Sony's press conference kicked off with a bunch of unnecessary dubstep, but once we got past the opening silliness, the games kicked off with a bang. The first one to make an impression was Beyond: Two Souls. Coming from Quantic Dream, the company behind Heavy Rain, the footage on display looked more like a CG animated movie than a video game.
It follows the adventures of a heroine named Jodie Holmes (played by actress Ellen Page). We didn't really know what was happening at first because Holmes was sitting silently while a police officer was trying to elicit information from her. Oddly, for a game where they started the announcement by naming the voice actress, the character said nothing for a few minutes. This was presumably to highlight the visual depth of the faces and the emotional reaction.
Shortly thereafter, the officer left the room, and we saw what looked like a SWAT-style team enter the building. It seemed they were looking for Holmes. Without knowing too many details, the video screen shifted into a montage of game clips that appeared to give it a strong survival horror bent as it explores a decade and a half in the main character's life. It's difficult to say much about the quality of the story, but Beyond is definitely pretty. Given the pedigree of the team, it's definitely one to note.
Going from dramatic survival horror to all-out action, Sony brought out six players to show off PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale. A highlight was PlayStation 3 versus PS Vita cross-play. Four of the players were playing PlayStation All-Stars on PS3, with the other two on the PS Vita. Gameplay featured characters we already know: Fat Princess, a Helghast soldier, Kratos, Parappa the Rappa, Sly Cooper and Sweet Tooth.
Watching the players battle it out, PlayStation All-Stars was strongly reminiscent of Super Smash Bros. The idea may not be the most original, but the implementation appeared to be solid and smooth. Looking at the video screens, the cross-play was apparently seamless, with the PS Vita players on equal footing alongside the PS3 players.
Of course, the big news was the announce of two new playable characters for PlayStation All-Stars: Nathan Drake and BioShock's Big Daddy. Oh, yes indeed.
Cross-play was also announced for Little Big Planet 2 via DLC. The upcoming DLC will allow a second player using a PS Vita to play alongside someone with a PS3 controller on the PS3 game. You'll see the game on the TV screen while at the same time have a second display on the PS Vita.
Sony took a break from games at this point to highlight the success of its PS+ subscription program. Calling it one of the best things they've ever done, the company talked up the improvements, including the inclusion of more full-version PS3 games for PS+ subscribers. In the next month, Infamous 2, Little Big Planet 2 and Saints Row 2 will all be available to PS+ members. Sony then announced that everyone in the audience would be getting a free, one-year subscription to PS+. Giving it to the press is a good way to get the word out about your service.
On the non-gaming side, entertainment options on the PS Vita are getting expanded, with Hulu Plus and Sony's own free movie service, Crackle, coming to PS Vita. Also new to PS Vita are PSone classics like Tomb Raider and Final Fantasy. To that, we say, "It's about time." The PSone classics on the PSP were a boon to that system.
Wrapping up this segment of PS Vita announcements, Sony confirmed that Black Ops: Declassified would be coming to the PS Vita this holiday season.
Back to the big games, the presentation shifted to Assassin's Creed. According to Sony, Ubisoft has become a close partner, and the two are working together to bring exclusive content to PS3 and PS Vita owners. To highlight this, the next video on the screen was Assassin's Creed III: Liberation. This is the PS Vita version of Assassin's Creed III that tells a side story in the world of the main game. Players who own both Liberation for PS Vita and Assassin's Creed III for PS3 will be able to link the two to unlock a series of digital goodies.
In conjunction with the game release this fall, Sony will also be launching a special edition PS Vita bundle. The bundle will include a white PS Vita (WiFi edition), a 4GB memory card and Assassin's Creed III: Liberation.
After seeing Liberation, we got our first look at the Caribbean Sea in Assassin's Creed III. Branching out from the previous land-based demos, this one started with Connor walking around the deck of a sailing ship before taking the wheel and controlling the ship. Combat happens in real time, forcing you to maneuver to avoid enemy vessels. One of the key points is that the camera is always located behind Connor. Sure, you can look left and right, but you don't get a bird's-eye view. It gives the sea-based combat a very visceral look. Impressive would be an apt word to use here.
Just like the PS Vita, there is also a PS3 Assassin's Creed III bundle. This one has a black PS3 slim (white would have been awesome, but it's not to be), Assassin's Creed III and exclusive DLC for the game. No word on if the DLC is exclusive to this bundle or simply exclusive to the PS3.
Showing Ubisoft some more love, Sony's presentation moved on to Far Cry 3, complete with four player co-op. Watching it unfold on four separate screens was nice, but aside from the co-op play, there wasn't too much new in the demo. It's a lush tropical island, lots of shooting and big explosions. If the gameplay wasn't a surprise, the announcement of the map editor was. Customization is always a plus, so this is a very good thing. Sony also announced PS3-exclusive DLC for Far Cry 3.
With the multiple exclusive DLC mentions, it's hard not to wonder if Sony feels a bit put out by the longstanding timed exclusives held by Microsoft for Activison's Call of Duty franchise. Reaching out to Ubisoft is a smart competitive move, even if we hate the idea of console-exclusive DLC as gamers. Just because we can understand why it's done doesn't mean it's not anti-consumer.
Speaking of moves, when players think of the PS Move, the first thing to come to mind is usually motion controls. Sony wants you to start thinking of it as an augmented reality experience via Wonderbook. The big announce was J.K. Rowling's Book of Spells. No, the Harry Potter author wasn't there in person, but the game was available for a video demo. Using the physical storybook with the PS Move, wizarding spells come to life on the TV screen.
The book of spells is held by the player, while the PS Move is used as a magic wand. Waving the wand for the demo, a small dragon escaped from the player's book and lit it on fire. Since the player didn't know a water spell, the fire had to be put out by patting it down with bare hands. After wiping off the virtual soot, a small diorama told a story.
The spells you can learn are varied, though the demo showed the player learning a fire spell. After learning the basics, she was able to open a virtual door in the book to learn the incantation. With incantation down, it was time to master the gesture. Knowing both, the spell was hers to command. Having mastered the fire spell, it was time to use it to eliminate paper monsters.
Watching the demo, we were struck by how much the game seemed to capture the essence of the Harry Potter world as imagined by a child. The critical side of us says that it's only for a scripted demo, but if the final product can operate as smoothly as this demo, it's going to be a must-have for Potter fans. Forget games like Infamous and Killzone; Book of Spells has the potential to be a system seller to an entirely new segment of t he population.
On the mobile front, Sony made its foray into the Android ecosystem with the Xperia Play, but at least in the United States, the Xperia Play was more than underwhelming. Attempting to resolve that issue, Sony created the PlayStation Suite set of developer tools. Today, they announced HTC as the first third-party hardware manufacturer approved to create PlayStation-Certified Android devices.
After the HTC announce, Sony also announced that the name of PlayStation Suite had changed. Going forward, it will now be known as PlayStation Mobile.
With time winding down, Sony still had two titles left to demo. The first of the last was God of War: Ascension. Developed by Sony Santa Monica, the demo kicked off with an ominous quote by Kratos, "I have paid the price for my ambition." As expected, the gameplay on display was gorgeous. Visually bright and moving fluidly, we saw Kratos battling it out against a large pig-like monster with horns. The fight occurred on a wooden dock, with cliffs and rough seas out in the distance, all cast in the glow of the setting sun at dusk.
After defeating the monster, a Kraken destroyed a ship, sending part of it flying to shore. This eliminated part of the docks, and Kratos used the wreckage to climb up to the next level. Up above, he quickly dispatched a few minor enemies before fending off the tentacles of the Kraken. There's no time for a breather, as it was time to battle a magical suit of flame armor that was twice the size of Kratos. With him down, our hero ran through a cavern to the next building on the docks and another beast.
This time, it was an elephant that walked and fought like a man. More than four times the size of Kratos, he put up a good fight, though Kratos used a set of chains to his advantage. After beating down the beast, the game went into a gruesome (and bloody) kill animation that drove the crowd wild. If that wasn't enough, Kratos dove toward the Kraken with blades drawn before the video faded out and announced the March 12, 2013, release date.
Sony saved the best demo for last, starting off with a black screen and nothing but the voices of a man and a girl, presumably running away from something. Suddenly, a door slams shut and the video appeared. It was Joel and Ellie and The Last of Us. The postapocalyptic game from Naughty Dog, The Last of Us follows the two through the ruins of America, in a future where civilization has suffered from a deadly fungal plague and civilization lies in disarray.
We saw the two exploring what looked like a modern city that has been flooded and overgrown with vegetation. Entering a dilapidated hotel, the dirt and grime from years of disuse is obvious. The visual designers did an excellent job of creating an environment that looks as if it were fancy at one point, before falling into disrepair. Hearing voices, it's quickly obvious the two of you aren't alone. Joel takes out one guard using stealth, but the next spots him. The gun battle is measured and focused, with cover playing a heavy role.
In the next room, a bad guy gets the drop on Joel, and the game switches to melee controls. Getting the best of his opponent Joel holds him as a human shield. Another fight ensues, and Ellie proves she's not just along for the ride. In the middle of the action, she throws a brick at your opponent's head, dropping him in mid-swing. Finally, we have a video game companion who does more than just scream for help.
The final sequence saw Joel light an enemy on fire with a Molotov cocktail before getting into a final melee battle with yet another opponent. Ellie jumped in with a direct assist this time, and the demo ended. While Book of Spells may have been the most innovative part of the Sony press conference, The Last of Us was certainly the highlight for any core gamers in the audience.
Sony wrapped its press conference by repeating the motto, "Never stop playing." We agree with that thought 100 percent. Now, we just have to wait for the games.