Despite what some people think, Sony made great strides into the handheld market with the original PlayStation Portable, particularly in Japan. Its successor, the PlayStation Life (in Latin), is now on the market and continues with the design ethos of both its predecessor and the PS3. Borders Down has conducted a comprehensive analysis of the most powerful dedicated handheld on the market to give you the fullest picture out there.
Out of the box first impressions are very good. The unit is lighter than the original PSP but also larger in all dimensions. It will fit in a larger back pocket and borders on the edge of suitability for carrying around. That said though, this is a world dripping in commuters clutching their iPads (in expensive and proprietary cases) and so anyone complaining about the size is living in the past. There are a number of striking features that stand out straight away.
The tech specs do themselves justice if you can decode their meaning. A five inch widescreen OLED screen capacitive type multi-touch screen. This means you get rich colours, bright lights and a large landscape to play on. It looks excellent, easily doing justice to all the launch games and offering a comparable experience to HD gaming without needing to rely on pixel per inch discussions. It comes polished to a fantastic sheen and glistens when you take it out of the packaging. It won't stay that way though, because this is 2012 and everything needs a touch screen.
As it is a capacitive screen you cannot use a stylus to operate it. You will need to use your fingers and therefore your screen will get smudged. For the over protective technophile this is simply annoying. In the days before the DS no one would dare touch a portable gaming screen because it would smudge the screen and obscure the action. Well Sony don't care. The OS is operated purely with the touchscreen and cannot be navigated with traditional button inputs. We all now know the Vita has a touchscreen but it would have been nice to have the option to use buttons as well. The abilities of the touch screen itself are good though, multi-touch works well, and you don't really
need to touch the screen at all if you have supreme powers of control, thank you electromagnetic human body stuff. Response is swift and there is enough pure screen space so that touch controls don't obscure the action too much.
The Other 'Screen'
It isn't a screen per se but it is another input device made of a touchscreen... On the back of the unit there is another multi-touch pad that developers can map controls to if they feel like it. Due to its position it is harder to use with precision that the front screen and as such it feels like it is inaccurate. With time it will probably prove itself to be just as accurate but your fingers will need to be taught how to use it properly and Sony have realised this as well. Uncharted: Golden Abyss allows you to use the rear touch pad to climb ropes and zoom weapons which actually works very well in the heat of battle. When it works it works well and it is another input choice, provided developers aren't forced to use it, it is a welcome addition.
The Twin Sticks
If choosing between a nub a stick and a slider then this would have to labelled most closely to a stick. Well, two sticks actually, a first (if you exclude the circle pad pro add-on
for the 3DS) and one that has been called for since the release of the original PSP. Sony have made it clear that they see the Vita as companion to the home consoles. To enjoy a proper home console experience you need twin sticks and these deliver well.
Positioned symmetrically three quarters of the way down the screen and raised out of the unit they offer a good mix of comfort, control and functionality. Some may have preferred a more coarse material to prevent thumbs from slipping but even after lengthy play it is hard to fault them.
We need to talk about buttons. Starting with the easy stuff, the D-Pad is by far the best that Sony have ever produced. It is stiff, responsive and accurate. Some may bemoan its positioning, due to the twin sticks it is slightly higher up the unit and can cause hand cramp in long play sessions but it is hard to fault it. The synonymous circle, square, cross and triangle are all rendered in the same stylish monochrome, there are no random colours here to upset the eye. However there are also no pressure sensors on them anymore. Practically this makes little difference to most users, if anything it harks back to a simpler time of the 'on-off' Mario Bros. control but some users will miss the pressure sensitivity of the recent Dual Shock controllers.
There is a PlayStation 'Home' button on the left of the unit which is well positioned and serves to drag you back to the OS whenever you want. It can't be faulted. The Start and Select buttons though, which are found on the lowest right portion of the unit are not easy to locate during frantic play. Their positioning is so bad that you will have to completely move your right hand to access them, which translates into an inability to pause a game whenever you want. Evolution Studios clearly noticed this with their flagship game: MotorStorm: RC, pause is mapped to the front touch screen, which is a neat solution provided you don't need that screen for other input controls.
The volume and on / sleep buttons are on the top of the unit and has a chrome bezel finish which makes them both attractive and sturdy. The other buttons on the top are the L and R buttons. Yes, buttons not triggers. In an ideal world there would have been more play in these for gradual control but it hasn't happened so there is no point in moaning about it. Instead of analog trigger control, developers will be able to use the second stick and have to make do. Considering how much is packed into the physical interface there is very little to complain about.
Other Things and Stuff
Sony have obviously hired a team of experts to think of everything that is available on the market for any other portable device and, instead of carefully selecting which ones to include in the Vita, included them all. This means you get SIXAXIS gyroscopic control, external mics and a front and rear facing camera. If you want it you can also have 3G compatibility for online access anywhere. The unit we tested was a WiFi-only one so we can't comment on 3G performance. As for the rest of the things, they are all perfectly suitable, not best-in-breed by any means, but good enough to give developers the option to use them in interesting ways. It is now up to studios to use them properly.
A feature well publicised once it escaped the confines of the Sony NDA was the Vita's reliance on external (proprietary) memory cards. It could have been so easy to defend this decision. It could have been, but it isn't. Sony could have cited piracy on the PSP as a valid reason for taking more control and preventing players using their own existing memory solutions. Sony could have said they didn't want five or six different SKU's at different price points with different amounts on in built memory. Sony could have said have 16GB of in built storage and purchase more if you need it. They didn't though. What they did say was make sure the games you will want to play won't work without one of our memory cards and then charge a lot of money for them. It stings as well. A 4GB card, the smallest available simply isn't enough for a console with a download store designed to put full games out. The biggest available in Europe at the moment is a 16GB card that retails at around £40, which is plain extortion.
That certainly takes the sheen off and is a factor that any potential purchaser must be aware of. That said the memory cards are nice and small. As in fact are the game cards that you can buy from bricks and mortar retailers. They both fit into the Vita's outer casing. One worry for those that change game cards frequently is that this port is covered by the annoying flaccid hinge that digital cameras use to protect their USB ports. For the first thousand times it is opened it will no doubt be fine but unless proper care is taken of this port it seems easy to predict their breaking in the future.
The Operating Software
As we live in the connected world the Vita is not a plug in and play console. To start the device up properly you will need an internet connection and perform the now mandatory software updates. Once this is done though the actual OS is certainly nice and customisable. Each application (even retail card games) is given its own bubble, which bobs around the screen. There is a ten application limit per page and subsequent applications are stored vertically in the pages below. There are a lot of pre-installed applications on the device and here they are:
Group Messaging (text);
Maps (Google Maps);
While most of these are self explanatory, some do require further discussion.
The PS Store is obviously Vita-centric but it works well and the intelligent design flows through the menu system as you would expect. Anything that you download goes to a download folder in the background automatically giving you a seamless shopping experience that betters its bigger brother. Pricing is competitive for digital downloads and reasonable for the games also released via traditional retail channels, they are slightly cheaper than the RRP in most (but not all) cases but they obviously lack any physical media and therefore resale value. It is hard to deny this as a factor in a purchasing decision, you need to be sure you want to keep a game before making a full priced digital purchase. There is no turning back.
Trophies are tied to your main PlayStation Network account and can be viewed as Vita specific achievements or as against your total list of virtual accomplishments. Near is a concept stolen wholesale from the 3DS, but it works reasonably well on its own merit. The Vita records your location and swaps game specific bonuses between users both in your location and over the internet via your friends list. This would be great but for some reason Sony have decided that you can only check Near once every hour. This leads to an odd scenario whereby you have to check say the Black Market in Uncharted then wait for an hour before you can check the Buddy Plaza in Touch My Katamari.
Content Manager provides the link to the PS3 for cross platform downloading and, as with Near, it is nice in principle, broken in practice. Some users have reported that the Vita will only work with the first USB socket on the PS3. Once it is working you have to use the Vita to pull information from the PS3 and you cannot use the PS3 at the same time, another odd decision because it restricts your ability to multitask when downloading.
One of the nicer additions is the Welcome Park. It introduces new users to the various control methods of the Vita and (if you care) has Trophy Support to incentivise you to complete it. It is a nice stylish introduction to some of the more unique features and is well worth playing through.
Helpfully you can run multiple applications and switch between them via horizontally stored pages on the home screen. This allows you to have your friends list, trophy list, chat, a downloaded game and a card game running at the same time. A simple flick moves between them and you 'peel' them away to close them down. It is worth mentioning that the Vita never tells you that you need to close applications properly (by peeling them away) before removing a game card or you may corrupt your save data. A minor annoyance but one you need to remember.
The battery life of new handheld consoles is often discussed but, aside from complaining about it, there is nothing to do than say it is reasonable. Under normal working conditions it is approximately five hours, better than a 3DS and, because everyone seems to forget this, an iPhone under constant gameplay conditions, but of course it would be better if it was longer.
Online functionality is good where tested with few drop outs but obviously this is game specific in its implementation.
The Vita is capable of AR gaming thanks to its combination of gyroscope controls and multiple cameras, although the software must be downloaded from the PlayStation Store. The games available at the moment are Cliff Diving, Fireworks and Table Football. None of them are of any particular note but they all work in conjunction with AR cards that are packaged with the unit itself. The only comparable games on the market are the ones that come bundled with the 3DS. Unfortunately for Sony, comparisons are not favourable. By their nature AR games need to be simple and these titles are certainly that they just aren't much fun. It is nice to know that the technology is there but at the moment there are better ways to show off the talents of the Vita.
Under the hood the Vita is a powerful console and the standout visual titles of the launch line up have already proved that is capable of recreating PS3 level visuals when it is properly used. The precise tech specs are freely available on the internet if you want to look at them. The real world effect is that is produces the best visuals available on handheld systems and has the ability to impress from the word go.
The continuing difficulties in the economic landscape and Apple's almost mythical abilities to sell products in millions that no one really asked for have put a lot of unnecessary pressure on Sony. They have produced an unrivalled handheld package that ticks all of the right boxes and is niggled only by minor interface problems that can be fixed by software updates. For this service they see fit to charge half the price of the current top end model iPad. On a side by side basis the Vita is the better machine and it deserves to succeed as a dedicated gaming device that offers other services as well.
On paper the Vita looks good but in practice it comes together to form even more than the sum of its parts, it is an awesome machine that has fantastic potential because of the raw horsepower, because of the screen and because of the shoehorned features that all work well together. It deserves to be supported by developers and consumers and it offers console quality gaming with very little in the way of compromise. The Vita deserves a long and happy Life.