Long lines had already formed at the Anaheim Convention Center when I arrived at PSX on Sunday. Fans wearing gaming t-shirts, Steelers jerseys, and the odd fursuit were waiting patiently to play some games, and perhaps get a glimpse of what 2017 might have to offer for PlayStation.
Now in its third year, PSX is ostensibly a community get-together and a showcase for the upcoming year—a sort of mini-E3 meets PAX. PlayStation has never commanded the fanatical dedication of, say, Nintendo, but the crowd was plenty excited to check Horizon Zero Dawn, try out the PlayStation VR, and see familiar faces like Sony President of Worldwide Studios Shuhei Yoshida on stage. More importantly, they were there to see whatever Sony had to sell them. This year may be just about over (and thank god); but in the constant churn of the videogame hype machine, it's never too early to get excited for next year.
I arrived in the wake of Sony's big keynote ready to play some games; and as I promised on Twitter, I have Thoughts. Here's what jumped out at me about this year's show.
1. For better or worse, Last of Us: Part II will be the perfect realization of a modern triple-A game
I tweeted some harsh things about Last of Us in the wake of the announcement of the sequel, which was long in coming and probably overdue.
Last of Us is a well-crafted game that somehow managed to leave no impression on me whatsoever— Kat Bailey (@The_Katbot) December 4, 2016
Okay, let me be clear: I don't hate Last of Us. Actually, I have a lot of admiration for its exceptional polish, the strange inability of the Fungus Zombies to see your CPU allies notwithstanding. It just happens to be a post-apocalyptic zombie thriller, which is territory that has been covered exhaustively by... well... everything. Maybe that's being overly dismissive of its genuinely excellent craftmanship, which includes some really strong individual moments (the opening comes to mind), but it also speaks to how risk averse blockbuster development has become. And to be honest, it leaves me cold.
I know I'm in the minority, though, and Last of Us 2 will absolutely be one of the biggest games of 2018 (or whenever it is ultimately released). You could even argue that it's more important than Uncharted, the mass appeal of its post-apocalyptic setting eclipsing even Nathan Drake's jungle adventures. It will undoubtedly be beautiful; and in shifting the perspective to Ellie, the young girl who served as Joel's ward in the first game, Naughty Dog is hinting that the second game will be even darker than the first. "This is story is about hate, through Ellie this time," director Neil Druckmann said at a PSX panel.
Shifting the spotlight to an older Ellie is a good move, and Naughty Dog will have undoubtedly learned a few tricks in the four years since the release of the original. There biggest task will be nailing the emotional core, which in my opinion felt a tad hollow and forced in the first game. Do that, and they will have a game worth of the accolades that will inevitably be heaped upon it.
2. It looks like 2017 will lack a Soulsborne game
I had predicted that Bloodborne 2 would appear at PSX 2016, partly because From Software's Soulsborne series has become an annual series, and partly because Sony would no doubt love a killer exclusive to go toe-to-toe with Project Scorpio and the Nintendo Switch. But Bloodborne 2 was nowhere to be seen, suggesting that the Soulsborne games will be taking a break for the first time since 2013.
This is probably for the best. While the Soulsborne games are as popular as ever, the series is at risk of overexposure, and recent evidence suggests that creator Hidetaka Miyazaki is on the verge of burning out. With that, Bloodborne 2 probably won't be revealed until E3 2017 at the very earliest, which will give the hype time to build back up.
Of course, the Bloodborne 2 hype will be strong no matter when it comes out. The original Bloodborne is well-regarded by the fandom, and its standing has only grown since its only release. Expectations for the sequel will be high, and both From Software will be well-served by taking the time to get it right. Then again, who knows where Miyazaki and From Software will jump next. Anyone excited for more Armored Core?
3. MLB The Show 17's Retro Mode is a pleasant nod to the days of Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball
You'll often hear casual sports fans say, "I wish we could go back to the days when sports games were actually playable," before calling back to NHL 94, NBA Jam, and Tecmo Bowl. MLB The Show 17's Retro Mode is an homage to those days; and while it might not be much more than a novelty, it's a fun addition.
MLB The Show 17 will, of course, feature Ken Griffey Jr. on its cover, lending extra weight to the new Retro Mode. Griffey famously starred in the Super Nintendo's Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball, which featured buffed up players and simplified but enjoyable gameplay, and is fondly remembered by videogame baseball fans. Indeed, Retro Mode appears to be explicitly designed as a nod to that game, though Sony San Diego's Ramone Russell was careful to say that it was an homage to many retro baseball games. Its text is definitely straight out of the days of the SNES.
The gameplay is simple in the extreme: everything is controlled with the X button, and pitches can be influenced once they leave the pitcher's hand (sound familiar, SNES fans?) It's a little odd to see all of this juxtaposed on the modern MLB The Show engine, but Sony San Diego may include graphical filters that make it look even more faithful to the look and feel of a classic baseball game. If they do, they'll really be on to something special.
This isn't the first time a sports sim has borrowed from its past, of course. In celebration of its 20th anniversay, NHL 14 included an NHL 94 mode complete with an authentic-looking rink, much to the delight of fans. But MLB The Show has much greater ambitions than NHL 14, which was an end-of-generation release looking to fill a release gap. In putting Ken Griffey Jr. on the cover, Sony San Diego is seemingly evoking NBA 2K11, which is remembered as one of the great sports games of all time. Russell wouldn't say whether there would be a feature akin to that game's Jordan Challenges in MLB The Show 17, but he did say that Griffey's likeness will be utilized in interesting and unexpected ways, which offers hope that he won't just be a Diamond Dynasty card.
Regardless, the well-regarded MLB The Show appears to be on the cusp of a truly special entry. The Retro Mode is just the tip of the iceberg.
4. Dreadnought is better than expected on console
I rolled my eyes a tiny bit when I saw that one of PSX's "unnanounced games" was a port of Dreadnought: the multiplayer capital ship game currently in beta on PC. Not that I have anything in particularly against Dreadnought, but I tend to be suspicious of free-to-play ports to console, and I had my doubts that the mechanics would translate to controller. Imagine my surprise when I found that it not only looks quite good on console, but actually plays better with a controller than a mouse and keyboard.
As in the PC version, Dreadnought puts you in control of a starship in a team vs. team multiplayer battle. The ships range from nimble corvettes to hulking dreadnoughts, and all have individual strengths, weaknesses, and weapons. Playing as a dreadnought, you are huge, heavily armored, and capable of firing massive swarms of missiles, but you are also a giant target, meaning that your teammates have to work hard to keep you alive. The sluggish ships can be a little frustrating to control at times, but otherwise it's a pretty good mix of skills, tactics, and teamwork.
To my surprise, that all translates quite nicely to the console, which maps the attack commands to the controller's face buttons and the shields to the touchpad. Matchmaking is fast and painless, and I had no trouble maneuvering around the battlefield and assisting my allies. It feels so good that I actually think that the PS4 will be my preferred console for Dreadnought, even if the graphics take a slight hit (but only slight).
As you all know, I'm a sucker for spaceships, which puts me very much in Dreadnought's target market. Up until this point, though, I've been hesitant to jump in because I don't really want to go through the trouble of getting it setup on my PC (yes, I'm lazy). But now that it's set for console, the barrier to entry looks to be lower than ever. Look for Dreadnought to be something of a stealth hit in 2017.
5. Ace Combat 7 highlights both the strengths and weaknesses of the PlayStation VR
I finally got to play Ace Combat 7 on PlayStation VR while I was at PSX, and it was... fine. It reminded me of the good and the bad of VR in its current state: its sense of immersion can be incredible, but its often blurry visuals hurts the experience immeasurably.
Unlike EVE Valkyrie, Ace Combat 7 is set on Earth, so it can't hide behind the darkness of space. As such, when you pull on the headset and look around the aircraft carrier for the first time, you're just overwhelmed by giant pixels. I actually kind of felt like I was inside a game of Afterburner, which was neat, but not necessarily the effect that Bandai Namco was trying to achieve.
But once you're in the air, those issues mostly fall away. As with EVE Valkyrie and Elite Dangerous, you can look around the cockpit and visually track enemy planes above and around you, and it's a real game changer in how it makes everything feel so much more real. It makes me want a real VR X-wing game so badly.
Of course, this is Ace Combat, so it basically is an X-wing game masquerading as a flight sim. The flight mechanics are forgiving in the extreme—no need to worry about stalling out or anything like that—and you get dozens of missiles to fling at enemy planes. But that's how the series has always been, and it is pretty cool to play a classic flight sim in a VR setting. I just look forward to the day that VR games no longer look like they're stuck on the PS1.
6. Some quick thoughts on Persona 5's English voiceovers
I got my first real look at Persona 5's English localization at PSX, and so far it looks to be about par for the course in terms of Atlus localizations, which is to say that it's very good. Interestingly, the honorifics are still there, but it seems as if Persona 5 has really toned them down, only occasionally dropping a "-kun" or a "-san" into the conversation. The voiceovers are typically Persona in the way that they're energetic and over-the-top, but stop just short of being completely cheesy. Of the voices, Ann Takamaki was probably my favorite, effectively hitting a wide range of notes while defining the character's personality early. I'll reserve judgment on the rest of the cast, but it doesn't seem as memorable as those of Persona 3 or 4. Then again, it could be that I'm just not used to them yet.
The scene I saw took place early in the game, and followed the protagonist and his friend Ryuji as they brought Ann into the fold. As I've written before, Persona 5 is absolutely gorgeous, which I was reminded of during every menu transition and loading screen. Persona 5's artists don't waste a single moment, and the result is overwhelming, but also delightful and charming. It's a shame that it's been delayed until April; but as someone who generally prefers the Japanese voice cast, I appreciate the original language track, which was apparently the subject of some internal wrangling on the part of Atlus. I don't think I have to say that I'm excited for Persona 5: that's pretty much a given. I'm just ready for it to be out already.
7. It's hard to say what 2017 will look like for PlayStation
PSX occupies an interesting place on the calendar: it's ostensibly a fan event, but it also exists as a platform for big announcements, as well as to hype up the Spring slate of games. But walking through the showfloor, which mostly featured games I had already seen, I found myself wondering what 2017 will look like for PlayStation.
Sony shipped the PlayStation VR and PlayStation 4 Pro in 2016: two major pieces of hardware seemingly positioned to beat Microsoft and Nintendo to market. Now that they're out, it's incumbent upon Sony to release games that will augment those two platforms and make them more desirable, especially with Nintendo rolling out the Switch and Microsoft prepping Project Scorpio. I didn't really see those sorts of games at PSX, which was heavy on second-tier VR games, indies, and HD remakes.
But that's not to say that next year will be weak. Horizon Zero Dawn has justifiably generated a lot of hype, and it looks to take full advantage of what the PS4 Pro has to offer. Persona 5 is another heavy-hitting exclusive due in the first half of the year. Depending on how things shake out, 2017 could also see the release of the new God of War and the first episode of the Final Fantasy VII remake.
All of which is to say that Sony will be fine. The PS4 has unquestionably been this generation's big winner, and it will continue to profit from its strong foundation for the forseeable future. But next year's headlines will almost certainly be going to Nintendo and Microsoft; and outside of an updated PSVR, it's hard to say what Sony's next step might be. Maybe next year will provide some answers, but it's more likely that Sony will choose to stand pat while they prepare their next move.