Augmented Reality already feels a bit dated. The concept – mapping real world stuff through the camera onto a device – is smart enough, but nobody’s ever really found a way to make it relevant for more than a few minutes, and game developers seem to struggle more than most apart from a few neat diversions like EyePet.
Enter the PS Vita then, with it’s ‘suite’ of AR (Augmented Reality) games that will be free to download from the PlayStation Store when it opens on release day. Each Vita will also come packaged with six little cards with symbols and numbers drawn on them, although ours were printed from a PDF. It doesn’t matter, the shapes are simple enough to work from any printer (and, amusingly, at any size).
I tried Fireworks first, hoping that it might have some echoes of Fantavision, one of the earliest PS2 games. It does, in that it features lots of exploding chemicals, but it doesn’t in that it’s not nearly as good. The idea’s smart enough, the AR cards representing houses that the Vita then draws onto the screen, and each house then proceeds to fire various fireworks up into the ‘sky’ towards you.
The aim of the game is to tap each firework at the apex of its flight (so when it reaches the top, basically) which is helpfully indicated by a little circle that locks into another shape when it’s time to tap. Do it right and you’ll get a ‘perfect’, more points and a boost to your multiplier for chaining taps. With just one AR card it’s depressingly easy, but with two and three it’s worth a shot.
Other modes come into play later, like challenges (these are much better) and the option to unlock new firework types means that at least the pretty graphics change continuously. Moving around with the Vita is good for hitting multiple fireworks, and the AR works well enough given plentiful light. Sadly, though, I couldn’t really bring myself to spend that much time with the game.
Perhaps worse, though, is Cliff Diving. Again, founded on solid ideas (it eventually evolves into something resembling a rhythm game) and neat use of the AR cards, Cliff Diving sees your tabletop or floor transformed into a pool and a springboard (at least at first) and a slightly flaccid character then jumps off at your command. Nice idea, at least.
What starts as simple taps of the X button evolves into much more, but some of the controls (like tapping the rear touchpad before a jump to boost morale) seem a bit tacked on. You can create custom jumps, though, by using two cards (one for the higher surface and one below) which ups the amusement level a bit (a toilet’s an easy idea for you) but the appeal won’t last that long.
The biggest disappointment, though, is Table Football. Sure, I’m not the world’s biggest football fan but even I know that this take on the classic game (think Subbuteo) doesn’t really warrant much of your time beyond being a curiosity. For starters, the set up is too fiddly, the fact that you need six cards is fine but the Vita panics when you zoom out much so most of the peripheral bits (like the stands) will be out of view.
And then even when you’ve got a pitch established it can suddenly vanish, leaving awkward vector lines all over the Vita and noises indicating the computer AI has scored even though you can’t see a thing. The controls are fine in principle – swipe to slide players about and aim for goal – but the little guys are often far too small to accurately pick out on the pitch and it quickly becomes frustrating.
I get what Sony have tried to do here, but whilst the technology is no doubt fine (give yourself plenty of light, though) from the brief spell we had with the games they really don’t do the system any justice. They’re free, so definitely download them and give them a try, but don’t expect them to take the place of Uncharted and WipEout for very long. Ultimately these sadly don’t really impress.