The Sony PlayStation Vita officially launches today, bringing with it over two dozen games and a host of promises. Without a new version of the PlayStation console announced, Sony is clearly counting on the PS Vita to restore some of the prestige lost in the gaming world with the troubles dogging their PlayStation Network. Whether that will happen remains to be seen, of course, but I can say that the Vita is a remarkable achievement in handheld gaming devices.
It’s nothing if not sleek, small enough to fit in a pocket (albeit a fairly big one) but with a screen that can’t help but remind one of the iPhone 4′s Retina display, only bigger (though the Vita’s screen has slightly worse resolution than the Retina display, at 960×544, the difference is largely unnoticeable). Its tight design and relative lack of moving parts work to enhance its durability — not only have I let my 9- and 11-year-old kids play with it, but they and I have dropped it a few times, and it still looks brand new. It fits comfortably in two hands, with miniaturized versions of the PlayStation controls that work very well, even if using the tiny dual analog joysticks did make my hands cramp up after a while — but I have unusually large hands, so your mileage may vary. Having touch capabilities on the back of the Vita as well as on the front display is an interesting innovation, one which I at first found cumbersome but gradually grew able to handle reasonably adeptly. The front and back cameras are low-res enough that nobody’s likely to use them much for taking photos or videos, but serve very well in their primary function: enabling the augmented reality feature of the device. Top all that off with a Cortex A9 Quad core processor, a quad-core graphics processor, and 512 megabytes of RAM, and you’ve got a powerhouse of a handheld: to put that all into perspective, it has twice as much memory as the PS3 and more computing power than the iPad 2.
The PS Vita does more than just play games. It comes with a web browser, but one you’re only likely to use for quickly looking something up or some such activity, as it’s pretty mediocre by today’s standards. Google Maps is also included, which works pretty much as you’d expect if you’ve ever used it on a smartphone or tablet, and, though the GPS seemed pretty accurate, I don’t see this being a widely-used app — I just can’t imagine too many scenarios in which you’d need a map where it would be easier to pull out your Vita than your smartphone, but I can see it being useful for people without smartphones. It has an app called Near, which adds a social aspect to the device by showing you nearby Vita users, what they’re playing, and what trophies they’ve won. (As I only had one Vita to try out, I wasn’t able to test this app, but I understand that it does maintain privacy standards.) It comes with a content manager, which is a well-designed app that allows you to transfer information between the Vita and a PS3 or computer. And then there’s the remote play feature, which was notoriously poorly implemented on the PSP, which I was only able to get to work a little bit and then really slowly, but which they’ve promised will improve dramatically shortly, especially after more PS3 games come out that enable the feature. You can also watch videos and listen to music on the Vita, and it seems to do just fine at both, but it’s no serious threat to the better smartphones with regard to either.
But, let’s face it, nobody is going to buy the Vita for any of those things. The clear selling point of this device, and Sony clearly knows this, is the games. It’s been discussed here on GeekDad and elsewhere, but Uncharted: Golden Abyss is the clear star of the launch-day lineup — and one that demonstrates better than any other game I tried out (including the Welcome Park app that comes loaded on the device) how good a job the Vita does in providing a great gaming experience. Let me put it this way: Despite having over a dozen other games to try out, I had to play Uncharted all the way to the end, and I found myself getting immersed in the game in a very similar way to how I had playing the console games in the series, to the point where what I was playing the game on became just part of the experience. It really did feel that natural, and that’s as much a testament to the device’s features as it is to the game’s designers and developers for taking advantage of them. Honestly, the other games were a bit hit and miss — though there were some very good ones — but it was Uncharted that really made me a true believer in the PS Vita. If a series as rich and cinematic as that can have a handheld installment that stands right up there with the console installments, then so can any other series. (Check back here on GeekDad in the next week or so to read my full reviews of selected games from the opening Vita lineup.)
With all the games available to play already, it would be easy to overlook the Vita’s operating system, but it could be argued that that’s one of its greatest strengths: it allows you to run and effortlessly switch between up to five apps at once. Want to pause your game to check out who’s nearby and send a friend request? Just press the “PS” button under the left analog stick, scroll through the apps screens with a flick of your finger — just as you would in iOS or Android, only vertically — tap the Near app, send the request, then swipe left or right to the game’s screen and tap continue. The only delay in this process would be how long it takes you to find your new potential friend in Near, because everything else would be virtually instantaneous. Really: even pausing and restoring a game as big as Uncharted was seamless, dropping me back into the game as though Drake had only blinked. I tried doing this in every game I played, and in the middle of all kinds of processor-intensive scenes, and not only did none of the games crash, but every one of them restored perfectly. If there are any glitches in this OS, I wasn’t able to find them, and I’m usually pretty good at that sort of thing.
The Vita has its weak points, though. The battery life is probably the worst: I wasn’t able to play for more than three hours in any game without getting a low battery warning; giving it a full charge only took about two hours, though, which isn’t bad. Storage is another issue: The Vita carries no internal storage, presumably as a way to keep prices down, and memory cards for it are proprietary and expensive. And it has its annoyances — for me, the biggest being that the cover to the slot where game cards go was really difficult to open. If you don’t have long fingernails, you’ll need to either leave the cover open or carry some kind of small, thin object with you — honestly, I don’t see how the design for this made it to the final product, when the rest of the Vita seems so well thought out. I had to resort to keeping a small, thin knife next to me for this purpose, and prying the cover open very carefully, because literally nothing else I tried worked — even a dime was too thick for the purpose, as were the edges of the game cards and the boxes they came in. If I want to take my Vita on a plane, I’ll have to come up with some other idea, since I have a feeling the TSA will not accept “I need it to open my handheld gaming device” as a valid reason for bringing a knife on board.
All in all, the PS Vita really has managed to bring console-level gaming to a handheld in a way nobody has done before. I love my iPhone 4 and my iPad 2, and I play games on them all the time, but the iPhone screen is too small to let you forget you’re using a phone and the iPad is too big to fit naturally in your hands for long periods of time — plus there are very few pockets capable of holding an iPad, and they are both definitely more fragile than the Vita. I honestly felt like I had the same kind of immersive experience playing on the Vita that I’m used to having on the Xbox and PS3, only with the added benefits that only a handheld can provide, like touchscreen and gyroscopic movement. And I was able to play on this “console” with my headphones on while my kids watched a program on the main family TV, something I’m not able to do with the actual consoles. And fellow parents will understand how nice it was to be able to play a game rated “M” while my kids were in the house and awake, without having to worry they’d see or hear something I’d rather they didn’t.
The PS Vita is available for $249.99 for the WiFi-only version and $299.99 for a bundle with the version that adds AT&T 3G capability (which also comes with an 8GB memory card) — though you’ll have to pay for a data plan if you want to use the 3G after the included DataConnect pass runs out. Considering that you can currently get a 160GB PS3 for $250, this may seem a bit pricey, but not horribly so when you consider how much power Sony has packed into so little space. Games seem to run between $30 and $50, which is what you’d pay for any console game (and therefore more than you’d pay for games for most handhelds).
Wired: The PS Vita delivers the closest thing yet to a console-level experience in a handheld device, with well-designed handheld features. The rear touch-panel is an innovation I expect to see on other devices soon, as (while it takes some getting used to) it is fairly natural to use when your fingers are already on the back of the device because your thumbs are on the controls.
Tired: Sony has yet to learn that using proprietary storage media makes them no friends, and this is very much in evidence with the Vita. The battery life could well be enough to keep a lot of people from dropping a few hundred bucks on the Vita, although I’m sure external battery packs will make an appearance soon. And there’s that annoyance of the game card slot cover, which seems like a small thing, but as it’s something you have to use a lot will drive you a little bit nuts if you have the same trouble I did.
Conclusion: An excellent gaming experience overall, and worth the money. I don’t see the point in paying $50 more for the 3G and then having to get a plan on top of that, so if I were buying one I’d go for the WiFi-only version — although the 8GB memory card that comes with the 3G + WiFi bundle costs a fair bit on its own. (Amazon is offering a deal that gets you a free 4GB memory card with the WiFi-only version for a limited time.) The battery life is the only thing that might keep me from buying one, but there are so many opportunities to plug devices in these days that I don’t think it’s too huge a deal.