Whether you consider it progress or a race to the bottom, Apple's iOS platform is gobbling up the gaming market. Nintendo's 3DS was far from perfect (read our review), leaving many looking to the Vita for gaming on the go. But is there a future for dedicated gaming devices? After a week with the Vita, Gizmag's Tim Hanlon hopes so.
The first thing you'll notice is the 5-inch OLED touchscreen with 960 × 544 resolution that clocks in at 220 pixels per inch (ppi). On paper, that might seem a fair way behind Apple's Retina Display levels (326 ppi), but make no mistake - this is a big, bright, gorgeous screen - and counting pixels will be the last thing on your mind once you start playing.
If you haven't been following the previews, the Vita is the first mainstream handheld to feature dual analog joysticks, a control setup which has been the console standard for over a decade, and was surprisingly absent from every model of the first-generation PlayStation Portable (PSP).
The second joystick is essential for precise control of first- and third-person shooters, and is ultimately responsible for an entire subgenre of arcade games - the "twin-stick shooter" popularized by Geometry Wars (so it's no surprise to see Super Stardust as a launch title).
Both joysticks are a major, welcome departure from the awkwardly-placed, hard plastic "nub" of the PSP. They're placed closer to the middle of the Vita, and tilt like a console stick, albeit with less travel than you'd expect. There's also a much softer feel to surface of the stick which is far more comfortable.
The four face buttons are on the small side, and feature a distinct click, very similar to the PSP Go. They're placed so close to the right joystick that the particularly dextrous might be able to operate them both simultaneously with some practice.
The joysticks are joined by perhaps the best directional pad on a controller yet. Each direction has a tactile click as distinct as the face buttons, while being absolutely effortless to operate. It's beautifully showcased by launch title Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3 (I think fans of fighting games in particular will adore it).
... but it's not all good. The shoulder buttons move around a bit, and can fail to give a tactile click depending on where you're pressing them, and the awkwardly-placed start and select buttons make it more difficult to pause a game than it should be, which is unfortunate for a portable device.
Surprisingly enough, the Vita is far more comfortable to hold and operate than any PSP model and any DualShock/Sixaxis controller for the PlayStation (even if it is a little on the heavy side). It's no Xbox 360 controller (the high water mark for controller ergonomics) but it's a clear second - and that's a mighty feat for a portable device.
There's no storage on board the Vita, and your growing collection of SD and microSD cards won't help - you'll need to purchase a memory card in Sony's new proprietary format that is designed specifically for the Vita.
The cards are available for USD$20 for 4 GB, $30 for 8 GB, $60 for 16 GB and $100 for 32 GB. While some are complaining about the cost of the memory cards, it could certainly be a lot worse (witness what Apple charges for extra memory in an unexpandable iPhone).
I'd recommend you get at least a 16 GB memory card, and consider the 32 GB if you're a game hoarder. I filled an 8 GB card within a few days, though I already had an couple of digital PSP titles to install and was a little trigger happy on the PlayStation Store.
Battery life is admittedly the Achilles' heel of the Vita, but it's not as bad as many are making it out to be. With Bluetooth turned off, I'm getting at least five hours of solid gaming out of a charge.
I wish I could be a bit more scientific about this one, but the Vita won't give a percentage reading from the battery, and it can tell when I've wedged down a button or joystick and eventually puts itself to sleep.
There are first- and third-party battery packs in the pipeline, but any battery packs that support the iPad (like the Mophie Juice Pack Powerstation) should do the trick in the meantime.
After four revisions of the PSP (five if you count the PSP Go) you'd expect Sony to be pretty good at making portables - and the Vita doesn't disappoint. There's no creaking plastic or "give" anywhere, and the controls all feel like they're built to last.
Competing with the PS3
One interesting omission from the Vita is the lack of a TV output, which was in the original PSP. When you see the quality of the games running on the Vita you can see why - Sony knows that the Vita would be competing head on with the PS3, which unlike the Vita, can be sold at a profit. Hopefully there's some serious discussion happening at Sony about eventually unifying the PlayStation and the Vita.
The Vita features one of the strongest launch lineups I can think of. You should be able to find at least two games that you enjoy, regardless of your gaming taste. Stay tuned for my list of the essential PS Vita games, which will be published in the next few days.
All "full-length" Vita titles will be available on physical media or as a download from the PlayStation Network, generally weighing between 1 GB and 4 GB. Like the PlayStation 3, there are download-only titles available from the PlayStation Network.
I grabbed two of the downloadable titles, Super Stardust Delta and Motorstorm RC, which are both brilliant - with a no-brainer price ($9.99) and gameplay that's conducive to a quick five or ten minute session. Motorstorm RC will even play on your PS3, which is something I hope we see a lot more of in the future.
If you already own digital versions of PSP games, many of these can be installed on the PS Vita (the number stands at over 275 according to Sony) - and I'm finding Gran Turismo far more enjoyable on the Vita than my PSP Slim thanks to the improved controls.
When you take into account the large back catalog of downloadable PSP games and PSP minis, Sony has the start of something that could viably compete with Apple's iOS devices and the App Store. With aggressive discounts of the PSP catalog (like the existing 50 percent off the Grand Theft Auto games), continued courting of popular iOS developers, and an initiative to build a library of downloadable Vita games in the sub-$5 range (including free games supported by ads or in-game purchases), the Vita will become infinitely more appealing to the people outside the core gamer set.
You can use a computer (PC or Mac) or a PS3 as a master library for all your Vita games and other content, so it's easy to just keep what you're actively playing on your Vita's memory card.
I adore this thing, and urge anyone who plays games to go and have a play with one at a store. Even if you decide to wait for a price drop, a bigger library of games, or a hardware revision, playing the Vita is like a little glimpse of the future that's worth experiencing.