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UPDATE: I realised that I had forgotten to include Steel Diver in my write-up, so have added a paragraph beneath the appropriate screenshot.
I attended one of Nintendo's 3DS events in London on Saturday evening and had the chance to spend just over an hour playing through several of the handheld's most anticipated games. Unfortunately Zelda and Pilotwings didn't seem to be among them as there were no signs indicating which games were playing on each system, so it was a case of having to check each available screen before starting, but I did get time with Resident Evil: The Mercenaries, Street Fighter, Pro Evolution Soccer, Kid Icarus, Steel Diver, AR Games, Ridge Racer and others, including 3D-ified trailers for Metal Gear Solid, Animal Crossing and Mario Kart.
Holding the 3DS feels effectively identical to holding a DS Lite, sturdy and a nice weight with the buttons and new analogue nub naturally finding their way under your thumbs. The nub itself is a superb addition, feeling slightly more springy and resistant than a console's analogue stick but just right for its more compact nature. The start and select buttons, located beneath the bottom screen, were less convenient to get to (the Home button is also there, but had been disabled) although these are hardly the most vital. The upper screen is now widescreen, though the touchscreen is the same ratio as the original DS'. It's a nicely designed piece of kit, instantly familiar to everyone who owns a DS but with improvements in key areas, of which the new analogue nub is the biggest and best step. Don't be surprised if a 3DS XL turns up by Christmas though.
The first game I played was Resident Evil: The Mercenaries. I'd heard a lot about the 'wow' moment that accompanies seeing glasses-free 3D for the first time and I have to say, my reaction was... "Oh right, is that it?"
If you've seen 3D in the cinema, you'll know what to expect here. Having always found 3D an unnecessary and somewhat vulgar addition to films, I can't say my first impression was any different here. It was slightly more artificial-looking than cinematic 3D, although it should be pointed out that games set for release at launch were better in this regard, but again felt like a visual complication where none was needed. Mercenaries might not have been the best game to start with though - had I found Pilotwings I would have gone for that, and it's a game I still would like the chance to try out in 3D - as third-person shooters don't need any greater depth than is possible to simulate on 2D screens. As a game, it was enjoyable and worked well. It's exactly like Mercenaries mode from RE4 (and presumably RE5), with a set of five selectable characters (each with their individual weapon load-outs) and two maps based on locations from Resis 4 & 5. You have to kill as many enemies as possible, chaining together combos while smashing translucent totem pole-thingies in order to add time onto the clock. The excellent analogue nub made aiming quick and easy - as in the best Resi tradition, you have to stop moving to shoot - and the graphics look fine, slightly sub-GameCube standard but on a smaller screen that increases the resolution. The screen blur when moving the 3DS away from the 'sweet spot', where your eyes see the clearest 3D image, was not as severe as I expected it to be. I tried the game for a minute or two in 2D mode and I can't say it made the game any worse. If anything, without the distracting 'depth' effects and movement blur, it actually looked better.
Next was Pro Evolution Soccer. Of all the games' 3D effects, this one had the most startling initial impact: it looked terrific and the players really stood out on the field, making for a more immersive experience. I wouldn't go as far as to say that I was blown away by it, but it was the first time in any medium that the effect seemed to have any noticeable benefit. Unfortunately, while the 3D in the sweet spot was marvellous, the movement blur was horrific. The slightest nudge in the wrong direction splintered the image to an almost unplayable degree, a problem severe enough that I can see becoming a major issue if not sorted out in time for launch. The game itself played fine, although the camera was set to an annoying low-angle (in order to emphasize the 3D, but I'd imagine this will be changeable) that swept all over the field as it followed the ball and made it difficult to work out the positions of your defenders. It was much better when attacking, as the camera was always focused on your player, but the high-angle camera these games traditionally adopt is preferable, even if it would lose much of what made the 3D so initially remarkable.
I also had a go on Steel Diver, although the fact that I almost forgot until the last minute to write about it should tell you that it wasn't the most memorable game on show. Actually, that's not entirely fair: I only played the training level and while there was nothing wrong with it per se, it just wasn't my sort of thing. You control your submarine (from a choice of three, each with different attributes and an Advance Wars-esque captain) entirely with the touch screen, adjusting height, orientation, speed and a few other tricks by tuning gauges and pressing buttons with your stylus. I can see it being the kind of game that, with plenty of time and practice, becomes second nature and rewarding through the mastery of its intricacies. But in only five minutes of play, it felt like too much of a battle to perform even fairly basic navigation with any degree of precision. I crashed into just about everything. For the right person, someone who loves spending time getting to grips with detailed systems and manipulating them to increased levels of exactitude, I can see this becoming a real cult favourite - it's just that I'm not that person. I can see how it all works, but my preference is for games that challenge through scenarios rather than systems: spending hours perfecting the traversal of a fairly wide tunnel with just the right trajectory isn't the stuff my gaming dreams are made of. The touchscreen seemed a bit inconsistent, but that might have been because I was flicking it in haste to correct my clumsy movements rather than applying each measure with appropriate care. As a game operating on a two-dimensional plane (I can't really say a 2D game anymore, can I?), the 3D effects mostly just deepened some of the background imagery. Nintendo have previously mentioned the game as an example to show their 3D off though, so perhaps later levels are more elaborate (I'm thinking perhaps objects coming from the background to foreground in Donkey Kong Country Returns style). The fairest conclusion I can draw is that Steel Diver was a well-made game that will almost certainly develop a cult following, but needed more playing time to reveal itself fully and a different player to appreciate what it was trying to do.
I also didn't spend long with Ridge Racer, but this time because it was dreadful by anyone's standards. The 3D was chunky and distracting - bits of dust and grit occasionally got kicked up into the 'front' layer of the screen, an effect that I found visually irritating and others may find uncomfortable if rumours of headaches are to be believed - and the movement blur was at least as bad as Pro Evo. Even with the 3D turned off, the visuals are very basic (think early PS2) and the cars steer like concrete blocks. I'm no racing game pro by any stretch of the imagination and even if I may not have had time to overcome any learning curves, there was enough wrong with almost every other aspect of the game that I suspect fans of the genre will greet it with no greater goodwill.
Kid Icarus was also disappointing, though mainly because the controls were so bad. It might have been that I missed something because there were no sheets explaining how to play the game, meaning I had to go in blind, but in the flying section I played, you had to move Pit with the analogue nub, fire with the buttons and aim your cursor with the stylus, making it near-impossible to perform all three vital functions at the same time. I'm willing to accept that there might have been some control tricks I missed, but these should have become apparent in five minutes of play. The game itself seemed more of a tech-demo for 3D than anything else, with enemies flying in and out of the screen and Pit shooting them down before a giant witch popped up for a climactic battle. It was adequate to play, without too much movement blur, but exactly what you'd expect from watching the trailers and nothing more. I heard from other players at the event that a second ground-based level controlled even worse. Considering the demo started with Pit shouting "Sorry to keep you waiting!", I can't say his long-awaited appearance delivered much more than bog-standard gameplay with functional 3D and sub-par controls. All it really got me thinking was how Nintendo should have saved Sin & Punishment 2 for the 3DS instead of this.
In the next room, I got my hands on Street Fighter. I should point out that I have never played the series in any form before - sacrilege, I know - so was completely unaware of any combos or moves that might have improved my plodding fighting style. (Again, it would have been nice to have sheets detailing the basic controls). Fortunately the difficulty seemed to be set on 'ridiculously easy' so I won both fights and had a good time doing it. The 3D is agreeably unintrusive, with the new over-shoulder camera working well enough to show the distance between the two fighters, but shifting to 2D didn't feel like it made much difference. For one thing, judging the distance between fighters is easier still when viewed from a side-on camera angle, so technically the combination of the new camera perspective and 3D just added an unneeded gimmick. But the game was responsive, entertaining and while I'm definitely not the person to be making judgments on this particular genre, the idea of having Street Fighter in your pocket in any form will likely be enough to get many gamers frothing with anticipation and there was nothing I saw that would give me reason to suggest otherwise.
Ironically, the most ambitious use of 3D came from the games that will be loaded onto the system at launch, the so-called AR (Augmented Reality) Games. These use the 3D camera to project graphics onto a real-time image of whatever the handheld is looking at, creating a little game out of it. One of these was Face Raiders, where you were asked to take a photograph of yourself or a friend (or the back of a blonde's head, as was the case due to my impatience) and then have the photo painted over flying enemies as you try and shoot them down. The twist is that you move the 3DS to aim, taking advantage of the camera and gyroscope, so you actively have to turn around in one direction to find off-screen enemies. It's fun and easy to get the hang of, but there's barely anything to it. This being a Nintendo game, you throw balls at the enemies rather than shoot them (as Rare discovered when trying to integrate the Game Boy Camera into the N64's Perfect Dark, Nintendo aren't keen on letting people shoot their friends) and it's all very straightforward and accessible. Levels are completed quickly and there aren't many of them, although since this is technically a pack-in game, I suppose there's more on offer than you might expect.
The second game involved focusing the camera on a card with an old-school Mario question block on it, from which targets and enemies burst forth. It's impressively done - considering the potential for horrible motion blur in these games, it really wasn't too bad - but unlikely to be played more than once. Having to physically move the 3DS to target, let alone finding a flat surface to place the card on (the game pauses if the camera loses track of the card) and then move around it, defies the very nature of a portable gaming experience. It's clearly designed to be done at home. Since the second game made use of the fact that its card was placed on a plinth by putting targets on the side that you had to duck down and walk around to reach, it raises questions of how this will work when most people will be putting their cards on much wider surfaces? In any case, since these games require actual movement in a 3D space, they're the only ones that really based their gameplay around the effect (and featured a nifty dragon) and gave the most impressive showing of the tech at the event. That said, both games were pretty insubstantial and only highlighted how little 3D had added to the more conventional gaming experiences elsewhere.
Other games I played included Ubisoft's Rabbids platformer, which just about reaches the bottom-of-the-barrel standards of any Ubisoft launch game. The 3D effect gave the backgrounds a bit of pop, but had not one iota of effect on the laughably generic gameplay that conveyed approximately nothing of the anarchic spirit that has made the Rabbids series a tempered success. Nintendogs and Ninten-cats (I don't know how you're expect to spell that) had reasonably good graphics but was ridiculously limited in function - you could call either pet over and then give it a rub, made slightly uncomfortable by the fact that most of the styluses (styli?) had been nicked earlier in the day, then move onto the next one. 3D was functional but continued the running theme of adding nothing to the gameplay. The trailers for Animal Crossing and Mario Kart were okay but looked exactly as you'd expect those two games to look. The 3D for Animal Crossing was barely noticeable, while on Mario Kart it made the scenery and track obstacles more dynamic but didn't bring much new to the ever-familiar series. The Metal Gear trailer was not encouraging, with jagged visuals and 3D that seemed to get the depth of several objects and characters slightly off. There was also a trailer for 3D SKY television and movies but given the small size of the screen and propensity for blurring, other than allowing another selling point on the back of the box, signs were equally unencouraging.
For all the hype the 3DS has been getting, the reality was that system did little for me other than to offer a more powerful DS with an excellent analogue stick. The 3D was not so loathsome as I had found it playing Killzone 3 at last year's Eurogamer Expo, but mostly on par with my experiences in the cinema: an unwanted distraction. Your reaction to 3D films will most likely define your reaction to the 3DS. The upside of not having to deal with glasses is negated by the sometimes horrible distortion created by moving the system away from its visual sweet spot, although since up-and-down movement isn't as bad as side-to-side, this probably won't be as bad on transport, where handhelds are likely to get the most use, as initially feared.
But for £230/$250? No dice, Chicago. I didn't get much playtime from my DS because many of the games I played on it didn't seem designed to be played on the move (Spirit Tracks and its bloody microphone pan-pipes reacting to external noise being the worst offender) and the 3DS looks likely to compound that irritation. Handhelds increasingly seem to be trying to replicate console gaming - see Sony's NGP for further evidence - sacrificing the attributes that make portable gaming worthwhile. The 3D wasn't the worst I've experienced, but was superfluous enough to most games that its issues tended to detract from the experience rather than add to them. So if shelling out a few hundred notes for a more powerful DS and an analogue stick sounds good to you, there's no reason not to take the plunge. You can turn the 3D off, after all. But as for revolutionising the gaming experience, the 3DS adds a dimension but is distinctly lacking in depth.