The message from Sony's Gamescom 2012 press conference couldn't have been clearer: the company is taking Vita seriously. With a new Media Molecule IP, some of PlayStation's biggest franchises, and the arrival of PlayStation Plus and PSOne classics, much of Sony's 80 minutes on stage was devoted to its ailing handheld. Will it be enough to revive Vita's fortunes?
Media Molecule's Tearaway was the highlight, with studio co-founder Alex Evans on stage to reveal the company's first new IP since LittleBigPlanet. It's a 3D adventure starring Iota, a cartoony figure with an envelope for a head who has a message for you, but is stuck in his papery world. Helping him out of his world and into yours is the aim, a simple goal that lays the foundations for inventive uses of Vita's unique features. Rear touch featured heavily, with rhythmic taps on the back panel increasing airtime from trampoline-like jump pads, and stabs replicated on the Vita's screen, human fingers poking through the ground to clear enemies. It looks delightful, and has clearly been designed with Vita's feature-set in mind - AR was also shown off to good effect, the demo closing with the camera pushing up and out of Iota's world and into the Gamescom audience, captured by the Vita's rear camera.
Then came Killzone Mercenary, a Vita exclusive developed by Guerrilla Games using the same engine that powered Killzone 3. However, it seemed that the only justification for SCEE president Jim Ryan's claim that this was "an FPS that could simply not exist on any other platform" was a heavy emphasis on touchscreen melee kills. Guerrilla's hand could certainly be seen in the visuals, the quality of which was put into stark context when Ryan closed the show with a first look at Call Of Duty: Black Ops Declassified.
At E3, Sony had only shown a logo for Call Of Duty's Vita debut, and it seemed the company was trying to get away with it again when Ryan briefly discussed the game partway through his presentation. And having seen it running at last, perhaps that might have been the better option. Looking disctinctly rough around the edges for a game due in November, Declassified's multiplayer is capped at 4v4, and it's being developed by Nihilistic Software, whose last game was Vita's original great shooter hope, Resistance: Burning Skies, and we all know how that went. Despite Ryan's claim that the multiplayer would feature new maps designed from the ground up for Vita, the trailer leant heavily on Black Ops' Nuketown, a tiny map presumably highlighted to offset disappointment at the meagre online player count.
A look at Assassin's Creed Liberation was more positive, though concerns over crowbarred control options remain after heavy emphasis on touchscreen combat and a blink-and-you'll-miss-it shot of protagonist Aveline riding on the back of a crocodile. It's in development at Ubisoft Sofia, and while there's no disputing that both Liberation and Declassified will be two of the biggest names on the Vita shelves at Christmas, neither dispel the notion that Sony's new handheld is repeating the same mistakes as its predecessor, playing host to cut-down versions of major IP farmed out to B-teams.
There was more LittleBigPlanet Vita, with Pete Smith - the man who revealed that Sony lost a potential Limbo exclusive because it wanted the IP - showing off Cross-Controller, using the Vita to play through a specially designed level on PS3, with the Vita showing objects and traps that are invisible on the big screen.
CrossBuy - where buying a game on Vita nets you a copy of the PS3 game, and vice versa - has previously been reserved for downloadable games like Motorstorm RC and Sound Shapes, but is now to be offered on full retail games. PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale will lead the charge upon its release in November, with Sly Cooper: Thieves In Time and Ratchet & Clank Q-Force to follow. The PlayStation Plus subscription service, whose appeal to PS3 owners will be further boosted next month with a free download of Red Dead Redemption, was also confirmed for Vita.
A firmware update due on August 28 will finally bring support for PSOne classics on Vita, though it seems that compatibility will be restricted similar to current PSP support. The update will also bring Cross-Controller implementation and a host of minor tweaks including, at last, the option to control the home screen using buttons as well as the touchscreen.
It was a much, much better showing than Vita got at E3, and even though that's a low bar to clear Sony deserves praise for giving its ailing handheld the support it deserves - and one assumes there's more on the way, too, with its plans for Vita's Japanese recovery coming next month at the Tokyo Game Show. PS3 was hardly ignored, either, with two new announcements from Sony's Japan Studio and the Move-controlled Until Dawn. There was no Vita price-cut, despite predictions, Sony's hardware announcements limited to Black Ops, LBP and PS All-Stars bundles, with the company seemingly convinced that its efforts on the software side will cement its handheld's place as what Ryan described as "one of the hottest items this Christmas". Internally, however, there is surely recognition that £200-plus is a lot to ask for a dedicated handheld in the current economic climate, and should Vita's fortunes fail to be revived by software, price will have to be next.