In 2004, Sony first entered the handheld gaming market with the introduction of the PlayStation Portable. Though multiple flaws such as short battery life and long loading times plagued the PSP at first, it ended up faring pretty well in its near 8 year span alongside the Nintendo DS. With the next generation of gaming consoles looming with Nintendo having already announced or released their new systems, Sony looks to atone for their mistakes last-gen with their “Next-Gen Portable.” Sony’s NGP, or PlayStation Vita as we all know it by now, has been out in Japan since December and now the rest of the world is starting to get their hands on it with less than a week to go before launch proper. The only question that’s left to be answered at this point is, will it be able to compete in a market slowly becoming dominated by mobile gaming?
On the outside, the Vita looks almost exactly like its predecessor, but with a second analog stick and a larger screen. The system’s design and form factor has not changed from the PSP, though when first picking it up it will feel slightly bigger. (But not much bigger.) The rounded sides makes holding the system feel natural and can be held for long periods without any discomfort. Given the size, it’s easy for the average person to be able to reach any point of the system with their thumbs or fingers, which is a plus for any sort of device that includes touch controls. Not choosing to revamp the design from the PSP ended up being a good choice as its design was good as it is. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Though the Vita initially looks like the PSP, that all goes away as soon as you turn the system on. The XMB that the PSP helped usher in has been dropped in favor of a new, colorful, touch-oriented interface like that of a mobile phone. Navigating the home menu is as simple as swiping across the screen: Up and down to scroll through applications or left and right to view already opened apps, which the system calls LiveAreas. These LiveAreas provide easy access to game resources such as the online manual or game website, as well as a Facebook-ish alert area which tells you what your friends have done in that game, what trophies they earned, etc… Other friends can “like” or comment on each of these achievements.
The Vita also includes near-seamless integration with PSN whenever it is online. Your system can stay connected for as long as it has access to the internet and access to friends, trophies, and the ability to communicate with your other friends are all there. The Vita also supports cross-game chat, as well as parties where groups of people can chat back and forth either by text or by voice.
When it comes to controlling the Vita, Sony has just thrown the kitchen sink and them some at it. Traditional controls? Check. Dual analog sticks? Got it. Touch screen? Got that too. A touch pad on the back? Yes. Sixaxis motion controls? Yes, it has that too. No stone was left unturned as far as control schemes go, and many games use different control schemes so that gamers can choose just how they want to play. If they want to play using the touch screen and motion sensors, they can go with that. If you’re more inclined to use traditional stick and button controls though, there are options for that too. Using the rear touch pad can be a bit tricky at first, especially if you normally like to wrap your hands around the back of the system when playing normally, but you get used to it after a while once you’re able to better track where your fingers are. One thing I feel I need to applaud Sony for is for designing the touch screen to be used as it would on a mobile phone; With your thumb. Not needing a stylus or another pointing tool gives them my “lefty-friendly” seal of approval.
The Vita also comes equipped with two cameras; One in the front and one in the back. However, it probably won’t be replacing your digital camera or even your phone’s camera anytime soon. At 0.3 megapixels, the Vita’s cameras don’t even hold up to its own sharp resolution screen, producing photos of poor, grainy quality. (The 3DS is plagued with the same issue, with all three of its cameras being 0.3 megapixel.) This especially makes using augmented reality functions difficult at times if you often find yourself in a low-lit room.
Though the Vita does offer backwards compatibility with PSP games, there are two caveats: The first is the fact that, without a UMD slot, the Vita can only play PSP games bought and downloaded off the PlayStation Store. (This coupled with the fact that it has been announced that the UMD Passport program will not be coming to the US) The second being that only a handful of games can actually be played on the Vita at this point. Looking through my collection of around 15-20 PSP games that I’ve bought digitally, only 7 or 8 of them could be downloaded directly onto my system. If you have a PlayStation 3, you can work around this by downloading the game to your PS3 and then transferring it over to your Vita. This doesn’t work for every game, however, and most surprisingly none of my first-party games work at all. The hope is that more of these games will be playable on the Vita in the future, but so far the backwards compatibility seems to be disappointing.
A couple of the remaining issues include the system’s battery life; In a world where battery life in portable devices has been sacrificed for more features and more vibrant screens, it’s no surprise that the Vita’s battery life is comparable to that of the 3DS, with the manual stating that playing games on the system will drain the battery in 3-5 hours. (Though, this is actually better or the same as the standard PSP battery.) This would mean that the Vita isn’t meant to last through a long car trip or even a whole day. Long loading times have cropped up in some games despite the transition from UMDs to flash-based game cards. This doesn’t happen with all games and some of the ones having issues are being patched, but for me one of the big points of going back to cartridges would be that they would load faster. If there wasn’t any improvement, what would have been the point? And finally, there’s the fact that some games will not even start if you don’t have a memory card in your Vita. If this is the case, why didn’t they pack one into the system?
Despite some of these low points. I do think the Vita is a fine system indeed. Even if it gets off to a slow start like the PSP and even the 3DS, it will find its place and will become a better system over time. If you’re still on the fence about getting one at launch, don’t pick one up just yet unless you’re interested in something that’s in the launch lineup.
Sony has managed to up the ante and correct some of the shortcomings that the PSP has in the Vita, and it’s bound to have a future in gaming alongside other handhelds in the coming years.
Innovative with using multiple control schemes; traditional, touch and motion.
Large and sharp LCD screen
Familiar PSP form factor, easy to hold
Fully integrated with PSN
Integration with PS3 as well as cross-platform multiplayer with PS3 users
Decent launch lineup.
Short battery life
Many games won’t start without a memory card, not included with system.
Poor PSP backwards compatibility (currently – may improve over time)
The cover for the game card slot requires surgery to open.
Inability to link multiple PSN accounts. (Need a separate memory card for each account)
Will sometimes not come out of standby mode. (Requires a hard shutdown to fix)