By MAX NEOPIKHANOV

While the first person shooters were popular and firmly in the main stream when Sony’s PSP first launched in 2005, the genre is far and away the most dominant force within the industry in 2012, and shooters like Resistance, Killzone and the yearly installments of Call of Duty have become system sellers for Sony.   Three months after the hardware’s launch in February, Playstation Vita owners are finally treated to the system’s first dual analog stick first person shooter with Resistance: Burning Skies.

Though it may at times be a fun handheld romp and a good glimpse of what the next generation of portable shooters could bring to portable gaming on the vita, fans of the series and of the genre will likely be disappointed by the game’s lack of polish and creativity.   Numerous technical issues and a general lack of ambition keep Burning Skies from being a must own title for all but the most hardcore shooter fans looking to get their fix on the go.

As the fifth title in Sony’s Resistance franchise, Burning Skies tells the story of American firefighter Tom Reilly’s fight against the Chimeran invasion of Staten Island, New York.  Set in an alternate universe 1951, the Chimera, a species of ferocious, ill tempered aliens have been pressing their assault on Europe and have begun their invasion of the United States.  While Reilly is investigating a routine fire, all hell breaks loose on Staten Island and the stoic firefighter is separated from his wife and daughter and thrust into a warzone filled with soldiers, resistance fighters and all manner of Chimeran aliens.

It’s an interesting and potentially moving story at its core, but Reilly’s character is never fleshed out past the concerned father trying to get back to his family during a crisis.  Most of the game’s limited dialogue comes from Ellie, your tenacious combat partner who boldly leads you through several stretches of the game.  At best it’s a nice diversion from just listening to repetitive grunts and weak gun sounds, but the dialogue does little to develop a cohesive narrative or even help understand what’s going on.

Unlike Halo or Gears of War, Resistance has always been about being thrust into a large scale war with numerous soldiers on both sides of the conflict fighting and being blown to smithereens in large battles.  Burning skies rarely comes close to the large scale of conflict the franchise is known for.  During the game’s most exciting moments, firefights against six or so grunts and a large and ugly brute will be as extensive as Burning Skies has to offer.  For most of the game, Ellie will be your only support for duration of the linear adventure, aside from the occasional and almost completely useless army grunts stationed at certain locations.

The story begins with the invasion of Staten Island unfolding before Reilly’s eyes, but by the second level it feels like the heavy fighting is long over with and all that remains are small skirmishes broken up by dull treks through underground corridors.  The level design isn’t entirely bad, but the immersive and large scale atmosphere found in the console Resistance games is unfortunately nowhere in sight and is instead replaced by something more akin to later playstation 2 shooters than a current gen AAA title.

Though the enemies and the firefights offered are tepid at best, the shooting itself can be pretty fun , thanks to the dual analog stick set up that, aside from missing two trigger buttons, replicates console controls quite nicely.  As you progress through the single player campaign you’ll find a large cadre of both human and Chimeran weaponry at your disposal.  New to the series is the Mule, a hybrid double barrel shotgun and crossbow that shoots an explosive crossbow bolt with its secondary fire.  It’s certainly a novel weapon, but nothing that shooter fans haven’t seen before.

Thankfully, controlling the guns is comfortable and intuitive.  Pressing L1 lets you aim down your sights, R1 shoots the primary ammo and the touch screen is used to fire secondary ammo like the Bullseye’s targeting beacon and the Carbine’s grenade.

At times the touch screen controls allowed for easier targeting – just clicking on an enemy will target the Bullseye’s homing beacon without needing to aim to hit an enemy.  At other times moving your thumb across the screen when being fired upon will block your view and result in a quick death when under a barrage of heavy gunfire.  For the most part, the touch screen adequately makes up for the Vita’s lack of R1 and R2 triggers.

Also new to the series is the ability to upgrade weapons with mysterious blue cubes scattered throughout the levels.  Want bigger ammo clips or more accurate fire?  What about a scope for the Carbine rifle? Those are just a few of upgrades available.  It’s a neat innovation but it’s too bad these energy cubes are so easy to find due to the linear level design.  What’s not as welcome is the awkward use of the touch screen to unlock and equip the upgrades.  If I can use the buttons to navigate the menus, why can’t I use them to upgrade my weapons?

Those looking to work out their thumbs and to find a challenge beyond the fairly easy campaign mode might be glad to know that Burning Skies offers an eight player competitive multiplayer mode over the internet, complete with a ranking and experience point systems similar to those in modern console shooters.  The multiplayer mode features a handful of maps and across three gameplay modes: the standard deathmatch, team deathmatch and survival, where the humans must survive for several minutes against an ever increasing number of Chimera.

Unfortunately good controls and a decent multiplayer mode mean little if the graphics engine starts to chug and everything becomes unresponsive.  The visuals themselves range from amazing to quite unimpressive, depending on the level, but whenever the action gets hectic and there are multiple enemies on the screen, the game’s framerate dips and everything starts to slow down.  The singleplayer has only a few areas of poor performance but the multiplayer is where the poor performance really takes its toll, often to the point of frustration – especially when there are seven or eight players in a match.

Nearly as bad as the game’s visual performance throughout the multiplayer is the dreadful sound design – or should I say there lack of.  Curiously, there aren’t any enemy foot steps to help find other players by; no environmental sound effects; almost complete and sterile quiet.  Guns firing sound extremely compressed and worse yet, you hear gunfire at nearly the same volume no matter your distance from the shooter, making it difficult to gage how close or far enemies are.

Clearly the code has not been optimized to run well on the Vita’s hardware, which comes at somewhat of a surprise considering how well the system handled Sony’s flagship title, Uncharted: Golden Abyss.

Despite Burning Skies unfinished visual and sound design and uninspired gameplay, the game does offer some fun for those willing to stick it out to the last – and most impressive – two levels of the six hour campaign and for those who can endure the framerate issues found in the multiplayer.  But those looking for a more complete and polished shooter experience should probably look towards Uncharted: Golden Abyss, Unit 13 or just wait for Activision’s Call of Duty Black Ops: Declassified this winter.

6/10

+ The graphics can be quite good at times

+ The dual analog controls work well

+ The vita’s first Multiplayer FPS

– Visual glitches and large framerate drops sour the experience

– Short, lukewarm campaign is uncharacteristic of the Resistance franchise

– Woeful sound design

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