Sony’s latest attempt to lift a slice of the handheld pie so ably scoffed by Nintendo is the PS Vita: a chunky black slab of portable PlayStation.
It’s a substantial revamp of the company’s handheld legacy that started with the PSP and has evolved, until now, through five largely identical models since its 2004 debut.
Each step saw minor revisions – three of which, the PSP-1000, 2000 and 3000, were basically size revising updates – and attempts to chase a rapidly changing market.
The PSP Go added a sliding-case design further shrinking the device, and ditched Sony’s original proprietary UMD disk format in favor of download only software.
Even now the original device is lives on with the latest PSP, the E1000, undergoing a budget focused strip down with a cheaper build and removing all but the most basic features to squeeze the last out of it as a piece of (almost) throw away fun.
In many ways, despite the new name, the PS Vita is another revision of the PSP legacy but one with plenty of much needed evolution. The same basic form returns and it’s still a dedicated games machine. If you want a PlayStation Phone then you’ll need the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play, an Android based device that can play Android games and PS1 titles.
The PlayStation Vita does have wireless options, with one of the models sporting a 3G connection but it’s for updates and online gaming rather than communication.
The lesser model uses WiFi for the same functionality, and at a cheaper price: the 3G PS Vita will set you back £279 while the WiFi one will cost £229 when the console is released on February the 22nd. Shop around though as there are plenty of deals and trade ins to be had.
The PSP sold well but suffered from a lack of star software and focus. There were no essential games, and it’s multimedia abilities, by SCEE’s own president and CEO Jim Ryan’s admission, “confused consumers”.
This time the PS Vita is aimed squarely at gaming. The multimedia functionality is still there (and with a 5-inch OLED screen it has the potential to rival most smart phones and even dedicated media players) but the marketing and message is clear: this is a games machine.
It’s even got a certified killer app with Uncharted: Golden Abyss proving that this is a full fat gaming experience, capable of providing PS3 quality fun on the go.
The real revolution however comes through the control options. First up there are dual analogue sticks that let you play exactly the same games, and in exactly the same way, as you would on your PS3 or Xbox 360. Something that now seems essential for gaming on whatever platform and demonstrated clearly by the persistence of dual stick controls on iOS games, and the slightly embarrassing admission/compromise of the Circle Pad for 3DS.
Then there are the extras: the twin front and back touchscreens, the motion control (using a three-axis gyroscope and three-axis accelerometer sensors) a microphone and dual cameras. There are uses for all of them with high profile touchy, wavy and visual gameplay mechanics across the launch line up.
Initial impressions are that this is what PSP wanted to be: a real portable PlayStation. Neither a phone nor a tablet but a fully formed, uncompressed gaming console you can throw in your bag.
There’s no denying that there’s some impressive grunt inside the PS Vita’s black plastic case.
The combination of the Quad-core ARM Cortex-A9 MPCore CPU and PowerVR Series5XT SGXMP+ quad core graphics chip mean that this is running near PS3 quality games, helped along by the 512 MB RAM and a separate 128 MB of VRAM.
A game like Uncharted: Golden Abyss is a clear system seller largely because it looks ostensibly like the original game on PS3.
There is no sense of any lowering of aesthetic standards that you might get on 3DS or iPhone. Visually this is competing on a PS3/Xbox 360 level with the same advanced rendering capabilities and dynamic lighting. Although frame rates can dip when a lots happening it’s still and impressive leap forwards for handheld gaming.
The standout feature is its 960 × 540 qHD resolution OLED screen. At 5-inches it’s a bright and sharp joy to watch, despite its being a touch down the resolution and pixel density ladder from an iPhone 4S’ 640×960 screen which rocks 326ppi over the Vita’s 220ppi.
It’s also a capacitive touchscreen which is used in games and navigation, while there’s a second touch pad on the rear of the machine, used almost exclusively for gaming inputs.
The other control mechanisms are an arrangement of buttons and sticks familiar to anyone who’s ever picked up a PS3 Dualshock (there’s no haptic feedback, mind). The triangle, square, cross and circle buttons sit on the right of the machine, the D-pad on the left. There’s also a home button to navigate between open apps, and separate start and selection buttons.
You’ve also got three-axis accelerometer and gyroscope, meaning you can control your games simply by moving the device in your hand.
This enables you to aim simply by moving the device around – great for games like Uncharted though if you’re sitting down you might need a swivel chair!
On the top of the machine are the triggers, a power and volume control as well as two ports. One for game cards, the other is an accessory port. The Vita SD storage card slots in at bottom and a standard sized sim used by the 3G model pops in the left hand side.
One odd form factor is that the machine is slightly too wide for easy typing. The on-screen keyboard is a good size and responsive but the width of the machine means that in a natural holding position your thumbs can’t reach the middle. As a result you either have to use a slightly stretched grip or resort to single digit stabbing.
As well as capable stereo speakers there’s a headphone jack and microphone for use both in game and with applications like Party, a cross game chat system that lets you communicate with others on your PSN friends list.
There are also front and rear cameras. They’re both 640×480, 0.3MP VGA level devices so while classy photography isn’t really an option they’re serviceable enough for communication and use in games. The AR Reality Fighters uses them to put your face on a characters and to project that character in to the real world, for example.
One criminal drawback is the lack of internal memory. You’ll have to fork out for Sony’s proprietary Vita memory cards, essentially a tweaked SD card. Games come on their own cartridge-style cards with storage space for saves and update so if you’re only gaming it’s less of a concern. However, if you want to take music, picture or videos with you you’ll have to pay extra for the Vita specific cards. There are a range of sizes planned from 2-16GB.
Connection-wise both models come with standard Bluetooth and WiFi connections while the 3G model also includes, well a 3G connection.
In the EU that’s provided by Vodaphone. There’s some confusion there though as attempts to get any info out of Vodaphone have met with many confused phone calls, revealing that they seem to know little about what they are offering. Searching the website also shows no acknowledgement. In Japan, where the system is already out, Sony use NTT Docomo to provide blocks of pre-paid online time, rather than data.
As previously mentioned gaming on the Vita looks incredible. After all the talk of CPUs and GPUs, the key thing is that games look every bit as good as their larger console counterparts.
Uncharted: Golden Abyss really does look as good as any launch PS3 game and better, even, than a handful of more recent console games. Visually it blows the iPad/Phone and Nintendo 3DS out of the water.
Because these are more akin to full size console games there are also equivalent full size loading times. You can get back into any game you’ve left running in the background almost instantly but firing up something like Uncharted from scratch can take a couple minutes.
Gaming also takes it out of the machine’s battery, though it’s actually not too bad considering the processors and screen. Play something constantly with a sensible screen brightness and you’ll get about four and half to five hours out of it. So, okay for short trips but best to keep the charger in your bag, a habit i-devices have ingrained into most of us by now anyway.
Loading and battery concerns aside the quality of the entertainment on offer is strong.
Wipeout 2048‘s futuristic racing looks beautiful with sharp, detailed environments blasting past as you compete. It’s also one of the games to utilise cross play, letting you play against PS3 opponents on certain Wipeout tracks.
Then there’s something like Escape Plan. It has a dark children’s cartoon feel as you guide little claymation flavoured characters past a series of slicing, electrocuting death traps. What stops it becoming a simple 2.5D platform puzzler is its lovely, characterful animation and touch controls that have you jabbing and swiping at the screen. You can even ‘pinch’ the little heroes using the front and rear pad together to make them run.
Nearly all the games on offer make intelligent use of the varied controls options. Uncharted uses motion controlled sniping and gesture-based QTE’s in combat. It’s also got by far the best use of touch controls to show off your new toy. When Nate’s climbing rock faces you can ‘draw’ over the available handholds and ledges. He’ll then scramble across the path.
Trying to hit an entire route in one sweep actually becomes a satisfying meta-game in it’s own right. There’s also the ability to scale ropes by stroking your fingers in a climbing motion on the rear touchpad; something that always makes an onlooker smile.
Then there are the games built around the new controls. Little Deviants is a series of party games – variants on Whac-a-mole games, ball rolling challenges, motions controlled shooters and more – that has you stabbing at the screen and waving the entire machine around you.
Similarly Frobisher Says is a Bishi Bashi Special style assortment of madness as you race through challenges that last seconds – counting the number of cats that appear on screen for a fraction of a second, say. It’s numerous instructions are yelled out by a manic Kevin Eldon creating a genuinely funny if short lived experience.
There are also more traditional offerings. Games like Unit 13 is a fairly traditional third person military shooter, and as such has little use for the extra control methods. Instead it makes logical use of them by letting you tap on screen to select options and change weapons.
There’s a good number of titles as well. At launch 25 games will be available with another ten in the ‘launch window’, basically the week or two after the Vita goes on sale on February 22nd.
It’s a wide range as well with everything from more ‘hardcore offerings like Unit 13, Uncharted: Golden Abyss and Ninja Gaiden, though to more casual offerings like Plants vs Zombies and Motorstorm RC. Sports fans get things like FIFA, Hot Shots Golf and F1. Plus there are kid friendly titles like Ben Ten and Lego Harry Potter.
The PS Vita also carries a full-blown PSP emulator so you’ll be able to fire up any of your PSP titles without a problem.
The PS Vita is a simple device to use. You swipe up and down through pages of apps and games that appear as little floating Smartie like buttons. Anything you have open, Apps, games and media, stack up on a series of pages you can scroll through left to right, or shut down by ‘tearing’ the page off.
It’s an intuitive and tactile system with buttons wobbling and the screen stretching and warping gently as you interact with it. It’s easy to see why Sony chose to forgo the PlayStation XMB they’d previously rolled out across various TVs, cameras and other areas of their electronics division.
In terms of apps on the console there are currently things like Near, a location-based service much like Nintendo’s Street Pass system. It collects information from the area, people and games around you. Party is the previously mentioned chat system and there’s also a Group Messaging app.
The Vita specific PlayStation Store isn’t yet up so there’s no way yet of knowing what the full range of additional applications will be in Europe. Things like Facebook, Flickr, Skype, Twitter and foursquare are on the way, though, through Social Essentials – Vita’s take on social networking.
While the media side of things have been played down, the PS Vita does do it all. Whatever you want to use can be transferred to and from the machine directly on the PS3. Through PC you can easily use Sony’s propitiatory Content Manager Assistant which lets you set folders for images, music and video as well as back up your device. Or you can just use the device like a portable harddrive.
The apps that let you view or use your media are all easy to use, although browsing could be better – when you’ve got a lot of content it’s a slow old slog to scroll though it all and the scroll bar is more for decoration than any practical use.
These are the currently supported media formats. The Vita focuses on the more commonly used ones but it’s worth bearing in mind that PS3 added extra formats to it’s original line up though post release firmware updates
Music: MP3 MPEG-1/2 Audio Layer 3, MPEG-4 AAC, WAVE (Linear PCM)
Video: MPEG-4 Simple Profile (AAC), H.264/MPEG-4 AVC Hi/Main/Baseline Profile (AAC)
Photo: JPEG (Exif 2.2.1), TIFF, BMP, GIF, PNG
There’s no ability to re-orientate the screen, leaving you with a letterbox view that only loads what is visible. Attempts to scroll through sites simply reveals a blank screen as you wait for the Vita to catch up.
There’s also a remote play feature, which allows you to use the Vita to take control of your PS3. In theory this means you can play PS3 games on the PS Vita over a network. Some titles work already though many don’t, and Sony is keeping its cards close to its chest about how functional the Remote Play feature will be moving forward.
This is fitting of the original PSP2 tag that it earned early on in its life.
It improves on the PSP in almost every way, adding the dual sticks that developers can’t do without, as well as the touchscreens and motion controls of other gaming systems. Still, it does feel like a reaction, rather than an innovation.
There’s nothing new or revolutionary, simply another means to play games and watch movies.
As a portable console this is about as good as it gets. This really is a portable PlayStation and lets you ditch Temple Run in favor of full sized, big budget games.
Both the graphical capabilities and the screen make for a luxury mobile experience while the controls combine the best of traditional and more creative inputs, enhancing but never detracting from the gameplay.
The price, too, is fair. Other high-end mobile devices cost far more, and while £230 isn’t exactly pocket money, it’s still a heavily subsidised console.
The web browser really is awful. Blank sections of screen, juddery loading and lacking features, it might as well not be there for all the use you’ll get out of it.
The size of the machine also makes it a little unwieldy to use the way it’s meant to be held: if your thumbs fall naturally on the sticks then reaching the middle of the screen is uncomfortable and vice versa.
Before you decide to ‘go Vita’ you need to be sure about what hole you’re hoping to fill. If it’s mainly games on the go then knock yourself out. It mixes the best of everything out there with games that are PS3/Xbox quality right down to Angry Birds level bits of fluff.
The controls, both traditional sticks and the motion and touch stuff, are all great.
It’s also a capable media player with the various social apps also looking promising. But this is really a games machine and should be viewed for purchase as such. It won’t worry more versatile i-Things, tablets or media players anytime soon but if you want fun first, and a few other features second then it’s worth investigating.