If you are in a rush, all you need to know is that the PlayStation Vita is a very good portable video game machine that excels in ways that Sony did not hype.
If you have the time, let's start with a true story:
I recently had the chance to look over the shoulder of a teenager who was playing a poor man's unauthorized version of Rockstar's hit western, Red Dead Redemption, on an iPad.
He struggled to detach his cowboy's horse from a head-high bullseye target it had kicked. The target had been propped up in an orange-brown canyon for part of a shootout that had clearly gone wrong.
The boy's problem was that he couldn't get the horse to secure itself.
It seemed that the controls for the game weren't working. The game was on an iPad so of course the controls were all touch screens. There was no back-up-the-horse button. Since it was an iPad game, there were no buttons or joysticks at all. The game's developers had done what a lot of the people who make iPad games did: they created virtual buttons and sticks. They asked the player to put their fingers on parts of the iPad glass screen and slide them around like they were touching things that weren't there, simulating the presence of one, maybe two, analog sticks. In this western, the simulation was clumsy.
The boy's thumbs spun on the virtual sticks. The horse got stuck. So the boy had to restart his mission.
I saw this on the flight from Las Vegas to New York. The boy was sitting in an aisle seat across from a row of my own aisle seat. He had an iPad. Everyone had an iPad. To my left, in a sign of the boundless ubiquity of the machine, sat a man whose iPad was in Chinese. During the flight he played soccer games and virtual card games. To his left was another man who also used his iPad in Chinese. He also played on his.
I kept my iPad in my pocket during this flight.
I had a PlayStation Vita to play with.
When you have a PlayStation Vita to play with, you look at people like the boy with the poorly controlled wannabe western and you … just, you feel sorry for them.
The PlayStation Vita is Sony's second portable gaming system and it is certainly the better one. It arrives here in North America as well as in Europe and Australia with a kind of timer, as the rise of gaming on iOS and Android devices seriously jeopardizes the relevance of dedicated handhelds, just as Sony itself threatened the dominance of Nintendo's near-monopoly access to dedicated handhelds more than half a decade ago.
It was no surprise that I was among the iPad players on my flight from Vegas 3-1, and it was no great surprise that neither a Nintendo 3DS nor a PlayStation Portable – that first Sony handheld – was in sight. Those of us who play games on slot machines find that they are a minority.
If the Vita is to be an argument for the value of dedicated handhelds, then it is an almost perfect argument. This new machine is an extremely powerful device – for games. In terms of quality gaming experience, it can already compete with its handheld counterparts and even home consoles. It shines not only because of its hardware, but also because of its services, which even on the launch day Minus 1 are among the best developed in the history of the medium.
Let's start with the hardware. We have a nice 5 inch screen and two analog sticks. The former is almost too generous. It makes games look beautiful, but it also makes the machine too big to fit comfortably in any pocket other than an inside pocket on the jacket. The sticks are so squat that they won't get stuck when you put the system in a pocket, but have enough range for deep analog control. This combination, together with four face buttons, a directional pad and two shoulder buttons, provides the Vita with most of the equipment it needs for every console game genre – from sports to first-person shooters to role-playing games.
This new machine is an extremely powerful device – for games.
The vita is easy and calm. It may at first appear impractical due to its size, but its light weight and lack of a disk drive reduce the profile of the machine. It effectively melts away while you play it.
Games use miniature sized cards that are so physically insignificant that I already had to salvage one from the laundry because I forgot to put it in a shirt pocket. Most games can be downloaded to your computer if you wish. Games and other downloaded content are mainly stored on a memory stick, which is available in various sizes, many gigabytes. The memory cards are the Vita’s most notable hidden expense.
The hardware build feels solid and less fragile than I feared. I've had two Vitas in a row since December, first a demo unit and then a real unit, and I was pretty rough with both of them, throwing them both in my pocket and often carrying one in a jacket pocket. I've never paired them with car keys or dropped them, but neither did I pamper or wrap them. So far they hold.
The Vita battery life is a problem for forgetful people. The machine only lasts about 4-5 hours of battery for me, with Wi-Fi enabled, but not always active. The device is so well connected via online services that you don't want to turn off Wi-Fi to save power. However, the battery life in this device should be fine for the average commute or disconnected session, as long as you plug the device in for charging when you are where you are. Do not forget!
The Vita has other entertainment functions of a Swiss Army Knife, all of which fall into the Nice to Have category, I think.
On the Vita’s front and rear cameras, neither the microphone nor the mediocre stereo speakers are particularly impressive. The front touchscreen is better than the ridiculous pen-preferred of the Nintendo 3DS, but it is just like the multi-touch of most modern smartphones and tablets. The unusual rear touch panel is often poorly used by game developers. It works, but it has not yet proven its excellence. (Good execution: In FIFA, the back simulates the frame of a soccer goal, and wherever you tap it with your index finger, your soccer player will aim his shot at the goal. Bad execution: In the Super Stardust Delta you will repeatedly accidentally activate valuable black hole bombs, because your fingers are gripping the back of the vita the wrong way (at start, the bad examples I could quote may outweigh the good ones)
It is remarkable how little a description of the Vita hardware conveys the actual, positive experience of playing on the thing. Since the launch of the Xbox 360 with its achievements system and the overhaul of Xbox Live, a gaming device was no longer supported by well-implemented services. The Vita cribs come from some of the smart things that were done with Nintendo's evolving 3DS network systems. The primitive iOS Game Center (if not the App Store) is blown away. Most importantly, it outperforms Sony's own services on the PlayStation 3. In fact, Vita's services and online implementation are so sophisticated that my PlayStation Network friends list finally matters to me.
Before I get too breathless about the gaming and online experience with the Vita – and I can't really separate the two – I should qualify things by mentioning that I almost bricked my Vita the day before writing this review have. All my Kotaku colleague Kirk Hamilton and I did was join a cross-game Vita chat (yes, on a PlayStation device, PS3 owners!) And then try to both start WipEout 2048. Our systems were both black shielded and seemed to freeze. For a few nervous minutes, I might have shut down my Vita permanently, until I held the power button for many seconds and did some sort of restart in an emergency. We repeated our steps and everything worked on the second try. Take that as a word of warning. Back to breathlessness …
Playing the Vita should feel like an ongoing social experience.
Who you are and who everyone else is is important when using the Vita because playing the Vita is meant to feel like an ongoing social experience. The Vita supports the same PlayStation Network ID you may have for a PlayStation 3. Once my ID is entered, I can switch to a program called Near, which scans a radius of several kilometers and shows me symbols representing different people who have played games near my physical location. I can befriend these people, check out the games they play, and even leave them gifts to unlock things in games (they can do the same for and for me). I have a couple of friends who already have Vitas and live just a few miles away from me so their icons show up. When I was in Vegas for a gaming conference, I was able to check the gaming habits of developers and a Sony executive who were enjoying themselves with their new Vitas.
Your PlayStation ID also takes you to the system's online shop, which is remarkably easy to access and, like all apps on the Vita, works surprisingly quickly. Content in the shop loads quickly and what a wide range of content it is. You can already download all first-party Vita games released by Sony. All games should be available in the future on the same day as the start in retail. You can also download a few dozen PSP games, a few smaller games called Minis, and movies and TV shows. The games can be huge, easily over a gigabyte, but they can be downloaded in the background while you do other things on the system. The Vita screen may be larger than it would be for gaming, but it is wonderful for navigating an online store.
You will receive a lot of notifications while using the Vita. They are all in a list that appears when you tap the top right corner of the screen. During my typical sessions with the Vita, I received notifications of PlayStation friends who had just signed up, games just downloaded, trophies I'd unlock, and messages I'd received. Notifications popped up quickly and clearly. Maybe that sounds annoying, but it wasn't. It felt like I was part of a machine that was connected in the right way to the rest of the PlayStation gaming and entertainment world.
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You can use the Vita as a video player as it does a good job. You can also use it as a music player, which I honestly haven't even tried as this feature seems meaningless to me and most of my music is tied to iTunes (which is not supported here). The Vita is probably no longer your music player of choice than your camera, which gives me a good opportunity to warn you not to use this thing as a go-to camera. It can capture stills and videos, but not as well as my iPhone 4. The camera works well for augmented reality games where characters float through the real world, but snuff isn't for taking nice pictures.
The better apps in the Vita are things like Near, as well as a handy SMS system for PlayStation Network users and a party system that allows cross-game chat over the system's speakers and microphone.
The best thing about the Vita apps is that many of them can run at the same time – even while you're playing a game. When I tested the system's party functionality by chatting with the aforementioned Kirk Hamilton, we were both able to (eventually) run a full Vita game, WipEout, at the same time. When the game informed me that I had to redeem a code on the PlayStation Store to play the game online, I was able to exit WipEout without quitting, keep the party chat going, jump into the store, redeem a code and get back to the game. Not only were the apps all running, but I had others idle in the background and nothing stuttered. Nothing slowed down. The Vita had the horsepower to juggle all of this.
This is the experience I am breathless about: Not only does the Vita provide attractive high-end games on a beautiful screen, but it can do so while running several other applications useful to a gamer at the same time.
The attractiveness of the network functions only extends to your network connection.
The attractiveness of the network functions only extends to your network connection. I have a Sony-supplied 3G Vita, but no SIM card for it. So I'm playing this $ 300 machine as a $ 250 Wi-Fi unit. At home I get the full experience I've described so far. But on the go or on a plane from Vegas, I only benefit from asynchronous networked experiences. I earn the activations when I connect to Near. I'm getting the latest Friendship Game Score Challenges added to my system the last time I was online. This might lead you to believe that the 3G device's ability to be permanently connected beyond WiFi hotspots would be preferable. But for a subway commuter like me, 3G wouldn't help much.
I will probably use the Vita over WiFi a lot at home, which of course will put it in competition with my home consoles. Or at least I'll probably spend a lot of time setting up my vita at home before my next commute, downloading games, syncing stats with friends, and so on.
So what about the games? This is the typical mixed bag you get when you start a system. There's no Halo or Super Mario 64 among them. There is no such thing as an instant classic. We're going to review some key Vita games, and I'll let these write-ups separate the winners from the losers. However, I'll say here that games like WipEout, Super Stardust: Delta, and Uncharted: Golden Abyss validate the Vita’s performance. This machine is a beast. It can run games at even frame rates with visual details that, in the worst case scenario, match the best of the iPad, and significantly outperform older home systems like the PlayStation 2 or the Wii. The games look like Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3. However, the more you look at them, the more you may find that they are not quite that level.
I've been focusing on a strange collection of games on my résumé that suggest I'll be using this machine differently than I thought. Specifically: I thought I would use my Vita to play Vita games. However, the excellent online store has made it a breeze for me to stock up on PSP games, and now I've downloaded Patapon 2 and Tactics Ogre of the older system – rightly so – and just waiting to become my favorite Vita games . Waiting. Not so fast! I never got the chance to play a lot of Rayman: Origins, which is a great side-scroller that I have for my PS3. I have it for Vita now and it seems to look as good on my Vita as it does on my TV through the PS3.
What we have here in the Vita is a system that digs into the domains of other Sony gaming devices and converts this content into a format that is much more convenient for a commuter like me. This is what you get when you have a slot machine that is both powerful and well connected to an online store that is filled with extensive games.
There are good reasons to worry whether the Vita would be a good investment:
- The Vita could be the PSP again. Sony pioneered the idea of console-quality portable games with its PlayStation Portable. It spawned a well-respected system in the PSP, but one that most western game developers gave up early on and accused of piracy, even though a stalled market in the West that the Japanese hit Monster Hunter hadn't hit didn't help. Perhaps Western creators won't stick with the Vita for long either, especially if they're still chasing gold on iOS.
- Again, the Vita could not be sufficiently different from a PlayStation console. Sony itself may find too many of its popular console games on its handheld again and not resort to its own Pokemon, WarioWare, Advance Wars, Mario & Luigi or other best-on handheld series that rival Nintendo uses to keep its handheld system fresh. Nintendo was able to establish its handhelds as something separate from its console. Sony has yet to make an unconvincing justification for non-affluent consumers.
- The Vita might just be one too many devices to take with them for people who are already loaded with a smartphone, laptop, tablet, or 3DS combination (the last of which goes into the second generation of much better software than when it started).
However, there are reasons to go for this jump, which I recommend:
- Indeed, this is the most powerful and physically capable gaming handheld ever made. It was sold at a reasonable price and supports both the Buy-Games-at-a-Gameshop lifestyle and Download-All-Download. It is a connected device on which classic (possibly also from the PlayStation 1) and modern games are run.
- The Vita is backed by some Japanese third-party developers and, above all, a large number of in-house developers in Japan, North America and Europe who have given Sony the opportunity to regularly produce very good games under their own label – they probably get them too from better supported their Japanese studios, which have been overwhelmed by the scale of PlayStation 3 development but seem perfectly suited for making Vita games.
- Until you play the Vita for your fifth hour in a row, there is nothing uncomfortable about the machine.
Despite all the buzz here, there is another way to phrase things. There's another way I can recommend the Vita that I think will resonate with many people, including teenagers who take flights from Vegas to NYC:
If there was a western on the vita and your in-game character was on horseback deep in a ravine and walking towards a target, you could support that horse.
Or rotate it.
Vita has the sticks for it, and the Sony people make games for it? You have that sense.
The PlayStation Vita will be widely available in North America on February 22nd. The 3G unit costs $ 299.99 and will be available for purchase starting February 15. The Wi-Fi unit is $ 249.99. The essentially mandatory memory cards cost between $ 20 and $ 100.
Kotaku is a one-stop destination for video game news, reviews, cheats, design, and entertainment. Republished with permission.