PlayStation Vita sets new standard for portable games
The PlayStation Vita, which officially goes on sale in North America on Feb. 22, is a strong statement from Sony that it is not willing to let traditional gaming devices go gently into the night.
There has been a lot made of tablets, smartphones and the huge flood of mobile video games they've ushered in, and how that tide is supposedly going to kill off the old school of handheld consoles.
The PlayStation Vita, which officially goes on sale in North America on Feb. 22, is a strong statement from Sony that it is not willing to let such traditional devices go gently into the night.
The Vita is a fine piece of hardware, jam-packed with the latest bells and whistles. With a five-inch OLED touchscreen, rear touch pad, two cameras, six-axis motion control, GPS, wi-fi (and 3G in the U.S.), Bluetooth and stereo speakers, it's got about as much functionality as can be squeezed into a handheld gizmo.
Using all of those capabilities, the Vita does a lot of things well.
Firstly - and most importantly - are the games. (Check out our deeper capsule reviews of some of those launch titles here.) Sony has done a good job of lining up a decent selection for early buyers, with about 25 titles releasing within a week of the system.
The games run the gamut of genres, from racing titles such as Asphalt Injection and Wipeout 2048, action adventure games such as Uncharted: Golden Abyss and Dungeon Hunter: Alliance, platformers such as Rayman: Origins and sports games such as FIFA Football and Everybody's Golf 6. There's even Michael Jackson: The Experience, for fans of rhythm games.
Most look fantastic, since the Vita boasts impressive graphics, and many are fun and compelling in their own ways. Only a few, however, take full advantage of the device's large array of capabilities.
Little Deviants, for example, is something of a showcase title that requires the player to use the Vita's various features. On one board, for example, the player has to move his or her finger around on the rear touch pad in order to create ripples on the game board, which then cause a spherical character to roll around. On another stage, the player has to use the six-axis motion control to target space ships flying all around, which ultimately results in waving the Vita around frantically.
Inevitably, as developers become more comfortable with the device, more games will incorporate such clever uses of its capabilities. In the meantime, even the titles that stay close to standard controls - the analog thumbsticks and buttons - are generally good too. Asphalt Injection, for example, is the same sort of straight-up racing game you might find on a home console. It looks good, it's fun and of course, it's portable.
The Vita's main interface will be familiar to anyone who has used a smartphone or tablet. In fact, it's reminiscent of an Android phone, with various circle-shaped apps populating a number of screens, which are navigated by swiping up and down on the touch screen.
Just as with a tablet or smartphone, the Vita has apps for photos, music, videos, maps and a web browser. There's also an app that connects to the PS Store, where downloadable games, TV show episodes and movies can be purchased or rented, then stored on the removable SD card.
There are also a few social-networking apps, such as one that organizes PlayStation Network friends and another that lets you text message them. The "Near" app lets you share game information and connect with friends who happen to be close by. The "Party" app, meanwhile, lets you easily launch multiplayer games with friends currently logged on to the PSN. More social apps, such as Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare, have been promised.
The capability I liked best is the "Remote Play" feature, which pairs the Vita wirelessly with a PlayStation 3 console. Once the two have recognized each other, the handheld can essentially enslave the PS3 through an internet connection and run most of the content that's stored on it, even if the console is turned off. So, if you're travelling in another country but want to watch a movie that is on your home console, you can go ahead and do it, so as long as your Vita has a decent wi-fi connection.
I took this feature one step further and streamed a movie onto the device that was actually on my PC. The Vita got the movie from the PS3, which in turn got it from the computer. Even twice removed, the streaming was seamless. The Remote Play capability doesn't appear to extend to PS3 games, however. I tried to run a few such games, only to be politely rejected.
The Vita doesn't do everything well, though. Its web browser is incapable of running either Adobe Flash or HTML 5, which means that vast portions of the internet - including all of YouTube - are inaccessible. There's the possiblity that this will be fixed through a firmware download before the device officially launches, or soon thereafter, but for now the Vita isn't much of a web-browsing tool.
The device's main camera is also lacklustre, on par with many smartphones. Sony has promised that conferencing apps such as Skype are on the way and perhaps the cameras will be good enough for basic video chats, but you won't want to use the Vita to snap vacation photos.
Also, while copying photos and music onto the Vita from a computer was easy enough, I had problems with video files. The device's manual says it can only handle MPEG-4 video files, but I had trouble copying even those. The cynical assumption is that this is purposeful, to encourage users to buy video from the PS Store, but I hope it's just a temporary glitch that gets resolved.
All told, the Vita is a veritable steal. It packs much of the same technology as a tablet or smartphone, yet at only $249, it's considerably cheaper. Sony has admitted that it is selling the device at a loss, with an aim to making it profitable within three years. The low price seems to be a necessity to compete with that flood of mobile games, yet the question remains as to how long Sony will be able to charge up to $45 for Vita games.
As far as the hardware goes, picking up the Vita is a no-brainer for anyone looking for a proper portable gaming experience. Smartphones and tablets are great for a certain kind of touchscreen game, but the Vita has them beat by a long shot in terms of controls and graphics.