Sony’s big gaming gamble is just a few days away.
PlayStation Vita, the electronics giant’s follow-up to the reasonably successful but never quite beloved PlayStation Portable, hits stores Feb 22. At $249.99 – only $50 less than a brand new PlayStation 3, and $80 more than the rival Nintendo 3DS – Vita is Sony’s powerful, pricey new platform aimed at gamers who occasionally wander away from their homes. The sun! It burns my pasty skin!
But in an age where our smartphones are capable gaming machines that also do e-mail, apps and those weird “telephone call” things, an expensive dedicated games device is a risky proposition. Sony is out to prove that a big screen, familiar controls and deep games can woo people away from smartphones, tablets and a miniature Mario.
I’ve been poking, prodding, swiping, tilting and playing Vita for over a week now, and I’m full of mixed emotions. It’s a very impressive piece of hardware, but with some odd shortcomings and annoying quirks. The launch line-up of games is a mixed bag, ranging from an incredible console-style action-adventure experience to a $30 game that’s essentially a port of a 99-cent iPhone title, and everything in between. Sony’s cooked up some excellent online functionality, while other features are oddly lacking, or just odd, period.
Here’s a look at some of the PlayStation Vita’s strengths, weaknesses and curiosities.
The screen – Oh my, does Vita have a beautiful screen. Five inches of organic LED goodness, it’s got the inkiest blacks, whitest whites and most vibrant colours of any handheld device I’ve seen, even if it’s actually a slightly lower resolution than some smartphones when you compare raw pixel counts. The touch sensitivity is nicely tuned, too, although the screen is so large it’s kind of difficult to thumb-type on it when sending in-game messages. That is, uh, if you have small, dainty hands. That’s what I hear anyway. They call me Man Hands Tilley, see.
Dual sticks – Finally, the Holy Grail of handheld gaming: twin analog joysticks. (Sorry Nintendo, your weird Circle Pad Pro retrofit doesn’t count.) Having that second thumbstick opens up a world of gaming possibilities on Vita, from twin-stick shooters to action games that rely on a second thumbstick for camera control. The joysticks are stubby and have very limited “throw”, but they beat the pants off the old PlayStation Portable’s thumb-nub. And there are two. That’s all that matters. Well, almost. But more on that in a minute.
The interface – While it seemed a bit odd at first, I now quite like Vita’s smartphone-style user interface. Games and apps are presented as big, friendly icons on Vita’s home screen (but take my advice and disable the grating background music.) Tapping a game or app icon takes you to the “Live Area” launch screen where you can either start the game or access things like its digital manual, leaderboards and so on. A press of the physical PlayStation button on the device suspends the game, which can be closed with a simple corner swipe or returned to later. After a day or two the navigation process feels fast, fluid and fun.
Pure power – If Halo: Combat Evolved was the game that cemented the original Xbox launch, Uncharted: Golden Abyss is the game that will define Vita’s debut outside of Japan. The game looks absolutely amazing, and incorporates a ton of Vita’s unique features, including the rear touch panel, tilt sensors and the touchscreen. (Nearly all these features are optional, for those who prefer classic control methods.) But Uncharted isn’t the only gorgeous-looking game on the device… Hot Shots Golf: World Invitational, WipEout 2048 and Rayman Origins are among the launch games that showcase Vita’s visual muscle.
Connectivity – Vita is more like a brother to the PS3 than the weird, stunted cousin that was the PlayStation Portable. Just about anything you can do online with the PS3 you can also do with Vita – message your PlayStation Network friends (sorry, your Sony Entertainment Network friends), change your account settings, earn trophies, download games from the online PlayStation Store, buy or rent movies and TV shows, even play some games head-to-head between the Vita and PS3 – WipEout 2048 is the first game to offer this feature. Overall, Vita feels much more like part of the PlayStation family than the PSP ever did.
Proprietary memory cards – Seriously, Sony? Again with the proprietary media formats? In this case, memory cards that can’t be used in any other device? (I’m talking about the memory cards needed for game saves and downloads, not the actual Vita game cards.) I get that this helps curb piracy, but c’mon. The 8 GB Vita memory card sells for $30, versus an 8 GB microSD card you can get for about $10. And since the Vita has no built-in storage and doesn’t include a memory card in the box, you’ll need at least one 4 GB card ($20) for game saves. Ow, my bum!
The cameras – I understand that cameras on a gaming device aren’t a major selling point, but the Vita’s pair (one front-facing, one rear-facing) are a bit disappointing outside of a gaming context. The image quality is meh, the exposure compensation is really slow, there’s no tap-to-focus and (most surprisingly) no way to zoom when taking photos or videos. Even the playback options are barebones at best.
No manuals – Dinosaurs like me remember the days when games came with thick, meaty manuals stuffed with backstory and illustrations and all kinds of extra goodies. If you think the trend towards two-page game manuals is tragic, wait’ll you see Vita games: they have no manuals. None. There’s literally nothing in the box other than the Vita game cartridge, except an online pass voucher for games that require it. Instead, each game has a digital version of the manual on the game card. The upside is you’ll never lose the manual, and games downloaded from the PlayStation Store will have these manuals built in. The downside is, what am I supposed to read in the bathroom while the Vita is recharging?
The web browser and Google Maps – Again, not huge must-haves on a gaming device. But it surprises me that for a device with such a crazy amount of horsepower under the hood, the Vita’s built-in Web browser and Google Maps app are both significantly slower than what you’d find on, say, an iPhone or higher-end Android phone. And that’s even running on a Wi-Fi connection.
Dual sticks, again – Having twin analog sticks on a handheld gaming device is something gamers have craved for a long time. But don’t assume two sticks means the Vita will play like a PS3 DualShock controller – the Vita’s sticks are very small, obviously, and while they work well in some games, it’s still difficult to replicate the console experience in games like Uncharted: Golden Abyss, where aiming is a little trickier than you might expect.
Near – “Near” is Sony’s collective name for the Vita’s social networking features, sort of a Nintendo StreetPass on steroids. It’s an interesting concept – you can see how many people nearby are playing, what games they’re playing, what they think about those games and so on. There’s also some nifty geolocation stuff, and the possibility of being able to swap in-game items when you’re out and about. But the interface is really confusing, and because there aren’t a lot of Vita players out in the wild just yet I haven’t been able to try out many of Near’s features. Stay tuned.
Too touchy – While this isn’t a full-on annoyance, it peeves me a bit that you can’t navigate Vita’s Live Area hub using the sticks or buttons: you have to swipe the screen to change pages and touch icons to launch them. Even some games slavishly follow this touch-only policy; eg. in Uncharted: Golden Abyss, you can’t navigate game menus using the sticks/D-pad and buttons, you have to clumsily swipe and poke them. C’mon guys, we know your touchscreen is cool and pretty, but give us the option to keep our thumbs firmly planted on the controls if we want.
The price – Here’s the thing about Vita’s price: $250 is not an unreasonable amount to pay for what you get in this device. With the screen, the processors and all the built-in bells and whistles, it’s a seriously impressive piece of kit. But $250 is a lot to pay for a handheld games machine, full stop. And then there are the games themselves, which run from $10 for download-only releases like Super Stardust Delta up to $50 for full retail releases, such as Uncharted: Golden Abyss. We’ve become so conditioned to paying $5, $3, even 99 cents for high-resolution, immensely entertaining games on our smartphones and tablets, it won’t be easy for Sony to convince people that Vita offers something above and beyond iPhone gaming, and that folks will have to shell out a premium price for it. Will you?