First Look: PlayStation Vita

There’s no denying that all eyes are on the Sony PlayStation Vita at present. Most look on with eager anticipation, but some are more cynical.

While it managed to shift over 70 million units worldwide, there’s a common, if not entirely founded belief that its forebear, the PSP, was a flop. Its proprietary game discs, UMDs, were as welcome as WMDs, and as soon as the smartphone became more widespread, offering cheaper and plentiful gaming alternatives, many labelled it an expensive also-ran.

Even the latest of Nintendo’s portable devices, the 3DS, has been less spectacularly received both critically and publicly than its predecessors. And this has led many analysts and manufacturers to believe that dedicated handheld games consoles, in an age of 10-inch tablets and app stores with millions of games available from 69p, has had its day.

They are idiots. They haven’t seen the PS Vita, clearly.

The problem with touchscreen tablets and smartphones is that they are exactly that: touchscreen. While they are great for casual gaming, offering a perfect control system to manipulate birds and cartoon catapults, they are next to useless with fast speed action games. Angry Birds and Cut The Rope? Fine. Virtua Tennis? You’re having a laugh.

Playing any game that utilises a virtual D-pad is only possible for the first few minutes; after that, the tablet becomes sticky and the lack of tactile response often means you end up looking at your thumb placement as much as at the enemies on screen. You can buy a stick-on joypad, but even they can slip and fail to hit the right mark at times.

If only there was something that offered the best of both worlds? Hmmm... The PS Vita has two thumbsticks, a D-pad, and the standard PlayStation buttons - including top right and left bumpers - while still having an incredibly responsive 5-inch 16:9 touchscreen display. Indeed, it even throws a bonus into the mix with touch controls on the rear too.

In effect, this variety and flexibility allows for all manner of gaming experiences, casual and hardcore. We’d even go as far to say that, with a stack of functions, features and talents outside of merely playing videogames, such as web browsing, in-built front and rear-facing cameras, and media playing capabilities, Sony may well have turned the tables. Instead of smart devices taking on handheld games consoles, it seems to us that the Japanese company has devised a console that can take on the smartphones and tablets of this world at their own game.

Certainly the screen is as good as we’ve seen out there. It’s OLED, offers a 960 x 544 (not quite HD) resolution, and has a viewing angle that’s even better than the Samsung Galaxy Note's. Its colours and brightness are stunning, both on games and other tasks. And it’s not too shiny either. The venue where Pocket-lint got to play (for some time) with the new console was spotted with numerous ceiling lights, yet they didn’t seem to give off any distracting glare during play. The PS Vita’s screen happily punched through any such ambience.

The other thing we noticed from the off was just how light it is. We’re not quite sure, and didn’t have one to hand during our testing session, but we reckon that it could even be lighter than the original PSP, even though, at 182 x 18.6 x 83.5mm, it’s considerably bigger. It’s certainly more comfortable to hold, and sits nicely in your hands even if you have meatier mitts than most. Its thumb sticks are probably smaller than you’d like, but you can’t have everything.

The last of the initial “wow” moments comes with its general speed. The PS Vita’s touchscreen is extremely responsive, allowing you to whizz through menu screens at a fair rate of knots, putting the device more on a par with the iPhone 4S and iPad 2 than most Android tablets or phones. There’s a quad core ARM Cortex-A9 processor running the show, and you can tell.

Additionally, the SGX543MP4+ graphics chip is a beast. Although the resolution of the screen is shy of HD, the games being run look like PS3 equivalents. We’re so used to seeing cut down versions of titles on former handheld machines - apart from the Sega Game Gear, with it’s incredibly colourful screen, but God-awful battery life - that it comes as a real bonus to have genuine next generation gaming in the palms of your hands.

Uncharted: Golden Abyss is, quite simply, stunning. Flame effects in the game are equally as jaw-droppingly spectacular as in the recent Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception on PlayStation 3. And other titles we’ve played, such as Virtua Tennis 4 and F1 2011 look so close to their bigger brothers as to be indistinguishable.

They also move as quickly as us Linters at a free buffet. We’ve seen Wipeout 2048, one of the initial batch of games that will support cross-platform multiplayer, and it runs as quickly on the Vita as it does on the PS3. Indeed, it would need to in order to offer a fair experience. While other driving games, such as Ridge Racer and Mod Nation Racers, also offer great examples of smooth frame rates and exhilarating speeds.

It’s hard to talk about some of the non-gaming features of the new console a present, as the units we’ve played with are pre-production models, with pre-production operating systems. The menu screens, therefore, are liable to change before hitting the shops, and glitches will, undoubtedly, be ironed out. That said, we can’t see that the bubble icons will disappear from the Home screen, as that’s what Sony has been touting since the console was first announced. It also promises a more app-like experience than afforded by the XrossMedia Bar of the PSP and PS3, with a stronger tie-in to PlayStation Store.

Some games will be available for download only, for example, and therefore sit on the Home screen, while others will come packaged on memory cards (slotted into the top of the Vita).

There’s another screen we can’t be sure will make it into the final build, although at this late stage (the PS Vita will be out in the UK on 22 February 2012) it’d be weird if it didn’t. It essentially offers the handheld’s internal features, such as media player, camera functions and the like, on a tabulated page with different coloured strips. It does seem at odds with the rest of the UI, so who knows?

The cameras themselves have interesting features, and purport to offer video recording functionality, although we couldn’t access that through the demonstration units. What we did discover, however, was that you can take 2D stills in three different widths, all the way up to 16:9, and we’d be very surprised if video calling wasn’t available.

In fact, the most interesting use of the cameras we experienced while testing the device was with the game Reality Fighters. We used the front camera to take a mugshot to paste onto a gaming avatar, while the rear provided an augmented reality venue in which to fight, with the Vita placing the combatants onto a real-world AR target. Clever stuff, and something you’ll see in plenty of titles in future, we’d imagine.

If we had to find fault with the PlayStation Vita at this time it’s that, from our couple of hours with the console, we never really got to grips with the rear touch controls. The entire back panel of the device is touch sensitive, and you can use swipes and motions in much the same way as on the front touchscreen. Some games use this as an extra control method and some, such as Michael Jackson Experience, offer it as an alternative. However, it’s really fiddly and unnatural to wield, at least initially. That said, given time, we’re sure it would become more intuitive and useful. There’s a learning curve that needs more effort than we could give in the time we had available.

Verdict

Even with that minor caveat, the PlayStation Vita is a mightly impressive piece of kit, especially from a limited testing session. Not only does it move like the wind, have an incredible 5-inch OLED touchscreen, multiple control systems, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi (and 3G, for the step-up model), GPS and six-axis motion sensing system for tilt action, but it is going to be supported by plenty of well-thought-out and realised launch titles.

The fact that it offers cross-platform multiplayer online support and - most likely - remote play functionality means that it could well beat Nintendo’s Wii U to the punch, and the AR stuff we’ve already witnessed adds a freshness to mass market mobile gaming.

However, gimmicks aside, the most exciting aspect of the PS Vita, at least from our initial test of a pre-production model or two, lies in its promise to deliver a genuine console gaming experience for a genuine console gamer. We stand, therefore, on the cusp of the much welcome return of mobile gaming as it should be.

As long as the battery life holds up to scrutiny, of course.



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