The Vita, for a long time, didn't have a proper name. Instead the press were expected to call it the NGP in lieu of a real name. It was almost seen as something mythical, a device so ahead of its time mere mortals could never experience it. Sure, the Xperia Play answered the call for a Playstation Phone, but the NGP was something else. In the words of Penny Arcade: "I'd be surprised if it comes in under twenty million. It has a touchscreen on the back."
Fast forward to the present day and the Vita is very real and gearing up to hit the shelves. Luckily it ended up getting priced at the more respectable $249, but the insides are still the same. The Vita is shaping up to be one serious portable powerhouse. With that in mind, Neowin decided to take a hands-on and see whether the hype is deserved.
For a 5-inch screen packed with techno-goodies, the Vita is surprisingly light. The console is easy to get to grips with and the size barely factors into it. If anything, the large size makes holding it easier. The design is nice and familiar to anyone that's ever used a PSP, but it takes a few baby steps closer to its bigger Dualshock brother. Remember that old slidey-thumbstick? It grew up and got serious.
One of the Vita's biggest strengths is its buttons. At a time when other mobile makers are scrapping buttons for touchscreens, the Vita takes both paths to their extremes. Although there's enough inputs to make anyone dizzy, the idea is more that gamers get a choice between which style of gameplay they prefer. Wipeout 2048 is a good example. There's two basic control modes: the usual thumbstick-button setup, or the modern rear touchpad-motion sensor layout. Players can switch between the two as they wish, making it idea for bumpy car journeys and the like.
Wipeout's touchscreen mode is one of the many games that uses the rear touchpad. Before today, I was skeptical. After today, I'm still a bit uncertain. Games that require you to make a gesture or tap anywhere are straightforward, but there were one or two demos that asked you to touch a specific point on the back. Escape Plan, a PSN title, made you push out platforms with the back screen, a move that took a lot of getting used to. On the other hand, the game had an interesting gesture where you "pinch" (touch both pads) the Vita and make your character jump ahead.
Other demos took a more conventional approach. The Michael Jackson Experience lets players choose between front and rear pads for making the King of Pop dance. By the end I preferred using the rear pad; it was easier to see what was going on and it meant you kept a firm grip on the device. It seems that a fair few developers are treating the touchpad as a way of offering touch input without having fingers in the way of the screen, which works well.
One downside to the touchpad is that gripping the console isn't ergonomic, as you have to shift your fingers apart to avoid resting them on the pad. This was always going to be a tradeoff though and I'd rather have the current size touchpad than a smaller one that's harder to control. Mobile gaming gets a lot of criticism for touch inputs, where fingers block the screen and there's no tactile feedback. The rear touchpad is the icing on the cake for a device that pushes mobile input to its current limits. A big thumbs-up.
The "unpeeling" gesture comes up in several places. Here, it's being used to close an app.
Cross-platform play was also on display. Wipeout 2048 players could play tracks shared with the PS3 Wipeout HD against each other, and the result was seamless. There was no noticeable lag or slowdown at either end. As a launch title, 2048 looks set to be the centerpiece for showing off what the Vita can do. Framerate was smooth as butter, online functions work well, and graphically 2048 is impressive for a handheld.
The Wipeout 2048 developers worked with architects to try and decide how a city would look in 40 years time. In built-up areas, architects might begin adding new buildings on top of older ones, creating a layering effect. As you race up, down and around the city, the buildings change depending on how high you are. On the test track there was one point where the track loops up the side of a blue-glass building, only to swing back down into a present-day concrete cityscape. Little touches like these make 2048 really stand out in the Vita launch.
Whether it's down to the rise of mobile touch games or just trying things out, a lot of games looked like they made good use of the new features. Super Monkey Ball was on display, and as well as the button mode there's an option to go into full tilt mode. It took some getting used to, and even by the end I wasn't sure I had the hang of it. Then again, I never properly got the hang of the iPhone version, and the two played very similarly.
To show off the new features, Sony have included a play area called the Welcome Pack. Each of the five minigames shows off a feature of the PS Vita. One involved taking a picture with the camera and solving the generated slide puzzle. It's a nice addition, but none of the minigames were that attention-grabbing. A tilt-game where you had to avoid falling balls was surprisingly basic, and it seems the Welcome Pack is there more to make users aware of what the device can do.
LiveArea, the Vita interface, is easy to get to grips with. The bubbles may look a bit off, but in practice it makes a lot of sense. The design is very finger-friendly; the bubbles match up to your thumb and the spacing is enough to avoid any unwanted inputs. One thing you notice is the scrolling elasticity: in iOS and the like, the page gets pulled back when a user scrolls too far. With the Vita, the contents get stretched out. If an iPhone webpage is a piece of paper, a Vita webpage is a piece of rubber.
Playstation Vita size comparison to the iPhone 4
The Vita interface easily beats out the PSP. Having a touchscreen is a godsend. The old keyboard on the PSP was a pain for typing, but the Vita's on-screen keyboard makes web browsing effortless. To use it I had to shift my grip a bit, but I was still able to comfortably type with my thumbs no problem. The large screen means less typing errors, but just in case there's a row of suggested words along the top as you type. General navigation is a lot easier with simple flick and swipe gestures.
Working your way around LiveArea does take some getting used to, but Sony have put in plenty of visual cues to help you work out what to do. Arrows point off towards others screens, icons get pulled apart when pushed too far, and "stickers" can get peeled off by the corner to move them out of the way. It's used for unlocking the device (peel away the lock screen) as well as closing apps. It's very fluid; the first couple of times I found myself pulling it about a bit just to have a play around.
The screen responded perfect to touches, with no noticeable hiccups along the way. Images are crisp and single pixels are barely visible. It was difficult to gage outdoor performance in a dark room, but overall the OLED screen did the graphics justice. Definitely suited for next-gen gaming.
The Vita is shaping up to be a winner. One of the big questions left is battery life. It's no lightweight, but Sony reckons the Vita can squeeze out 5 hours of gameplay on a good day. If the battery life stacks up and Sony manage to get some great developers on board, they could be onto a success. Sadly, North America and Europe won't see the Vita until next year, but before then we'll have reviews from Japanese importers to look forward to. Keep your eyes peeled.
Playstation Vita will launch in Europe and North America on February 22nd, 2012.