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A Closer Look

With a New Toy, Plenty of Titles to Play

By Tom Ham
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 20, 2005; Page F07

Sony is launching its PlayStation Portable handheld with an unusually large spread of titles. Most new game systems ship with only a handful of games, but Sony says 24 will be available for the PSP when it shows up in stores Thursday.

That selection includes a good variety of game genres as well as publishers -- there's something for just about everyone who is interested enough in video games to shell out $250 for a PSP.

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Sony is backing up its portable gadget with a strong group of its own action titles, all priced at $40. Ape Escape: On the Loose, an action game that challenges players to capture monkeys in various situations, looks notably better than the original PlayStation title. Untold Legends: Brotherhood of the Blade is a surprisingly deep dungeon crawler that throws in magic and quests. Twisted Metal: Head-On adds a chapter to the car-combat series, with 16 environments, beautiful graphics and local as well as Internet multiplayer capability.

On the sports front, Sony offers MLB, NBA, Gretzky NHL and World Tour Soccer. NBA is our favorite of those four; not only does it look extraordinary, it offers some creative added features, such as a set of three mini-games that let you work on particular skills. World Championship Soccer, however, was the worst of this bunch, on account of its stiff animations and repetitive commentary. MLB, NBA and Gretzky NHL can all be played online as well as over local "ad hoc" wireless networks, but World Tour Soccer only allows local competition.

Electronic Arts, the biggest developer in the industry, is making PSP versions of most of its best-known PS2 sports titles. Its best effort is NBA Street Showdown, thanks to a solid set of features topped by a highly addictive Arcade Shootout. Tiger Woods PGA Tour, another great title, uses the same swing mechanic as the PS2 version (here, the PSP's analog stick allows precise control of timing and strength) and lets you play along golf greats such as Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer on 12 beautiful PGA courses. Football fans should try NFL Street 2: Unleashed for some incredibly fast gridiron action. FIFA Soccer 2005 does far better than Sony's World Tour Soccer.

Unfortunately, none of these EA releases allow Internet play -- any multiplayer competition will require another PSP owner to show up within 100 feet or so. EA also charges $50 each for its titles, $10 more than other publishers.

In the racing genre, EA's Need for Speed Underground: Rivals should appeal to car tuners, who can find plenty of distraction in its 8 game modes (two not available in the PS2 release), 20 cars and a plethora of subsequent customization options. Sony's ATV Offroad Fury provides an alternative for people who don't enjoy driving between the white lines. But the best PSP racing game is Namco's Ridge Racer ($40). No other game shows off the PSP's capabilities as well overall. The sensation of speed is remarkable, and multiplayer races (local only, not online) can have you hooked for hours.

No game system is complete without some sort of Tony Hawk skateboarding game, so Activision offers Tony Hawk's Underground 2 Remix ($50). It's not its best effort, suffering from an inflexible in-game perspective; a good WiFi multiplayer setup does make up for some of that.

We don't list Konami's Metal Gear Acid ($40) under the action category because this installment of the Solid Snake series doesn't play like its predecessors. It's a turn-based card battle game, not a re-creation of one guy with a lot of guns sneaking into places where he's not allowed. After we got over the shock and mastered how these cards work, we had a hard time putting this strategy-intense game down.

Puzzle gamers don't have a great selection yet on the PSP, but UbiSoft's Lumines ($40) should keep them distracted for a while with its habit-forming Tetris-esque design.

Only one fighting game is available, and it's not related to any of the great fighting series, such as Tekken or Mortal Kombat. Capcom's Darkstalkers Chronicle: The Chaos Tower ($40) does, however, stand on its own with some stellar graphics and a great multiplayer system that allows for four-person WiFi tournaments.

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