Saturday, June 21, 2014

Vital Signs: The PS Vita Review

So, let's talk Vita, shall we? I picked up Sony's latest handheld for a song a couple weeks ago and I'm eager to give it a ten-point inspection.


Meet a Vita.
(image courtesy of Amazon)
At first glance, the PS Vita looks very much like its predecessor, slightly larger but with the same widened oval shape. However, a few things jump out at you on closer inspection... two tilting analog sticks have replaced the single sliding pad of the PSP, there's a tiny camera embedded next to the Playstation's familiar rosette of action buttons, and you'll find a recessed button emblazoned with the Playstation logo on the bottom left of the system. Turn the Vita around and you'll find another camera, along with a long flat panel replacing the PSP's chrome circle.

While you're holding the Vita, one other difference becomes obvious. Reviewers often called the PSP "sexy" when it debuted in 2005, but nearly a decade later, the system seems far less elegant, with sharp edges and a thick, heavy frame. The Vita is more comfortable to hold, with rounded edges and grips molded into the back. It may not be the most hand-friendly handheld I've ever owned (for all the system's issues, the rubberized shell of the Gizmondo felt heavenly), but it's up there.


Not quite ready for prime-time.
Sony claims that the Vita puts console-quality gaming in your pocket. If that sounds like a familiar boast, it should... it's the same claim they made with the PSP nearly ten years ago. Some Vita games make good on that tall promise- Flower looks gorgeous with its colorful petals and lush grass blowing in the breeze- while others fall short of the mark. Mortal Kombat's visuals are noticeably downscaled from the console versions, with muddy textures and sharp polygonal edges in close-ups.

Console-quality or not, the Vita is a huge improvement over both the PSP and the 3DS where raw horsepower is concerned. The system sports a quad-core ARM processor running at 1 GHz and its own dedicated graphics processor, which can display up to 133 million polygons per second. The PSP could only manage 33 million polys per second, while the 3DS limps along with just 15 million polys. The gap in visual quality is not so evident on the relatively small screens of the Vita and 3DS, but you'll definitely notice the faster processor in the Vita when you're starting and switching apps. It takes about five seconds to start the Vita's social gaming app near... for the 3DS's Street Pass Mii Plaza, it's closer to seventeen.


From left to right: PS Vita memory card (and
Micro SD card beneath it), Memory Stick Pro
Duo adapter, PSVita game cartridge,
standard SD card.
Early models of the Vita have no internal storage, while later ones offer a measly one gigabyte of storage. You'll most likely have to purchase a memory card to store games and media. This probably isn't a surprise coming from Sony, but unlike the Memory Sticks of the past, the Vita's proprietary memory cards are designed only for the Vita and cannot be directly accessed from a computer. It's infuriating, but it's not hard to figure out why the system is so tightly locked down when you consider how open Sony's last handheld was to hacking and piracy.

Vita memory cards come in sizes ranging from four gigabytes to a kingly sixty-four gigabytes. The four gigabyte card was recently discontinued, and it's not hard to figure out why. It's just barely enough storage to scrape by, with room for one Vita, PSP, and PSOne game. More dedicated players will want at least a 16GB card, but at $40, that storage doesn't come cheap. A 32GB card costs a hair-raising $60, and a 64GB card... well, if you have to ask, you can't afford it.

Please sir, can I have some manual?
Alternately, you can kick it old-school and just buy your games on cartridge. Cartridges are roughly the size of a standard SD card and fit into a slot at the top of the system, conveniently labeled "PSVITA." Once you pop a cart into your system, an icon appears on the desktop and bounces excitedly until you tap on it. That icon remains even after you've taken the cartridge out of your Vita, a strange and slightly aggravating side effect of the way the system handles game saves. I made the mistake of assuming that the used Vita I purchased was packed with games, until I came to the bitter realization that all those icons were merely game saves.

By the way, Vita games don't come with instruction booklets. This usually isn't a problem, but it took a lengthy online search to find out how to silence the bedeviled caddy in Hot Shots Golf: World Invitational. So usually, but not always.

(You press start while you're playing, then select Options from the menu that appears, then go to Caddy Voice and pick Off. There, I just saved your sanity.)


The simple but effective Cross Media Bar from previous Playstation systems has been replaced with a new interface designed especially for the Vita's touchscreen. Circular icons are arranged on the screen in a honeycomb pattern, and can be either tapped directly with a finger or selected with the D-pad or left analog stick. The interface is an awkward halfway point between the ones in traditional game consoles and smartphones, and doesn't make the best use of the Vita's display. The staggered icons waste a lot of onscreen real estate, and they're neither practical nor attractive, resembling Mentos with their narrow edges and fat centers.

Quick, peel, peel!
Fortunately, the interface redeems itself with a bizarre yet brilliant way to manage apps. Pressing the home button on the bottom left of the screen pauses an app you're running, with a dog eared corner of a page appearing on the top right. From here, you can either flip through the active apps or peel away the dog ear to close the app you've selected. The lock screen works in the same way... once you've taken the system out of sleep mode, you just tug at the dog ear to resume whatever you were doing before the Vita took a nap. It comes naturally pretty quickly, and you'll wish you had the option in other devices.


The best thing to ever happen to a
Sony game system. (Aside from Bernie
Stolar leaving to join Sega, I mean.)
Plenty of control options are available on the Vita, including a newly designed D-pad that's easily the best Sony has ever made. Like the controllers for the Sega Saturn, the D-pad rocks on a central pivot, and the four directionals are no longer separated in the middle as they were in past Playstation systems. The end result is the most fighting-friendly handheld since the Neo-Geo Pocket. Special attacks in games like Mortal Kombat and Darkstalkers Chronicle flow off the thumb and onto the screen with little effort, a far cry from the stubborn separated cross on the PSP.

The analog sticks are an improvement over the sliding pad on the PSP as well; easier to grip with the thumbs and more sure of their positions than the slightly mushy cycloid. On the downside, the action buttons are needlessly small, and the option keys (Start and Select) are not only tiny, but flush with the unit. If you need to pause your game for any reason, you'd probably be better off using the Home button, or even tapping the on-off button on the top of the Vita to put it to sleep.

Oh yes, about that on-off button! The silvery circle is far more user-friendly than the finger-shredding switch on the PSP. Just tap it and your Vita enters sleep mode. Tap it again (or just press the home button... that thing is handy) and the system snaps back to attention. Want to turn off the system completely? Hold the on-off button until a prompt appears, then tap the orange bar on the screen. It's beautifully simple, the exact opposite of the PSP's accursed power switch.

What is this I don't even...?
Finally, there's the touchscreen, the twin cameras, and curiously, the back touchpad. The touchscreen works as it does on the 3DS, smartphones, and tablets, letting you select onscreen options with a single tap. It's generally more responsive than the 3DS touchscreen and can recognize two fingers at once, letting you pinch and stretch web pages in the browser built into the Vita. However, you'll need to use your fingers rather than a stylus, which may be an issue for the small handful of games that use the touchscreen creatively. The twin cameras take video and snapshots at 640x480 resolution, and it's clear after your first picture that they were included as an afterthought. Grainy, washed-out images are the norm, although they might work in a pinch for the system's optional Skype app. Finally, there's the touchpad, which seems more like a product of mindless oneupsmanship than a feature designed for practicality's sake. Some games make a valiant attempt to justify its existence (the system's star attraction, Tearaway, lets you use it to poke your fingers through the screen) while others just use it as the L2 and R2 buttons it probably should have had in the first place.


A comparison of the screens on the PSP
(top) and the PS Vita (bottom).
Aside from the high performance hardware, the Vita's headline feature is its large OLED screen (replaced in recent models by a just as large, but less impressive LCD screen). At five inches diagonally and with an impressive resolution of 960x544, the Vita's screen is indeed luxurious by the standards of handheld game systems, and the OLED technology really makes oranges and reds sizzle, without the white haze of a backlight. On the other hand, OLED screens are expensive and fragile. If you drop your system, it will probably break... and it will probably cost a whole lot of money to replace. Keep that in mind before you buy one of the older Vitas.


Like other post-Game Boy handhelds, the Vita squeezes about four hours of life from a full charge of its internal battery. That time is cut in half if you're using online features like the Playstation Store. On the flip side of the coin, putting the Vita in sleep mode uses almost no power at all. There have been reports that the system can be put to sleep for weeks at a time with barely any drain on the battery, so if you plan to use the Vita with any frequency, you probably won't want to shut it off at all.


Hey, that weird-looking face in the sun is MINE,
you papercraft putz!
I'll review a handful of Vita games in a future blog entry. For the moment, I'll just say that I've been mostly satisfied with the software I've played so far. Tearaway in particular is hugely endearing, taking full advantage of the Vita's features (even the ones it didn't really need!) and offering a world that could have been peeled from an episode of Pee-Wee's Playhouse. It's the kind of game Shigeru Miyamoto would make if he were working for Sony. (And wasn't counting the days 'till his retirement.) Little Deviants has been the biggest dud of the bunch, a barely disguised tech demo of the Vita and its front and back touch panels. It's not just that the game is dreadfully average... it's that its stars are so obnoxious you'll want to reach into the Vita to smack the people who designed them upside the head.

Compared to the 3DS, well, the two systems don't compare, really. They're different experiences, just as the DS and PSP were, and I wouldn't want to sacrifice one for the other. I personally think the 3DS has the best games overall, but there have been times that I wish the system had everything the Vita offers, like dual analog thumbsticks and shoulder buttons that actually do things when you press them. (Glares angrily at Kid Icarus: Uprising) The Vita is also the better choice if you're looking for multimedia features, because its large screen and loud speakers are better suited to music and movie playback than the 3DS.


So near, and yet so far away...
(image courtesy of
Here's where the Vita falters. Most models use Wi-Fi to access the internet, while others have 3G to ensure online connectivity everywhere. I've got one of the Wi-Fi models, and have found that its online features have been dicey at best. The social gaming app near wouldn't work at all until I used the system in a large college town, and even when it did, it only displayed the locations of a handful of Vita owners and the games they were playing. It's not nearly as entertaining as Street Pass, which encourages players to seek each other out for puzzle pieces and helpful items in compatible games.

Getting the system's other online features to function has been a struggle. I couldn't get the E-mail app to accept my Gmail address; I kept getting time out errors. It doesn't seem possible to view my friends list through PSN, and downloading games through the Playstation Store has only worked intermittently and is painfully slow. Granted, I live out in the boonies and my internet is far from ideal, but my 3DS works well enough with those limitations... what's the Vita's problem?


The Playstation Vita is worth owning if you know what you're getting- what you're really getting, not what Sony promised when it launched- and if you're comfortable with the price. I paid seventy five dollars for mine, but I realize that others paid double or even triple that price. For the two hundred dollars it costs at retail, the Vita is a lot harder to recommend. If you want a console-quality gaming experience, you might want to just take those two C-notes and buy a console.

(Special thanks to IGN, Wikipedia, and Gizmag for confirmation on technical specifications and stuff.)

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