By Samuel Peace
The seven year long wait is over as the next evolution in handheld gaming has arrived. The successor to Sony’s PlayStation Portable (PSP) has finally been released overseas following a Christmas release in its native country Japan. Dubbed the PlayStation Vita (Latin & Italian for ‘life’) it provides gamers with everything they love about a home console, but combines it with the benefits of a handheld device. Fans and industry professionals alike have been longing for a new power house which can replicate experiences which were only possible on a TV. While Nintendo dominate this market, they have failed to capitalize on it by focusing all their efforts on innovative gimmicks rather than technical progression. The Vita has seized this opportunity to give people an alternative, which for all the tech geeks out there is a joy to behold.
Boasting a 5-inch multi-touch OLED screen capable of showing 16 million colours, a 2GHz Quad Core ARM Cortex-A9 MPCore CPU, 512 MB RAM, 128 MB VRAM, and a Quad-Core SGX543MP4+ for graphics, it is a beast of a machine. For those of you unacquainted with technical specs it just means you pretty much have the power of the PlayStation 3 but in your pocket. Following on from the impressive insides we also have a great range of external components. These include dual analogue sticks (a first for any handheld device), a unique rear multi-touch pad, a front and rear camera, six-axis motion sensing (three-axis gyroscope and three-axis accelerometer), three-axis electronic compass, and the usual array of buttons. This provides consumers with not only a home console quality experience, but also new and exciting ways to play. Developers will also enjoy coming up with ideas using all of the unique features.
Considering the punch this device is packing, you would expect it to be the size of a brick or an Xbox 360’s power box. To my surprise however, it is a sleek and stylish gadget which wouldn’t look out of place in James Bond’s arsenal. The shape is similar to that of its predecessor the PSP (not the flop that was the PSP GO). Its dimensions are also quite similar as the Vita has a width of 182mm (170mm on the original PSP 1000 model), a height of 83.5mm (previously 74mm) and a depth of 18.6mm (from 23mm). The increase in the width and height helps to offer a better cinematic experience similar to that of consoles; this will ensure that your 16:9 widescreen display needs are catered for. Despite the slight expansion, the Vita weighs pretty much the same as the original PSP 1000 model; in fact it’s slightly lighter. While the PSP weighed 280grams, the Wi-Fi only Vita comes in at 260grams, but the 3G/WI-FI model is 279grams.
Because of the similarities in shape, size and weight, this handheld marvel feels reminiscent of its fore-bearer. It also shares the same shiny black finish which gives amateur detectives the chance to play ‘who violated my Vita?’ The analogue sticks are a nice change as they resemble the PS3’s but on a smaller scale. These improve over the single flat circular nub/pad that the PSP and 3DS have as they feel more precise and easier to manoeuvre. My only worry is that because the Vita doesn’t have handle grips (like a PS3 controller) and because the analogue sticks are smaller and have a slippery convex design, it could be quite difficult/uncomfortable keeping grip of it (or keeping your thumbs on the sticks) during long periods of play (or when you have a sweaty hands). This might not be an issue for everyone however, and handhelds are designed more for on-the-go play than marathon sessions.
For many people one of the main attractions of the Vita was the enhanced graphics, so I am pleased to say that the OLED screen is beautifully vibrant and particularly dazzles when you play games as stunning as the Uncharted series. The stereo speakers and headphone support complements the visuals while other standard gizmos such as the touch screen, cameras, buttons and sensors all perform as well as they should. The rear touch pad on the other hand is a much more prominent and unusual feature. It is still too early to tell how useful it will be in enhancing the numerous Vita experiences, but already we are seeing it used in different ways. Most are gimmicky or are just used in mini games while the odd one or two work quite well at offering a new way to play (such as touch shooting in Fifa).
As the main multi-touch screen on the Vita offers such precision, Sony has decided to do away with the XMB which is present on the PSP and PS3. It now offers a sleek and innovative user interface reminiscent of the iOS on the iPhone. Now the screen is filled with bubbles which all represent different apps for services and games. Many of these apps consist of your standard PS3/PSP services such as friends, messages, trophies and store etc, but there is a big push for online and social connectivity this time round. Some of the services on offer include Facebook, Twitter and Skype all of which help to keep you in touch with other people (though they have to be downloaded through the store). Sony has also incorporated its own social app called ‘Near’ which utilises its built in GPS. This is very similar to the 3DS’s StreetPass app which allows the system to connect to others who are nearby. I found it a bit confusing, but it’s nice to see how many people near me own Vitas. It also allows you to send and receive gifts from certain games and compares games/scores, which I guess is nice if not a little bit pointless.
For physical games Sony have decided to ditch the PSP’s cute UMDs and have changed to small SD type cards akin to Nintendo’s DS and 3DS. One of the main things which irk me about the Vita is that the memory cards are so restrictive. The system no longer supports the PSP’s memory stick and memory stick duo. Instead it favours its own PS Vita Memory Card. The main problem is that it doesn’t allow for any other third party memory card or SD card. This means Sony can get away with charging outrageous prices for memory as players have no choice but to buy their cards. One example is the 32GB Vita card which costs £60 on Amazon. £60!? I could buy a couple of newly released games for that price. On the same site, there are third party 32GB cards for as little as £15. To make matters worse, only one account can be linked per memory card. While this made sense on the PSP at the time, technology has progressed far enough today to allow for multiple accounts on a multitude of gadgets.
There is no doubt plenty more to discover about the Vita as it begins to evolve and create an identity for itself. It has a plethora of great features most of which are making mostly the right noises. Competition is even tougher now as the rise of smart phones, which can host a variety of games for a small cost, calls into question the viability of a dedicated gaming handheld. However Sony has created a machine which can produce quality content not possible on any other handheld device – something which true gamers will want. There is still plenty of potential to unlock and with the PS4 on the horizon it will no doubt play a vital role in connecting with it. The Vita is exactly what the industry needs, but with any console success is only as good as its library of games, so we will have to wait and see if the Vita can deliver on that front.