In a post-App Store world, is there still room for a dedicated handheld games console? The Nintendo 3DS answered that question with a definite “maybe”, struggling at launch before picking up speed after a substantial price cut. Now Sony’s latest PlayStation portable has arrived on the scene, hoping to produce a more emphatic response. So how does the PS Vita – that’s the official abbreviation - shape up?
Sony PlayStation Vita: controls
This is where Vita trumps every portable device currently available. It has an unparalleled range of control inputs, from dual analogue sticks – replacing its predecessor’s single and rather feeble nub – to a capacitive touchscreen and even a rear touch panel whose dimensions match those of the front. There’s also the same accelerometer/gyroscope combo that powers the PS3’s Sixaxis controller, and the motion controls prove responsive in games like Little Deviants and Uncharted where you need to tilt or aim. The buttons are a little smaller than on the original PSP, and are no longer analogue, while the sticks may take some getting used to for those accustomed to their much larger equivalents on the PS3 pad. But these are minor quibbles on a console equally at home with traditional game controls as touchscreen taps and swipes.
The user interface is halfway between the crisp accessibility of Apple and the playful approach of Nintendo, a series of bubble-shaped icons pulsing and bouncing on the touchscreen that can be tapped, swiped through and rearranged with familiar gestures. The home button offers an instant return to base from anything you’re currently engaged in, while a neat touch sees some menus curl up in the top corner like the page of a book – even if you don’t want to return to the previous screen, it’s all too tempting to pull it downwards regardless.
Sony PlayStation Vita: screen
More than any other feature, the stunning 5-inch OLED display is going to sell an awful lot of Vitas. It’s a capacitive touchscreen that supports multi-touch and is capable of displaying 24-bit colour in resolutions of 960x544. What this means in layman’s terms is that games like Uncharted: Golden Abyss look crisp, bright and pin-sharp, on a display that trumps Apple and Nintendo for size and helps make the Vita an instantly desirable piece of kit. A tutorial on how to use the touchscreen is a bit much – if anyone hasn’t used one by now, they’re probably not even aware of Vita, let alone tempted to buy one – but it helps to show how well it functions. In this respect, it’s easily a match for Apple’s devices, with the benefit that chunkier digits obscure less of the display.
Sony PlayStation Vita: games
Sporting one of the healthiest and most varied launch line-ups of any console, handheld or otherwise (there are 30 games across retail and digital download, all told) the one thing Vita arguably lacks is a system-seller, a genuine must-have classic. Uncharted: Golden Abyss is the obvious big-hitter, though in truth it can’t quite match up to the “console quality” claims, falling short of the spectacle offered by its PS3 antecedents. Instead, the likes of Virtua Tennis and Marvel vs. Capcom show that Vita can match up to home consoles, while perennial PlayStation favourites like Everybody’s Golf and WipEout are safe bets. For younger players, Little Deviants shows off the Vita’s Augmented Reality capabilities while also making use of the rear touch panel, but in truth feels like little more than a tech demo. There will also be a healthy selection of titles downloadable from the Sony Entertainment Network at launch, with MotorStorm RC, Escape Plan and Super Stardust Delta offering cheaper alternatives to the full-price titles you’ll find on store shelves.
Sony PlayStation Vita: other features
Front and rear cameras capture images and video at a 640x480 resolution, around 0.3 megapixels. They’re not going to be much use to budding David Baileys, then, but that’s more than enough to take decent-quality snaps or footage. The cameras are also used to access provided AR Play Cards, though the minigames therein don’t have the same ‘wow’ factor as those that came free with the 3DS.
There’s a GPS locator feature called Near, which allows you to find other players to play against, to compare scores with, or even to share content. Certain titles allow you to leave in-game items at locations for others to pick up – a social feature more likely to be used in Japan where gaming is an integral part of the culture, but which is nonetheless an inventive and welcome social distraction.
PC and PS3 connectivity is also useful, allowing you to import and export media files without too much drama – while some games offer Remote Play, allowing you to take your PS3 titles on the move.
Sony PlayStation Vita: battery
Rumours suggested that battery life would suffer for high-end games, with estimates coming in at around the three hour mark. So we were delighted to see that the Vita was still going almost five hours into an epic session on Uncharted, perhaps the most technically demanding of all Vita launch titles. Expect that figure to vary a little if you’ve got 3G turned on in the more expensive model, but we’ve found Vita’s battery lasts longer than expected given the strain on the processors.
Sony PlayStation Vita: price
The SRP for the standard Wi-Fi model is £229.99, with the 3G version clocking in at £279.99, though if you shop around you should be able to get both around £20 cheaper. Yes, that might seem expensive for a handheld games console, but given the Vita’s capabilities, it’s actually very reasonably priced. More problematic is the fact that it uses proprietary memory cards - the Vita has no internal storage - and they’re costly. The largest (16GB) comes in at £45 RRP, and we’d filled one after downloading just seven of the launch titles. Although at Vodafone you get a free 4GB card and copy of WipEout.
Talking of which, all games that are available in the shops will be available to download from the Sony Entertainment Network, and unlike in Japan and the US you’ll have to pay the same price for the digital version as a physical copy. Software prices range from £4.79 to a whopping £44.99 for FIFA Football and F1 2011, though most new retail titles come in at around £29.99 to £34.99.
Sony PS Vita: verdict
Vita is undoubtedly a lovely, luxurious piece of hardware, likely to delight gamers and gadget lovers alike. It’s a powerful, malleable, not particularly portable machine capable of games that can keep up with almost – almost – anything you can play on your widescreen HDTV. In the age of the 69p app, however, whether it has enough of a market remains to be seen. At the moment, it’s a device for serious gamers and those who just have to own the latest piece of shiny new technology. At its current price, it’s unlikely to win over a mainstream audience, so it’s up to Sony now to try and play both sides, keeping Vita relevant by producing high-end software that other portable devices can’t compete with, while making more of a concerted effort to appeal to casual players with low-cost downloads. We sincerely hope there’s an audience for a device like Vita, because once you’ve got your hands on one, you won’t want to let go.