Review: PlayStation Vita, a handheld gaming powerhouse

The PlayStation Vita is the latest system released under Sony’s PlayStation brand and was released on the 15th February providing First Edition bundles were pre-ordered. The console aims to revolutionize the way games are played and allows players to bring home console standards in the palm of the their hands; to some extent the console meets these expectations. I was fortunate enough to recieve the console at the Japanese launch two months prior, so this review should give readers an idea of what to expect from Sony's new portable system.

The cosmetics

Straight out of the box, you will be attracted to the “Crystal Black” finish of the device, as well as the classic sexy matte silver trim. The console is as gorgeous as it could get but I can't help but feel that more colour variations should have been available. The five inch OLED display will have you dribbling and the thumb stick will rid you of bodily fluids before you even turn the system on.

However, with the extra thumb-stick incorporated, the X, square, circle and triangle buttons have been dramatically downsized. This means, those users with big hands and fingers will have a rough time playing comfortably. Despite this problem, the button layout itself is well-executed and does work with all games without feeling unbearably uncomfortable.

As a part of improving the controls, Sony added a noticeable “clicking” mechanism to the buttons. This mechanism allows the user to get appropriate feedback from the system and the software alike when using the buttons.

The rear touch-panel is also very innovative and could be the biggest “wow-factor” of the device. For one example, Uncharted: Golden Abyss has various sniping segments which involve swiping fingers up and down the rear touch-panel to zoom in and out. This feature feels fun and necessary to have; in-fact the PlayStation Vita will make you a believer in commercial touch and motion gaming.

Technical aspects

Layer upon layer, the PlayStation Vita’s interior is just as beautiful. Despite being densely packed, the interior actually seems a lot cleaner, more organized and generally stunning as opposed to other handhelds like the PSP and 3DS. This is doesn’t have much relevance to the now, but it’s great to know for the future if the console breaks after warranty expires in a year’s time.

The PlayStation Vita almost seems like its Sony’s way of falcon-punching the competition and is a complete powerhouse when compared to the 3DS. The device features an ARM Cortex-A9 quad-core CPU clocked at 2 GHz, as well as a four-core PowerVR SGX543MP4+ GPU and 512 MB of RAM. Aside from this, the console sports a unique and innovative rear touchpad, a four-point Gyro-sensor, two 0.3 megapixel cameras (one front-facing and one rear-facing) and the 5 inch OLED touchscreen (mentioned previously). 

The OLED screen has a resolution of 960 x 544 (double the PSP resolution and close to HD) which I was disappointed about at first but despite that, the display and graphics still look phenomenal and the device will still play HD video formats. The screen does support multi-touch to some extent but we’ve only been able to try out pinch-to-zoom; however in-game the rear touchpad does multi-touch just fine, so it’s not a complete loss.

The console itself is surprisingly light, considering the size of the device; it’s only about half an inch bigger in both width and length than the PSP slim. The Wi-Fi model version of the system weighs in at 260g and the 3G model weighs in at 279g.

Introducing Home Screen and LiveArea

The most fundamental part of being able to operate a system is the user interface, so we’ll talk about the operating system and its attributes and features first. Home screen is the core of Sony’s new OS and allows users to access different applications and maximum ease. With a tap or a slide of a finger, users can fully interact with a unique interface which is a little short of phenomenal.

The inability to optionally use physical buttons on the entire interface is a little disappointing, but there isn’t a need to: the touchscreen system is super-responsive and generally practical to use.

Applications such as “Welcome Park” will aid new users to learn and understand how to fully utilize the PlayStation Vita’s features. Welcome Park also features trophies and mini games so the experience seems less tedious than reading; I mean who reads manuals?

Aside from this, LiveArea works alongside the Home Screen and is simply efficiency at its finest. LiveArea is essentially a sided tab which allows scrolling to and from the Home Screen and multiple applications that the user may have “tabbed” in the background. This means that when you’re in a game, you can access or “kill” these tabbed pages by pressing the PS button without a loss in battery or performance (this only works with some applications though). This is simply, multi-tasking at its finest and one of the greatest advantages of this console.

Other features

Another great feature is the addition of party chat: a system that allows text or voice chat with groups of friends on PSN. This isn’t anything new but it’s quite nice to see some compatibility with the PlayStation 3. Apart from that, if you and your Vita friends are online, you can cross-game chat too.

Trophies also return with a new display and a brand new look. Users also have the option of accessing combined PS3 and Vita trophy information from their PlayStation Network account or just Vita trophy information from the system.

Twitter, Skype and Facebook integration will be available at launch or around the launch window, which is good for any gamer on the move and perhaps a reason to get the 3G model. Trophy to Facebook support still works in exactly the same manner as it does on the PS3: just enable it in account settings, sync from your trophy page and it’ll post the trophies obtained to Facebook every time you sync.

The browser is an awful attempt at delivering a solid browsing experience for users and that doesn’t come at a surprise after using the PS3 browser. However, despite it being a little fidgety, it’s pretty quick to get the hang of things. Then again, in the six years since the PSP’s launch, it still amazes me why PlayStation hasn’t made or outsourced a far more decent browser. There’s nothing innovative included in the browser, but the touchscreen keys make typing a hell of a lot easier than the PSP and PS3.

Also, if you are wondering how I’m taking such clear screenshots of the system and its applications, then it is because the console allows screenshotting throughout PlayStation Vita applications. This feature will not work when playing PSP games.

PSP Backwards compatibility works surprisingly well and does make games look somewhat nicer despite a little graphical tearing. There are currently 275 titles that will be available from the Vita’s PSN store but I discovered certain PSP games which are downloadable from the PS3 may work on the Vita, such as Ratchet & Clank: Size Matters below:

Most, if not all PlayStation Vita games will also be available both as physical Vita cartridges and digital download from PSN, which is a push in the right direction for gamers who like digitally owning games. It would seem that Sony has really thought out the content and availability of its games and this makes me quite happy to know that I have access to exactly the same software as retailers do. The launch title information can be read here.

More recently, video recording was enabled which means you can record in standard definition. It would have been better if the device could record in HD but regardless, it’s a nice feature to have but I believe most people would still prefer to record from their phones or camera’s due to the Vita's low-resolution recording.

Google Maps works as it does on a mobile device; it will gather data from your locations and give you maps and directions to new places. The application is very practical to 3G users but seeing as I have the WiFi model, I didn’t particularly like it was that useful as I can't use it outside my house.

The battery life

The battery life is equal to that of the 3DS which isn't bad considering how much more powerful this system is; however this isn’t a case for others and there have been mixed results. The device can run up to five hours from 50-100% brightness with Wi-Fi turned on during this session and that time doesn’t include sleep mode times, but I could imagine getting an extra hour or two more with airplane mode turned on.

My battery life seemed shorter when I was playing Uncharted: Golden Abyss, which for some reason squeezes more juice from the battery. After I discovered this, I realized battery life was completely down to the games you play and how long for, so if you’re playing anything less hardware demanding than Uncharted, then your battery should be a little better.

It’s still disappointing to see no external battery due to the rear touch panel, but I feel there could have been an external slide-out component for the batteries. It’s truly a disappointment because it means there won’t be an improved battery like what we saw with the PSP but are more likely to see an ugly, chunky add-on grip (or something like that) for this gorgeous device.

Nevertheless, it will take around 2 hours and 40 minutes to charge an empty battery so that isn’t too bad.

What the PlayStation Vita doesn't do

  • The PlayStation Vita does not play games in HD which is quite a big deal considering how tight competition in the gaming department has been in the past year with tablets upping resolutions.
  • The console will not natively play PSOne games at launch, despite Amazon currently having that feature falsely advertised on its site. I have heard however that it will be implemented at a later date.
  • Although I said the PlayStation Vita will not play PSOne games natively at launch, you can play them via remote play from a PS3. However, this is about the only thing that works when selecting remote play, as PS3 games currently do not work with remote play on the Vita. The image below displays Crash bandicoot 3: Warped! being played on the Vita via remote play:

The Verdict

The PlayStation Vita has more pro’s than cons and for all the technical aspects, and the Wi-Fi model is worth the £229/US$250 retail price; even if you’d prefer the 3G model, it’s probably still worth the £279/US$299. Before you make that decisiont, note that you can tether Wi-Fi from your smartphone if it supports Wi-Fi hotspots. Something else to consider is that the 3G model has has a more accurate Geolocation system and should recieve exclusive games in future which utilize the geolocation feature. However, this won’t be too much of an important factor, regardless.

This console is what I’d consider an “innovative persuader”. The PlayStation Vita will make the most button-bashing gamers enjoy motion and touch controls and gives the player the option of using physical buttons in-game at same time. It is games like Uncharted: Golden Abyss that really make the Vita stand out from the other handheld consoles and tablets.

The 5 inch OLED screen supports multi-touch and simply looks and feels fantastic. Graphics appear crisp and you can easily tell that from the Uncharted screens that I shot throughout this review.

Sure, the browser sucks and the buttons are a little small, but those things are minor when you consider how well the system multi-tasks and copes with power without losing performance in its sleek interface. The lack of an external battery is probably the biggest flaw and will result in external battery extenders which will tarnish the Vita's attractiveness. 

Other flaws are based on the memory pricing, which is ridiculous. I can’t help but feel that Sony did this deliberately to milk profit from Vita-based products at launch. For one, the card looks an awful lot like the now-redundant M2 Memory sticks which really infuriates me knowing full-well that 4 GB of memory shouldn't cost £20. However, if you buy a PlayStation Vita in the first week, Sony promises to bundle a 8GB Memory stick with its shiny new console providing consumers pre-order it from local retailers. Another bad point is the fact that these memory cards can only hold one PSN account, which means that sharing the console with family member isn’t as practical as it is for the PS3. 

Despite hidden costs, Sony has managed to deliver in what I would call their most enjoyable system yet. This console has no real gimmicks, it is just relevant to this day and age and offers ground-breaking portable games and software that we have naturally come to expect from developers. This is a must-buy and I for one think that the price is just right for what you get.

For those who can't afford the system or are still sitting on the fence, the recent bout of poor Japanese sales could indicate a price cut is on its way soon. Given the features and specs alone, this system would sell like hot cakes at a lower price, so look out for reductions in future months.

Image Source: Pocketnews

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