Can it really be seven years since Sony launched its last handheld – the PlayStation Portable (PSP)? The world of consumer electronics and hand held gaming has evolved markedly over this time; particularly in more recent years with the development of powerful, touch screen-based smart phones
While Nintendo has continued in the development of its own hand held offering – most recently with the 3DS – the question remains as to whether there really is still a market for a dedicated hand held gaming device? And even if there is, are consumers really willing to pay the same price for it’s games as they would for their home console when they’ve gotten used to playing pennies of games for their iOS or Android phone?
These are questions which will only be answered over time, but Sony obviously believes that there is a sufficient market there and as a result has now brought us its shiny new successor to the PSP – the PlayStation Vita.
The Good The first thing that strikes you about the Vita is the screen - the 5 inch OLED touch screen looks huge. It’s bright and at 960 x 544 resolution is 4-times higher than that of the PSP’s 4.3 inch offering and is only just shy of Apple’s much smaller Retina Display. The touch screen aspect is exactly how you hope it would be; it’s as accurate and responsive as any other touch screen I’ve used and is pretty well integrated into most of the launch titles. The screen also does a great job of displaying the sheer power of the Vita. The games all look excellent – pushing much closer to the quality of the PS3 than the PS2 and are a material step above the PSP. Indeed some games – Super Stardust Delta and WipEout 2048 for example – look as good as their PS3 equivalents.
Despite its size (see further down) the Vita is surprisingly light at 260 grams; somewhere between the original PSP1000, and the later PSP2000. It’s also a lot thinner than I would have expected, actually thinner than the more recent PSP2000/3000 models. Yet somehow it feels like a premium product, as it’s solid and very well made. While you’ll want to take care of that screen, there’s no sense that it’ll fall apart in your hands.
One of the key features lamentably missing from the original PSP (and the more recent Nintendo 3DS) was a second analogue stick, which actually restricted the type of games available for the console – especially the popular and lucrative First Person Shooter genre. Thankfully, the Vita has the two analogue sticks we’ve been hoping for, but better still, rather than mirroring the PSP or 3DS’ ‘nub’ they are both fully fledged sticks which, although smaller than those on a home console’s joypad are almost as good. They’ve got enough travel and resistance to work pretty much as well as you would hope and will definitely work brilliantly in your average FPS – something which we will have the opportunity to test once Resistance: Burning Skies or the promised Call of Duty games are released.
As with any new console, while the hardware’s important, it really is all about the games. The Vita actually launched in Europe with a huge list of close to 30 titles! While full reviews of the key games will be forthcoming over the next week or so, my initial impressions are almost universally positive. Even at this early stage, the Vita has some stand out titles, like Uncharted: Golden Abyss, WipEout 2048, Super Stardust Delta and the surprisingly wonderful Motorstorm RC.
But not only do you have the benefit of a decent array of new PS Vita titles, but you’re also able to download and play some 275 PSP titles, which apparently also benefit from the Vita’s additional graphical grunt. There are a few notable titles missing from this list, but this is something which is promised to improve over time.
The Bad However, it’s not all sunshine and flowers in the world of the PS Vita. There are several, admittedly minor, niggles with Sony’s new hardware – some of which can be solved, and some which cannot.
The battery life has been something which has been discussed and speculated about since the console was revealed in January 2011. After all, that screen and powerful silicon is going to need a pretty serious amount of power. The reality is that while I would always want a longer battery life, the Vita isn’t too bad in this respect. While I’ve not done any detailed scientific assessment, I was able to get a good three hours out of it (wifi and bluetooth off, but everything else on) playing a variety of games and even then the battery was down to about a quarter full. Certainly three and a half to four hours on a single charge isn’t beyond the realms of the possible.
While the touch screen and analogue sticks are great, I do have an issue with how small and how close together the face buttons are. They’re certainly smaller than those on the PSP or dualshock 3 pad, and the d-pad is single plus-shaped block. While they work pretty well, it is very cramped and the analogue sticks are too close to the face buttons. This isn’t too much of an issue on the left, as you tend to use either the d-pad or the analogue stick, but I found playing WipEout that my right thumb keeps nudging the analogue stick, which causes your ship to perform an annoying 180 degree turn. Furthermore, I’m still to be convinced on the real benefits and applications of the rear touch-pad. This is intended to act exactly the same as the touch screen (it’s the same size, and had the same texture) without your fingers getting in the way, but it does seem a little unresponsive and I’ve yet to see it applied particularly well into a game.
I mentioned the size of the Vita above, and while in some respects it’s unfair to criticise the Vita for this, at 182mm (7.2 inches) across it certainly isn’t a pocket-sized gaming device. That said, it’s actually more comfortable to hold for long periods than the PSP, with small concave indentations on the back to aid your grip.
The Vita itself has done away with the Cross Media Bar (XMB) interface of the PSP or PS3, instead option for a ‘bubble’ arrangement - not massively dissimilar from iOS or Android - to suit the touch screen interface. Theoretically this should be great, scrolling down through your array of icons (all games on the Vita get their own icon – even those on separate memory sticks), however you can only get 10 such icons on a single screen and already I’m on 3 screens. I can see what Sony is trying to achieve, but it doesn’t quite work. An on the topic of software, the web browser is pretty awful.
One of my gripes with the PSP was that the use of UMDs lead to slow load times. The hope with the Vita’s solid-state memory cards was that this would be all but eliminated. Unfortunately this is not the case. While there’s probably some very good technical reason for these load times and that developers will be able to reduce them as they get more familiar with the hardware, it’s still a little disappointing that it takes around 20 seconds to load a single race in WipEout, for example.
The Future This is probably the biggest question mark over the Vita, as raised in my opening comments. Will the mass-market really embrace this £200+ piece of hardware, with its £30 games? What is certain is that Sony still have some serious ammunition coming in the shape of Call of Duty, LittleBigPlanet, Resistance: Burning Skies and Killzone. And for RPG fans, there’s the prospect of Disgaea 3 and Persona 4 to look forward to.
The astute among you will notice that these are all franchises which can be found on the home consoles. We’ve yet to see many original titles, however these are promised and special mention should also be made of the bonkers-but-great looking Gravity Rush, which has been extremely well received in Japan and is due to hit European shores in the coming months.
Sony have also promised to deliver PSOne backwards compatibility and more comprehensive PSP compatibility in forthcoming firmware updates. Although they have, unfortunately stated that there is no intention to make PS2 games released on the PS Store work on the Vita.
But games aside, I would hope that we get to see more inter-activity between the PS3 and Vita. Already we’ve got cross-platform play in WipEout 2048 and ‘pay once, get both versions’ in Motorstorm RC, but there’s more to look forward to. Once of the under-publicised and under-used features of the PSP was remote play of PS3 titles. I say under-used as it only really worked on PSOne games and a handful of PS3 games. The Vita promises to expand this ability further with Sony stating that they expect the Vita to be able to play full blown PS3 games remotely, although this would have to be implemented by the developer. Despite having high hopes, I wouldn’t be too surprised if we don’t see very many first-party, let alone third-party titles with this feature.
The Verdict Whether you should buy a Vita is very much down to what you want from a hand held gaming device. If your idea of hand held gaming is playing Angry Birds every now and again, reserving your home console for the serious gaming, then it's unlikely that the PlayStation Vita will appeal.
However, if you want a seriously powerful, dedicated machine which enables you to play close facsimiles of home console games while out and about, then the Vita is an essential purchase.