With the Vita being available already in Japan, and having read various import reviews, I wasn’t expecting to be all that surprised by the arrival of Sony’s new handheld console on my home shores. While I was still excited to get my hands on the US/European PS Vita ($249.99 Amazon) amongst the pre-order launch furor I thought I knew what to expect.
However, the reality of the unit felt much weightier and significant than I had anticipated. This was obviously much more than simply PSP 2 or a derivative Next Generation Portable as the Vita’s previous code names might have suggested. No, this feels punchy and hard-working. It wants to be liked and lets you know it — something that in market-leader mode the original PSP (or PSPGo) never quite managed.
No longer able to rest on their laurels, the PS Vita is testament to Sony’s recent more attentive stance. You can read it in any number of features the new handheld includes, but more than this its the sense of finesse that really brings this home.
Start up the PS Vita and you are met with Sony’s new interface, part smartphone part games machine, part Xperia, part PSP. It’s snappy and tactile and makes great use of the touch screen. It’s not until you notice how much of a departure this is from the Cross Media Bar of the PlayStation 3 or original PSP that it hits home how much work has gone into this, and how much of a departure it is for Sony.
You can launch a game by touching its icon then jump back to the home screen by tapping the PlayStation button. This suspends play, but you can instantly jump back in by selecting it from the recent applications screen. If you are done with it you can simply swipe your finger, tearing the leaf off the screen, and it will be discarded. It’s simple and instinctive and made me realize how much the PS Vita benefits from the touch screen.
The fleshed out feel continues with a clutch of system apps that while not quite a match for the 3DS’s gaming freebies do a much better job of introducing both the Sony faithful and newcomers to the various features.
The Near app alone, that creates a social network of your PS Vita friends (people you have and haven’t met yet who are playing nearby), is both intriguing and simple to use. Within minutes I had connected with those around me and started broadcasting what amounted to my own PS Vita blog of the things I’ve been playing.
It is (strangely) the Trophies app that I’ve spent the most time using though. This gives access to the various PS Vita and PlayStation 3 trophies, all beautifully rendered in a few simple screens. My first reaction was to browse through the PS3 trophies I’d recently won, and was quickly presented with a progress-ordered list including my favorite games (Uncharted 1, 2 and 3, Heavy Rain and Flower to name a few).
This then got me thinking about games on the Vita. Having trophies for these, as well as a welcome addition to my portable gaming, made Trophies genuinely matter to me for the first time. In fact I spent a few hours that evening playing Uncharted 3 on the PS3 with the Vita open on my lap to keep track of the Trophies I still had to win. Being able to take my Trophy collection with me felt good.
While all this felt very fresh, there is one aspect of the Vita that reminds me of the PSPGo (which is no bad thing in my book being a real fan of the flip up device). Like on the Go I can keep my games collection loaded on the Vita itself rather than having to swap cartridges. After all when you buy an album you don’t have to put it into your MP3 player each time you want to listen to it. In fact the idea of going back to the 3DS’s cartridge system felt a little antiquated in comparison — and perhaps led more from piracy and market control concerns than the interest of the player.
I could purchase PS Vita games on the console itself (once the Store is activated at launch) or on the PS3 and then hook the two up to transfer them across. I could also buy a range of PSP games and play those — the Vita has a full PSP emulator that I hadn’t heard about before cracking open the box myself.
CrossPlay, the PS Vita’s name for its multiscreen multiplayer mode, worked very well. Wipeout 2048 could be played seamlessly between the main home console and the handheld without any slowdown. In fact having the local screen and the tilt steering in your hands actually became my preferred way to play the game. My kids also seemed to get on better having the experience close at hand.
The dual analogue sticks may not quite offer the movement of a Six Axis or DualShock 3 but their diminutive movement provides more than enough control for the shooting of Unit 13, parkour climbing in Uncharted Golden Abyss ($47.99 on Amazon) and fine steering adjustments for Wipeout. In fact, on the less violent games, my kids actually got on better with the small controls than they do with the big game pads (both 360 and PS3 controllers are simply too big for them to use efficiently).
The PS Vita also has a nicely broad range of launch titles. While Uncharted Golden Abyss underlines Sony’s insistence that this really is console gaming on the go — jaw-droppingly so — Little Deviants also does a good job of showing off the system’s novelties. The rear touch screen makes a surprising amount of sense once you have used it — in fact I found myself disappointed you can’t use this to navigate the main interface as that would have reduced the need to wipe the impressive screen of my greasy fingerprints. I would also have liked to have the option to select items with sticks and buttons too, and assume that will come in a future update (as this is will be an important accessibility issue for some players).
This may sound like being fussy, but these rough edges will need to be knocked off before the system can really shine to its full potential. The biggest of these snags for me is the RemotePlay feature. On the PSP this enabled you to play a handful of games and stream TV and video from the PS3 to the handheld. It was a wonderful feature way ahead of its time — with the Wii U only just catching up now.
It seemed understandable that the PSP would limit this big-screen-freeing feature to certain games because of the system’s smaller horsepower. On the PS Vita I had thought (and I’m sure read somewhere) that it would support RemotePlay for all games. But currently this is not the case (unless you have hacked your system, according to some nefarious YouTube videos). It seems only that same handful of games are supported for RemotePlay on the Vita. If they could just add the Uncharted series and Flower to this list I’d be a very happy man (you see, the RemotePlay feature works not only over your local network but over the Internet as well — the excitement of playing the full Uncharted series from anywhere in the world would be quite something).
The other negative is, as expected, battery life. Even compared to the 3DS’s disappointing duration between charges, the PS Vita still struggles to keep up. I seemed to get around two hours of gameplay, although this did vary depending on the game I was playing. I know that there has to be a trade off between cost/weight/size/battery but it’s still hard to take the Vita seriously as a portable when you need to pitstop so frequently. The system does come with a combined charger-USB cable, but I found that anything less than mains power really didn’t create much of a dent in that battery meter.
As I spent more time with the Vita I did find this less of an issue though. I have gravitated towards treating it like a home-portable (as opposed to an out-and-about-portable). I like being able to play it in different rooms of the house, but still play near a power socket where ever I end up.
Unlike the 3DS, which I’ll have on my lap while watching TV, with the Vita I’ve waited until the family is in bed to spend some quality time with the likes of Golden Abyss on the PS Vita. The quality on offer feels like it justifies setting aside some dedicated play time. You may be surprised to hear me saying that, having championed the family-friendly bite sized nature of the DS and 3DS games, but the fidelity of the Vita experience has won me over to longer play commitments for now at least.
The gorgeously big screen and general layout of the buttons/sticks/pads works well, and is a testament to that iconic PSP design. To this the Vita adds its gyroscope and accelerometer controls. This works remarkably well, at times in Golden Abyss you almost don’t need a second stick for the camera or aiming — the gyroscope controls are simply so good.
I recommend turning up the gyroscope sensitivity so you can use it to aim like you would a second stick. In doing this you gain a huge amount of fine control — much more than with a DualShock or SixAxis.
However, the gyroscope controls in the Vita mean you have to move it around and with this you need to adjust your grip more often. I find that my fingers, resting behind the bottom of the PS Vita, chaff somewhat. I would have liked a slightly more ergonomic undercarriage so the Vita could go a bit easier on my pinkies — maybe I just have girly hands. That can’t be it though as the Vita seemed to suit the kids’ hands better than mine – and certainly better than a traditional joypad.
Their general reaction to it has been positive. It’s a sign of the times they have grown up in that they weren’t all that awe-struck at the visuals (despite my prompting). But the combination of the tilt controls and the PlayStation games seem to have hooked them in more than the PS3 did on its own terms.
They have actually developed their own way to play with the Vita. On Little Deviants for instance my daughter will control the sticks while her brother takes charge of the touchscreen leaving their younger brother to look after the rear touch panel. It sounds like it wouldn’t work but they’ve actually got on better with this than many family-friendly console games.
Certain Little Deviants levels have become favorites for their ability to include all these controls — it’s very cute to see them huddled around the handheld working together so nicely. It was very reminiscent of the quality and potential of the EyeToy and PlayStation Eye games, that although less technically impressive than Kinect’s 3D scanning technology delivered body control gaming ahead of its time.
My kids have also realized that they can watch TV on it (via PlayTV) so that when the main screen is being used by another family member (me or my wife) they can huddle on the sofa with something to watch on the Vita. I’ve not told them yet they could also watch their films too (if I ripped them to the PS3).
I caught my son under the covers a couple of nights ago watching an episode of Blue Peter we had recorded via PlayTV on the PS3. I had forgot that I’d setup the PS3 to automatically turn on when the PS Vita accessed it via RemotePlay. He would have got away with it if the PS3 hadn’t given off its tell-tell beep on startup, that and the sniggering coming from under his duvet.
Vita has actually triggered something of a family revival in all things PlayStation. My wife played endlessly on Locoroco while she was in the hospital waiting for our third child to decided how he wanted to be born. Seeing the Vita and mistaking it for a PSP (which is not that hard to do), she asked if we still had Locoroco.
I only had the disc version of the first game that wasn’t much use to the Vita that only supports its new solid state game and memory cards. But within minutes I’d downloaded Locoroco 2 from the PlayStation Store on my PS3 and soon had her up and running. The game also looked pretty good upscaled. Now, if they could just incorporate the tilt controls back into it — or better yet offer a new Locoroco on Vita — she’d be in Mui Mui heaven.
The advent of the PS Vita ushers in the joined up delivery of games and experiences that the PSP was only ever able to hint at. A combination of higher specification along with much more determination and attention on the part of Sony mean that the Vita can make good on these promises. The promise of console gaming on the go, the promise of EyeToy’s camera gaming, the promise of multiscreen multiplayer, the promise of twin stick shooting.
While there is still more work to be done to make the Vita all that it can be, this is a much more impressive start than I had expected. In terms of ethos and delivery Sony have come a long way since the PSP launched back in 2005.
[Header image by flickr/sergesegal]