“Vita La Revolucion!” : The Hands On Approach

Posted on December 3, 2012

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I think any gamer nerd worth a hill of beans was at least mildly interested in the Sony Vita or at least they damn well should be.

Let’s face it; we are under attack from a most formidable foe… casual gamers. They muck up “gamer” statistics with their OCD Farmville playing and Angry Bird slinging. I don’t mind sharing the geek or gamer title, and I try to not be an elitist tool about my hobbies. But I was putting the Triforce back together, shooting up Mother Brain and attempting to rescue a princess in the wrong castles before it was cool. While I am known to enjoy a game of Bad Piggies on my phone occasionally, “gamer” is a title I would dish out sparingly, if it were up to me and playing these insipid single serving games on mobile platforms or through a web browser do not a gamer make. Where is the commitment? Where is the investment? I put 100+ hours into Persona 3 FES; get the hell out of my face. They say that consoles have already taken a hit from mobile gaming and may struggle in the future with their present $60 game business model against $0.99 – $2.99 bite sized ventures.

I am a bit hesitant to believe the sky is truly falling for entertainment center styled consoles, but handheld systems, without a doubt, have the odds stacked against them. Mobile gaming is a serious battlezone right now and 3DS and Vita may just be the last line of defense before we are overrun with “Scrabble Clones with Others” and “Gimmicky Touchscreen Physics… IN SPACE”. As my regulars probably already know, I kinda hate modern era Nintendo, so that left the Vita on my radar. To date, I hadn’t heard much about it that was terribly promising, but I want it to succeed. I think we “need” it succeed if we want to see handheld consoles survive and flourish in the midst of the chaff.

So, during Black Friday weekend, Amazon had the Assassin’s Creed 3 Liberation bundle for $170, typically $250+. I decided to go for it with, really, inadequate research beforehand because A.) I am a sucker for a good deal, B.) I love new tech gadgets (and I like being up to date with them), C.) it’s freakin Assassin’s Creed with a cool looking French / African chick during colonial times and D.) it’s a swanky white color instead of the standard black.

AC3's Aveline

AC3’s Aveline

I wanted to like it, truly, but I have to report that, after my first week, I am a bit underwhelmed. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Sony’s PSP (“Playstation Portable”, Vita’s predecessor) with 32GB memory card is still a better gaming value, hands down. But I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s cover my initial impressions and get you up to speed on some of my woefully late research. (As far as comparisons, I can really only compare it to PSP, as I haven’t played a Nintendo handheld since the original DS.)

PSP and Vita, side by side

PSP and Vita, side by side

The Vita feels more solid than the PSP, which I always thought felt a bit chintzy; it always sounded like it was about to launch itself into orbit when the UMD drive started spinning. Slightly larger, slightly heavier. Button configuration is nearly identical, though the Vita has a second analog stick on the right side, which is a big deal, in my opinion. Gameplay is more comfortable due to the size; the PSP used to cramp my hand pretty badly with games that required a lot of button holding. (I did, however, invest in a case that holds the Vita like a controller to further ease maneuvering around the still-slightly-cramped right side of the device, which I will receive on Wednesday.)

The graphics are a significant step up, though not as much as I would’ve liked. In my opinion, even a 5 inch screen should be no less than 720p (the lowest resolution still considered “high definition”), but the Vita only boasts 960 × 544 resolution. Still, that is a stark improvement over the PSP, which had about half the resolution and nearly an inch less screen real estate. A big hit in versatility, the Vita cannot output video to a larger screen like its predecessor, which seems ridiculous to me. Maybe the PSP video out cables didn’t sell well enough for their tastes? It does have Remote Play functionality, letting you control your PS3 from the Vita and play games to a limited extent, but as far as I know, that doesn’t go the other way around, where a Vita – PS3 connection will let you put the Vita game images on the screen. If they really want to tout the Vita – PS3 crossover as a Wii U killer, then they had better make it work in a similar fashion to Nintendo’s newest entry.

The speakers sound pretty tinny. Granted tablet, phone, handheld gaming speakers are hardly the stuff legends are made of, but after giving her a run with several types of songs (Adele, Alter Bridge, Nickel Creek, etc.), I wasn’t impressed with the sound. (The best device speakers I have ever heard, to date, were on a HP Touchpad, the Albatross of last year’s gadget offerings.) However, with Bluetooth output, the sound from my Bluetooth speakers was significantly better, so that is more of an output hardware issue. I would imagine headphones would also be an improvement, but I haven’t tested this yet.

My hands on time with the games has been limited so far to Assassin’s Creed 3 Liberation, Gravity Rush, Jet Set Radio and Final Fantasy Tactics (PSP version). AC3 was strong visually and played similarly to it’s console brethren, but the real standout title so far, to me, is Gravity Rush. It makes innovative use of the touchscreen, built in motion controls and showed off the handheld’s ability to, literally, flip the world on it’s head. If there is a light of hope of what the Vita will be capable of producing, it is games like this, not retreads of console titles we’ve already seen. Sony has promised more “cross play” content between PS3 and Vita, but the application thus far seems pretty limited.

Vita's ray of hope?

Vita’s ray of hope?

The interface leaves a bit to be desired. They were obviously trying to directly compete with phones here, but it looks like they made some bastardization of an app styled touch interface and some kind of crappy Wii inspired GUI. The app buttons are big, round and bubbly; it looks like a Mii (Nintendo’s freakishly round and limbless avatars) is going to jump out at any moment and give me a hug. I don’t like it.

"I don't like happy interfaces."

“I don’t like happy interfaces.”

As far as I can tell, there is no way to make the interface less childish or get rid of redundant horse applications that seem to be more ideal for what I can only imagine is a very limited number of 3G Vita owners. I don’t really want to play my Vita online with strangers nor do I want to randomly see if some other niche mook somewhere closeby is sitting there waiting for a Vita friend. Too bad; I have a whole screen of useless bubbles taking up space.

Clutter.

Clutter.

The touchscreen is pretty tight, feels just as responsive as my Galaxy S2. While I am not sure it was entirely necessary to have one, it does open up avenues for innovative applications later, which I think Sony really needs to maintain competitiveness. Now something included that IS rather swanky and neat is a rear touchpad. I have honestly not yet seen this in action, but the rear panel is touch sensitive and has various applications in a few games. Other random hardware inclusions are the gyrometer (for motion controls, also pretty tight), as well as front and back cameras. It baffles me why developers think we want junk cameras on every single device we own.

And finally, and this is easily the biggest con so far: the system only handles proprietary memory cards. The PSP could use Memory Stick Pros from a variety of sources, and the cost was fairly negligible for a 32GB card. It made storing a ton of content easy. You want memory real estate to be fairly price effective in a portable device, especially one that can’t be used as your primary mobile device (since it isn’t a phone). Now, 32GB will run about $90, 8GB is about $30. So, for example, while you can play downloaded PSP and Vita games on your new device, you’re going to have to pay rather heavily if you want to store more than a couple games.

The bundle, thankfully, came with a token 4 GB card, and I went ahead and signed up for Playstation Plus to test my new toy. (In fact, a regular blog segment will be based on my adventures in PS+ territory on both PS3 and Vita.) 4 GB was good for about 2 games and that’s about it. The Vita Uncharted title was 3.2 GB, I believe. The hidden cost of the card is a serious detriment to the life of this system, says I, especially when games are $40 a pop at launch.

Conclusion: While the hardware is an adequate step-up from its predecessor, the game library, as of yet, feels pretty lackluster. Memory real estate costs at nearly $3 per GB (or more for the smaller cards) and nearly-standard-console game prices will hinder the system from becoming mainstream and may just doom the Vita to being a toy of the niche “disposable income” club. However, with plenty of options and hardware to work with, Sony may yet be able to turn the Vita into a viable, accessible and robust handheld platform, if Gravity Rush is any indication of the future.

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