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Sony's Patapon 2 unleashes its rhythm magic download-only: Will game boxes disappear?

Today Sony releases a brand-new game for the PSP, and there will be no UMD in sight.

The attack on disc-based gaming has begun.

Today, Sony releases a brand-new game for the PSP, and there will be no UMD in sight. Patapon 2, the sequel to last year's well-reviewed rhythm-warfare-strategy game, is the first major-release game to go download-only for Sony's veteran portable. It was a deliberate decision, too: in Asia and Europe, Patapon 2 was released on disc. To get the game in the U.S., you can either download through a PS3 or PC and sync with the PSP or use the PSP's built-in PSN store on May 7, or go to a local store like GameStop today, where you'll get an empty box with a download code inside.

This isn't the PSP's first download-only game--Echochrome and Flow, just to name a few, also went this path. But whereas those games were priced like DLC titles at $9.99, Patapon 2's price point ($19.95) and file size (362MB) are UMD-equivalent. So, consider this Sony's first shot across the bow signaling the beginning of the end of the UMD format. But apart from the UMD-free hype, how does the game play?

Actually, everything about the UMD-free Patapon sequel is as good as, or better than, the UMD original. For the uninitiated, Patapon's a deep-thinking warfare simulator, trapped in a casual game's body. Expect a weird combination of beautiful art from French artist Rolito, trance-like rhythm-based attack minigames, and obsessive character leveling. More character classes, a well-explained evolution tree for the Patapon warriors you bring to life, and a new warning system for when your rhythm attacks begin to fall out of sync are just some of the nice tweaks. However, the load times were surprisingly long--for a disc-free game, that is. A quick-fix start-up mode would be appreciated next time.

Now, for the question we've all been wondering about: is this the beginning of the end for boxed games? All across the game industry, a pattern has been forming: DLC and game stores online for the PS3, 360, and Wii have been pumping out better and better titles, and the iPhonehas promoted box-free gaming like no other platform. Now the DSiis also on the download wagon. The PSP Go!, rumored to be announced in just a few weeks at E3, is supposed to ditch UMDs altogether in favor of downloads. While that might piss old-school PSP owners off, the advantages are clear: you can keep many titles on your machine at once, battery life is considerably better, and there's no worry about disc damage or loss, since the PSN store allows free redownloading.

The big negative would be the end of used games, which gamers (and GameStop) might be a little more sad about than game publishers. And, of course, Blu-ray and DVD games can get pretty hefty in size (even Patapon 2 took a good 15 minutes to download). Hard drives aren't big enough yet for gamers to go fully disc-free, and for Triple-A titles, discs seem appropriate. But it makes good sense for a lot of other games to start moving to downloads, both as a cost-saving measure to publishers, and, hopefully, as a means to lower the cost of games for gamers like us.

If download-only games don't offer significantly lower prices, though, there's going to be some 'splaining to do.