“Gosh, that’s a nice looking screen,” I said silently to myself. “…and the first thing you’ll notice,” said Dave Hine, preparing to lead me quickly through the bulleted list of features, “is the stunning five inch, OLED display.” He wasn’t a mind reader; right off the bat the most striking thing about the Vita is the visual fidelity it offers, but there’s plenty of things beyond the screen to be interested in.
That was months ago, checking out the Vita for the first time, upstairs from a Sony showcase event. It was a rather brief look, but enough to get the impression that this was a device that warranted further investigation. Dave went on to show me Uncharted: Golden Abyss, showing the touch panel, swiping the finger across the screen to draw Nathan’s path along a climbable wall, which seemed fine, if a little mismatched for a staple of casual gaming to be in a franchise title that definitely sits the in the “core” market. Next, I was told to try my hand at sniping some enemies. I was startled to find that once looking down the scope, Nathan’s aim was all over the place! It was then pointed out to me that while looking down the sights of a weapon, the accelerometers are in full effect, meaning you can tilt the device around to fine tune the aim. Which meant the shaky hands were in fact mine!
Now, the Vita is out and the briefly teased features that were teased to me that night are all in and they work better than I remember. With a particular nod to the accelerometers as used in Uncharted Golden Abyss, they’re responsive enough that using it to fine tune your aiming in to get those headshots, and it works, which is high praise, for what is ostensibly motion controlled gaming to have a functional use in a shooter. The touch panels, obviously one over the screen and the less obvious one on the back (which is always the feature that raises an eyebrow if you explain it to someone) are responsive and incorporate multi-touch functionality which anyone who’s used an iPhone will feel at home with.
There’s a lot of functionality within the Vita that would build a good case for you to think that Sony’s going for ‘more than just a portable gaming device’ with it, and I’ll get to those, but there’s definitely more things that will tell you that first and foremost, this is handheld device that is built to play some awesome games. Welcome Park is an application in the first slot and features a selection of tutorials that will put the Vita through its paces, from the front and rear cameras, tilt sensitivity, microphone, and touch screens, and awesomely it presents them each as a minigame, and can even awards trophies based on your performance. It’s a really cool alternative to a non-interactive video showing you the features, and it’s indicative of the ethos of the system’s design that they want to cram as much fun and interactivity wherever it will fit.
All the expected ‘media device’ features are available, video, music, web browsing, photos, and remote player, are all there with expected enhancements over their PSP predecessors. The cameras aren’t of a quality above a nice smart phone, but it seems silly to quibble about, akin to complaining about the accuracy of a guitar tuning application on an iPhone. If you’re a person to whom this is something that matters, then perhaps a portable gaming device isn’t for you anyway.
There’s some pretty cool features with the way the Vita handles games and location data, and the promotional literature waffles through it by using words like ‘gamifying experiences’, but like I said, it’s pretty cool. When you press on any of the icons to start them, it doesn’t start them immediately, which might sound silly, but it actually loads up a page, which it calls the “Live Space” for the application or game. Sometimes you might wish it just loaded up, particularly when it comes to the media functionality, but for games in particular, it gives a space for relevant information to be placed before loading it up completely, like the browser will have a list of the pages already open on it, Uncharted has a link to the Black Market trading section, Everybody’s Golf has a link to the Tournaments they run, currently playing music will have playback options right there on the page, and these pages are how the system handles multitasking. Pressing the PS button from inside an app or game will return to the main screen with the active live pages on it, and to close something, you just peel it off.
The Vita has had an injection of social elements that boost the attractiveness of the PSN (or SEN as it’s to be known) as a preferred gaming platform. Near is an application which will pull the location data of the unit and bring up other Vita players within 6kms for you to interact with, and make new friends, all the while Near gathers data and can show you what game currently has the locals buzzing. The games themselves also have an emphasis on social functionality, with WipeOut 2048 able to post challenges for players to beat, Uncharted has a trading system (though it’s more like faux-trading, read the review when it’s available for more information) and the Live Spaces usually have a time line that will allow you to see your friends activity in a game to see what trophies have been earned and other activities. It’s awesome and a beacon of hope to the functionality which has been missing from PSN and indeed, for the really innovative ideas, from all current gaming machines.
The Bottom Line
The PS Vita is a really cool piece of gear and comes at a surprisingly reasonable price for the value proposition it is. Some of the games suffer from functionality being shoehorned into the game where it’s not necessarily adding to the experience, but that’s almost expected for showcase titles to try and ‘use every piece of the buffalo’ when a system launches. The conclusion I’ve reached in my time with the Vita is that the system has pretty high potential and has already provided enough positive experiences to make it an easy recommendation for anyone interested in a handheld gaming device.