It’s been a year since the PlayStation Vita’s release, give or take a few weeks. Those of us who bought into Sony’s smart little lump of tech right at the start of its life have endured a mixed year. Some great gaming experiences, at both extremes of the hardcore/casual spectrum, have not translated to system sales as much as Sony will have hoped.
Speaking as a customer, it’s difficult to shake a persistent feeling that the console isn’t quite being pushed to its full potential. Throughout a year when the Nintendo 3DS has convincingly outperformed Sony’s machine, it has seemed like – on some level – a repeat of the PSP vs DS era when Sony’s device had all of the potential and very little of the long-term, widespread success.
Plenty of ports and all the right buttons are very encouraging for a traditional gamer like me.
Games on the Vita like Gravity Rush, Uncharted: Golden Abyss and Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation have shown that there’s plenty of potential for large-scale experiences that are genuinely top quality, even if we haven’t quite reached it yet.
PlayStation Mobile has shown that smaller, cheaper app-style games can be incredibly compelling on this hardware but the platform seems to lack a coherent marketing message from Sony itself and with the wild (and cheap) proliferation of smartphones, PlayStation Mobile isn’t enough to sell an expensive system by itself – it needs the heavy hitters (and a significant price cut, please). If Vita owners aren’t already concerned by the lack of a proper Q4 blockbuster to sell systems and a roadmap of top quality releases for the next year, perhaps they should be.
If sales of the Vita don’t pick up significantly, and soon, third party publishers will not be so keen to spend the millions it takes to bring a large-scale game to market and that cycle will perpetuate itself. Sony will continue to invest for a few years but without the enthusiastic support of publishers like Activision, EA and Ubisoft, the Vita will never be all that it could.
This morning, Nvidia announced Project Shield – a gaming system that, on paper, might just have what it takes to blow the doors off the handheld market completely.
Shield will run the latest version of Android, without any of the bloatware that many mobile manufacturers seem intent to layer on that operating system – so it’ll run fast. This means that it will have access to the Google Play store and the hundreds of thousands of apps and games that are available there. The five inch multitouch display means that anything your Android phone can run should be fully functional on the Shield. PlayStation Mobile simply can’t match that catalogue of bite-size, mobile games.
The Shield will also have access to Nvidia’s own Tegra Zone store, which showcases the games designed to make use of its powerful mobile processors. In here, you’ll be able to find an array of games which offer an experience much closer to that of a full console and some of them are already visually very impressive running on the Tegra 3 that’s in Asus’ Google Nexus 7, as well as plenty of other Android devices.
It's ugly but that is easily forgiven if it performs as well as hoped.
It remains to be seen whether Nvidia will have the same pull with big publishers as Sony does – and it certainly hasn’t got the ability to provide a first party line up that can come anywhere close to Sony’s. But the chip-maker’s close relationship with PC developers is surely going to stand them in good stead for ensuring compatible releases at the more complex end of the scale.
Native software isn’t the only area that Nvidia’s exceptional knowledge of the PC development scene might be a boon. The Shield will be capable of streaming from your Kepler-equipped (GTX650 and above) PC, right to the device’s screen, via WiFi. The Shield will allow those of us with the right graphics cards in our gaming PCs to play games from our Steam libraries on a handheld. Nvidia has also said that they intend to add wireless relay to a (presumably Smart) TV too, so you could stream a game to the Shield from your PC and have it display on your TV, without wires.
So it’s a powerful handheld with a lot of potential. We’ve seen that before, of course. Whether the Shield will deliver on its initial promise will be a matter for history to decide but one thing is for sure: it’s going to have a part – big or small – in shaping the future of handheld gaming. When it’s released this spring (in the US and Canada, at least) it will offer an alternative to the Vita that is capable of as much and more, if it gets the right support. And if it fails to get the right kind of support through official channels, its open architecture might be enough to ensure it lives on through unofficial means.
Shield is, in my opinion, an ugly mess of product design that shows off everything that’s outdated and bizarrely immature about a lot of PC hardware design. It’s only missing a chromed, oversized screw and some blue LEDs. But a high resolution screen and plenty of input/output ports (including a Micro SD card slot and USB) make its dated, angular appearance forgivable. What it means for the handheld market, and what it might encourage other players in that market to do, makes for an incredibly exciting year ahead.