updated 03:30 am EST, Thu January 27, 2011
Sony unveils NGP to take on iPod touch
Sony at its special event on Thursday leapt back into mobile gaming with the Next Generation Portable. The soon-to-come PSP2 promises a PS3-level experience with a much faster, quad-core ARM Cortex-A9 processor and a multi-core PowerVR SGX543MP4 graphics chip four times faster than seen before. It centers on a massive five-inch, 960x544 OLED screen that promises a much larger experience than on a smartphone.
The handheld is also the first portable console to have a built-in 3G modem and, if players want, gives them an always-on Internet connection for multiplayer or downloading content when not near 802.11n Wi-Fi. GPS is onboard as well. A special app, Near, will let users see what other gamers are currently playing or saying, such as on a train; it should let them join in or download a game they don't yet have. It can even show the most popular game in an area.
LiveArea, the new main interface, completely overhauls the experience and provides both live updates from friends as well as quick access to games, the store, trophies and a web browser.
Control is much broader and brings dual analog sticks with real tilt as well as both a touchscreen and a backside, two-finger multi-touch pad. The touchpad is the same five inches across as the LCD and gives games a one-for-one map of what's happening onscreen. A Sixaxis equivalent with a gyroscope and accelerometer lets players control games by moving and tilting the system itself.
Both front and back cameras are onboard and also raise possibilities of camera-based gaming and video chat. The game system hopes to strike a balance between the original PSP's physical media and the PSP Go's downloads with an option of a new, memory card based format for storage. Games that come on the new card will still have free write space and can save downloadable extras or game saves. Sony noted that the inherently growing capacity of flash memory meant that future games could have more content or more room, something which hadn't been possible with past physical games.
Sony promised a sweeping range of high-profile game series additions from the start, including Hot Shots Golf, Little Big Planet, Resistance, Wipeout and Uncharted. The company also noted that Activision's Call of Duty series would eventually reach the platform, while Konami, Sega and Epic Games showed technology demos of Metal Gear Solid 4, Yakuza 4 and Epic Citadel that proved PS3-quality graphics could work on the NGP, albeit in MGS4's case at a reduced 20FPS in current form.
Downloadable PSP games will still work, as will those from PlayStation Suite, the new cross-platform environment for PS1 games.
The game system is due to ship to at least Japan in time for the holidays and should get many more details, including launch games, at E3 in June. A US date hasn't been given out, but the original PSP reached the US a few months afterwards.
The NGP represents a major leap forward for Sony and a possible recovery of its handheld gaming business, which collapsed rapidly as the iPod touch grew in popularity. SCEI president Kaz Hirai in presenting the NGP acknowledged a "radical change" in the gaming market since 2005 that was triggered largely by the iPhone and iPod; casual gaming was now an option on a smartphone, he said.
In the past year, the company has lost enough share to Apple that it began running anti-iPhone ads to argue that the touch-only platform couldn't provide a deep gaming experience. PSP-level graphics weren't possible on a phone at the time the first PSP arrived, Hirai said on Thursday to justify the lack of development.
Including 3G is a potential major edge for the new console and could eliminate one of the most common gaps in the experience for iPod touch and Nintendo DSi owners, who can't assume they have Internet access and are excluded from many location-based apps. Questions have been raised as to how much 3G will cost as the size of game downloads and the bandwidth needed for multiplayer make it unlikely that service will be given away for free and thus affordable for younger players. Many iPhone owners often use theirs for gaming as it consolidates gaming and cellphone calls into a single device.