Next to the phones and tablets on my desk, Sony’s Playstation Vita looks like it doesn’t belong. It’s twice as thick as the latest smartphones, and twice as heavy. Its exterior is a hodgepodge of materials, gray and black, matte and glossy. Protrusions and intrusions abound, from buttons and triggers to jacks and slots. If there was a memo decreeing that all portable electronics be reduced to slabs, Sony’s ignoring it.
The Vita’s design turns out to be a good metaphor for the gaming handheld itself. It’s a device that makes some small concessions to the rise of phones and tablets as portable entertainment–things like the touch screen and motion controls, the bare-bones web browser and the obligatory Twitter, Flickr and Netflix apps–but then it ignores them in favor of playing kick-ass, modern video games. Not Angry Birds, Doodle Jump, or Sudoku, but Uncharted, Rayman, and Marvel vs. Capcom. Almost everything else seems like an afterthought.
The Playstation Vita owes much of its gaming prowess to its controls, or more specifically, to the pair of tiny thumb sticks that sit on either side of the 5-inch display. No other handheld has included dual analog sticks before, and although the Vita’s aren’t as easy to master as those of a full-size controller, they put to shame the sliding analog pad of Nintendo’s 3DS. At last, no more compromises for first- and third-person shooters.
To get these games running smoothly, the Vita’s CPU and GPU each have four processing cores. This processor combo is so powerful that some publishers have ported their full-size Playstation 3 games down to the Vita without much compromise. Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 is just as fluid on the Vita as it is on home gaming consoles. Wipeout 2048 had its framerate knocked down on the Vita, but you can actually race against players of Wipeout HD on the Playstation 3.
The rest of the hardware takes a backseat, with the battery lasting for maybe four hours on a charge, and the front and rear VGA cameras taking grainy photos. But it’s easy to forget about those drawbacks when you’re playing a game that feels like it was made for an Xbox 360 or Playstation 3. That’s when the Vita is at its best.
At its worst, the Vita tries to shove touch and motion controls down players’ throats. Uncharted: Golden Abyss, for instance, breaks up its action sequences with tedious tasks, such as rotating an artifact around with the rear touch panel while brushing off virtual dirt with the touch screen. You can almost picture the touch control mandate coming down from a Sony board room, and although some games handle it gracefully–I liked how FIFA Soccer lets you aim on goal with touch controls–most touch and motion options are better off ignored.
I’m also troubled by the inflated prices of some Vita games that are already available on phones and tablets. Gameloft’s Asphalt: Injection costs $30 on the Vita, while Asphalt 6, a nearly identical game with slightly fewer courses and cars, costs $1 on the iPad. Plants vs. Zombies costs $7 on the iPad, but it’s a $15 download on the Vita. The markup, especially for boxed retail games, is a slap in the face to consumers, and I hope the market quickly discourages that kind of pricing.
Of course, using the Vita isn’t just a matter of popping in a cartridge and playing. Sony created a new operating system for the Vita, with bubble-shaped app icons and an iPhone-like home button on the hardware. Yes, it’s another nod to smartphones, but Sony does things its own way. Open apps, for example, are represented as sheets of virtual paper called “LiveAreas,” named for the information they contain. These LiveAreas show friend activity, software updates and news from the publisher, and users can multitask by swiping from one sheet to the next, and can close apps for good by peeling away at the page. As far as app management goes, the Vita is as capable as any smartphone or tablet.
Yet some of the frustration of traditional gaming remains. Sometimes, you’ll load up a game, only to find out that you can’t play online without going back to the LiveArea, downloading an update, then relaunching the game. For some apps, multitasking is out of bounds, so you can’t run a game and the Web browser at the same time, nor can you jump back and forth between two games. This wouldn’t be a major headache, except that the games themselves often suffer from long load times, so if you exit a game completely, you’ll have to wait a while to start playing again.
The Vita’s online system is also a bit of a mess. Instead of offering one social app for all friend interactions, Sony separates friend lists, messages, voice chats, and nearby players into four individual apps, which is silly considering you’ll often get bounced from one to the other. Even worse, some games, such as Uncharted, will sign you out of Sony’s online network for no apparent reason, so you can’t tell if someone’s trying to reach you without going to the home screen.
The main hub for online activity is an app called Near, which lets you find nearby players, look at what other people are playing, and send and receive gifts. It’s a neat idea, but it’d be better if games themselves could handle the gifting and player tracking directly. Also, I never quite understood why I was receiving a particular gift, or how to control who’s getting presents from me. With the Vita, all the right social features are in place, but the execution needs improvement.
When it comes to buying new content online, however, Sony nailed it. Although most of the games sent to me for review came in boxes, all of them can be downloaded from the Playstation Store as well. The online shop also includes old PSP games, PSP Minis, movies and TV shows, so users who splurge for Sony’s overpriced proprietary memory cards–starting at $20 for 4 GB–will have lots of content to choose from. That seems like the way to go unless you don’t mind carrying around a bunch of tiny game cartridges in your pocket.
The Playstation Vita launches on February 22, priced at $250 for a Wi-Fi model, or $300 for one with support for AT&T’s 3G network. (3G data costs $15 per month for 250 MB, or $30 per month for 3 GB.) The 3G is useful if you want to use the Near app or browse the web on the road, but it’s not a very fast connection, and some games won’t even let you play online unless you’re connected to Wi-Fi.
When I first saw the Playstation Vita last June, I said it was handheld gaming’s last stand, and I still think that’s the case. Like any gaming device, the success of the Vita depends how well it’s supported by game publishers and how affordable it gets with time. But phones and tablets are a growing threat. They’re getting more popular, and their games are getting better at a fraction of the cost of the Vita’s games. That’s probably why Sony is working on Android-based gaming as a backup plan.
For now, though, the Vita is what it should be: A defiant gesture in defense of elaborate, expensive, beautiful video games, but with quiet acknowledgments that something bigger is lurking.