Pros: Fantastic hardware, gorgeous screen, second analog stick!
Cons: Proprietary memory card prices are insane.
Electronics giant Sony initially entered the handheld game market back in 2005 with the PlayStation Portable – and while that device eventually developed a robust library of games and a dedicated fanbase, it was hamstrung by several problems. The most notable was the lack of a second analog stick for control – meaning that while the hardware was capable of recreating PlayStation 2 level games, they never controlled quite as well as they did on the console.
For years, gamers clamored for a hardware revision that would add a second stick to the PSP – but as time passed, it became obvious that wasn’t going to happen. If gamers were ever to have their portable Sony device with two control sticks, it would clearly be whenever Sony got around to releasing a PSP successor.
That finally came true earlier this year, when Sony launched the PlayStation Vita. This new device builds upon the foundation crafted by the PSP – but has Sony truly learned from their earlier mistakes? Yes and no.
The Vita is an amazing piece of hardware, boasting an absolutely stunning 5-inch OLED touchscreen that’s every bit as responsive as the iPad. This touchscreen opens up new dimensions for developers that they could only dream of on the PSP. As tablet gaming makes serious inroads into the videogame industry, the ability of the Vita to allow games with both a traditional control scheme or touch controls is the kind of versatility that hardcore gamers crave (and Nintendo has been implementing since the release of the DS). The screen might not be as big as the one you’d find on a current gen iPad (or even the iPad Mini), but it’s still very impressive (moreso than the Mini’s screen, which is not a Retina display) with its 960 x 544 pixel resolution. It’s also roughly an inch larger than the PSP’s screen.
If the display is the first thing you notice when you see the Vita, the second is just how much it resembles Sony’s previous handheld. The Vita is slightly larger than the PSP, but the lack of a UMD drive makes it feel significantly lighter than my first gen PlayStation Portable. The Vita has the same basic face layout, the same (unfortunately prone to showing fingerprints and smudges…) black finish (although you can opt for a limited edition white model as part of an Assassin’s Creed bundle), and the same overall shape as its predecessor.
What’s been added is that lovely second analog stick. While the left side of the Vita boasts a directional pad and analog stick alongside the PS Home button, the right is where the magic happens. To accomodate this second control option, Sony’s shrunk down the face buttons, but it’s really not noticeable. The smaller inputs are responsive, and my initial fear that the X button was too close to the analog thumbstick was quickly put to bed through play.
As for the sticks themselves, they’re everything gamers hoped they would be. While they’re not clickable like the ones on a Dualshock controller, they are very responsive and comfortable. The tops have a good grip to them, so your thumbs won’t be sliding during long play sessions.
While the Vita loses the clickable thumbstick option and the L2/R2 shoulder buttons (the hardware simply has one set of shoulder triggers, not two), it makes up for it with the front and rear touchscreens.
The Vita’s main screen is not only gorgeous, but it’s also usable as an input device. In fact, many of the system’s functions take advantage of touch functionality. Scrolling through menus and launching games is all done by hand, rather than with a traditional input, and the whole thing works flawlessly. Sony didn’t skimp on touchscreen functionality for the front panel – I notice zero difference between it and my third generation iPad. Scrolling is smooth, input is precise, and the whole thing just feels right.
The back touchscreen is an interesting addition. Some games utilize it as part of the mechanics, but hoenstly, I could have lived without it. I’ve not had a lot of opportunity to mess around with the rear unit, but I can say it works even if it feels mostly extraneous.
Like most devices these days, the Vita also comes with front and rear-facing cameras – but I doubt anyone will be ditching their phone for picture taking. Both cameras are 640 x 480 resolution – meaning the pictures aren’t particularly sharp.
The Vita comes in two different models – the base WiFi unit runs $250, while the 3G AT&T version will set you back another $50. I bought the WiFi version because I don’t even own a cell phone. I’m a hermit – the odds of me ever needing 3G are minimal.
When the price point was first announced, most gamers were pleased. $250 for a unit with dual touch screens, the beautiful display, WiFi, and two analog sticks seemed pretty reasonable. However, there was a catch…
What Sony neglected to point out at first was that the Vita has almost no onboard memory, necessitating the use of external cards. No big deal, right? The PSP used memory sticks and they were affordable and easy to come by.
“Not so fast,” said Sony. Rather than utilize regular SD flash cards, the company launched their own proprietary storage format. The justification was that this would prevent piracy (which was rampant on the PSP). The problem is that Sony is charging an incredibly outlandish price for these memory sticks. The top of the line 32GB memory card for the Vita costs $99. You can buy a Terabyte of flash memory for the same price. Adding insult to injury, Sony couldn’t even be bothered to pack in the tiny 4GB card with new Vitas – meaning you not only had to shell out $250 for the system, but at least another $20 for the cheapest memory card so you could actually save your game when you got home with your shiny new toy.
And, of course, buying that 4GB card is largely a waste unless all you intend to do is save your game progress. The Vita offers physical copies of games on a proprietary card, but the real beauty of the system is that it’s built to be a download center. Sony wants you to buy games (including old PSOne and PSP classics) from the PlayStation Store and directly download them to the system. The problem is, to do that, you need a big memory card. In Sony’s twisted thinking, it’s like they’ll take a loss on the Vita and make it up by gouging folks on the memory cards. It’s not unlike giving people razors and charging them for the blades.
Because of this, the Vita has struggled to gain traction with gamers. This is unfortunate, because it’s an amazing piece of hardware. While sales have improved this holiday season (thanks to discounted bundle packages featuring the system, a game, and a 4GB memory card for $200 or less), Sony needs to look long and hard at permanently shifting the price to these levels. There’s a perception that this machine isn’t selling well (and it isn’t), which is keeping developers from fully committing to making great games for it. If there aren’t great games to play on the Vita, the whole thing is doomed. It’s in Sony’s best interest to fix this now – before it turns a year old and this negative perception grows even more pervasive. Nintendo learned this lesson the hard way with the 3DS, but after acknowledging the problem and adjusting the price, that handheld has rebounded.
Finally, a bit about battery life. One of the biggest annoyances with the PSP was that the battery life was pretty dire – particularly if you had the system off in standby mode. If you skipped playing and charging for three days, the thing would be deader than a doornail the next time you tried to turn it on. The Vita’s battery life is a marked improvement. While playing games, users can expect it to take four hours or so before it needs to spend some quality time with the charger. In standby mode, it’s even more impressive – I’ve let the thing sit unused for the better part of a week with no problem. If you’re looking to game on a long trip, the four or so hours of battery life is probably an issue, but at least it’s better than it was on the PSP.
So, as we approach the one year anniversary of the Vita here in America, we find a really well designed piece of hardware trying to carve out a niche for itself in an ever-more crowded market. Sony has to not only contend with Nintendo’s 3DS, but the proliferation of tablets, smartphones, and other gadgets that allow users to play games, buy apps, and take pictures.
That being said, nothing beats a truly dedicated gaming machine for hardcore gamers. I play my fair share of iOS titles on my iPad (and I enjoy them), but if you want to play a shooter or an action game, you’re going to want something more than a touch screen d-pad. This is where the Vita shines – it does the touchscreen games as well as the tablets (of course, it doesn’t have the library Apple has…), but then it also does the hardcore console game experience flawlessly too. It’s a best of both worlds device. That it synchs with your PS3 and offers cross-play modes in some games as well as portable versions of your favorite console experiences is all icing on the proverbial cake. Gamers looking for that kind of experience – and who want to relive some of the best games from earlier generations – will want to consider this hardware. The future of the Vita is still cloudy, but the hardware is too good for Sony to let this thing fade into obscurity without a fight.