Sony’s first attempt to snatch a piece of Nintendo’s handheld market dominance via the PlayStation Portable was – with 70 million units sold worldwide as of May this year – hardly a failure.
However, Sony’s system was slow to offer compelling games; impressive visuals and a handful of titles aside, it gave gamers little reason to pick it up once the lure of the new technology had subsided. Everywhere but Japan it seemed, PSPs were gathering dust.
It’s heartening, then, to see that Sony appear to have learned from these mistakes and sought to rectify them with their upcoming handheld, the PlayStation Vita.
The Vita certainly looks formidable. Marginally larger than its forbearer yet lighter and with a wide range of inputs, the device is nonetheless slightly awkward to hold. Recessions on the rear of the Vita should house fingers nicely, especially for those with smaller hands, but their proximity to the edge of the console may cause a case of claw-hand for those with larger paws. This can be resolved by abandoning them in favour of a wider, deeper grip, however this tends to stray on to the back touchpad more than is desirable.
On the front, the select, start and PlayStation buttons are flush with the plastic casing to prevent accidental mashing mid-game. The face buttons are on the small side – all four are able to be activated by a thumb simultaneously – but were otherwise functional. The analogue sticks aren’t as tight as those found on a DualShock, but their relative softness required only a small adjustment before they seemed familiar and accurate. The shoulder buttons proved pleasingly springy, and the D-pad felt equally well-designed and precise.
Volume is controlled by two circular metallic buttons atop the Vita, where the flash card slot and an as-yet-unidentified port (possibly some kind of video output) are also located. Overall the Vita looks good and for the most part, feels it too.
Little Deviants was the first game on offer. More a tech demo than anything, this series of mini-games (up to 30 will appear in the final release) was charming anyway. The best one involved guiding a small ball-like fellow around a 3D world using the rear touchpad to provide locomotion. The touchpad is responsive, intuitive and fun to use – something which must have calmed the nerves of a few Sony executives who were apparently lobbying to have it vetoed from the Vita not so long ago. What’s more, it responded well to light as well as hard touch, with the difference reflected on-screen accordingly.
The next level was an augmented reality mini-game which superimposed flying creatures over our immediate surrounds, captured by the unit’s outward-facing camera. Touching the screen shot them down, but this proved difficult as a bustling showroom was probably too busy a backdrop to get anything but sensory overload while playing. A park would certainly be more suitable.
Other Deviants minigames on show used the microphone, gyroscope and other controls to good effect and as such, Sony would be wise to bundle this game with the Vita at launch. It certainly proved a fun way to familiarise players with the system’s multiple controls, and proved to be a nice little timewaster in its own right.
The great thing about the dual analogue sticks on the Vita is that there is no compromise control-wise when it comes to playing shooters. This was particularly evident with Uncharted: Golden Abyss, as controlling Drake immediately felt familiar and easy. Uncharted showed off the graphical power of the Vita nicely, with dynamic lighting and PlayStation 3-style shading ably providing an impressive appearance on its bright five-inch OLED screen.
Touch screen control to manage climbing and melee might sound off-putting to some, but its use is optional, and changing weapons or throwing grenades by tapping the touch screen was a rather joyous experience. Uncharted gameplay lead Ron Allen clarified Bend Studio’s stance here: “We wanted to enhance rather than change the game around the touch stuff; we wanted to enjoy it.”
The final Vita game on display was confirmed launch title WipEout 2048. Specifically designed for the Vita and including 10 new tracks, 20 ships and 250000 polygons per frame giving PlayStation 3-worthy presentation, this game looked and felt great. Controlling the ship either using traditional controls or mixing in tilting to turn and using the back touchpad to control velocity, 2048 was indistinguishable from the PS3’s WipEout HD Fury. We know this due to Sony’s new-found love for cross-platform gaming or ‘crossplay’.
A particularly nice demo showed WipEout 2048 players on the Vita join a PlayStation 3’s WipEout lobby, and participate in games of Fury. Up to eight players are able to play at once this way, and side-by-side the games were indistinguishable platform-wise.
Cloud saving on PlayStation Network makes crossplay between the PlayStation 3 and the Vita an intriguing proposition. Streets ahead of the PlayStation Portable and PlayStation 3’s mere data sharing, this feature allows a game to be played at home on the PlayStation 3 and then continued on a Vita. How successful this is may well depend on whether Sony insists on charging a customer full price for the same game on each platform, or whether some kind of bundling can occur – something they are not commenting on for now.
Theoretically, a Wii U dual-screen experience could even be possible using both consoles across PlayStation Network, although president of SCE Worldwide Studios Shuhei Yoshida has admitted that latency issues have been a factor when this has been tested.
Having actually laid hands on the thing, it's clear that the Vita and its accompanying games are shaping up very nicely, which is probably why it won the not-really-prestigious Game Critics Best of E3 ‘Best Hardware’ and ‘Best Handheld Game’ categories. The launch line-up is also looking solid with Uncharted, Resistance Retribution, Little Deviants, Reality Fighters, Super Stardust Delta Sound Shapes, WipEout 2048, Hustle Kings and Everybody’s Golf confirmed, and no doubt more on the way in the coming months – already it trumps the lacklustre PSP and 3DS launches in that regard.
Ruin, ModNation Racers, LittleBigPlanet, Call Of Duty, Hot Shots Golf Vita, and Killzone games have also been confirmed as under development too, and almost all software developers are on board creating content for the system, which is encouraging. That the biggest complaint the six developers we spoke to could come up with was along the lines of “the extra features gave us too many ideas to fit into our game” should relax PlayStation fans too.
Sony has made a big deal over how easy it is to port games from the PlayStation 3 to the Vita – something they say they were extremely mindful of when creating the system. Hopefully there won't be an over-reliance on ports of PlayStation 3 titles as we have with the PlayStation Portable, but at least the dual analogue sticks will make shooters playable if it comes to that.
It’s probable that original intellectual property utilising the Vita’s points of difference would be welcomed more readily by the gaming community, and would be more likely to make the Vita a greater success than the reliance upon Sony to provide a mobile platform for ports of PlayStation 3 games.
Either way, things aren’t looking so rosy for PlayStation Portable fans. Allen admitted to us that it was easier to get the Uncharted engine running on the Vita than the PSP, and despite Sony’s claim that they will produce games for the PSP as long as people are still buying them, we can’t help but feel that they may struggle to convince developers to produce games for a vastly inferior and difficult to wrangle system once the Vita is on the market, install base or no install base. What may work in the PSP’s favour is the fact that despite compatibility, there is currently no way to migrate your PSP games over to the Vita, and it seems likely Sony will simply charge Vita owners to download them all over again through the PlayStation Store.
Another worry: in the US, the 3G model of the Vita will be sold exclusively in partnership with mobile carrier AT&T – possibly the least popular and most patchy of the US mobile networks – and Sony has said that similar partnerships will be in place for other regions too.
There is also only so much 30 minutes with a console can tell you, and questions regarding the PlayStation Vita’s comfort and battery life can only be properly answered following an extended play session. For the moment though, the Vita is looking like it will largely fulfil its promise of power and versatility.
It's really a matter of waiting until GamesCom on August 17, where Sony NZ’s David Hine suggested Sony Computer Entertainment Europe will announce New Zealand prices, a release date, and – with any luck – more launch titles.