Technology changes as fast as a wildfire burns; This is especially true in the mobile market. Every month, a new mobile device is released – Whether it is a new smart phone, a new tablet, or something else that can play your music, movies, games, and keep you in touch with your social life all while making you hot pancakes for breakfast. Okay, well maybe not the last part, but it’s only a matter of time before we get there! With these trends, it’s no wonder that gaming companies are concerned about their handheld gaming devices in this ever evolving market. A large part of what used to be their domain and theirs alone now belongs to leaders in other mobile technology. So when Sony announced the successor to the PSP, the PlayStation Vita, back in 2011, it’s not surprising that some were a little hesitant, wondering if the handheld would measure up to the standards of today’s mobile society. Well rest assured, it has.
We managed to snag a 3G + Wi-Fi model (Early Edition) of the Vita a bit early and put it through some lengthy testing. There’s no such thing as a perfect system, but the Vita definitely raises the bar when it comes to handheld gaming devices. It’s a beautiful device from top to bottom, back to front, inside and out. That’s not to say there aren’t a few things I wouldn’t like to change about it but overall it has given me very little cause for complaint.
To begin, the moment you pick up a Vita for the first time, you’ll likely be surprised by the weight and size of it. Although the system is a bit larger than the later versions of its predecessor, the PSP, it is still pretty light weight and comfortable to hold in your hands. It’s definitely built for some extended game sessions where it will not bog down your hands. Now while it is light, it also feels strong and durable; Everything from the buttons to the casing. Portability? Well, I don’t even think the PSP was too pocket friendly and neither is the Vita. That’s not to say it’s impossible. I was able to carry my Vita around in my jeans pockets along with my cell phone (when walking or standing up – sitting down is a different story) and my suit jacket’s inside pocket fairly comfortably. It didn’t weigh my clothes down and it wasn’t too large that I couldn’t reach anything else that was in there. However, for most people, it may not be the best option. I say, try it out. If it works for you, more power to you and your gaming habits!
Now when you turn on the Vita, be prepared to shield your eyes from its magnificence! The bright 5″ OLED screen will probably be one of the most beautiful screens you have ever seen in your hands. Not only are the colors and visuals amazing but the screen itself is large enough to hold at arm’s length and not cause eye strain. The touch controls on the screen are also quite responsive like you would expect from today’s mobile standards.
The initial setup of the device was fairly simple. Once you boot up the Vita, it will take you through a step by step guide of how to configure your basic settings like the date, time, and network. One tiny block I did run into with that was a little loop where you will have to update your Vita and it will ask you to update before you log in. Then it takes you back to setting up your PSN information, which you can’t without updating. It’s a bit of a hassle but there is a workaround by selecting the “no” option when it asks if you would like to use your PSN account with the Vita. Once that little loop is broken, you’ll be able to update the system and complete the initial setup. Once all of that is done, you’ll be greeted by the home screen. There, you can take a quick tour of the system and how to use it by selecting the nifty “Welcome Park” app.
PlayStation has abandoned the XMB with the Vita, now using an app icon user interface layout. Navigation of the apps is done by simple touch gestures up and down to switch through icon pages, or left and right if you have apps already open. I thought it was a pretty neat idea to have the apps laid out like this until I realized a problem I will likely come upon in the future. TOO MUCH STUFF! Unlike the XMB, there really isn’t any organization of the apps on your Vita. Yes, you can customize to a degree where app and game icons are located as far as the pages go. However, after installing 10 games and a few demos on my system, I soon realized that I would like a better way to organize my games and apps. Each page allows for 10 icons – so now my games were spilling over four and five pages down. This isn’t a major concern as it’s more of a software issue and not hardware. Thus chances are if PlayStation sees the need, they will issue a FW update that can change this or at least give the user more options for organization.
Now one of the major highlights and talking points for the Vita was the dual-analog sticks. The idea that you can now play FPS games, adventures, controlling the camera with ease, this was pretty massive for a handheld. These are actual, min-sticks; Not nubs like the PSP or a circle pad like the 3DS – And they work great. Playing through games like Uncharted Golden: Abyss and Ninja Gaiden Sigma PLUS gave you an experience like that of playing straight from your home console, game controller in hand. Other buttons are conveniently located in places you would expect. Directional pad and symbol buttons are easy to reach like a controller, and the power and volume buttons are placed at the top of the device next to the game card and a mystery slot. The D-Pad and symbol buttons are a little on the small side but work well enough with the games. There is a PlayStation button on the left side under the left analog stick for easy access to the home screen and menu, and the select & start buttons are on the opposite side beneath the right analog stick. The controls and buttons are all very responsive and work as they should.
Going a little more into the touch screen and also the touch pad on the back of the device – The OLED touch screen works great and is incorporated into the system’s functions pretty well. On the other hand, the touch pad at the back of the Vita is a pretty neat feature but I really do not see significant use for it, or any that is impressive in the least. At the same time, using it is a bit confusing in some of the games like Little Deviants and Uncharted. Hopefully developers will find better uses for it down the line to get me a bit more excited.
Now, the main focus of the Vita no doubt are games. It is first a gaming machine. The [full] games that I have tried out so far include Wipeout 2048, Uncharted: Golden Abyss, FIFA Soccer, Rayman Origins, Ninja Gaiden Sigma PLUS, Virtua Tennis 4, Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3, Little Deviants, and some of the augmented reality games. Add to that a slew of demos and I can say that I have been able to see what it’s capable of in a gaming matter. Just about every game looked great and played well too. The graphics were up there with the PS3 and this is just the launch. Plus they were by and large, fun. That’s the important thing. The game cards are pretty small but practical. Easy to carry, easy to store, and easy to slide in to the top of the machine when ready to play – just like a regular memory card. Digital downloads are a breeze. You can download straight from the Vita store app on the system, or if you have content (including games, music, videos, pictures, game saves, etc) on your PS3, PC, or Mac, you can connect your Vita to them and use the content manager app to transfer items back and forth. As of now, the Vita can play Vita games both downloadable and physical, and a large number of downloadable PSP titles. PSOne classics and PS3 games are not fully functional and are not available to download although some are available to play via the remote play function on the system. For that, buttons are easy to map to your liking including options to use the rear touch pad and touch screen for some controls schemes. It’s a good start to what I hope expands much more in the future.
Moving on, it’s very evident that the Vita is a social machine. It’s very PSN-centric. From the very beginning, the system will want you to connect to a network so that you can experience all that it has to offer in this way. You have apps that keep you in touch with your PSN buddies, chat apps, messenger apps, and more. But something a bit newer to the console scene, are the activity updates that the Vita gives to you and those friends on your list, or even just people in your area with Vitas. If you earn a trophy, that will be posted for your friends to see and they can comment. For example, I completed Uncharted: Golden Abyss on Hard mode and earned a Gold trophy for it. My activity automatically updated with that achievement and wouldn’t you know, one of my buddies saw it, hit the “like” or “thumbs up” button, and commented, “Now for crushing mode!” It’s a nice way to keep a friendly, competitive track on your friends and those around you. Plus it’s also good to find out what your friends are playing and possibly play right along with them. This also works with leaderboards.
Still on the subject of network play, gaming online has been smooth and pleasant. Playing fast paced games online, such as Wipeout 2048 and Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3, posed no challenge for the wireless connection of the Vita. This included cross-platform play between the Vita and the PS3. The games worked smoothly and perfectly. You wouldn’t know who was on the PS3 and who was on the Vita. Now although some models of the Vita feature 3G you must have a Wi-Fi signal to play online for most games. The 3G is mainly for status updates and basic online functions when you are not around a wireless signal. It’s a neat function but really unnecessary. One minor tick I have with the network on the handheld though, is that when you switch apps, it’s pretty much a constant PSN sign-in processes each time. This is very minor though due to the fact that it’s automatic and rather quick as most functions on the Vita are. Aside from the 3G, the network connections to the Vita work as they should if not better.
The great thing about mobile technology today is that, it’s no longer just for one thing as it was years back. Now we can do so much right from the palm of our hand. The Vita is no exception to that rule. Besides being able to play games, the Vita has a lot more to offer. For instance, it has two cameras (one on the front, one on the back) for snapping photos and taking videos. Admittedly, the camera is not of the highest quality but it is functional and works well with augmented reality applications and is good for snapping quick photos while you’re using your Vita. You can even share these photos through Flickr, Twitter, and Facebook as they are all available on the system as well. While most probably will not be using it for these purposes, the Vita can also store your favorite music, videos, and photos. It has a mobile web browser (no flash video support yet though), Google Maps (3G vita only), and the nifty app called Near that lets you know about other Vita users around you. You can expect that PlayStation will continue to expand capabilities and features on the Vita in the future.
Since I have had my Vita, I think my PS3 has been getting a little jealous. I mean, it does everything we wish the PS3 could do and more! Graphics on many of the launch games are almost on par with the PS3 itself such as Virtua Tennis 4, Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3, and Uncharted: Golden Abyss. Imagine what can be done when the system’s limits are actually explored a year or two down the road! There are party chat options so you can talk to your friends (up to eight) with the built-in mic or with your own headset while doing anything and everything else on your Vita without interruption and clarity. The HTML5 browser is much faster than the that of the PS3’s; And oh my, trophy syncing is no longer the five-minute long headache that you go through each time you play a new game on your PS3! I was able to update my Vita trophies and load all of my PS3 trophies in about 5 seconds. Yes, the Vita is everything I wish my PS3 was. What we are seeing here is that Sony has learned and likely come next console generation, the PS3’s successor will implement many of these features on an even better level. I do have to say though, I think one of the features that I have the most fun with is the ability to hit the “PS” button and “start” at the same time and take a screen capture of just about anything on your Vita (some publishers do restrict this ability). Yes, expect many tweets showing off my many in-game exploits or my favorite scenes from movies and shows on Netflix. Expect it!
This device is a multitasking monster. You can have up to six apps open at one time and go back and forth between them seamlessly. I don’t think the limit is due to a capability issue but, that’s where it stops, six. Honestly, it’s no big deal. Most people will not have six items open at one time and use them all. The great thing about the Vita is that you can go back and forth, open and close, apps as you please without losing work or game progress unnecessarily. Now, if you would like to use the browser you can do it with any app open except most games. If you would like to use the browser during a game, it will ask you to close the game before use. A bit of an inconvenience but really nothing major.
Now with so much that you can do on the system and the power it is putting out, the age-old question remains: How is the battery life? Well all things considered, the battery life is pretty average. If you look at an iPhone, Android, iPad, or any other smart device at today’s standards, the battery life may be good on standby for the day, but once you put in some good time on the system running some pretty heavy apps, the battery gets drained pretty fast. I tested the Vita’s battery life in a couple of ways. First, after a full charge, I tried it out playing a game. The battery lasted me a good at least 5 hours playing Uncharted. It didn’t even die when I finally had enough. On standby, the battery lasted all day barely going down; And when using smaller apps such as the browser, messaging, near, and trophies, the battery life lasted a lot longer as well. In addition, this past weekend I had the unfortunate experience of having to go to the emergency room with one of my family members. We all know how long ER waits can take. Now I wasn’t using my Vita the whole time, but I was able to use some apps, play some games, on and off for a good eight hours while we were waiting. The battery did get low but it wasn’t on a full charge to begin with when I left the house. I’m not sure how long people plan on playing the handheld while away from an AC outlet, but for the most part I doubt it’s truly as long as it would take to completely drain the battery completely.
Now there are a few drawbacks to the system as it is now at launch. The main complaint that I, along with many others, have is the need for a proprietary memory card (which is generally sold separately). There is no internal storage in the Vita and most games require an install – so without a memory card, you are pretty much stuck. If you would like to download any apps, games, music, videos, or pretty much do anything on the Vita, you need a memory card. Plus, the memory isn’t exactly cheap. At $20-$100 for a 4 – 32 GB memory card, you can imagine why some hold back from this investment. Internal memory plus a slot for optional expandable memory with a memory card would have been more welcomed. I’m not sure why PlayStation opted out of the internal storage for the Vita, but I do hope that with the inevitable upgrades to the system a year or two down the road, that we will see a change with that. Obviously this was more of a business decision than design one.
Another small complaint I have is with the buttons. Maybe I’m just a freak of nature and my hands should belong in a circus show, but the buttons seem a bit on the tiny side for the Vita. Considering that the PSP and Dualshock controllers had large enough buttons that worked well, I can’t see why those same type of buttons couldn’t be used on the Vita. I assume that because the Vita is touch screen oriented, button sizes weren’t at the top of the designer’s list, but something a bit larger wouldn’t have hurt.
Overall, the experience with the Vita has been amazing to say the least. The hardware itself is durable, comfortable, and well crafted. The system software is great but can improve and probably will as time progresses. There are a few quirks and cons to the handheld but what system doesn’t have those? These, in my opinion, are not enough to take away from the overall experience with the Vita. With a huge launch lineup and support from developers and publishers from every corner of the globe, the Vita looks to have a promising future and I for one am excited to see where it will lead. I would recommend buying the Vita. Even if you do not see a game that fancies you at the moment, I’m sure one will come along in the future and will please gamers of all kinds.
I’m doing things a little different this time and NOT giving the PlayStation Vita a numbered score. Why? Well, essentially when you are scoring a game, you are rating the finished product, the full game experience. Sure patches may come out that might add some stability, and DLC may drop but that’s almost separate from the core game and doesn’t change what I experienced and played the first time through. However with the Vita, there are bound to be constant changes that will continue to improve the overall experience and functions of the system. It’s not like a game that you pick up and play and then move on to the next. The Vita will be used for many games over many years. A scored review would be irrelevant in a month or two. One thing I will say though, whether it’s at launch, or somewhere down the road – You should get a PlayStation Vita.