To many, the PlayStation Vita may seem like a foolish endeavour on Sony’s part. When the iPhone and high-end Android phones can give you access to tens of thousands of games, many of them free, as well as other phone and portable computing features, why on Earth would anyone even care about a dedicated gaming handheld anymore? Actually, it’s quite easy to see why. The fact that Apple hasn’t killed off the iPod yet means that there is still a sizeable portion of consumers who like to keep their music separate from their phones. The same applies to gaming. There is still a massive section of gamers that prefers a dedicated gaming device; just look at the blistering pace at which the 3DS is flying off Japanese shelves. And I haven’t even got to the many compelling arguments the Vita itself makes in its favor.
The main question is this – does the Vita offer anything that a gamer who owns a high-end Android or iOS device doesn’t already have? Yes, it does, and that not only includes some great games you won’t find on any other portable device (Uncharted: Golden Abyss, anyone?), but the hardware itself. Sony may have fallen behind in the consumer electronics space over the last few years, but they’ve been wise to incorporate a lot of what consumers have come to expect from current-gen portable devices within the Vita.
The Vita’s predecessor – the PSP, went through many iterations and a few redesigns. And each time a newer model was released, there was a noticeable drop in build quality, thanks to the use of cheaper materials to be able to price the device lower. Of all the models, the launch model – the PSP 1000 still boasts of the best build quality. Same is the case with the PS3; the older “phat” model came with touch-sensitive buttons, while the slim one seems somewhat cheaper. The Vita, like its predecessor, is built exceedingly well. It’s neither too light nor too heavy, and even though it’s substantially larger than the PSP, it feels just right in your hands.
Taking up most of the real estate is the Vita’s resplendent 5-inch OLED capacitive touchscreen. It’s bright, crisp and while its performance under direct sunlight could be better, the only real worry is that without Gorilla Glass-like protection, the screen could scratch over time. A screen protector should definitely be one of your purchases along with the Vita. Unlike the PSP, the Vita features two analog sticks, and these aren’t the nubs the PSP had either. They’re raised and look and feel just like the analogs sticks on the PS3 controller; just smaller. None of the buttons feel flimsy and all the buttons on the front as well as the analog sticks are located conveniently within the reach of your thumbs. One minor gripe with the layout is that the X button is a little too close to the right analog stick, but this is something that you will get used to over time.
The back side
The XrossMediaBar or XMB, which was the UI used by Sony in the PSP and PS3 and even in some non-PlayStation products has been dropped in favor of a more colourful interface that is completely touch-driven. I liked the XMB, because it did exactly what a console’s user interface is supposed to – get you where you want to go with minimum fuss and allow you to get into a game as soon as possible. The Vita’s interface, however, doesn’t seem as intuitive. The touch screen is as responsive as you would expect, but the layout could have been better. All apps and games are represented by circular icons on the home screen, but the more games and apps you have, the more home screens they are spread out over. You can arrange these icons as you like, but you can’t group or resize them to reduce clutter.
Thankfully, getting in and out of games is quite easy and despite not being as zippy and effortless as the XMB, it’s better off than several other console interfaces, like the Xbox 360’s most recent Metro dashboard. The top-right of the home screen shows you notifications, such as messages, friends online, as well as the presence of other Vita users in your vicinity via the Near app, which uses the inbuilt GPS module either via Wi-Fi or 3G. Speaking of which, the Vita is available in two models, one with Wi-Fi, and another with Wi-Fi and 3G. Pressing the PS button gives you a shortcut view of currently running apps, notifications, etc.
Sony has dumped the UMD media that it used in the PSP and has instead decided to make games available on game cards that look just like a memory card. This has many repercussions, the first of which is Sony’s ability to make the device fairly slim in the absence of an optical drive. Making games available on memory cards also means that save files for those games as well as future downloadable content would also be stored on the game card itself, so no matter which Vita you insert your game card into, your save files and DLC go with you.
Sackboy's waiting for you to finger him
The downside, of course, is that your old PSP UMD games won’t work with the Vita. But Sony has a plan for this – the UMD Passport program. An app will be made available to PSP users, where they can register their PSP UMD games. Once registered, you will have to then have to rebuy these games in digital form from the PSN store at a fraction of price. While this is a raw deal for PSP owners, on the bright side, most of these games will support the Vita’s dual analog sticks.
Sadly, the Vita has no inbuilt storage, so you will have to buy Vita memory cards to store your games, demos and media. These Vita memory cards will be available in 4GB, 8GB and 16GB capacities, but at the time of going to press, Sony India was unable to give us a confirmed price for these cards. In the U.S, a 4GB card is priced at $20, so we’re looking at anywhere between Rs.1,000 and Rs.1,500. It’s quite clear then that the expenses on your Vita purchase won’t just end at the Rs.19,990 that you shell out for the device itself. Game prices offer little respite. Less popular games are priced at Rs.2,199, while popular franchises like Uncharted and FIFA will carry Rs.2,799 price tags; that’s the same as a PS3 game!
Golden Abyss looks almost as good as its PS3 counterpart
But boot up Uncharted: Golden Abyss and the Vita wins you over instantly! Aside from the tradition trio of analog sticks, D-pad and shoulder buttons, the Vita sports a plethora of other control options to enrich your gaming experience. A multi-touch capacitive touchscreen in the front; a multi-touch trackpad at the back; a gyroscope, accelerometer and three-axis electronic compass for motion gaming; and a rear camera for augmented reality gaming. Just imagine a game that seamlessly integrates all of these control mechanisms to offer an organic gameplay experience. There is already evidence of this in Uncharted. Use the analog sticks and shoulder buttons to look, move and shoot, the touchscreen for melee combat and to navigate across ledges, and the trackpad to climb ladders. The possibilities are endless, as the device empowers developers in a way no handheld has done before.
There are other advantages to these multiple control options, too. Developers already working on iOS or Android games could easily port their games to the Vita for sale on the PSN Store as Vita Minis. While they may not rival the production values of a God of War, these cheaper games would only serve to give the Vita owner more choice.
You can read about the Vita’s specs at the end of this review, but even without it, it’s clear that this is a device that packs some serious firepower. Playing through Uncharted: Golden Abyss is a surreal experience because, at times, it’s hard to believe that such high-end visuals are being delivered on a handheld device. The only noticeable performance issue, I noticed was while performing context-based touch gestures during melee combat in Uncharted. The touchscreen response was just a tad delayed. However, this is a launch title, and we can expect developers to do a better job of optimizing their games as they grow accustomed to the hardware.
Perfect for those long flights
While there was a degree of interconnectivity between the PSP and PS3, the Vita-PS3 combine takes it to a whole new level. Certain games, such as Warrior’s Lair, will be available for both PS3 and Vita, and you’ll be able to transfer save games from version to the other and continue your progress on a different device. For instance, you can transfer your PS3 game save to your Vita and continue playing the game when you’re on the move. It’s a great feature and has infinite potential. Let’s just hope developers use it without making us buy the game twice – for PS3 and Vita.
Sony has got the hardware right. It looks good, it feels good, and it offers more input options than any other gaming device out there; handheld or otherwise. It’s definitely got a lot going for it that you won’t find on any other mobile device out there. But the hardware is only one part of what will determine the Vita’s fate. Unfortunately, the pricing is extremely steep. At Rs.19,990, the Wi-Fi model is exorbitant; you’re better off getting a PS3 for Rs.16,990. Games, too are priced obscenely. Moreover, aside from Uncharted and FIFA, there really isn’t a single must-buy Vita game on the horizon. This is a great gaming handheld, but it will be even better a few months down the line, after a price drop and a better games line-up.
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