PlayStation Vita Review: Console Gaming On The Go

In 2005 Sony attempted to do the unthinkable, take on Nintendo in the handheld market, with the PlayStation Portable. At that point in time, prior to the release of the Wii, it was the only place that Nintendo was still a powerhouse, having reigned supreme since the release of the original Game Boy in 1989. At the time, Sony was the clear leader in the console market, and was on the verge of announcing the PlayStation 3. The release of the PlayStation Portable came two years after it was announced at E3 in 2003, and was initially seen as a success, selling more than 60 million units worldwide, establishing Sony as a clear player in the handheld field. Now, seven years later, Sony is releasing the PSP’s successor, the PlayStation Vita. The superior hardware in every way, the Vita is looking to bring console-quality games to the portable arena.

Not surprisingly, the portable landscape is completely different than it was in 2005, and Sony is now just competing with not just Nintendo, but also Apple, as well as the Android platform. While that is some stiff competition, the Vita appears to be up to the task. Over the past couple of weeks we put the U.S. version of the PlayStation Vita through its paces to see if it can hold its ground, and remain a player, with so much competition in the game. Needless to say, Sony has come along way since the first release of the PSP.
The Hardware:

At first glance, the Vita may appear to be a monster of a “portable,” clocking in at 7.2 inches wide, and 3.2 inches tall, but in reality, it’s only slightly bigger than the PSP’s 6.7 x 2.9 inch dimensions. Additionally, the raised analog sticks add some extra (but necessary) height, making it taller than it’s predecessor. The system’s rounded edges cause it seem like it’s a lot bigger than it is, but once it’s in your hands, it doesn’t feel overwhelming. Additionally, both the WiFi and 3G models are lighter than the PSP-1000 design, making it less tenuous to hold for extended periods.

The Screen
The biggest and brightest new aspect of the Vita is its screen. A 5-inch OLED touch screen, it’s significantly bigger than the PSP’s and either of the 3DS’ screens, making it the biggest of the dedicated gaming devices. In addition to its size, it’s quite bright, making every color in the rainbow pop. Sony has also taken a queue for Apple and Nintendo by making the screen touch sensitive, and encouraging developers to take advantage of this new feature. The touchscreen also makes Sony’s new user interface, LiveArea, a breeze to use, putting navigation between pages or open applications at the tip of your finger.

The Controls
One of the biggest flaws of the PSP was its analog nub. While numerous developers attempted to work around it, coming up with numerous different control schemes to accommodate their games, there was really no substitute for a second analog. The Vita’s dual analog sticks should not be undersold as one of its biggest selling points, as it allows for truly console-comparable controls in a portable, for the first time. The sticks feel a little on the small side, but they aren’t as uncomfortable or jumpy as the PSP’s analog nub.

Something very reassuring to find was that the Vita played nice with everyone. It’s simple and easy to connect to your PS3 or a desktop (PC or Mac), making sharing media and backing up the Vita a breeze. The PS3 will recognize the device immediately when connected with the proprietary USB cord, whereas anyone looking to connect to a computer will need to download the desktop software to take advantage of media sharing. Unfortunately, wireless connections to the PS3 are only available via Remote Play (which also sets up and works seamlessly), but not when using the Content Manager.

Cross-Platform Play
One of the ways that the Vita is thinking outside of the box is by allowing players to play outside of their box. Certain Vita games will sync up with PlayStayion 3 games, and allow players on the go to game against people tethered to their TVs. With two games in the launch line-up taking advantage of cross-platform play, Wipeout 2048 and Hustle Kings, Vita owners will get to go head-to-head against anyone that’s playing on another Vita or a PS3. Taking it one step further, when MLB 12: The Show and MotorStorm RC are released they will include cross platform game save capabilities, which means they will share of progress back and forth between PS3s and Vitas.

Backwards Compatibility
The Vita also includes backwards compatibility, although it’s not exactly what most fans were hoping for. This handheld has opted to do away with the PSP’s UMDs, and move to a PlayStation Vita card, meaning that physical PSP games will not be able to be played or transferred to a Vita. However, digital PSP titles are available in the PlayStation Store, where they can be downloaded and played on the new system. There’s a bit of a catch though: if you already own a UMD of a game, you’ll need to buy it again as a download (some games come at a discount, others do not). Japan’s Passport system, which offered discounts on digital titles for UMD owners, was scrapped for the States, leaving PSP owners with large UMD libraries high and dry. On the up side, PSP games can be downloaded and installed directly to the system, allowing easy access to (currently only 275 of) your favorite titles. One small problem that players may run into while playing PSP games on the Vita is that they look pretty bad. That’s because bilinear filtering is not turned on by default, and will cause your PSP games to look pixilated and jaggy. Turning this on will upscale the games to the Vita’s screen. Also of note: PSOne games can not currently be played on a Vita, only via Remote Play, as long as the game resides on a connected PS3.

Battery Life
Sony promised 3-5 hours of gameplay from the Vita’s non-replaceable battery with basically all of the features turned off. While that may not seem like a lot, for a portable device it actually seemed rather sufficient. The battery seems to hold up to that promise, since it only required a charge after a day’s worth of standard use (gaming, media, and PlayStation Store browsing – all with the WiFi on).

Everything Else
In addition to all of the standard hardware, the Vita has offered some unique upgrades from its predecessor. Games and apps will take advantage of VGA cameras on both the front and back of the system. A rear touch screen offers up some unique and unexpected gameplay options, and could most likely serve as a worthy L2 and R2 replacement. And finally, Sony have ported over their Sixaxis motion sensing, which hopefully developers will use sparingly, because no one likes to look like they’re pretend driving on the subway.

The Software:

Some may think that it’s hard to make the case for a dedicated portable gaming machine when most phones (particularly the iPhone) can handle increasingly impressive experiences. However, anyone that has owned a portable gaming system in the past knows that there are some things that a PSP or a DS could offer that their phone couldn’t, like woo big name publishers to bring over their big name games. The Vita is no different, offering a launch line-up rife with beloved franchises, and follow it up with a long tailed commitment from some of the most important publishers in the industry.

The Vita comes loaded with software to keep players busy, whether they have games to play or not. Right out of the gate, Welcome Park will get you accustomed to the new features of the system, even offering Trophies for completing its mini-games. There are apps for viewing your photos, videos, and music, as well as group chat, which appears alongside Party, which lets you talk to your friends no matter what you’re doing on the system. More traditional software like maps and a surprisingly easy to use web browser are also available.

In order to compete with a more competitive market, the Vita was designed to be a more social device than its predecessor, looking to bring Vita gamers together in a much more robust manner. Not included on the review unit that we tested, but will be added at or around launch are apps for Facebook, Twitter, Skype, flickr, and foursquare, which will all be available as free downloads.

Knowing who is playing what around you is every voyeuristic gamers’ dream, and Sony have included an app to help make that dream come true. Near is a geosocial network app that allows you to see who is playing what in a two-mile radius of where you are, at any time. It also allows for gamers to share in-game gifts with other local players, a concept that is both awesome, and a little creepy at the same time. It’s somewhat similar to Nintendo’s Mii Plaza on the 3DS, where you can “meet” other gamers and share information, but Near lacks some of the personality, as well as the easy interface. However, the gifting feature makes up for its shortcomings.

Launch Titles
With names like Uncharted, Wipeout, and Marvel Vs. Capcom headlining your launch line up, it’s clear that Sony is coming out swinging. The Vita has both first and third party publishers covered, with established franchises as well new i.p.s that will be available on the day the system launches. In addition to Uncharted and Wipeout, Sony will have new games from the Hot Shots Golf, ModNation Racers and Super StarDust franchises, as well as new titles like Escape Plan and Little Deviants. Ubisoft will offer up a new Lumines game, Namco Bandai has a new Katamari game, and Sega will bring over Virta Tennis 4. Fans will get to see Vita versions of games like Dynasty Warriors, Blazblue and Rayman, just to name a few. With 25 Vita specific games in all (plus 275 downloadable PSP games, and even more Minis), there should be something for everyone when the system hits the streets.

Saying that there are over 100 games in development is only a powerful statement if you qualify what those games are, and whom they’re coming from. Sony’s biggest name series (save for God of War) already have titles announced: LittleBigPlanet, Killzone, and Resistance: Burning Skies. Sometime in the future, the Vita will see new releases from blockbuster series like Assassin’s Creed, BioShock, and Call of Duty. Konami is going to be bringing the Metal Gear and Zone of the Enders HD Collections, as well as a new Silent Hill game. The Vita version of Street Fighter X Tekken is going to include Mega Man and Pac-Man as exclusive characters. And the list goes on …

Digital Vs. Retail
One other thing to note is that retail Vita games will be available as a digital download on their street date, with most of them coming at a discounted price. This is a sign of the times, as digital distribution is obviously making huge headway, both at home (Steam, PSN, XBLA) and on the go (App Store, eShop, Android Market). With this push, Sony might be putting the nail in the coffin for future portables games at retail.

The Memory Card
Being sold alongside the Vita at launch are Vita proprietary memory cards, which come in 4, 8, 16, and 32 GB flavors. Much like the PSP’s requirement for a Memory Stick Duo or Memory Stick PRO Duo, it’s vital for you to have one of these cards in your system at all times. In addition to digital content being downloaded and installed on them, they are also required by retail games, that come on Vita cards, in order to “install” on the system and process save data. In other words, make sure you pick up one of these, or else you won’t be able to play most games, even if they aren’t digital downloads.

Towards the end of its life, the PSP was often overlooked and outshined, mostly because people stopped having reasons to care about it. Even in this last year there has been some solid games released for it, but you hard pressed to find someone that actually played them. From the start, the system had problems that both gamers and developers had trouble overcoming, and it caused a portable with potential to fall to the wayside. The PlayStation Vita fixes just about every single one of those problems.

From a hardware standpoint, it’s an impressive device, being able to run intense games seamlessly, and have processor power leftover to run background applications. The screen is gorgeous, and while it may take some time to adjust to touch controls, they ultimately work well in the end. The dual analog sticks feel good, and hold so much promise for the system that they might be the Vita’s most important hardware feature. Even the back touch screen begins to makes sense, when used in the right context. If you can get past the fact that it is a little bit bigger than the PSP, and it probably won’t fit comfortably in your pocket, it’s a great device if you plan on serious gaming away from your PS3.

On the software front, the launch line-up is really solid, and should offer something for fans of every genre, from action fans to puzzle lovers. Looking forward to the horizon there are some even more impressive titles lined up for the system, that could round out a library that might even make console gamers jealous.

The portable’s biggest problems are in its neglect of an installed fan base. Forcing PSP owners to repurchase their UMD-based games if they want to play them on the shiny new system is a bit of a kick to the people that have been supportive for the last seven years. If you step outside of the backwards compatibility issue, the device delivers on almost every level. Sure, a longer-lasting battery would be nice, but you can say that about any portable device. The Vita’s other shortcomings only come in Sony’s stodgy ways; requiring the purchase of a proprietary memory card to play retail or the use of a proprietary USB cord both stink of Sony trying to cash in on a hungry audience.

That being said, the device is still pricey, costing gamers $250 for the WiFi model, or $299 for the 3G enabled one. That’s a steep investment, but the quality hardware and firm software offerings could rationalize the purchase if you have the cash. If not, you might want to start putting some money aside to pick up one down the road.

Overall, the Vita feels like it was crafted to be an extension of the PlayStation 3 (and probably the PlayStation 4 eventually), and with such a robust offering, on both the hardware and software front, it actually feels like it succeeds. If Sony continues to put a lot of support behind the device, it really could have the potential to finally give its more established competitors a run for their money.

Note: The unit we tested was the 3G model, but no sim card was provided to test 3G gaming via AT&T’s network.

Keep checking back to MTV Multiplayer as we’ll be keeping you updated with PS Vita news, reviews, and coverage right up through launch on the 22nd, and beyond.

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