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PlayStation VITA review

We review Sony’s new entry into the handheld gaming marketplace. How will it fair against the might of Nintendo and the new dominance of Apple?

So here it is, the new handheld from Sony. With iOS and Android dominating people’s palms and laps with Smartphones and Tablets for their gaming time, from Angry Birds to Real Racing, many have wondered if there really is a market for dedicated handheld gaming systems anymore. Heck, even here at TouchGen towers we though that it was game over. But then something happened that was a bit of a surprise. The Nintendo 3DS has been a success!

Sure, it got off to a slow start, but reports from Japan and other markets show that the 3DS has outsold the original DS within the same time-frame. What is of particularly interesting though, is that this has been at a time when much of the world is feeling the pinch of recession. The AppStore allows many gamers to experience great gaming at a fraction of the price and save their pennies, yet the 3DS sales proves that many people are still willing to pay a premium for their gaming habits. So maybe there is a market after all, and it’s something Sony is no doubt banking on with VITA.

Compared to the original Nintendo DS, Sony’s first foray into handheld gaming – the PSP (PlayStation Portable) – was not such a success. It was an impressive piece of kit at the time, and out-performed the DS in terms of horsepower, yet it didn’t quite capture gamers attention. The more casual gamers leaned towards the DS, so it was down to the core gamer then to make the most of it. Unfortunately the games just weren’t there. Many blame the lack of twin joysticks that were necessary for controlling many popular console titles. Maybe the majority of gamers just don’t want full console experiences on-the-go.

It was clear that Sony were not ready to give up just yet, and a few E3′s ago we got hands-on with the PSP Go; a slimmed down version that shunned physical media in favour of downloads and flash storage. Again, it didn’t quite hit the mark, and instead served only as a stop gap for what Sony was to reveal the following year… the NGP (NextGen Portable).

Of course that title was just a code name for the device I now have in my hand, the VITA… Or PS VITA if you want to use its full name. Yes, yes, it does sounds like yet another feminine hygiene product (cough! iPad! cough!).

So what of the VITA? What has Sony learned over the last seven years, if anything? The 3DS has 3D, and iOS has the AppStore. So what does VITA have that’s going to change the world?


 

The first thing you notice when you unbox the VITA and get your grubby paws on it, is its size. It’s pretty darn big! For example, the VITA fits 2.5 times within an iPad screen, while six iPhone’s will fit within the same space! Two iPhone 4S’s stacked match the thickness of VITA. Generally a handheld gets smaller, but not VITA, it’s even bigger than it’s older brother the PSP, and that thing had a disk drive!

So why the size? Well, unlike our trusty Jesus phone, the VITA isn’t afraid of buttons. Like the PSP before it you get the usual D-pad, four face buttons, and two shoulder buttons. And for critics of the PSP’s excuse for an analogue joystick, the VITA shuns the nub in favour of not one, but two full joysticks. These are no doubt one of VITA’s strongest features. I was initially skeptical of how well they would work, and I even didn’t like them during my hands-on back at last E3. However, now that I’ve had time to put them through their paces, I have to say that they work beautifully.

Despite their size they feel just like the real thing. They are also positioned perfectly, and reduces any problems with ‘claw-hand’ cramp, putting the 3DS’s circle pad to shame! It’s hard to tell exactly how durable they are without months of constant play, but their ball and socket approach looks like it can keep up with many a late night of erratic thumbing! Unlike a few nub-less PSPs I’ve seen in the wild.

Overall, the device feels very well put together. The face of it is bathed in a glass-like plastic sheen, all but the matte areas surrounding the face buttons and D-pad. This is then framed with a metallic plastic border, echoing that of the original PSP, complete with glass-like shoulder buttons on the top, and hoops for attaching a wristband beneath.

If anything, I was a little disappointed that the VITA shares much of the same design aesthetic as the PSP. I would have preferred something entirely new, but it’s clear Sony see this as the natural successor and wanted to capture some of that heritage.

One thing I wish they had learnt their lesson from with the PSP though, is that they have yet again placed the headphone port on the bottom of the device. This is particularly troublesome if you want to prop up your VITA to watch a movie. With headphones in you can’t, and the device does not allow for the switch of orientation like an iPhone or iPad. It’s not a deal breaker, but it is an odd design decision for a modern handheld, to say the least.

Beyond its initial look though, the VITA is all new. Another of the major additions this time around is touch-based input. You didn’t think Sony were daft enough to ignore the success of DS, iPhone and iPad were you?

You would think that one touch input would be enough, but in a move to 1-up the competition, Sony have added two. The first is where you would expect it to be, over the 5″ OLED screen. The second is on the rear of the device. It’s clever thinking from Sony, and makes the device stand out from the competition. During my playtime at E3 I thought it a gimmick, and while it will be used as such in many games, I can see it changing touch-based gaming for the better if put in the right developers’ hands.

The main advantage to this rear touchpad is the fact that you can have that same tactile experience as usual, but without the problems that arise from covering the screen with your fat fingers and thumbs.

I have already seen multiple uses of it in games that I’ve played this week. One such example is rotating objects in Uncharted with the rear pad, while cleaning virtual mud off the object with the front. Another has you deforming the terrain of a game to roll a creature around a course. I7t’s as if you’ve pushed your fingers through the VITA and into the game world itself.

My only gripe with this rear pad is that it is covered in the same shiny plastic as the front. I might be wrong but I’m sure the device I got my hands on with at E3 had a matte finish to it. If so then I would have preferred that they had stuck to that, as I think that during the summer months it might get a little slimy from sweaty fingers.
Also on offer are motion controls, both gyro and accelerometer. And with the front facing camera bringing the possibility of Move-style controls too, it means that the VITA has pretty much every control method at its – or your – fingertips.

Back to that 5″ OLED screen I mentioned above, and much like the PSP’s was at the time, this is gorgeous. Rocking a 960 x 544 resolution, the graphics almost leap off the screen. It doesn’t quite have the retina look of the iPhone’s 960 x 640, but it’s barely noticeable bar a few very fine jaggies in games.

Working in tandem with the screen is what’s lurking under the hood. The VITA’s power specs are impressive. Taking care of all the processing is a quad core ARM Cortex A9 based chip – the same cores used in Apple’s A5 chips and the Tegra series of chips. With each of the four cores capable of being clocked at 1 GHz speeds, it ensures the VITA is a formidable machine and should theoretically out-perform the iPhone 4S and iPad 2.

Graphics wise it has the SGX543MP4, a quad core version of the dual core PowerVR GPU found in the iPhone 4S. It’s capable of pushing out 133 million polygons per second to that lovely screen. That’s just under half of what a PS3 can push, and considering this is a handheld and only running at sub HD resolutions, that is mightily impressive.

In contrast, and a little disappointing, is the camera quality. At a pitiful 1.3 megapixels, and 480p video for both the front and rear cameras, they are clearly only meant for games – particularly augmented reality – and so you won’t be sidelining your dedicated camera or smartphone for your photography and video capture needs any time soon.

Another miss is the memory. Unless you are happy simply playing games purchased from retail, and don’t want to save your progress, you will have to shell out for memory. To save on device size, or to make more money – probably the latter – Sony are using a proprietary card, and not the standard SD or Micro SDs. Prices are bound to fall, but as of writing this the prices for memory are as follows (way above that of standard memory prices).

32GB = $99.99
16GB = $59.99
8GB = $29.99
4GB = $19.99

It’s possible to share/sync your content on PC/Mac or PS3, but most users will feel forced to plum for the larger and more costly cards so they can download full games and demos. Not including at least 4GB as standard in my opinion is tantamount to daylight robbery, and a cheeky move from Sony.

What is more impressive though is the battery. This being a Sony device, I was expecting poor results, but what I got out of it was just shy of 5 hours when in constant use. In sleep I noticed a tiny drop in battery when I woke it some 8 hours later. Not bad considering the quality of graphics the VITA is pushing.

So, we’ve talked aesthetics, and horsepower. But what about the software? Lets start with the interface.

Quite rightly Sony have opted not to continue with the XMB (Cross Media Bar) seen on the PSP and PS3. In my mind it really was form over function and by far the weakest of all the console interfaces. It’s certainly not a natural fit with touchscreen navigation in mind.

Instead, Sony have created what they call ‘live area’. It’s nothing original of course, and pretty much acts like a vertical scrolling version of iOS 5. But instead of round squared icons, apps and game are in 3D circles, or bubbles.

I can’t say I’m a fan of the circular icon look, as it all looks a bit childish – something more in line with what Nintendo would come up with – but  perhaps that is the point. Looks aside, it works very well. Sony have restricted the interface to touch only, so you can’t use the D-pad or Thumb-sticks even if you wanted to.

Like iOS, you can create and customise screens in which your games and apps live, and here you can even have different themed backgrounds for each of them. This allows you to organise your games by favourites or genres, if you so desire.

On opening a game or app, it is not immediately launched. Instead, you are presented with a welcome screen of sorts. Here you can launch right into the game (from scratch or from your last playable state if the game is still running), as well as view relevant information about the game, such as trophies, help, PlayStation Store, and web links.

One of my favourite elements of the new interface is that all open apps have a tearable page corner to them. Dragging this will terminate the app, as if you are ripping it off your screen and onto the floor. The same gesture is used for waking your VITA from sleep.

Many apps can run in the background, with only games allowing one to be open at a time. Clicking the physical PS button to the left of the screen gives you a box-file-like overview of all open apps, which is a neat feature.

The VITA comes with a selection of Apps out of the box. These include: the PS Store for buying full games, downloading trial demos, and purchasing or renting movies; Welcome Park, for an introduction to VITA; Trophies, for viewing your achievements; A messaging client for chatting with PSN friends; Photos, for viewing your incredibly low-resolution pics; Music and Video apps for playing, err, music and video!; Maps, offering up google mapping; and Remote play, allowing you to navigate your PS3 on your VITA – but not PS3 only games. There is also a web browser, but it’s dreadfully slow and clunky. I’m amazed to why it can’t render pages quicker. Sony should have partnered with Firefox, instead of using their own web engine that seems the same as the god-awful one on PS3.

Perhaps the most impressive built-in app is Near. Near is a social app that allows you to see who’s playing what within a set distance from yourself. It’s purely voluntary, so if you don’t want to share your location or what you are doing then that’s up to you. Whether you use it or not it is pretty cool to see what others are playing, and how they rank. You can also discover games you didn’t know about, and receive or send gifts to players. It’s like a more fleshed-out version of Nintendo’s Streetpass.

Whether you make the most of the default apps or not, one thing you will be doing a lot of is gaming. Unlike the PSP, the VITA is off to a good start with a good selection of big name titles available during this launch window.

These include: Uncharted: Golden Abyss, which plays almost exactly like the PS3 Uncharted’s but with the addition of many touch-based elements, such a sorting through clues and artifacts; FIFA, a light version of FIFA 12; Everybody’s Golf; F1 2011; Little Deviants, a casual game collection showing off all the VITA’s abilities; Modnation Racers, for MarioKart like kart racing; Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus; Rayman Origins, a beautiful platformer that goes back to it’s 2D roots, and all the better for it; Ridge Racer, what a surprise!; and WipEout 2048, a new version of the game which also allows for cross-platform play with PS3.

As well as the big guns, expect to see more smaller games, like those seen on the AppStore. Don’t, however, expect AppStore prices, this is still Sony after all, and they won’t be giving stuff away. SCEE’s own Escape Plan looks to offer up a less expensive AppStore-like experience, but it will still set you back £9.99 ($14.99).


To close, I think it’s best I go back to my earlier question: “Is VITA going to change the world?”. Well, of course it isn’t. Despite coming out of the gate all guns blazing, I don’t see it stopping, or overtaking, either the 3DS or iOS/Android anytime soon.

However, one thing it does do over all the others, be it a good thing or bad, is that for the first time the VITA looks to fulfill the promise to core gamers that the PSP promised over seven years ago, and that is to offer up true ‘hard-core’ console gaming on-the-go.

It’s a bold move, and might be at the cost of appealing to the growing casual market, but it’s good to see Sony isn’t scared to stick to what it knows best, even if it could backfire. Whatever its future holds, one thing’s for sure. If it’s games you love, then you’ll love VITA.

un-missable

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  • http://www.touchgen.com/ Matt Dunn

    I like the part where there two joysticks. Only took them 7 years to get that right, and the Nintendo DS had to make a freaking add-on. *sigh*

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