Much ado has been given to PlayStation Vita’s augmented reality features in the months since its reveal, but the apps and games to use AR have so far ranged from less-than-stellar experiences to glorified tech demos. In this regard, Table Top Tanks doesn’t do much to break the mold. That said, it also presents the best use of the technology I’ve yet seen, and a promising (yet limited) glimpse of what AR’s future could hold. I’m not saying Table Top Tanks is a great game, but if you own a PS Vita, you won’t find simple entertainment for a better price.
Simple is exactly what you get with Table Top Tanks, but the premise fosters unique interaction. You lay out three or more of the PS Vita’ AR Cards to establish a perimeter, and the game populates the space with obstacles, power-ups, and enemy tanks. A series of solo challenges will teach you the mechanics before handing you progressively harder objectives. Shoot ten bulls-eye targets while dodging enemy fire. Eliminate three enemy tanks while collecting several flags scattered around the battlefield. There’s a notable lack of variety here, but since you’ll breeze through the lot in no time, you’ll spend more time focused on how cool things look than the sameness of your missions.
In fact, the cool factor of this technology might be the best thing Table Top Tanks has going for it. Seeing your tank travel across your kitchen table or living room floor, watching air strikes fall on the hallowed ground of your home, and moving the PS Vita to catch the action from your desired angle never stops feeling real, and immerses you in a world that seems completely legitimate through the lens of a rear camera. The illusion is occasionally shattered; a muddy re-textured image attempts to hide the AR cards from view, and moving around too much will cause the battlefield to disappear. But when it works, it astounds, and the novel charm of waging war "in" your world will keep you interested long after the meager solo challenges have had their say.
For those times when you want to come back, the game’s level editor is the main draw. You can take any object or entity – a cup coaster, cell phone, or even your dog – and use preset shapes like squares and cylinders to identify what the camera sees as a solid object. Apply a few decal effects, plant some more objects, and voila! You’ve created a totally unique battlefield for you and up to three friends to duke it out in. AI battles are offered for those times when you can’t get a gang together, but the real fun comes from playing 2v2, Capture the Flag, and Last Man Standing matches in maps that you and your friends create.
Unfortunately, the action isn’t complemented by great visuals or sound. The cracks of bullets and booms of missiles are anything but believable, and explosions rock your senses with all the splendor of a small-town parade. Of course, the still-foreign, still-unproven nature of AR technology means that these failings are hard to judge. There’s simply no context from which to draw, no meaningful comparisons to make with similar experiences. Table Top Tanks is no crown jewel of polish, but like me, you’ll probably be too intrigued by the premise to much care.
Perhaps most importantly, this premise opens the door for a wealth of possible permutations. When I think about what I most want the PS Vita’s AR technology to one day accomplish, my mind strays to thoughts of sitting beside Solid Snake, engaging in hand-to-hand combat with the cast of Mortal Kombat, or using an elaborate array of AR cards to turn my apartment into a Call of Duty map. I can’t say whether these pipe dreams will ever become more, but there’s little denying that the most basic framework for each idea can be found in Table Top Tanks.
The scattered building blocks of something truly special are here in developer Devil’s Details’ first PS Vita title, but limited replay value and poor presentation belie the game’s tech demo nature. Table Top Tanks struggles to emerge from its compelling technology as a compelling game, but for only two dollars, it really doesn’t have to. You’ll get a few hours of solo fun, and your Vita-less friends will get a glimpse at what makes your new handheld so special. The looks on their faces might be the worth the price of admission alone.