Playstation Vita: The JOE Review
Offering near-PS3 visuals in the palms of your hands, the world has never seen anything like the Playstation Vita, yet in a world of inexpensive apps, does it still care? Here's our verdict.
It can't be overstated - the Playstation Vita (or PS Vita) is without a doubt one of the biggest gambles the world of video games has ever seen.
In a world in which handheld gaming - traditionally the preserve of Nintendo – has been superseded by mobile devices with blockbuster apps at minuscule prices, Sony’s latest venture is a device that’s bulky, costs around the same as a PS3 home console and features titles such as Uncharted: Golden Abyss retailing at around €45-50. And yet with a gamble like that, the Japanese giants have spared no expense.
You may recall that Sony’s first handheld entry was the PSP, a moderate success in the UK and Europe (however, it became enormous in Japan due to the popularity of the Monster Hunter series) but a device that ultimately fell short of the juggernaut that was the Brain Training/Nintendogs carrier, the Nintendo DS.
The complaint at the time was that Sony didn’t understand handheld gaming and were too busy dazzling gamers with technical specs rather than innovative, purpose-built video game experiences.
Yet just a few years on, the unstoppable success of the iOS App Store and the Android Market have not just swooped in and taken the casual audiences Nintendo and Sony crave, they’ve perhaps irreversibly adjusted consumers’ perceptions of value in handheld gaming nearly overnight. 'Why play €40 to solve Professor Layton’s puzzles' goes the argument, when you can fling birds across a screen for less than the price of a Twix?
Into this volatile market comes the remarkably assured PS Vita, a drop-dead gorgeous luxury handheld console with near-Playstation 3-level graphical capabilities, Wide Area Augmented Reality, 3G sim cards, a 5-inch OLED multi-touch screen, a rear touch pad, dual analog sticks, front and rear cameras and a launch line-up of over 20 titles. More importantly, it’s got buttons too.
The first impression the PS Vita leaves is one of size. It’s a much, much bigger console than you’d expect and it’s a ‘portable’ device which would look noticeable in even MC Hammer’s parachute pants. The second impression is made by the user’s jaw, as it's sure to hit the floor once the 5-inch OLED screen lights up.
Within seconds you'll forget about Nintendo’s glasses-free 3DS screen and instead gawp at the clarity of the display. After all, if the Vita wants to truly replicate PS3 visuals, they need to be pin sharp.
Design-wise, the console itself slides perfectly into your hands due to its carefully constructed ergonomic design, while a perfect highlight was discovering just how quickly the tiny dual analog sticks become second nature.
Overall the build quality is greater than any handheld console ever released by a tremendous margin, while every port and slot is neatly tucked away and perfectly positioned - we can't imagine any 3DS Circle Pad Pro monstrosities down the road. Play it on the bus if you must, but be prepared for strangers to fondle the Vita through their uncontrollable urges. Or at least that's what we assume will happen.
Interface and Built-in Software
Since the first glimpses of the Vita, the user interface has divided opinion and we’re sad to report that the Smarties-like home screen (with every option rendered as a giant floating blob) is not to our liking. However, it’s perfectly easy to navigate and the ability to ‘peel’ away open applications to close them is a surprisingly satisfying every time.
One thing the PS3’s interface has shown us – in contrast to that of Microsoft’s near-weekly Dashboard updates – is that although we’ll just have to get used to the Vita’s on-board design, that it may take a while.
As for in-built software, we were particularly taken by the ‘Near’ feature, which is essentially the PS Vita’s version of the Nintendo 3DS’ StreetPass functionality, which encouraged users to carry their consoles at all times to potentially bump into fellow console owners for mutual benefit (Play Coins for in-built software activities).
Near operates on a similar level but also features a radar-like display for you to find out what nearby players are spending their time with, in addition to potentially sharing ‘Game Goods’, which in some cases may even unlock new levels.
Finally, the Playstation Store will become the main port of call for all Vita players, particularly those that splurged on a 16GB or 32GB memory card with their console. Why? That’s because the store features the full retail releases available to download for what are largely reduced prices compared to their retail equivalents.
Granted, you won’t be able to trade them in if they don’t tickle your fancy but there’s something vaguely futuristic about baulking at the prices at a bricks-and-mortar store and pulling out the console itself to seek a bargain.
Similar to that of the 3DS, you’ll be looking at around 4-5 hours playtime with your Vita when fully charged. That’s not an ideal amount of time but we feel that due to the regularity of smartphone charging, players should now be used to potentially charging their handheld console on a daily basis if they’re avid players.
Plus, when the Vita delivers from a hardware perspective, it’s understandable that things even out when battery life is taken into consideration.
Software Launch Line-up
Due to the length of time the console has been released in Japan (since the end of 2011), the Vita has a terrifically varied line-up of launch titles, offering everything from mini versions of PS3 heavyweights (Uncharted: Golden Abyss), near-perfect ports of your favourite sports titles (FIFA Football – FIFA 12 by another name, Virtua Tennis 4) and largely overlooked titles that may find their true calling in the handheld space (Rayman Origins).
Oh and since it’s a Playstation console launch, WipEout and Ridge Racer inevitably show up, though cynicism aside, the former is a true showcase of the console’s power and well worth your time.
There’s also a huge sliding scale between the prices of the games, ranging from €45-50 for AAA releases (Uncharted) to €20-30 for the more experimental titles (Reality Fighters). It’s a thoughtful approach and should go some way to address consumer’s perceptions of value – if the aforementioned Uncharted looks, plays and feels exactly like its full-price PS3 brothers, why shouldn’t it cost the same?
The PS Vita is a curious console. Were it not for the rise of apps, this would be the ultimate gamer’s device – a handheld capable of genuinely delivering home console experiences, while housed in a beautiful, inviting design that slides right into the player’s hands.
Yet already the Vita has been described by the likes of Forbes as “the future of the past” – a device that delivers the cutting edge but in a form that could feel like a relic to many gamers. In one of the more searing quips pre-launch, Duke Nukem creator George Broussard described the console in hardly the most glowing of terms, tweeting: “PS Vita launch feels like the last dinosaur showing up to a mammal convention."
It’s a great line which, love it or hate it, cuts right to the discussion on the viability of what is a spectacular console – who exactly is the Vita intended for? While we’ve whiled away many hours in the console’s presence this week, when buying a Vita, an unnecessarily chunky memory card and at least one launch title adds up to over €300+, so it's not going to be an impulse buy.
Price tags aside, the PS Vita is a true gamer’s device, lovingly crafted with thoughtfully implemented features. It may not be for everyone, or for as many as Sony may hope for, but if it is to be the final effort for traditional handheld console releases, it’s one hell of a curtain call.