Busy times on Planet PlayStation with the PS3 doing well, and new additions to the family coming soon in the shape of the PSP2/NGP, the Xperia Play and even rumours of a Sony tablet doing the rounds.
I've been lucky enough to have a go on the new Sony Ericsson Xperia Play, which hopes to bridge the gap between mobile phone and portable console with even more success than the iPhone juggernaut. We've wanted a PlayStation phone for years, waiting for so long, sifting through rumours and leaked documents, but to no avail. Then we pretty much forgot about it when other mobile phone handsets became real gaming platform presences.
So, is the Xperia Play too late to the party? Can you even get it anyway if you're already locked into a gazillion month contract for your current smartphone? Read on to find out if you should be interested.
First up, an update on the facts. The list of mobile carriers has now increased to support all the major networks from launch day: Orange, T-Mobile, Vodafone, O2, Three and Virgin are all good to go. The phone will be released in April in the UK, a month after the US launch. Fingers crossed we don't get bumped back to allocate stock to the US.
You're looking at an estimated £40 per month contract to cover the high costs of the phone which will also be available without a contract, however the price is still unconfirmed, with rumours putting it between £420 and £540. We also hear that one of the networks is looking into the feasibility of a £30 per month contract. Some networks might throw in the new charger/alarm clock stand to sweeten the deal.
There will only be one model at launch, which will have 400MB of memory and an 8GB microSD card included in the box, although it will support cards up to 32GB. The device uses Google's Android 2.3 Gingerbread operating system. The processor is the 1GHz Scorpion ARMv7.
Naturally the Xperia Play is packed with plenty of sparkly kit including a 5.1 megapixel camera with auto focus, geo tagging, touch focus and video recording. The stereo speakers will pump out tunes from either the Google or Sony Ericsson players and there's full access to the Android Marketplace for all your App needs too. The battery life varies depending on what you're doing. You'll squeeze 5.5 hours out of it with continuous gaming and 8.5 hours talk time.
Well, enough techy stuff. What about the games? We were pleased to hear that no less than seven titles will be included with the phone for free. FIFA 10 (or Madden for US buyers), The Sims 3, Tetris, Asphalt 6: Adrenaline, Bruce Lee: Dragon Warrior and Star Battalion. The mystery iconic PlayStation One title that'll be included is *drum roll*.....Crash Bandicoot. If you genuinely believed you'd be getting the 1.5GB Final Fantasy VII then feel free to slap yourself. Here's a round-up of the games I've played so far.
Asphalt Adrenaline 6
Gameloft's popular iPhone street racing title is a natural fit for the Xperia. The final version will support touch-screen, motion-control, d-pad and analogue control. Unfortunately we could only sample the d-pad and analogue settings. The game felt very similar to Burnout 3, with lots of boosting and slow-motion crashes into opponents/traffic and even the occasional hidden route to discover. Very smooth graphically, even at high speeds, and instantly fun thanks to a great drift mechanic that allows you to build up boost very quickly. If you activate the boost when the gauge is full you get a neon-soaked screen as you're hurtled forwards. As a first impression of the Xperia Play's capabilities, it's a great start.
No FIFA 11? Oh well, it is free. It takes a bit of getting used to as the flat d-pad can be a bit awkward when you're running towards the ball. The analogue pad worked better for movement, that is until the game decided it was suddenly only going to use it for skill moves instead. A bit of tweaking required for the controls then, but graphically it seems to be sound with the bright screen performing well. What we're more excited about is the promise of local and online multiplayer which should be a great addition to the mobile series, if EA manage to pull it off smoothly.
You know the score, it's Tetris. The view defaults to vertical -to take advantage of a full screen- and doesn't seem to want to use the slide-out controls. Instead you rotate the blocks by tapping them and flicking or dragging them down to send them to the bottom quicker. Buttons will be much better here, so hopefully they'll get a shot by release.
I only got a brief play on this sci-fi spaceship shooter thanks to the 50+ journos and only three Xperia Plays getting passed around busy huddles. Control of the ship is handled with analogue controls or motion-control. Both work well, with the motion control being particularly well-suited to steering the ship through ice formations in the level on show. The graphical detail in the background was impressive too, with classic sci-fi views of other planets filling the sky of the ice world.
Bruce Lee: Dragon Warrior
It might be an old iPhone game, but this is definitely the version to go for now that you have buttons to hand out an ass-kicking instead of smearing the screen with your thumbs or dainty taps. This is a Virtua Fighter-style brawler, with each face button assigned to different punches or kicks. Add d-pad presses into the mix and even more moves are unleashed. The various characters will add to replay value. Amongst the cast list, there's Bruce Lee (duh), a drunken master, and an what looks like Ivan Drago wearing Apollo Creed's pyjama bottoms. Some of the backgrounds are packed with detail too, putting this above many of the other titles on show. The fighting feels more like classic Hong Kong Kung-Fu flicks rather than Street Fighter fireballs, but it has a great flow to it, with some smoothly animated combos and wince-worthy head-stomps and kicks on fallen opponents.
How does the Xperia Play feel then?
When holding the Xperia Play for the first time, it's surprising how light and thin it feels. The slide-out control pad is very thin, with the screen possibly feeling a little bit top-heavy. The layout of the PlayStation branded buttons and d-pad will be instantly familiar to gamers. However, the buttons are smaller than a pad's and noticeably flatter. There's still enough distance to be sure you're pressing down on them though. The shoulder L and R button are awkward to get used to as you have to hold the device in a clawed pincer style if you want to hold the buttons down at all. Fortunately, Asphalt 6 feels the same way and only requires a tap of R to boost rather than holding it down.
The dual-analogue touch pads aren't raised at all and function in a similar manner to laptop touch pads. For the games that were supporting them at this session they seemed mildly over-sensitive, but if games endeavour to add sensitivity settings this shouldn't become much of an issue. Most titles will allow you to use on-screen controls, but we definitely prefer being able to keep our digits below, as to not obscure the view and fill the screen with greasy streak-marks.
There's a few settings we'd like to see implemented into the basic menus for the phone, such as full d-pad support for selecting items and an optional shortcut to the games menu when you slide out the control panel. It was impressive to see you can have several games loaded up at once as we kept swapping between titles to discover other people's games patiently waiting to be resumed. Who abandoned FIFA 3-0 down by the way?
The familiarity of the PlayStation brand has the potential to be a huge draw for the Xperia Play. The inclusion of proper buttons should be a major boost to the quality of the games, which can be limited and vague with many touch-screen titles. The Android OS has been going from strength to strength recently and has emerged as a genuine competitor to the iPhone. It's is going to have to get competitive with its deals though if it wants to take on the iPhone 4. Thankfully games are unlikely to be priced above the £10 mark, with many of them coming in at considerably less, which will hopefully avoid any N-Gage like failures. These early titles seem to be performing well and it will be interesting to see what developers can get out of the machine when they get some decent time to work on something. Support is strong already with the likes of EA, Gameloft, Namco, Activision, PopCap, Unity and a host of indie mobile names all busily working on titles.
A good first impression overall that should turn the heads of anyone with an interest in mobile gaming and top-end smartphones. Feel free to feel bitter if you've still got 18 months left on your existing contract.