When you put two analog sticks on a handheld, there's naturally one thing that everyone has on their mind, and it ain't 3rd person camera control. In the Western market at least, there's good reason to suspect that the PS Vita will fly or die on its ability to host first-person shooter titles. Sony themselves have deigned to lead the charge with their own Resistance: Burning Skies, and while it handily allays fears that we might still have to continue searching for a handheld that can do first-person action, it's neither a strong contributor to the Resistance legacy or a notably good first-person shooter.
Burning Skies takes place in New York City, in between Fall of Man & Resistance 2. Fans of the series will detect a slight Halo Reach feel, because the core games establish that NYC is the first city to crumble when the Chimera turn their sights on America. The exact fall of the city isn't quite depicted in this title, rather it attempts to show the Chimeran invasion through the eyes of a civilian, firefighter Tom Riley, and also add a new wrinkle to the Resistance canon by showing one of the more radical human attempts to fight off the Chimera. Unfortunately, these aspirations never calcify into meaningful developments, falling prey to weak characterization and a dull atmosphere.
Fortunately, the best that can be said for Burning Skies it's that it has a clear sense of genre basics. The Vita's analog sticks are admirably up to the task of supporting the West's favorite gameplay style. Touch controls are also employed, to varied success. Using side-screen icons for grenade throwing and melee attacks are nicely apt, as is double-tapping the rear touch-pad to sprint, but tapping enemies in the middle of the screen to activate alt-fires and special weapons feels strenuous and unintuitive. To be fair, the game slows down time to allow the player to line up just the right shot, but it's still not an element that translates well to muscle memory and useful reaction time.
It's nothing that hasn't been seen before, in and outside this series, but there's an undeniably genuine thrill in witnessing these basics work so well. It bodes favorably for the future FPSs that have been announced for the Vita, most notably CoD and BioShock. However, because the basic mechanics turn out so well, it diminishes the extent to which the rest of the game's missteps can be forgiven. It feels like a console quality FPS in all but spirit, and should therefore be judged on that spectrum.
The controls are the only technical factor that really feel well done. BS suffers from numerous visual and aural glitches that are in dire need of refinement. Sound effects are inconsistent, and music is used so sparsely that it feels like a very empty experience, which is a shame because what little music there is sounds quite strong. Additionally, while player movement is quite smooth it doesn't take much onscreen action to start chopping up the animation. This problem applies doubly so to multiplayer.
The visuals are otherwise “priced to sell,” with very low-resolution textures and art design that feels leagues beneath the work that Insomniac put into the core titles. Resistance has always traded on atmosphere and crazy weapon effects, but nothing positive in Burning Skies' audiovisual design stands out. The sound design is particularly lackluster, boasting guns that feel closer to Jiffy Pop bags than automatic weapons. It raises the question as to why Nihilistic didn't avail themselves of the full Resistance sound library.
Quite frankly, Burning Skies is boring. While it controls great and thus impresses on that most basic level, it adds nothing to the Resistance legacy. The protagonist and his cohorts are utterly contrived, and there's a shameless “Dom's Wife” moment that has no buildup, resonance, or payoff. Additionally, it's unclear whether or not the primary antagonist of the game (other than the Chimera) is actually more sympathetic than Riley himself. With the narrative largely being delivered through abysmally compressed comic-book cutscenes, there's a lack of interaction between characters that deprives the player of understanding what everyone's motivations and intentions are. It's not quite fair to say that there's no story, but it's poorly told and intertwined with the gameplay. There's also a lack of Insomniac's signature detail in the environments, which traditionally elevates the old school shooter sensibilities of this series into something greater. Of course, Insomniac didn't develop this, but it feels like little attempt was made to play to the series' strengths.
Looking to multiplayer, it's unfair to say that it's the stronger half of the package. While replacing the campaign's bleakly unintelligent AI for other players always does good for a title that gets the basics right, this too feels unpolished and technically frustrating. Lag isn't so much a problem as are dropped animations and choppy action that deflate the thrill of gunning down other players on the go. It's definitely too early to say that the Vita's technical limitations are to blame for this, but it does give some credence to that concern. What is evident is that Burning Skies doesn't feel like it was ready for release, and the possibility of a strong community forming around this seems doubtful.
Sadly, Resistance's debut on the PS Vita is undone by the very concept it proves. In time, we may see first-person shooters thrive on this system, and that's a relief, but Burning Skies doesn't warrant a place among them.