Sunday, 11 August 2013

PS Vita Review

The PS Vita was released in the UK in early 2012 to much fanfare and hoopla, but after it's first month on sale, it didn't appear to be setting the tills on fire. In fact, sales slowed quite quickly afterwards.

Whereas Nintendo's 3DS has been a consistently high seller (though not to the same levels of the DS Lite), the Vita has been much more of a slow burner. This is in part down to the fact that the Vita doesn't have an immediately quirky selling point like the 3DS, namely, glasses free 3D. However, what the Vita lacks in headline grabbing selling points, it more than makes up for by being on of the most solid handheld gaming devices I've ever used.

What Sony released wasn't gimmicky, it wasn't flash, it wasn't even massively different from the PSP in it's looks. What the Vita does, it does very well, very quietly and very competently. It plays games. 

After the debacle that was Microsoft's Xbox One announcement, Sony parried with the line that "the PS4 is a games machine for gamers". That ethos was also pumped into the Vita. Sure, it has front and rear cameras, does email and internet, but these are little side benefits Sony has taken from it's experience in the phone and tablet markets, what the Vita does best is gaming.

So what does the Vita have? Well, to start with it has an utterly spectacular 5 inch OLED touchscreen that is just gorgeous. Take a game with great art direction like Soul Sacrifice and ever detail pops, every design choice and every hint of the artist's imagination is brought to life in a crisp and clear way that no other handheld has ever matched. It makes the 3DS' LCD displays look positively stone-age by comparison.

Unlike the the 3DS, the Vita is aimed at the console gamer. Sony had kind of missed the mark with the PSP, it only ever had a strong following in Japan. Over in the west, people didn't like it so much, there weren't enough console quality games and people just switched off. WIth the Vita, Sony have made a couple of savvy choices to appeal to western gamers as well as those in Japan. For a start, the unit is laid out much like a PS3 controller. The D-pad and face buttons take up their logical positions, but the inclusion of two, full motion analogue sticks makes this more appealing to modern gamers. Since the days of the Dual Shock controller on the PSX, console gaming has been dominated by twin stick controllers, so when the PSP shipped with only one analogue nub (it wasn't even a stick), people just didn't get it and games suffered as a result.

Battery life has also been improved, in part due to a better battery but also the dumping of the much maligned UMD disc format. The PSP had to physically spin and read a disc which led the device to power through it's battery life as well as get warm. The PS Vita uses cartridge technology so there are no moving parts to power (or to go wrong) as well as leaning heavily on the PS Store for content and exclusives. This presents one drawback in that you pretty much have to buy a PS Vita compatible Memory Card, which only Sony make and are quite expensive. There are some deals to be had on them, but I don't understand why they had to develop a new shape memory card rather than make use of Micro-SD cards which are more popular and easier to get a hold of. Hell, they could have even just build in flash storage, though I concede that would have made the device much more expensive. Still, dumping the UMD format more than makes up for the memory card concerns.

In one major attempt to try something different, Sony also implemented a feature that I'm yet to see work well, but I am interested in seeing. The whole rear of the Vita is a touch pad. SImilar to what Sony have planned for the front of the PS4 controller, games can make use of the rear of the device for added inputs. So far, I've only encountered it when playing PSone classic games bought on the PS store, where top right and left corners of the touch screen act as R2 and L2 (the Vita only having one shoulder button on each side). While it does work, it's a little imprecise and a bit clumsy. I can imagine playing action games or games that require split second timing would likely become very frustrating using the rear screen. In terms of Vita games, I know it is implemented in a subtle way in Dungeon Hunter: Alliance, but to be honest, I haven't used it. If I find a good use for it, I'll be sure to let you know.

The online play has been significantly improved from the PSP. This is partly to do with PSN's improvements over the years, but it is a mile away from it. For a start, you can do ad-hoc multiplayer over P2P wifi. So imagine you and me are sat in the same room, we both have our Vitas and we both have a copy of Soul Sacrifice, we can pair up with each other and fight matches together, without a wifi hotspot being available, just connecting directly to each other's devices. This for me is a massive thing, because I'm not a huge fan of online play, but I do like a nice multiplayer game occasionally, so the ability to connect directly with someone else's Vita and avoid the rampant randomness that is the world wide web pleases me.

All this rambling though and I haven't even discussed the games. The Vita currently doesn't have as many games as the 3DS and it doesn't have an enormous back catalogue of previous generation games to draw on, but in my experience, the games it does have are pretty much console quality. The ones I have played don't feel cut down or restricted by the hardware. Uncharted: Golden Abyss plays just like it's big brothers on the PS3, the Metal Gear Solid HD collection plays much better than the console versions and the ubiquitous WipEout 2048 is just utterly superb.  Seriously, it's worth getting a Vita just for WipEout.

It's had a rocky start to it's life, but the Vita is slowly starting to pick it's feet up and gain some real ground on Nintendo. With the PS4 having greater support for the Vita and it's remote-play functionality, it can only get more popular. All it needs now is some truly killer games to come out in quick succession and this powerhouse of a device could destroy the competition.


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