Playstation Vita Review: A Killer Gaming Handheld From a Bygone Era

By  |  Wednesday, February 22, 2012 at 8:35 pm

Next to the phones and tablets on my desk, Sony’s Playstation Vita looks like it doesn’t belong. It’s twice as thick as the latest smartphones, and twice as heavy. Its exterior is a hodgepodge of materials, gray and black, matte and glossy. Protrusions and intrusions abound, from buttons and triggers to jacks and slots. If there was a memo decreeing that all portable electronics be reduced to slabs, Sony’s ignoring it.

The Vita’s design turns out to be a good metaphor for the gaming handheld itself. It’s a device that makes some small concessions to the rise of phones and tablets as portable entertainment–things like the touch screen and motion controls, the bare-bones web browser and the obligatory Twitter, Flickr and Netflix apps–but then it ignores them in favor of playing kick-ass, modern video games. Not Angry Birds, Doodle Jump, or Sudoku, but Uncharted, Rayman, and Marvel vs. Capcom. Almost everything else seems like an afterthought.

The Playstation Vita owes much of its gaming prowess to its controls, or more specifically, to the pair of tiny thumb sticks that sit on either side of the 5-inch display. No other handheld has included dual analog sticks before, and although the Vita’s aren’t as easy to master as those of a full-size controller, they put to shame the sliding analog pad of Nintendo’s 3DS. At last, no more compromises for first- and third-person shooters.

To get these games running smoothly, the Vita’s CPU and GPU each have four processing cores. This processor combo is so powerful that some publishers have ported their full-size Playstation 3 games down to the Vita without much compromise. Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 is just as fluid on the Vita as it is on home gaming consoles. Wipeout 2048 had its framerate knocked down on the Vita, but you can actually race against players of Wipeout HD on the Playstation 3.

The rest of the hardware takes a backseat, with the battery lasting for maybe four hours on a charge, and the front and rear VGA cameras taking grainy photos. But it’s easy to forget about those drawbacks when you’re playing a game that feels like it was made for an Xbox 360 or Playstation 3. That’s when the Vita is at its best.

At its worst, the Vita tries to shove touch and motion controls down players’ throats. Uncharted: Golden Abyss, for instance, breaks up its action sequences with tedious tasks, such as rotating an artifact around with the rear touch panel while brushing off virtual dirt with the touch screen. You can almost picture the touch control mandate coming down from a Sony board room, and although some games handle it gracefully–I liked how FIFA Soccer lets you aim on goal with touch controls–most touch and motion options are better off ignored.

I’m also troubled by the inflated prices of some Vita games that are already available on phones and tablets. Gameloft’s Asphalt: Injection costs $30 on the Vita, while Asphalt 6, a nearly identical game with slightly fewer courses and cars, costs $1 on the iPad. Plants vs. Zombies costs $7 on the iPad, but it’s a $15 download on the Vita. The markup, especially for boxed retail games, is a slap in the face to consumers, and I hope the market quickly discourages that kind of pricing.

Of course, using the Vita isn’t just a matter of popping in a cartridge and playing. Sony created a new operating system for the Vita, with bubble-shaped app icons and an iPhone-like home button on the hardware. Yes, it’s another nod to smartphones, but Sony does things its own way. Open apps, for example, are represented as sheets of virtual paper called “LiveAreas,” named for the information they contain. These LiveAreas show friend activity, software updates and news from the publisher, and users can multitask by swiping from one sheet to the next, and can close apps for good by peeling away at the page. As far as app management goes, the Vita is as capable as any smartphone or tablet.

Yet some of the frustration of traditional gaming remains. Sometimes, you’ll load up a game, only to find out that you can’t play online without going back to the LiveArea, downloading an update, then relaunching the game. For some apps, multitasking is out of bounds, so you can’t run a game and the Web browser at the same time, nor can you jump back and forth between two games. This wouldn’t be a major headache, except that the games themselves often suffer from long load times, so if you exit a game completely, you’ll have to wait a while to start playing again.

The Vita’s online system is also a bit of a mess. Instead of offering one social app for all friend interactions, Sony separates friend lists, messages, voice chats, and nearby players into four individual apps, which is silly considering you’ll often get bounced from one to the other. Even worse, some games, such as Uncharted, will sign you out of Sony’s online network for no apparent reason, so you can’t tell if someone’s trying to reach you without going to the home screen.

The main hub for online activity is an app called Near, which lets you find nearby players, look at what other people are playing, and send and receive gifts. It’s a neat idea, but it’d be better if games themselves could handle the gifting and player tracking directly. Also, I never quite understood why I was receiving a particular gift, or how to control who’s getting presents from me. With the Vita, all the right social features are in place, but the execution needs improvement.

When it comes to buying new content online, however, Sony nailed it. Although most of the games sent to me for review came in boxes, all of them can be downloaded from the Playstation Store as well. The online shop also includes old PSP games, PSP Minis, movies and TV shows, so users who splurge for Sony’s overpriced proprietary memory cards–starting at $20 for 4 GB–will have lots of content to choose from. That seems like the way to go unless you don’t mind carrying around a bunch of tiny game cartridges in your pocket.

The Playstation Vita launches on February 22, priced at $250 for a Wi-Fi model, or $300 for one with support for AT&T’s 3G network. (3G data costs $15 per month for 250 MB, or $30 per month for 3 GB.) The 3G is useful if you want to use the Near app or browse the web on the road, but it’s not a very fast connection, and some games won’t even let you play online unless you’re connected to Wi-Fi.

When I first saw the Playstation Vita last June, I said it was handheld gaming’s last stand, and I still think that’s the case. Like any gaming device, the success of the Vita depends how well it’s supported by game publishers and how affordable it gets with time. But phones and tablets are a growing threat. They’re getting more popular, and their games are getting better at a fraction of the cost of the Vita’s games. That’s probably why Sony is working on Android-based gaming as a backup plan.

For now, though, the Vita is what it should be: A defiant gesture in defense of elaborate, expensive, beautiful video games, but with quiet acknowledgments that something bigger is lurking.

 
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15 Comments For This Post

  1. Sean Says:

    The way tech blogs tell it, we'll all be mashing away on touchscreens by 2014, lamenting the end of home consoles as well. Nobody has outed the PSV for what it truly is-an extension of your PS3.

  2. Adriano Says:

    Told in a very negative "Things that are wrong with the Vita" kinda way, Good job….

  3. Jared Newman Says:

    I think what's more likely is that those touchscreen devices will become modular, so you can attach controllers/mouses/keyboards as the situation demands. Some clip-on game controllers for iPhone and Android are already coming to market, and then there's Razer's Project Fiona. And just think of how powerful the processors will be. 2014 looks very bright for gaming, I think.

  4. Jared Newman Says:

    Would you rather I overlooked its faults and slobbered all over it?

  5. Brian Prince Says:

    How does it fare as a music player? I'm starting to look for my much-loved but non-getting-any-younger 1st generation Zune. I'm mostly interested in whether the Vita has an EQ, and if it displays album art.

  6. Jia Says:

    Even with peripherals, tablets and phones are not gonna able to do gaming on the same level the Vita or 3DS. The reason has nothing to do with hardware and everything to do with the low price point of software on touch screen devices, which inhibits the creation of AAA games.

    Also, the 3DS has now broken sales records as a handheld device so I don't think handheld is having a last stand by any means.

  7. Jared Newman Says:

    The price points are lower, but the install base is bigger and there's no used game market to worry about. And I'm not convinced that AAA games wouldn't eventually sell well on a phone or a tablet. With Windows 8 tablets on the way I think there could be a market for high quality games there. But we can agree to disagree.

    *3DS sales records broken in Japan, after a huge price cut that contributed to Nintendo's first annual loss in 30 years. They're not out of the woods yet.

  8. Lodovik Says:

    What is the most frustrating thing about gaming on a smartphone or a tablet? The on-screen virtual buttons. To me, the PS Vita looks like a no-compromise portable gaming device. If you look at most of the action games on the iPhone, you can see that the controls have been dumbed down to accomodate the lack of proprer tactile feedback. Many games propose only a left-right and A+B control scheme.

    I'm glad that Sony didn't follow the trend of small pocketable devices with minimalist set of buttons. It may look outdated but boy do I love to see the game instead of my thumbs…

  9. Jared Newman Says:

    Not so great. You have to use the Vita itself to transfer music from your computer, and the computer must have Sony's Content Manager software installed. So no drag-and-drop allowed.

    There are five EQ presets, but no customization beyond that. It looks like there's a place where album art should be, and Sony's documentation suggests that album art is supported, but I'm not getting any when I transfer my files over.

    Also, there's currently no way to add or manage playlists.

  10. Ken Says:

    The point I was trying to make is the low price point keeps AAA games off smartphones/tablets. For devices like the Vita to become irrelevant, AAA games would have to migrate to mobile devices. They can't because it's a budget market only.

    The large install base is what makes the mobile price point profitable. It's more of an equalizer than an advantage. And the used game market is a problem that needs a higher price point to exist since it requires physical distribution. The higher price point also allows them to take the loss. Mobile doesn't deal with this not because it has an advantage, but because 1) the platforms don't want to lose their 30% cut and won't allow it, and 2) it doesn't make financial sense to physically distribute a $1 or Freemium game.

    Windows tablets might change things. But Microsoft would have to seriously break away from the app store distribution model and low price point to do it. I doubt they will.

  11. Jared Newman Says:

    I don't think it's in the hands of Microsoft so much as publishers. Think of it this way: services like Steam are still going to be around when Windows 8 launches, which means the traditional games market will be able to merge with new form factors. Razer's Project Fiona concept is as an example of a hardware maker trying to take advantage of that.

    And even on the iPad and Android, there's OnLive, which lets you play AAA games on lower-powered hardware. Of course OnLive still has its issues, and cheaper casual games are still a threat, but it's getting harder to argue that AAA games simply aren't available.

  12. jamie L Herbert Says:

    UltimatelyUltimately, the Vita (which I hope succeeds) will hinge on killer apps, like all devices. how many times have PC gamers decried the end of console gaming (birth of the FPS, Birth of the MMO) and how many times have console gamers done the same. The original X-box became an institution because of Halo, the Wii (essentially a boosted game cube with motion controllers) did the same with Wii Sports. and how many Playstation fans have said "I am not a fanboy but Final Fantasy will be on the PS, so.." This is also true with iPhone, iPad, android etc. While being able to consolidate most things into one wonder device is great. look at the consoles that were amazing in their time that failed. Lynx was a 16 bit full color portable killed by the Game Boy. Turbo Grafx 16 died quick due to no killer apps in the US but in japan (where it had a bevvy of anime ip exclusives) it did very well. Time will tell if Sony can get that game that makes people decide that they have to have the vita and put the iphone to the wayside. But let's not count it out until it happens.

  13. Jia Says:

    I think the publishers are slave to the rules of the platform. Anything profitable will eventually be done. It's only because mobile AAA is not profitable that it hasn't happened yet and that's the fault of the companies who created the platform and laid down rules like, you can only buy this game from our app store which is so commoditized it has to be free for people to notice it. Hopefully Microsoft does something different.

    With Steam, Onlive, and PC-centric software running on tablets, I see potential issues. I think there's a distinction between tablets and laptops that has to be respected. Conflation between the two will cause problems and needing peripherals, special drivers, etc, for a device to do what it's supposed to do furthers that conflation. This is all up to Microsoft to deal with.

    At $1000, I think the Fiona will be DOA. It's basically a game console pretending it's a tablet so it won't look like a niche product. Yet you need to outfit it with all these peripherals for it to do what it's supposed to do, and afterwards it ends up looking like either a laptop or a giant Vita anyway.

    OnLive is a game changer but the company has no leverage. If it starts to dominate mobile gaming in the future, nothing is stopping Sony or Nintendo from launching their own cloud gaming service. And unlike OnLive, they actually own software IP in an industry where software sells hardware.

    Anyway, good discussion.

  14. Dave Haynie Says:

    What's Sony to do? They were once chasing Nintendo in mobile… pretty easy target. But it's Apple lately who's been the top-of-the-line gaming platform. And the one that teenagers want.. those same teens who would otherwise have traded in their Nintendos for Sonys.

    In all fairness, the Vita is kind of cool, despite its bulk. It doesn't feel that bulky when you're playing it, and you certainly need room for the classic PS/3 style controls. The screen has the same resolution as the iPhone 4/4S, qHD, but at 5" and OLED, it's so much better for gaming.

    And today, it's very good for gaming. It's an easy 2x as fast as the iPhone 4S, which was the fastest phone-sized gaming device up until the Vita release. Of course, wait a little while… just as the consoles come out the door with amazing specs, only to get clobbered by PCs a week later, Sony's drawing from the same "organ bank" that's fueling every other portable device. When I upgraded my phone last December, my new state-of-the-art smartphone (Galaxy Nexus) was about 5x faster in most important ways than my two-years-from-state-of-the-art O. G. Droid. This pace isn't slowing…

  15. Dave Haynie Says:

    The Handy (aka Atari Lynx) was killed by Atari more than anyone.

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