Sony PlayStation Vita

Let’s not beat around the bush; we like the PlayStation Vita, we like it a lot. In fact, we’re happy to say that we have never fallen for a handheld games console as much as we have the PS Vita. It is to hardcore gamers what a Penny Black is to a philatelist.

Admittedly, it has few rivals battling for our affections. There’s the Nintendo 3DS and, er, that’s it. Some might say that the Apple iPhone or iPod touch are valid competitors, but to compare it to an iOS device, in gaming terms, is to compare a Lamborghini to a Ford Ka, and anybody who tries will come across as an idiot.

So, in a straight head to head with Nintendo’s eye-boggling peer - its default nemesis, if you like – we’d take the Vita every time - irrespective of the price difference.

That’s not to say that the PS Vita is without fault, however. Like any piece of consumer electronics, it sports a caveat party hat: The front and rear cameras are 640 x 480 (VGA), so merely functional at best; attempting to play with the much-discussed multi-touch pad around the back is the gaming equivalent of patting your head and rubbing your tummy; the battery life of roughly three hours for straight gameplay, five for media playback isn't great (although better than the 3DS); and loading times for games can be painfully slow, regardless of the fact that they are stored on media with no moving parts.

But we don’t care. Indeed, we care so little about these minor foibles that we’ve started the review backwards in order to get them out of the way. Job done, now on with the show...

A class act

The PlayStation Vita may have recently hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons, including reports of its disappointing Japanese sales figures, but there’s a saying in football that we think applies: Form is temporary, class is permanent.

From the evidence presented to us by the European PS Vita we’ve had on test for a while, we’re in little doubt that serious games players will be scrabbling over each other to get hold of one. It only takes a modicum of playtime to see that it is a games-playing demon; a genuine next gen home games console that fits into the palm of your hand. And if they’re not queuing for one on UK (and US) launch day, the 22nd of February, they soon will be.

Mega-power

There’s a quad core ARM Cortex-A9 processor under the hood, with a SGX543MP4+ graphics processing unit (also quad core). Combined, that means you’ve got more power in your hand than any other mobile experience out there, and it’s all geared to slice its way through next gen gaming like a Yakuza footsoldier through fingers.

The front touch-screen is a mighty 5-inch (16:9) OLED display, offering both improved battery life (compared to LCD) and colours as vibrant as a Justin Bieber jacket. It has a decent viewing angle too, and while it suffers from the same kind of greenish hue as the similarly-laden Samsung Galaxy Note, that’s only when slanted acutely (almost flat). Black level response is also more than admirable, which gives tangible depth to images and, as any home cinema nut would know, improves the palette no end.

It certainly sings loudly and proudly when fed one of Sony’s launch titles, such as WipEout 2048 or Uncharted: Golden Abyss. Its pixel count is not strictly high definition, offering a widescreen 960 x 544 resolution, but when crammed into the 5-inch real estate, the 220 pixels per inch present splendidly detailed and crisp imagery; not quite as finely defined as an iPhone 4 or 4S’ display, but it’s negligible whether or not you’d notice.

Hand-inspiring

Build quality is an interesting feature of the Vita as Sony has reduced the weight of the device (from its original forebear, the PSP-1000) but increased its girth. The first PSP model weighed 280g, the Vita (Wi-Fi-only) 260g. It feels solid in the hand, but not so clunky as portables of yore.

The two thumbsticks may be tiddly, but they feel strong and move smoothly enough to ensure long gaming sessions aren’t taxing or blister-inducing. And although it bears more than a passing similarity to the PSP, there’s something more ergonomic in the way it sits in your hands. You’d never realise that the rear multi-touch pad is more than a back to the device and, to be honest, many may keep it that way.

One of the two camera lenses sits above the PS Vita fascia buttons, while the other is slap bang, middle-top of the rear, and is thus suitably out of the way for use with augmented reality games – possibly its main purpose due to the low pixel count and poor still-taking-performance in low light conditions.

But weight and additional physical features aside, the PS Vita has a familiar aesthetic about it. In much the same way as Nintendo has merely tweaked the design DNA of its DS line with each generation, Sony has used the PSP-1000 as its template for the Vita. And that’s no bad thing.

All-new user interface

The user interface, in comparison, is all brand new. Gone, for the most part, is the XrossMediaBar. It still pops up in the Settings mode, but the main inspiration for the UI is, dare we say it, iOS.

With even fridges and washing machines having apps these days, the PS Vita gets on the bandwagon too. The icons are cylindrical, rather than seat cushion-shaped, but they’re unmistakable in their intent. You even get multiple screens to scroll up and down, and the ability to remove or move applications by lingering your finger over them for a few seconds.

The benefit to this, of course, is that people understand apps. And the consumer electronics industry is seemingly afraid to try anything different. Microsoft has tried something new with Windows Phone 7 and the Metro-style interface, but there’s still an app section in there somewhere.

Certainly, the PlayStation Vita is simple to use by their presence. Each of its pre-installed features stand out visually in ways that make the XrossMediaBar on the PS3 seem clunky and archaic. Downloaded games also appear as bubbles in the virtual sky, so there’s a consistency that works.

Of the software immediately available from the box, your first point of call will most likely be the Welcome Park. It offers a series of mini-games and tests that will help you get to grips (sometimes literally) with your new games console. There’s one that uses the front touchscreen, one that has you finding your way around the rear multi-touch pad, one for tilt, one for the camera and so on. There are even PS Trophies to be won for completing each in set time limits, so you’ll find yourself playing them repeatedly until you do - if you are a PS Trophy collector.

Speaking of which, there’s also an entire section for just Trophies, and it syncs with your PlayStation Network account so you can view those won on the PS3 too. You can delve into them, explore the details and compare your swag with your online friends, but that’s really all there is to it.

We’re on our own, for now

A lot of the other pre-installed applications are network-based and therein lies a problem for reviewers of the UK model prior to its release. Much of the PlayStation Network functionality is yet to be activated, and it’s hard to tell how effective the social features will be when there’s nobody else around to test them with.

Take the “Near” app for example. Near is a bit like Nintendo’s StreetPass – in a way. It allows you to localise your device - using GPS on the 3G model and Wi-Fi hotspots/routers on the other - and share content with other PS Vita owners. It can also find other gamers in your surrounding area, see what games they are playing or own, and allow you to invite them to play co-op or competitively online. However, at present, it just allows us to see who else is reviewing the European PS Vita in the London area.

The same restrictions apply to the Party, Friends and Group Messaging apps, while the PS Store is closed until the UK launch on 22 February.

Browsing and media

That’s not to say there’s a lack of other apps for us to explore for this review though. The web browser works just fine and, while slow(ish) to refresh and non-Flash-enabled, is more than adequate to view websites at their natural width, without having to pinch and zoom in to read text - although you can, of course. You can also bookmark favourite sites (such as Pocket-lint, naturally) and they will appear on the app start-up screen so you can leap straight to them.

Photos has a few options on offer for the less picky snapper, most notably three different picture aspect ratios, from square up to 16:9 (480 x 480, 640 x 480 and 640 x 360). And there’s a photo slideshow, which can display the pics you’ve taken on the Vita itself, those imported via the Content Manager on a PC or PS3, or both. There’s no video recording at present, which is weird, but the safe money is on a future update coming along to rectify that initial oversight (UPDATE: Indeed, a recent firmware patch has introduced video recording - please also see our hands-on test of the new functionality).

Music and Video are two more than capable media players , and other rare examples of the XrossMediaBar making a guest appearance. You can play content you’ve put onto the Vita yourself via a PC or PS3, or there will be option to download movies and tracks from the PS Store. The Video app even hints at “Rented” content becoming available in the near future, with a specifically labelled folder already on board.

Video performance is very good indeed, munching its way through a MP4 DVD rip with aplomb. Not only is the picture finely detailed with accurate contrast control, the audio is rich and spaced superbly - at least through a good pair of headphones. Relying on the tiny tinny stereo speakers is only advisable as a last resort. And the same goes for music and gaming. Kids who most enjoy their music barked out from the back seat of a bus may be happy enough, but anybody with any respect for their own ears should avoid.

One truly brilliant feature of video playback is with Scene Search. The Vita breaks up your video file into chunks and offers them like DVD/Blu-ray chapters. Each of the scenes in then presented in a timeline, which play the first few seconds as you hover over them. This happens for all video, not just those with chapters to begin with. Excellent stuff.

The final pre-installed app, other than the Content Manager that allows you to shift files between a PC or PS3 and the device (and back up certain information stored on your card’s memory, such as saved games), is Remote Play. It’s actually identical to the feature first introduced to the PSP and, we have to be honest, worked inconsistently in test, but its potential is huge. It essentially allows you to access some content and games stored on your PS3 through your PS Vita’s screen instead. That means you can play certain downloaded PlayStation 3 titles on your handheld console. And you can do this either through your own home network or the Internet, so, therefore, away from home.

At the moment, it works with video and audio content stored on or streamed via the PS3 from a NAS drive or home computer, and a handful of games, such as the PixelJunk titles and Peggle are compatible. But, if more titles can be opened up in future it could become a massive feature. At present, its best use is for remotely buying content from the PS Store and downloading them to your home console for you to play when you get back.

Other free apps are also planned, but aren’t accessible on the review sample at present. Twitter and Facebook will be essential downloads, naturally, but Netflix is perhaps the most exciting of these, as it will allow you to stream as much movie and TV content as you like – if you subscribe to the service. It will also act much like the equivalent applications available on other devices, in that it will allow you to pick up and resume video you were watching elsewhere. Of course, you’ll need a decent Internet connection (especially for the HD content), and you’d be best advised not to watch a film via 3G ( if it even lets you), but Netflix, and VOD services like it, are the future of media consumption.

The main event

So that leaves the Vita’s main purpose, its gaming prowess. We’ve been lucky to be able to test most of Sony Computer Entertainment’s in-house launch titles, which we downloaded via PS3 and stored on a proprietary 16GB PS Vita memory card. Games including Uncharted: Golden Abyss, Unit 13, WipEout 2048 (weird capital “E” and all), Everybody’s Golf, ModNation Racers: Road Trip, Reality Fighters and Little Deviants fit capably on the card, with room still left over. While they each offer something different, with Uncharted and WipEout being obvious highlights, we’re also excited that as well as offer its own gamut of new games, the PS Vita is a PSP emulator.

That means, if you have a swathe of PSP games sitting on your PS3 hard drive, or fancy downloading some new ones - they’re often cheaper than Vita stand-alone titles - they will play on the new handheld – video upscaled, to boot. Plus, and this seems to have been overlooked in many of the other reviews that have appeared, you can remap the controls for those games onto the touchscreen, multi-touch pad or second thumbstick.

We’re not sure whether Sony Computer Entertainment Europe will offer UMD Passport, something up and running in Japan already, where you can register a bought UMD game on your PSP and then download a digital copy to your Vita for a nominal sum (kind-of iTunes Match for Sony loyalists), but we’d like to think so. Otherwise, how else will we get Parappa the Rapper onto our swanky new portable?

For now, however, we’re happy with the dedicated launch titles we’ve seen so far. They offer an experience as close to playing on a PS3 as you can get on a 260g, pocketable (if you have big pockets) device. The network functionality on them doesn’t yet work, for the aforementioned reasons, but they certainly show off the Vita’s gaming prowess.

Take Reality Fighters, for example. While not as good as classics in the beat-em-up genre, such as Street Fighter II or Mortal Kombat, its unique selling point reinforces the fact that the Vita is a different kind of console entirely. You can map your actual face onto a character using the front camera and use a real world environment to fight in through the rear. It’s augmented reality at its most fun. And this isn’t the only game we’ve played that adopts a similar gimmick.

Little Deviants also offers AR gameplay. In one of its levels, you shoot aliens that are flying around your head, while looking at your real world surroundings as its backdrop. You have to twist and turn in real life, and we suspect that future titles will use even more intuitive control systems and gaming methods. With the amount of tech on board, including a six axis motion sensor, electronic compass and GPS (on the 3G model), the sky’s the limit for developers. We’ll see a lot of chaff, sure, but there’ll be many gems too, we have no doubt.

The AR possibilities also make up for the fact that the cameras are lacking in their photography talents. Those and video calling to friends and families. Clearly, Sony didn’t want the PS Vita to compete with a compact camera or, even, capable smartphone and that’s just fine with us. This is unashamedly a games console; one with social functionality and the room to breathe, but a games console first and foremost.

Verdict

Much has been made of the PS Vita’s launch price and the cost of the initial wave of games titles and, yes, at £230 for the Wi-Fi version and £45 for Uncharted: Golden Abyss, we agree that they are on the expensive side. The 3G model will be available through Vodafone, so we expect it’ll be cheaper with a data plan, but it could still set you back a fair penny.

However, price shouldn’t be a factor on whether or not the PS Vita is good. Even if it was £1,000, it’d still be as physically capable. Value for money would be debatable, but value is in the eye of the beholder. After all, a loaf of bread is pricey to someone with no money to buy one and a rumbling tummy.

What it should boil down to is what you get for the outlay, and early adopters of the PS Vita will be getting a lot of tech for their spondoolics.

Of course, we’d all like it to have been cheaper at launch, but £230 for the Wi-Fi version (with a free 8GB memory card, if you pre-order a bundle through Amazon and retailers like it) is comparatively affordable against a highly-spec’ed Android or iOS device. Yes, they allow you to make calls, have better cameras, access the ‘net faster and more effectively, but they are no good for the kind of gaming that requires tactile response. And they cost anywhere up to £500.

While you can buy an iPod touch for £170 and play simple casual games well, for only another £60 you can have a gaming powerhouse at your disposal. For actual games players, it’s a no brainer. God bless Gameloft, but playing an action game on a mobile phone touchscreen, with no tangible physical feedback, is no substitute for Uncharted. Where’s My Water? is fun, WipEout 2048 is on a different planet.

That’s why it costs more and that’s why we’d be happy to pay.

So happy, in fact, that in terms of score, we did consider giving the PS Vita 5 out of 5. But that would assume that there isn’t room to grow. We already know that Sony will be adding new features and expanding many of the PS Vita’s aspects, especially its non-gaming ones, over time, so our final opinion reflects that. This is only the beginning.