The PlayStation Vita is a device that may prove to split certain portions of the gaming audience in half while still maintain an overall level of appreciation. PlayStation fans will surely love the Vita as it delivers that next-gen handheld experience many have been waiting to see from Sony without any major comprises like the lack of analog sticks. However, there may be a bit of ire drawn from those now accustomed to smartphone gaming as the Vita may seem like a beast that’s all but a relic at this point despite some of the impressive design traits and technology that powers the device. But for those who simply want to play good games on a device dedicated to gaming the PlayStation Vita is as good as it gets right now as the initial software line-up is appealing and the raw horsepower of the device is more than capable of giving us games that are massive and always engaging.
+ The OLED screen is ridiculously good.
+ Shape wise the Vita is perfect for holding and doing the occasional rear touchpad movement without it feeling too awkward.
+ Face buttons/d-pad/L and R buttons all feel good so do the analog sticks, even if they’re missing buttons.
+ Near is a nice meta game to waste some time with and meet new people.
+ OS and UI are really responsive and is a breeze to navigate.
- The touchpads don’t provide much aside from menu navigation.
- Analog sticks take some getting used to and feel slightly too springy.
- Having simple plastic flaps for the memory unit and game slots feels a bit cheap and odd considering the quality of the device.
When a new video game console arrives it’s a special occasion for a variety of reasons, all of which are either justified or have a special meaning. For fans of one particular console seeing the next iteration arrive with a shiny new design and mind blowing technology is like seeing a mythical figure walk out of the shadows to reveal its immense power to all. But to those who are more agnostic when it comes to gaming seeing a new handheld or home console device released is just a cool time since new games are released and generally speaking new concepts are introduced to how we either play games or do other key interactive things.
With the arrival of the PlayStation Vita we have a situation that is unique since it marks Sony’s second attempt at launching a mobile gaming device, this time in an era in which smartphone based gaming devices are omnipresent. Sony has had more than a few struggles with the PS3 this generation and the PSP started off strong but faded in key demographics, but the PlayStation Vita represents a fresh start, both for Sony as a company and how gamers look and experience mobile gaming.
Like all Sony products, the PlayStation Vita is an incredibly sexy and well-engineered device but by now I’m sure most of you know that already. The Vita itself kind of feels odd to be a handheld device since it looks more in line with some sort of fancy mini-tablet that just so happens to be a gaming device with two analog sticks sticking out. Just like the PSP, the PlayStation Vita is sleek as a gaming device can be without throwing functionality and comfort out the window in favor being a functioning piece of art. There are some rather surprising elements about the Vita; the first is that it isn’t really that heavy. Unlike the original PSP, which weighs a ton compared the later PSP revisions and current portable devices, the Vita may not be as light as a feather but it’s not too heavy in the middle and feels rather svelte for its rather large frame, almost like a middleweight fighter.
Beyond the rather perfect portable gaming weight, the other thing about the Vita right off the bat are those two brilliant and ever so welcomed analog sticks. A feature that gamers have been wanting to see on the PSP forever, or any mobile gaming device for that matter, the analog sticks on the Vita are good but I’ll be forward in saying that they may take a while getting used to. Located in a relatively logical position underneath the directional pad and face buttons, the analog sticks on the Vita feel good but are rather springy compared to the slight resistance that’s found on the DualShock controllers. Comparing the analog sticks on a portable gaming device to a home console controller may be unjust, but for those such as I who have spent hundreds if not thousands of hours gaming on PlayStation controllers for nearly two decades there may be a slight adjustment period when first playing the Vita.
The analog sticks on the Vita don’t feel odd by any means as they’re not some faux option like the analog nub on the PSP – this is a real analog stick that can be used perfectly for gaming whether it’s controlling a Feisar ship down Unity Square in Wipeout 2048 or controlling Nathan Drake as he does his high-spirited adventurer thing in Uncharted: Golden Abyss. The placement of the analog sticks relation of the screen and command buttons does make it a breeze to do any front touch action that are required in certain games but there may be a moment or two when your thumb may slip and accidently hit the X button since the two are rather close to one another.
As my time continued with the Vita and I became more accustomed to the device to the point where it felt like I was one with it, almost like Glitch from ReBoot, I certainly became comfortable and used to the analog sticks but one thing did continue to eat away at me: the lack of analog buttons. Not being able to press down on either of the analog sticks was slightly odd since I’m used to such a thing on my PS3, either when I’m simply messing around waiting for a game to boot up or to perform an action in a particular game. I don’t think the Vita will suffer in the end from the lack of buttons on the analog sticks as the front and rear touchpad can double for such actions with a bit of mental and muscle memory adjustment on the part of gamers.
Design sexiness and analog stick issues aside, the one ever wowing and impressive factor of the Vita is the screen. When the Vita is off the unlit OLED screen may not seem much and it honestly doesn’t seem that big. But once the power button is switched the OLED screen just comes to life in such a way that it seems like you have a small movie theater screen in your hands. Such a feeling may sound like fanboy hyperbole at its best, but the OLED screen is just impressive and the size of the screen does add a new dimension to games no matter if it’s a simple puzzler like Lumines or something more eye catching like Escape Plan. The sheer vibrancy of the OLED screen and the richness of the colors, complete lack of ghosting or refresh problems makes the Vita hands down the best looking gaming device on the market.
Of course the OLED screen on the Vita does have a trick up its sleeve as it’s also a touchscreen and a rather responsive one to boot. For someone that isn’t part of the iTouch/iPhone nation, I do know my way around a touchscreen device enough to know when one is crap, like the one on my Samsung Droid phone, and when one is good such as that of the Vita. Responsive to every touch, the front touchscreen on the Vita gets the job done whether it’s through navigating between menus or doing the occasional game action like swiping vines away in Uncharted: Golden Abyss. The corresponding rear touchpad on the Vita is equally as responsive but it did take me a while to get used to gliding or pressing my fingers on the back of my handheld as opposed to merely gripping it.
As of now the touchscreen does still feel like it’s a slight bonus feature of sorts since not many games are entirely built around it, save for the delightful experience that is Escape Plan. I don’t know if having a touchscreen on the Vita will end up being a nice menu navigation tool for a generation that’s used to such a thing, or if it’ll have a true impact on gaming in a meaningful and non-vapid sort of way.
Many gamers were upset when Sony revealed that the Vita, then known by the somewhat enigmatic NGP moniker, was ditching the XMB in favor of a touch based bubble interface. Having debuted first on the PSP eight years ago and then becoming the standard on the PS3, the PlayStation nation was used to zipping through the XBM to watch videos, play games, or change console settings. So what the hell is up with this bubble system? At first it seemed like Sony was trying to preset a friendly interface for a potentially complicated device by offering a Nintendo-esque design that can be appreciated and used by a wide demographic. I was definitely on the fence about the OS design shift the Vita was receiving but in the end I absolutely love it.
Right off the bat it’s very clear where everything is on the Vita, whether it’s Trophies, games, or other features. The large size of the Vita definitely helps by giving a wide amount of space to display various icons, but things never feel crowded and the design of the icons really help makes things stick out so things can be accessed immediately. There is still a bit of fiddling here and there for some of the deeper features like changing the settings of the device, but when it comes to immediately hopping into a game all you need to do is click on the bubble icon, touch start and you’re good to go. The seamless transitions between playing a game at any given moment and going back to the main interface on the Vita is something that I think more consoles need to achieve. Yeah, going back and forth between applications may not be exactly functional or the norm, but having the freedom to drop in and out of a game without having to wait ten seconds or click various confirmation messages shows a true ingenuity that I think is surprising to see come from Sony. Being able to go back and forth between programs and simply “peeling” the page to close them is a rather effective way to do things and so is browsing between pages, of which there can be up to five active at the same time.
The bubble interface of the Live Area isn’t overly cute or simply gaudy since it does have a somewhat simplistic charm to it. The specific designs of each bubble icon are rather well executed such as the emblem for Wipeout 2048 or new features like Near. Yes, the Vita does have a few trick ups its sleeve the coolest of which is Near. Back when Sony revealed the Vita last January there was a rough outline of Near but it honestly didn’t sound that appealing and in fact seemed kind of pointless. But actually getting some hands on time with Near I have to admit that while not a groundbreaking feature, it is something that adds a bit to the much lauded social gaming space. Basically the purpose of Near is that it’ll track the location of your Vita, whether you’re out and about on a 3G or Wi-Fi network or you’re simply vegging out at home on your local Wi-Fi network. When you’re out with the Vita, Near will show other players in your vicinity and what games they’re playing, thus opening potential friendships if you’re looking for a new online buddy.
Now I doubt we’ll hear about mass Near success stories in which folks talk about awesome new friends they’ve met locally through Near but the application does have some cool elements like being able to gift items to other players or issue challenges. Dependent upon what is supported by the game folks can issue gifts to local Near players like a Lumines skin or issue a challenge for a game like Touch My Katamari in which the winner receives a bonus item. Near even goes as far as allowing gamers to review games by using emoticons so it also serves as a consensus tool of sorts to see what the local populace thinks of a game like Little Deviants or Escape Plan.
The meta game element of Near and how it doesn’t force gamers into social situations, if you want you never even have to access the feature, is nice all around and I honestly think Sony has done gamers a solid by creating Near. With the launch of a new handheld gaming device gamers may be in need of a buddy or two to play online with and having a general idea of who is playing in your immediate vicinity is nice, more so when you know what games they’ve played. Learning that around 20 people were playing the Vita in my area in the last week or so was somewhat eerie since I live in a rather family oriented area, but it was also cool to make a new friend or two and do some good old-fashioned competing here and there.
Is It Worth Your Time?
The PlayStation Vita is a device that I feel will be catered to a specific audience as of now; specifically those gamers who want to play high-end online enabled games either on the go or at home in place of their home gaming console. Software wise the launch line-up of the Vita is good and has the variety required to impress people but the future is still questionable as to what will be released in the future. Sony hasn’t announced much beyond a few titles bound for the Spring and while it’s obvious some more marque franchises will surface at some point, folks may hold off on buying the Vita until it’s a justified “hot cake” gaming device that warrants picking up so they can have more than two games to play.
As a PlayStation fan my feelings on the Vita may seem a bit rose tinted, but the device is truly a marvel since it’s essentially a mini-PlayStation 3 in your hands with bonus features. The inclusion of Trophies and having your core PSN account carry over (you can only have 1 PSN account per Vita btw) shows that Sony thought things out with the Vita instead of giving us the standard barebones treatment as they’ve done so in the past. While loaded with features, some elements on the Vita do seem like they could be forgotten about like the touchpads, which honestly didn’t do too much for me in games. I wouldn’t say that the inclusion of touch tech in the Vita was Sony’s desperate “me too!” attempt, but such a feature may be slightly forgotten if not relegated to second level features in games once we receive more software down the road. It’s not that the touchpads are bad as they could bring a lot of cool elements in games – if only developers think things through first instead of going for the basic approach done with many iOS games.
The mobile gaming space may have changed greatly in the last eight years, but the Vita has enough modern appeal and features to make it more than relevant for both gamers and the ever growing smartphone/tablet crowd. With things like two cameras, the touchpads, that exquisite OLED screen, and a UI that doesn’t feel too rigid or is a chore to navigate, the Vita is a well-rounded portable gaming device that not only is worthy of carrying on the PlayStation name but is worthy of your investment and time.