ThinkBoxly is the personal developer blog of Lucas Chasteen, author, programmer, artist, and always learning. Read more

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Playstation Vita Review – Third Year’s the Charm

Portable gaming consoles got off to a rough start this generation. With smartphone gaming on the rise Nintendo and Sony weren’t entirely sure how to compete and draw gamers’ attentions. Furthermore the last generation of handhelds sold incredibly well and boasted libraries of games that are tough to one-up even today.

But that was the scenario a few years ago. Since then we’ve had time to realize that smartphone gaming can’t compare to dedicated hardware with physical buttons, and we’ve mostly moved on from our DSs and PSPs.

As Nintendo’s 3DS was first on the market it was also the first to really come into its own. Not without some effort, of course—Nintendo had to cut their losses to get folks onboard, but once the audience and the developers were there, the handheld simply exploded. While Sony is almost dismissive of the Vita these days, whether they realize it or not their device is beginning to follow much the same pattern, and should it get a bit of the love it deserves, Sony could finally have a real winner on its hands.

The Hardware

For starters, the Vita is in no uncertain terms a handheld powerhouse. The main processor is a quad-core ARM CPU clocked at 2GHz, backed up by 512MB of RAM and 128MB of dedicated video memory on a quad-core PowerVR GPU. In other words, it’s not far behind the PS3.

All that number crunching doesn’t go to waste, either. The main display on the Vita is a neat 5″ 960×544 capacitive touchscreen in either OLED or LCD variants depending on if you have the original 1000-series or 2000-‘slim’ series model. It is worth noting here that 1000 models will suffer from screen burn-in artifacts (fault of OLED, not Sony), but in good lighting and with proper care they will barely be noticeable. The rear of the device also features a second capacitive touchpad for further multitouch input. At times when active it can be an obstacle to the fingers, but when put to good use it’s a very nifty addition.

Beyond that the Vita packs much the same motion sensing capabilities as Sixaxis Dualshock controllers, front- and rear-facing cameras at 0.3 MP each, and all the Playstation buttons you would expect—yes, including dual analog sticks—minus the L2, L3, R2, and R3 buttons (which touch controls compensate for by design).

In comparison to the 3DS, the Vita’s triggers feel slightly loose or imprecise and the analog sticks and face buttons just don’t feel as good to use. In no way are the Vita’s controls problematic and you’ll definitely get used to them, but if you’re a gamer with both major handhelds at your disposal you’ll likely find Nintendo’s offering to be the more comfortable. The same cannot be said, however, for the comfort of simply holding the devices. The Vita is perfectly balanced in the hand, and even when purposefully avoiding the rear touchpad there are a myriad comfortable ways to position your fingers. These might sound like nit-picky details, and they are, but when it comes to holding a device for long periods of time, the small stuff can really make all the difference.

Games running on the Vita look and sound absolutely fantastic. While the built-in stereo speakers won’t win any awards they get the job done and are enjoyable to listen to, especially thanks to the abandonment of the UMD in favor of more flexible, larger-capacity flash memory game cartridges that don’t have to sacrifice audio quality to save disk space. And as for appearances, well, they speak for themselves. It is genuinely impressive to see games like LittleBigPlanet pulling off all the same physics and special effects at much the same visual fidelity as on the Playstation 3. Uncharted: The Golden Abyss and Killzone: Mercenary look every bit as good as their original predecessors. And then there’s unique properties like Gravity Rush that gracefully manage advanced game mechanics and visual styles that simply would not be possible on any less powerful handheld platform.

In any case, despite some minor flaws (some of which are rectified in the new Slim model) the Playstation Vita passes the hardware test with flying colors all around. In more ways than one it is an engineering marvel, and truly pushes portable gaming forward in ways we’re only just beginning to see realized. But no more is all that potential potential alone—recent and planned titles alike are finally showing off a bit of what the Vita is capable of, and that trend will only gain momentum with time. There’s a lot in the hardware to be explored, so it’s good to see.

The Software

The PS Vita UI is the first major departure from the Xross Media Bar we’ve seen in years, and I’ll admit at first I rather wished Sony hadn’t abandoned it. At first glance the touch-centric bubble controls and cheery background music reek of Nintendo, but after spending some time with the new UI I’m happy to say the Sony look and feel is still retained despite a marginally less mature approach to navigation. As it turns out, touch controls are purely optional, but Sony has disabled button controls by default to encourage users to give the touch screen a chance. In the end I found myself frequently alternating control methods as felt natural to me, and the result was a very fast and fluid experience. As already mentioned the Vita has some pretty snappy hardware, and it shows. It is a rare user interface that successfully combines 2D and 3D elements in the navigation itself, and this is definitely one of them.

In more ways than one Sony has borrowed from smartphones in the Vita’s UI design, from the status bar to the notifications menu to the app-style nature of built-in and downloadable software. Most of the time these similarities are a good thing, or at least not a bad thing, but sometimes it feels like included system functions have been divvied up into a few too many separate applications, and while the PSN app is for the most part a more robust older brother to Playstation Mobile it oddly lacks the latter’s nice screenshots and videos. But again, we’re delving into the dinky details here. Nothing is perfect, and for Sony’s first attempt at reinventing the Playstation UI in years the bubble Live UI is a job very well done, even to XMB diehards like me.

And all that is to say nothing of what it actually does. While there’s no need to engage in social gaming if you don’t want to, the Vita is clearly designed to be a social gaming device. Friends, messaging, and party chat are all given their own individual applications, and Sony even managed to create an answer to Nintendo’s StreetPass with Near, an app that will find other Vita players near your location and allow you to make new friends, invite them to games, or leave virtual gifts just for grins. For younger/newer gamers, Welcome Park provides a very slick mini-game tutorial on the Vita’s various features. The Vita can also connect to a PC wirelessly or over USB for data backup/transfer or connect to a PS3 or PS4 for the same or for Remote Play. All of it works very well and looks terrific, boasting a quality of presentation that easily overshadows Nintendo’s 3DS.

The Verdict

The Playstation Vita may have debuted with a cumbersome price point and a sorely lacking library, but after three years those issues are both practically eliminated. The new Slim model drops the cost of entry to just $200, and that will even land you 1GB of on-board storage to dodge the cost of proprietary memory cards until the next paycheck arrives. While the Vita library will mostly appeal to fans of Japanese entertainment, there’s a lot to love now for those that fall into that audience. Furthermore Sony has enabled a vast collection of PSP and PS1 titles to be played on the Vita as PSN downloads—a promised feature that wasn’t there at first, but is now a very compelling offering. Oh yeah, and there’s this Remote Play thing Sony can’t stop talking about (and it works impressively well, if streaming is your thing). There’s so much that can be done with the Vita, and now that some time has passed for that potential to be realized you can actually do most of it.

It almost lends to the impression that Sony felt pressured to get the Vita out to market before it was ready. Nintendo had the 3DS already, after all. But in the end Sony and Nintendo are the only ones that should really see their handhelds as competing devices. In both cases the offering of Japanese games is the main attraction, but in every other way they are so different as to be complimentary rather than competitive. The Vita is a powerhouse with a focus on great presentation and modern console-level experiences. The 3DS makes no attempt at being the most powerful or most attractive, and typically hearkens back to the classics with modern takes on old RPGs and platformers. Both are wonderful categories, and any gamer that can should have both devices to enjoy them.

So it’s time for the 3DS to stop excluding the Vita in public perception. Vita was a great handheld to begin with, and Sony has addressed the complaints of early adopters. All that’s left is for gamers to catch on. If they do, more developers will catch on, too.

Some might feel that the Vita is already on the down-and-out. They’re wrong. On the contrary, the Vita’s journey is only just beginning. You should probably come along for the ride.