Sony will have much improved high-capacity batteries on the market by then, but you won't actually need to buy one. The latest and greatest games will run on your old battery. Of course, the speed at which they'll drain your old battery should be incentive enough for you to rush out and buy a new one.

The tangible difference in the games should be very noticeable. Example: Right now, the PSP has a maximum fillrate of 444 Mpixels/sec. After the restrictions are lifted that will become 664 Mpixels/sec. Games will be able to feature more complex models with higher polygon-counts, more fluid frame-rates, better physics, you name it. We are talking about an across-the-board fifty percent performance increase after all. PSP's hardware supremacy over the PS2 should become evident. It's even possible that when the new battery is released, the PSP's fourth screen brightness setting (uber-blinding strength; currently only selectable when the PSP is plugged into mains power), will be available all the time.
PSP's future certainly looks bright.