The PlayStation Portable is quite possibly the greatest electronic device that I ever resented. I hated so much about the PSP, and not because I disliked the system -- I absolutely loved it. However, the lack of support from third parties, the awkward firmware updates, and a slew of other ancillary issues constantly threatened to ruin my experience.
With the PlayStation Vita, Sony has another chance, and it's a chance that I can only hope is grabbed with both hands. Dale North and I have each armed ourselves with a Vita ahead of its official North American launch on February 22, and I think it's safe to say that we both think it's capable of very great things, so long as it's allowed to flourish.
What about right here, right now? Just what will early adopters be getting themselves into, and will their $250 investment be a wise one? Naturally, we have all the answers.
Holding the PS Vita for the first time, one may be shocked by quite how much it resembles a PSP. Photographs don't do a good job of communicating the similarity in form factor, as it wasn't until I finally caught a Vita in the "flesh" that I was able to note its resemblance to a PSP-1000 -- only much bigger, of course.
The Vita feels more robust than its predecessor. While larger, the whole package feels tighter and tougher, which is what I like to see in a system designed to be touted around town. In ages past, I feared that an adequately strong wind might take my PSP apart, but I feel like I could drop a Vita and have good odds of escaping total destruction.
The biggest change to the Vita is the addition of a second analog stick, which actually does resemble a stick, rather than the PSP's stumpy little nub. Surprisingly, both sticks feel quite resistant to damage, despite their flimsy and delicate appearance. I have a minor issue with the way they're shaped, since the surfaces curve outward rather than inward, which is an odd design for something a thumb is supposed to rest upon. As a result, playing a third-person action game can feel a little odd -- like one's thumb is at constant risk of slipping off, even if it isn't, thanks to the friction of the rubber grip. It can be gotten used to, but it's certainly strange, especially with the rest of the exterior being designed to hug the form as closely as possible. Speaking of which, I'd have appreciated the Start and Select buttons being raised, rather than sit at the same level as the Vita's surface.
Buttons are placed quite comfortably, with the Vita's larger size making extended play more comfortable. Games that make use of the shoulder buttons can cramp the fingers a little, but this is by far one of the least painful handhelds released, especially for folks like me with large gammon hands. The face buttons and D-pad are situated perfectly above the movement sticks, keeping everything within easy reach. I have noticed, however, that these buttons like to make annoying noises. My triangle button in particular has already become very squeaky, which is off-putting.
The Vita may resemble a PSP physically, but there's a lot more going on inside. When starting it up for the first time, one will note just how much the interface resembles a smartphone's. Gone is the PS3/PSP XMB setup, replaced instead by circular icons that wobble on the screen and beg for attention. These icons can be customized across multiple screens that stack on top of each other, and can be accessed by flicking the screen up and down. Each background can be customized, allowing a user to create his or her own themed screens for easy sorting. Open applications are stored horizontally, and can be reached by flicking left or right. It's intuitive and simple, which makes it a vast improvement over previous Sony game systems.
What I love most about the Vita so far is its superior speed when compared to the PSP, and even the PS3! Something as simple as accepting a friend request can take too long on a PS3, thanks to its sluggish interface. Not only is it quicker and more convenient to access one's friends on a Vita, interacting with them is considerably faster. The only thing holding the Vita back, at least on the Wi-Fi model, is the need to constantly communicate with servers before opening any applications. That, and Trophies still need to sync up, which I still find absolutely mind-boggling. Those two grievances aside, navigating a Vita is an active pleasure rather than a dragging chore, which is most appreciated.
The Vita is designed to be much more socially oriented. Tapping the bubble in the top right corner of the screen will relay all sorts of information about the recent activities of your friends and yourself, while a number of apps are geared toward turning gaming more social. This is all done in an unobtrusive, optional, passive way, and I have to say that stalking one's friends is more fun than ever before. Dale will have even more details for you a little further down.
Games slot into the top through tiny little memory cards, and they can also be downloaded directly via the PSN. Again, the Vita makes the downloading and installation of titles faster and more enjoyable than before, and each game also gets its own hub page that opens like any other application. These hubs allow you to jump in and out of the game, open official websites, browse DLC, or perform other actions of the publisher's choosing. Little touches like these are what truly enhance the Vita experience and turn it into something just a little bit more involved and dynamic.
As far as the games themselves go, there's a good deal to choose from at launch, and those worth picking up are really worth picking up. Although most of the games so far use the Vita's multiple interfaces in a gimmicky way, those gimmicks work pretty damn well. The way the front touchscreen and rear touchpad can be made to work together is most impressive, and I am surprised by how intuitive two touch interfaces can be -- at least in a game that uses them well, like Uncharted: Golden Abyss. The gyroscope controls pretty damn well, although some of the games I've played have felt a bit "twitchy," as if the motion controls are a little too overzealous for subtle movements. The front and rear cameras won't exactly produce award-winning photographs, but they're adequate for "augmented reality" games, and there's a rather powerful microphone built in that can be used for game interaction.
Load times have been a bit disconcerting in the run-up to launch, but I have to say that most of them haven't bothered me. Yes, it can take a bit of time to load up a game, but nothing too egregious -- usually not more bothersome than a few seconds. Only one game has considerably lengthy loading times, and considering it's a ModNation Racers spin-off, one can hardly be surprised. The battery life ... is what it is. You'll be able to get a few hours of play from it: no more than a 3DS, but not much less. So far, I've not found the battery life inadequate for the amount of time a comfortable play session lasts, so I don't expect too many users to find it unbearable.
As far as memory sticks go, my biggest issue with them is just how small they are compared to the size of the games on offer. I've already eaten into a weighty chunk of mine with a handful of games, and it won't be long until I'm forced to decide between buying a new card or deleting some titles. For a game system that tries to push digital distribution, this is a real issue. If you've got cash to throw around and don't mind swapping memory cards, it might not be an issue, though it would defeat part of the purpose of downloading a title digitally in the first place. Again, time will tell just how big a deal this is, but it's among my larger concerns.
Oh, and THAT SCREEN! It's massive (for a handheld, obviously), bright and utterly beautiful. It's almost painful to use it for touch purposes, as it feels rather criminal getting one's filthy mitts all over that lovely thing. It does a wonderful job making games look even better, especially the bright and colorful ones. Color is incredibly rich on the system, and makes everything pop.
In trying to provide almost everything a gamer could want, the PlayStation Vita could be a successful jack-of-all-trades or a convoluted mess. I feel quite safe in saying that the Vita looks like it'll more closely resemble the former, provided that talented developers use the interfaces correctly. None of the features of the Vita are deficient in any way; all are up to their appointed tasks. Whether using the touch screen, the touchpad, the gyroscope or the traditional buttons, everything does its job, and does it pretty well. I think even the most demanding portable gamer will find themselves wanting for little.
Add to that the fact that the Vita's capable of running some utterly gorgeous games that control really well, and you've got a damn fine system in your hands. Playing Uncharted for the first time is nothing short of a revelation. It's a sign of just how far we've come that we've got beautiful, fully-fledged console experiences sitting in our hands. The bells, the whistles, and the gimmicks are all great, but the PlayStation Vita succeeds where it matters most -- it can play awesome games, and it already has a number of them prepared for launch. That's what counts, and the Vita is off to a good start in that area.
The Vita's Near application serves as a social hub, giving you a really neat way to see who is playing near you and interact with them. It uses Wi-Fi and/or 3G to determine your location, and then connects to the network to find others online, giving you a sort of bulls-eye view of your location and how far away other gamers are from you. From the app, you can see what other people are playing and what they think of their most recently played games. The software also asks you to vote on your recently played games, letting you pick emoticons to represent your feelings. This gives everyone around you the ability to see the most played and liked games in the area.
You can also issue and accept challenges, share content, and send friend invites from Near. A friends list lets you scroll through your friends' newest Trophies and status messages, and just as in any other good social networking app, you can give an activity a thumbs-up or leave a comment. All in all, Near is a really nice way to find new friends to play with, as well as keep up with the happenings of your current friends.
Sony finally got friends management, chat, and partying right with the Vita. The Friends app is a simple, easy-to-use list that gives you an overview of which friends are online, what they're playing, their play history, and a quick overview of their Trophies. You'll also manage friend requests and updates from here. In each friend's expanded view, you can invite them to Near or initiate a chat.
The Group Messaging app serves as a chat program, giving you a mobile phone-style tool to message your friends. It looks just like a texting application from an iPhone or Android device, with its continually running log of sent messages and a text box. Hell, it even has a button to add a photo to a message. You'll feel right at home with it. And, as the name implies, you can send a blast out to a group by selecting more than one friend or PSN ID for a message.
Cross-game chat finally comes to a Sony system with Vita's Party app. Up to eight people can communicate via either voice or text in Party, even while playing different games. From here, you can also join in other party members' games, and the Vita will even beam you to the PlayStation Store if you don't own the game that everyone else is playing. Congratulations to Sony for finally getting this right.
As with any hardware, it's impossible to say for certain just how rewarding an experience the Vita will provide over coming months. That depends upon the consistent release of new features and games. Both Sony and third parties will need to support it a lot more than they did the PSP, and that means doing more than releasing updated SKUs and firmware.
Still, Sony's new handheld has come out of the gate strong, with a hearty, varied selection of launch titles and some genuinely cool applications to play with. Not only that, but the fact it fixes a lot of long-standing issues suffered by both the PSP and PS3 suggests that Sony understands not everything it does is perfect, and it's working hard on making a handheld that is fun to use and gives consumers a compelling experience outside of the game library, as well as within it.
Whether it can follow through remains to be seen, but I feel good about the Vita right now. Fans of Sony products will absolutely fall in love with it, while the more cynical among us should give it a chance. It may very well impress even your hardline skeptics.
reviewed by Jim Sterling