The PlayStation Vita has two analog sticks and can run some of the same games that are on the PlayStation 3. That's good news for Sony's wonderful handheld hardware and bad news for Resistance: Burning Skies a mediocre new first-person shooter that has no excuses for underachieving.
Burning Skies is the fifth game in a series seemingly born to be Sony's Halo or even Half-Life but that has struggled to be best at anything in the crowded first-person shooter genre. On the Vita it at least has a chance to be one of the world's only portable twin-stick first-person shooters. Technically, it's that.
If only it was very good.
The campaign of Burning Skies is a standard six-mission stomp through the periphery of New York City, from Staten Island to New Jersey. You are Tom Riley, firefighter turned gun-toting resistance fighter. You are determined to stop the beastly Chimera from doing to New York and the rest of America what they've done to Europe in the series' what-if-aliens-won-World-War-II alternate reality. This is a first-person shooter, and one so standard that a sixth of it involves a fight across a bridge. Do you want surprises? Well, at one point our married hero finds himself on top of the lady he is not married to, protecting her from an explosion while she is clearly flirting with him. Do you want more surprises? Sorry, that's about it.
You will know that Riley is a firefighter because he wields an axe and because, for about 70 seconds at the start of Burning Skies he is fresh off a fire truck and trying to fight a fire. This opening is Burning Skies' apex, when the player can imagine what it would be like if someone actually made a game about being a firefighter during an alien invasion. What a great game that could be! Maybe the developers thought so too? Why else does the game include three or four bizarrely brief sequences in which Riley hoists an injured person over his shoulders and carries them out of a fire?
If you take the story of the game seriously, Riley is a hero fireman, a growing legend of the human resistance and an inspiration to his fellow New Yorkers. But I was more impressed with the army man I found in the last level. He was wrapped up in an alien cocoon; I hit the cocoon with an axe; the soldier walked out of it, machine gun in hand and started shooting Chimera to hell. That guy was a damn inspiration. Riley, on the other hand, is a nothing, a standard mostly-silent first-person shooter man who wields the familiar dual-purpose weapons of the Resistance game in boring shoot-out after boring shoot-out.
Burning Skies' potential should not to be confused with the reality that its biggest sin is being a humdrum FPS. There are much better single-player FPS campaigns (Singularity, Modern Warfare, BioShock), but its not unusual for developers to foist the simple corridor combat upon us that development studio Nihilistic has here. Enter a room, watch a bunch of enemies assemble at predictable points, shoot them… or die, watch them assemble at pretty much the same points again, shoot them and move on. The unimaginative artificial intelligence fails to make the combat interesting and the only interesting thing about the enemy spawn patterns is that sometimes, after you clear out a room, you will open a door, find an enemy standing on the other side ready to shoot you, you will die and then you will discover that this is not a game that checkpoints you after every major firefight. The weapons offer a novel twist if you're new to Resistance. The Bullseye laser machine gun that can still shoot at a tagged enemy around a corner is always fun to wield, as is the series' best weapon, the Auger, which can be used to drop a temporary shield or fire through walls. If you've played Resistance games before, it's the same-old, same-old.
What's novel about this game isn't what's in it but where you play it. I played part of this game while waiting for a movie to start on Saturday night. I played some of it on the subway, where my wife looked over my shoulder and remarked that it looked as good as some games I play on my TV. I played it at the Public Theater on Sunday, letting the refined people out for a classy night see the contortions of a man who keeps dying at the same annoying choke point in his FPS.
Sure. Let's consider Burning Skies a foundation. Taken as that it's a basis upon which interesting FPSes can be built for this system. It looks good enough. It plays well enough, with standard twin-stick controls, trigger on the right shoulder and the Vita's rear touch double-tapped for a sprint. The Vita's front screen is used more sensibly than not. Tap enemies to lock on a target with them for the Bullseye. Swipe the screen diagonally to load the crossbow with napalm rounds. There's no great reason to have to tap doors to open them, but it's not the end of the world either (if it was Tom Riley would save us). The worst touch-screen feature in the game is Burning Skies' ridiculous upgrade system that requires not just some finger-taps to apply two upgrades on each of the game's eight weapons but requires the player to rotate a cube on which markings representing any of the six upgrades may be etched. You must rotate the cube to reveal the upgrade you want, adding a bit of needless fumbling until you find the etching of the upgrade listed to the right—listed, I should point out, in a list that you should just be able to tap on to add said upgrade.
Without the PSP excuses of a single analog stick (nub) or the iPad excuse of having none, Burning Skies has only its proximity to the Vita's launch to explain why it does so little with excellence. If Vita games can stand beside console games, then this game is a schlub next to the gorgeous third-person shooter Max Payne 3 that I was also playing this weekend, its enemies dumber and its environments far less interesting to look at. Is that unfair? Shall we compare the traversal of Burning Skies' bridge to that of Half-Life 2's or Modern Warfare 3's? Shall we compare sidekick fighter Ellie to Alyx Vance? Shall we compare this to the console Resistance games or to Halo after all? We shouldn't because this game has neither the graphics nor the enemy intelligence to compete. Its music drops out often enough that it also doesn't have the score. Nor does it have a hero, the over-sold Tom Riley who the cut-scenes want us to believe is a dynamo but who the gameplay reveals to be, at best, just another Nathan Hale (though with such sharply-resounding footfalls that I wondered more than once if he was wearing high heels).
I've played all of the Resistance games other than Resistance 3 and this one has offered me the least in ingenuity or refinement, frustratingly so because this is the only FPS I've ever played that ostensibly stars a fireman.
What's been made here is not so much a good game as a solid showpiece. In your hands could be a Vita with proof that a portable twin-stick shooter can be done. Great. Now let's get a good one.
[UPDATE: This review used to be a "Not Yet", pending an opportunity for me to play Burning Skies' multiplayer against regular gamers online. In the days after the review ran—and once the game was released—I had trouble connecting online. Two days after release, Nihilistic released a patch that allowed me (and others) connect to online matches. I subsequently spent an hour enjoying the game's basic online modes. They're borrowing, as many do, from Modern Warfare's role-playing-game style leveling-up system, which gives you experience points for good kills and matches won. The XP is counted toward unlocking new ranks, which in turn unlock new weapons and weapon mods. The weapons and mods are all brought over from the game's single-player, which actually helps justify the laborious approach to upgrading weapons found in the campaign. In retrospect, I can say that the campaign successfully educated me about how all the weapons and mods work, which is ideally what a solo campaign would do for a multiplayer gamer.
There are no big surprises in multiplayer that the single-player weapon-set doesn't tease. Maps are multi-tiered, visually-plain but tight enough to keep the maximum eight players enjoyably in each other's faces for most of a match. The modes are plain: deathmatch, team deathmatch and a survival mode involving human players being defeated and turned into alien players. Matchmaking was quick; my connection held; I had fun playing.
The multiplayer benefits from not being bogged down by the Burning Skies campaign's poor storytelling, botched main character, and poor pacing. But like the solo campaign it also doesn't have much to boast about other than the truth that it is a dual-analog shooter on a Wi-Fi device. While that claim is moderately impressive in regard to the solo campaign, it is genuinely pleasing in terms of multiplayer.
Burning Skies' multiplayer may be generic, but you can play it anywhere you can get a Wi-Fi signal. Should you have the game saved to your Vita, perhaps as a digital download, you've essentially given yourself an app that grants you the opportunity to have a twin-stick FPS multiplayer deathmatch from anywhere you can grab an Internet signal... at school, in the office bathroom, maybe even on an airplane. That is actually very cool, but ultimately feels like the kind of good-enough-for-now claim that will be trumped when a multiplayer FPS does come along for the Vita that would be good on any platform.
Burning Skies is praiseworthy only in the context of being on the Vita. That's not good enough. The game turns out to be better for having multiplayer, but overall not good enough to recommend.]