Let’s be honest: the Vita isn’t going to have an easy ride. Regardless of your stance on how Apple have ignited/destroyed [delete as appropriate] mobile gaming the market that both Nintendo and Sony are so desperate for has been considerably eaten away; games don’t cost £40 anymore, they cost 69p. Not all games are equal, sure, but the fact is that Angry Birds, Tiny Wings, Cut The Rope and even Doodle Jump (bless it) have shown that a fair chunk of the Vita’s potential ownership is used to paying much, much less for their software.
And that – for good or bad – is a fact.
Of course, regular readers will know I’m a big fan of mobile gaming, generally preferring the flexibility of on-the-go action rather than the substantial investment in time that a mainstream TV-based console demands. The promise that the Vita would offer us ‘PS3-level’ gaming (thanks, unmentioned Codemasters mouthpiece) was too much to pass up – if Sony could make good on the notion that portable consoles could provide experiences as developed as the main machines then that’s what would set Vita apart.[drop2]I suspect I’m speaking for everyone when I say that I actually quite like dipping in and out of the recent upsurge in ‘casual’ mobile games.
It’s not that I’d rather spend all my time feeding red candy to a green monster, but such experiences are great for balancing out the more fully fledged titles, the sort of things you’d normally see on PS3 and Xbox 360. Not everyone always has an hour to spare, but when I do I normally want to focus on something a little more weighty.
Enter, then, the PlayStation Vita.
First things first, this thing is big. After the iPhone and my trusty old PSPgo, the Vita looks and feels massive – the screen alone about the same size as a 4S and then there’s the controls at the side and the big width to consider. Aesthetically, though, it’s an attractive machine – the transparent shoulder buttons offset against the half thickness loops at the bottom; the symmetrical layout of the analog sticks balanced nicely against the digital pad and the familiar face buttons.
The PS button is oddly positioned – I’m much more used to such a critical thing being in the centre of a device (where the Vita logo sits proudly) – but the select and start over to the right are fine, with the tiny speakers nestled in around the controls. The only oddity on the front of the Vita is the SONY logo, which rests uncomfortably top right squeezed in above ‘up’, opposite the equally odd front camera.
The back of the portable is much more refined. Two divots, textured and precisely positioned, hold the tips of your middle fingers perfectly and the rear camera is sensibly placed. The back touch pad doesn’t sit out from the moulding, it’s just ‘there’, although a lower cut-out section which holds the model number and so on suggests that it doesn’t quite cover the same surface area as the front one. A USB charging port, headphone socket and a serial number decorate the bottom of the Vita, with power, game card, output and volume controls along the top.
Hidden away, presumably out of shame, is the memory card slot. It’s on the back, at the bottom, and houses cards that are far too similar to the PSPgo’s M2 cards to feel like anything more than a complete rip-off from the manufacturers. There’s a couple of physical differences (two tiny bits of outer plastic) but the fact that M2 cards snap into the Vita perfectly makes the console’s complete ambivalence towards them all the more galling. I don’t know what the memory card actually does above and beyond an M2 (apart from lock out profile switching) but it’s clear where Sony will be making back some of that profit margin.
And if you were thinking about getting a Vita without a memory card – don’t. Not only will a good chunk of the basic operating system be locked away until you bless the machine with one, but you also won’t be able to save your progress in a lot of the games. To see which games need a memory card, see our earlier story here but note that the list includes most of the big hitters like Uncharted and Everybody’s Golf 6 – at least for the Japanese launch.
On a tactile level, I’m happy to report that the touch screens themselves are snappy and immediate and require nothing but the lightest touch – absolutely no complaints there. Where there are issues involve mainly around the analog sticks. First up: they’re nicely sized but the movement is far too restrictive – they feel like they stop far shorter than they should as you tilt them off centre; secondly, and more bizarrely, they actually get in the way of the d-pad and face buttons. Unless you hold your hands out at an angle it’s actually quite difficult to press ‘down’ or the X button without knocking the respective stick.
The shoulder buttons are fine, though, if not a little spongey, and the other buttons that sit just proud of the surface (like start and select) work much better than the disastrous positioning on the 3DS. All in all I’m happy with the Vita’s hardware – it feels strong, there’s no plastic creak when you twist it and although it’s light (I’m running a wi-fi only model) the Vita feels well made, robost and sturdy. It looks a bit odd, sure, but you soon get used to the size of the thing.
Switching it on, the Vita runs through a cute PlayStation logo cycle and then shows the same health and safety warning that now graces, post Firmware 4.0, the PS3, before easing into the UI. I’ve mentioned casually in passing that the Vita user interface looks like Android, but I’ve since revised that and now think it looks more like a blend of Google’s UI and the iPhone one. The applications and games are represented as little bubbles (that are actually more like Minstrels than balls) that bob up and down against one of a few user-selectable background styles – some are the waves from the XMB, some are more simple.
Underneath each bubble is the name of the App, and you can have multiple pages of these apps that you swipe up and down against to move between. The action is slick and smooth, and if you have different backgrounds for each page they transition between each other with great effect. You might, for example, have a page for games (if you plan to download them from the PSN Store) and another for the included apps. This is all fine – I don’t like the way the fonts stretch when you swipe against an edge (this is an ugly UI issue that affects most areas of the Vita) but the bubbles, although aliased against the backgrounds, are a nice idea.
Some of them need some graphic design work, though – there’s a lot of stuff on the Vita when you first get it, and each has its own bubble and – seemingly – that bubble has been designed by a completely different person. Some, like the PS Store icon, are fine, but the Friends one is nasty and there’s just a general lack of consistency amongst them. Even more so when you actually tap on a bubble, because the application doesn’t immediately load, instead it takes you to a ‘LiveArea’ page, which warrants further explanation.
Basically, each application or game has their own LiveArea page, which sits on the UI but off to the right. So, whilst you swipe up and down to move between pages of bubbles, you swipe left and right to move between ‘open’ apps and games. Or, at least, their LiveArea pages. A good example of a LiveArea page is the PS Store, which has the main ‘Continue’ button in the centre (as they all do) but a series of ads and links around it, which move and change as you watch it. Some apps are less fancy – the Friends one is a mess of colour and little else, the Trophies one similar.
These LiveArea pages take a snapshot of the app as it was when it was last open, so if you were checking out your PSN friends list the ‘continue’ button would show that, and when you click on it it’ll load the app, connect to the PSN and refresh the list. It’s a decent enough half way house but certainly not as ‘live’ as it would have been on an Android phone – it’s multitasking in a sense (you’ll get notifications from the Notifications app all the time for example) but the priority is given to the currently running app or game, and you can only have a handful of these LiveArea pages open before new ones replace them.
Pressing the PS button always takes you back a stage, and if you’re on the base UI it’ll bring up a screen of blades which show the LiveArea pages in operation, and you can tap to jump to one quickly. It’s an interface that takes about a half hour to fully get used to, but once you have it’s intuitive, smart and quick. I’d have prefered a more constant internet connection but appreciate that the Wi-fi running continuously would have hurt the battery life somewhat.
AS I said above, a memory card is next to essential. If you buy your Vita without one you’ll not be able to use the Photo app, the Music app or (of course) download anything from the PSN Store or save your progress in a good chunk of the cartridge-based games. Make sure you get a memory card when you buy your console – despite the ridiculous pricing one really is needed.[drop]PS3 owners will no doubt be delighted to learn that the Vita’s browser is once again based on NetFront. Frustratingly Chrome was overlooked, leaving a browser that doesn’t fare well with modern standards and feels like a significant step back from the iPhone’s Safari or that in recent Android based phones. Familiar tools, like tapping at the top of the page to scroll back up, are missing; the browser struggles to render complex pages and often glitches with lines of text missing or popping up around the page elsewhere. It’s OK in a pinch, but it’s far from perfect even if it’s not bad speed-wise.
Other minor oddities feel like leftovers from the PS3: you still need to manually sync Trophies (by loading the Trophies app) and the Party app might well offer voice chat but is just a little too convoluted to really have much of an impact. The rest, though, is fine – tappable areas are always nicely sized, animations between pages are slick and swift and compared to other portables on the market it’s night and day in terms of interface. The PS Store is a delight to use, and thankfully there’s a decent pile of demos already on there for anyone curious.
The included ‘game’, Welcome Park, is more of an introduction to the Vita’s new features than a fully realised game but it’s well worth playing through – not least because it also includes a pile of Trophies (yes, I got the Gold). There are five areas in the app, including a neat timing based touch game and a cute use of the microphone to lay down layered sound effects. There’s nothing new here if you’ve used a modern smartphone, but it’s well presented and typically Sony in style. It’s the first bubble you’ll see, so make sure you give it some time before you start playing the ‘real’ games.
Oh yes, the games. We’ll come back to those shortly.
To summarise, then – this is a beautifully made handheld with a no-doubt love it or hate it user interface. It’s bigger than you might expect, but that’s not really a negative, and from the week I’ve had it I’ve really gotten used to it. And, of course, it sports one hell of a screen – it really is impressive, the resolution high enough to keep everything crisp and the colours really do pop – it’s especially gorgeous at night and surpasses everything else I’ve seen, leaving the 3DS’s comparatively low-resolution (albeit 3D) screen a generation behind.
So, Vita. It’s here, and it’s – mostly – lovely. Stay tuned…