Portable handhelds, as we know them, are under threat. As smartphones become more powerful, tablets become more prevalent, and the wealth of functions offered by Android and iOS surpass in breadth and depth those of the old crop of pocket-sized games consoles, traditional models are in jeopardy. So there's no better time, one would think, to pull out the stops. Sony's (rather large) new handheld strives for exactly that - with more gadgets, features, bells and whistles than you could possibly imagine, including, crucially, two analogue thumbsticks. But is it worth the £230+ price tag? Can the Vita really offer an experience that surpasses those offered by the likes of Apple, Google and Nintendo? We look for answers in our MASSIVE Playstation Vita hardware review below...
Getting started out of the box is simple; with the battery being built in there’s not much to do apart from turn it on. You may find a small amount of battery charge on it already, but you’ll want to plug it into the mains for its first proper charge before you do anything else.
The proprietary USB lead has a unique head on one end to fit into the Vita with the regular USB end fitting into a power block that plugs into the mains. Or you can slot the USB into a power-emitting USB port on a laptop, netbook or your PS3. Despite the Vita end of the cable fitting both ways, it only actually works if the PS logo is facing up. So don’t go thinking it’s broken when you can’t get it working at first.
The memory card slot is on the bottom’s side, hidden away like some sort of spy compartment and the game card slot is on top next to slot for undisclosed ‘accessories.’ They’re a bit awkward to open as you’ll need to get your nail into the narrow gap to pull the flaps open. The power and volume controls also sit on top and the PS Home button is underneath the left analogue stick.
Syncing up your Vita with you PSN (or SEN as it’s now called) account is as simple as logging in. If you want to transfer content from your PS3, you’ll need to have the latest firmware update which adds Vita features to the PS3.
The Vita’s European Store isn’t currently online, so our press downloads went through the PS3 store instead. Items are downloaded as Install bubbles as per usual, and then manually transferred via USB, which in turn will delete them from your PS3. This can also be done via a PC if you don’t have a PS3.
The PS3’s XMB menu system has been adopted by Sony TVs, Blu-ray players and even copied (poorly) by the most recent Xbox 360 dashboard. However, the Vita has opted for something similar to touchscreen smartphones, the LiveArea. Apps, options and games are given bubbles over multiple vertical pages that can be swept between with finger strokes. Multiple pages can be open at once, similar to a tabs system in a web browser. So I might have Uncharted paused, WipEout on a sort of ‘recently used’ page, a Trophies page and Settings all open at once, with no apparent effect on performance.
A few things are quite annoying though. The web browser is quite fiddly especially when you’re trying to select a link from a list as the touchscreen struggles to pick out small text items. More annoying is not being able to use the browser while a game is active in the background. This would have been great for looking up hints or checking Facebook and so on. Sure, most phones do all that, but a bit of streamlining would have been nice.
My biggest gripe is being forced to use the touchscreen for everything around the LiveArea. The d-pad and buttons aren’t used at all. Swapping between tabs with the shoulder buttons should have been a given at least. Hopefully some control customisations options will be forthcoming in a firmware patch.
A music player takes care of your audio files including MP3, ACC and WAV. The video player only supports MP4 (boo!) as the PS3 did at launch, so maybe other formats will be patched in later as they were on PS3. All the media player controls are touchscreen (arghhhh!) and curiously unresponsive. Music can be played in the background during games, which might be unnecessary for Uncharted, but it’s great for WipEout as the sound effects still play over the tracks.
The Content Manager is where you’ll transfer items back and forth from your PS3. Being able to use the PS3 to store games is going to be a much needed feature considering the price of memory cards. You can opt to send an individual title to your PS3 or you can backup everything on the device.
Remote Play works similarly to the PSP, with videos, music and PS1 downloads working across your local or internet connection. One issue that needs ironing out is not being able to quit out of a PS1 game once you load it and go back to your PS3’s XMB. I couldn’t get any PSP or Minis title to transfer across yet, this should be workable by launch.
The Group Messaging app allows you to text chat to your Vita and PS3 friends. The Friends app shows you who is online and what they’re playing. A notifications system shows this as pop-up messages too along with recent updates about their specific activities in a game. Party options allow groups of you to meet up and play games and even cross-game chat. A Google Maps app will be most useful to 3G Vita owners who have GPS built-in. For the rest of us, it’s another reason to shout at the touchscreen-only controls.
Welcome Park is a small, but decent, selection of minigames that teach you about the Vita’s control features. Motion control, front/rear touchscreens, camera and even the microphone are all accounted for. Trophies get in on the act too.
Your Trophy collection from the PS3 can be merged with your Vita ones. When playing away from a net connection you can still earn them and just sync them up next time you’re online. You can choose to view your Vita games separately, but there’s no Vita-only total. Hopefully this will get patched in as it evens the playing field for new bragging rights amongst friends. The presentation of your games is similar to the PS3 but with a bit of extra polish.
Near / PS Store
The new Near app is similar to the 3DS’s Street Pass system. I’ll be back for a full report on this once the Vita has been released over here and I’ve got someone to test it with. The Vita’s Euro PS Store is not currently online, but should be closer to launch.
Buttons / Analogue Sticks
The face buttons are smaller than those on the original PSP. Put them side by side and they look tiny. To be honest though, it never had a negative effect on gameplay. The only buttons that are slightly problematic are the Start/Select ones as they’re flush to the Vita’s surface and too close together. Playing Uncharted brought this up as I kept pausing the game instead of opening the journal. It’s a new control layout to get used to, so this might get better over time.
As for the analogues...they’re just lovely. Unlike the old PSP’s singular flat nub, the Vita sports two analogue sticks. Like the buttons, they’re smaller than you’re used to, but they’re raised enough to get decent rotation and outwards movement throughout, and the rubber finish means your thumbs won’t slip off as they did with the PSP. The sticks don’t click inwards as an extra button (L3/R3), I’ve not missed it so far, but it’ll be interesting for FPS games as sprinting and melee strikes will need to find a new home.
There are only two shoulder buttons instead of four. The rounded edges look great and they stand up well for shooting and being held down for driving games too. Again, we’ll wait for the FPS troops to arrive before we make a sound judgement on the overall impact of less buttons. We imagine the touchscreen will try to pick up the slack.
While causing a few frustrating moments navigating menus, I’m warming to them quite well for gameplay. As long as developers don’t end up using them for the sake of it or because Sony is poking them with a stick, I think we’ll be fine. Take Uncharted, stroking the rear screen to climb a rope is creepy and weird, but rubbing the front one to reveal a charcoal drawing or wipe dirt from an artefact is great and adds to the game’s charm no end. It’s strange how for in-game activities they’re fine, but the menu swipes and taps are often unresponsive. Reaching the centre of the front screen with your thumbs can be an issue at it’s quite a stretch, obviously individual hand size will dictate if this is an issue for you.
Featuring similar gyros to the PS3 SixAxis pad the Vita can turned from side to side and tilted for various game enhancements. From first-person views in Everybody’s Golf, steering in WipEout or some excellent sniping in Uncharted. Importantly, in all these examples, it’s completely optional. I’ll go into more details in each of these game’s full reviews, but it’s safe to say that the games are producing better results than the PS3 ever managed with SixAxis tilting.
The expensive unique memory cards are an obvious disgrace that will push many gamers towards buying hard copies of games. You will need a memory card anyway for some retail titles, so buy at least a 4GB one. Cards will get cheaper over time, some Japanese retailers have already started chipping away at the price a little. 16GB is the best the EU is getting for a while which is enough to start with until the prices come down for a 32GB one and you import one. As a rough guide to file sizes for the downloadable versions of games: Uncharted weighs in at 3.3GB, WipEout 2048 1.6GB, Little Deviants 1GB and Reality Fighters 0.7GB.
The battery life will deplete differently depending on what you’re playing. High-end games like Uncharted will be the biggest culprits, but the likes of Frobisher Says and web browsing are more lenient. I found I was getting about five hours play from various games, apps and video playback. There is a sleep mode which allows for a quick-start if you just want to pick the Vita up during ad breaks at home. Charging time from almost flat is around two hours. Not being able to play and charge when charging from a USB device is disappointing as is not being able to charge while transferring items from your PS3. That’s what you get for forcing the USB to handle everything. You can’t change the battery, which may be annoying for anyone used to travelling with a spare, but if you’re only going to use it for brief commutes or playing at home then you won’t miss this.
Playing in a quiet room allows the Vita to produce some surprisingly meaty sounds. Add in any sort of background annoyance like a TV or family members and it’s time to reach for the headphones. Thankfully, it’s a standard headphone jack, so you don’t have to go and buy any more proprietary bullshit. The jack is right next to the USB cable, just off bottom centre, but neither cable gets in the way.
The 5-inch OLED HD screen looks great and features adjustable brightness to adjust to your conditions and save on battery life too. Tech fans will tell you iPhone 4S just beats it for resolution, but one look at the games tells you that the Vita is using the rest of its tech to annihilate anything the 4S has to offer in the graphics capabilities. Needless to say (but I will anyway), it makes the 3DS look like a relic. Remember how the PSP couldn’t do straight lines for surfaces, everything had a jagged look? That’s never an issue here.
The Vita has two cameras; one on the front near the face buttons and one on the back top and centre. They’re both limited to VGA quality, with the rear one being the better of the two. They’re used for taking photos or for shooting background live in-game. The quality isn’t too bad though and the results for scanning your face for games like Reality Fighters are amusing enough. Augmented Reality titles will use the camera to film the background and allow you to interact on top of it in-game, shooting aliens around your room for example. It would have been nice to see a camera with a handful of megapixels though.
Being able to play against people on the PS3 could turn out to be massive. Because many of these features aren’t properly online yet we can’t test them. However, I tried a few races with WipEout 2048 against PS3 gamers playing WipEout HD and the results were silky smooth. This was against an online stranger. I tried finding a friend who was using my PS3 in the same room, signed into their account (and then my account) to race against, but there are currently no search options on the Vita Wipe-out’s cross-play options. If you want to cross-play, you’ll get what you’re given. Again, this is pre-launch, so I’ll reserve judgement for now.
No Multiple Accounts
One Vita, one PSN account. This is really mean. As most of us have a sneaky foreign PSN account for grabbing extra demos for the PS3 and PSP we’re sad to see we can’t currently get access to all the Japanese demos. This also means there will be no Vita sharing as you’d have to delete all your content every time you change between accounts. Many games only allow one save file for game progress too. So any parents thinking their kids will share are in for an expensive time.
- Graphics are incredible
- Great selection of games already
- Proper analogue sticks, cross-play, motion control and touchscreens are great gaming ingredients
- Expensive proprietary memory cards
- Touchscreen menus are compulsory so far
- Can’t play and charge via USB
The Short Version: At this early stage it’s clear that the Vita has come storming out the blocks with some great launch titles. The technology crammed into this handheld has clearly produced the most powerful and capable handheld gaming device on the market. The games I’ve played so far have been so good, that the Vita seems destined to compete with the consoles at home for our gaming time. The Vita itself is quite large, about half an inch longer than the original PSP, but it feels lighter, which considering the touchscreen and motion controls, is no bad thing. I’m not sold on the annoying reliance on touchscreen menu controls while the D-pad sits there like a fifth wheel, but I'll be damned if I'm going to let it stop me enjoying everything else the Vita has to offer.
Let us know if you’re planning on buying a Vita, if you’ve tried one or if you have any questions about the device.