Playstation Vita: One Week In

Marcus Doidge brings his thoughts on the Vita, a week after the brand new handheld hit the market.

Playstation Vita. The simply gorgeous new hand held console from Sony. Boasting high end gaming in the palm of your hands and pushing the boundaries of what to expect from a portable system. Vita is Sony€™s new baby and the first handheld since the Game Gear (which I only kept for a month back in 1991) to pull me in and make me adopt one on the day of release. Having had the console for just over a week now, I thought it was a good idea to review the Vita from a more hands on and lived with point of view. I€™m not out to predict the handheld€™s fate in the highly competitive market it€™s entered, or indeed compare it to Nintendo 3DS or phone/tablet gaming options either because that sort of decision is down to the individual gamer (one man's Call of Duty is another man's Angry Birds after all). For me, a Playstation 3 player, who loves that €˜Ping€™ of a trophy, has a man crush on Nathan Drake and doesn€™t really care for the many first person shooters out there, the Playstation Vita and all its big promises of cross platform gaming and big titles in a portable format caught my eye but beyond the Vita€™s good looks, is this the love affair I was hoping for?

What's in the box?

Well, as with pretty much every other console on the market we get another boring package design that takes itself far too seriously and makes the Vita feel like you€™ve bought a camera or something less epic. I don't get these basic designs, or indeed Sony's abstract TV advertisements for their consoles. They always seem to play it a bit too cool for my tastes. Anyway, opening the lid we get a subtle €˜Welcome to Playstation€™ message on the inside of the packaging and pushing aside the €˜Quick Start€™ pamphlet and slightly thicker manual it€™s time to grab a hold of the sleek new console. The Vita feels impressive the moment you hold it in your hands. It€™s like a gadget Batman would whip out of his utility belt or something some movie hero could save the world with and the familiarity of the dual sticks and Playstation buttons makes you want to play immediately. Last out the box is the USB cable, plug attachment and the Augmented Reality Play Cards but more on that stuff later.

Turning it on

The moment you hold the power button and the white Playsation logo glowing off of the black background appears, this 5€ OLED screen is marvellous. Of course on first boot up you enter all your details and connect to the Playstation Network, which is easy enough to do but too boring to go into here. Once all that€™s done and you turn the Vita on, you€™re greeted with a cute drag down front screen, immediately getting you hands on with the touch screen, this is followed with a four digit code to unlock the screen (which is off course an optional feature).

The main menu, has a series of €˜bubbles€™ with all of your possible selections or applications. They softly float about in their place and every time you install a game or demo you add a new bubble and the more you add the more pages of bubbles you create. There are about 10 bubbles per page and much like the menus of a mobile phone you flick up and down through the pages with a swoosh of a finger. On a side note, menus are customisable. You choose where to place the bubbles, you can change the colours of the backgrounds and even make them wallpapers of your own choice if you are so inclined.

The top right of the screen has a little half circle to press listing all your recent notifications. Recent trophies, friends who are online, messages, downloads in progress and whatever else you might need to know. You can also click €˜more€™ to hop into a fuller list. All a bit additional and largely unused but a nice shortcut route to read messages from friends and what not.

Getting Hands on With the Bubbles

When pressed (because everything you do on Vita menus requires a screen touch not a button push) the bubbles create a new page to the right of the main menu. These new pages generally have a few sub selection short cuts at the top of the screen as well as a help menu - but pushing €˜Start€™ is usually all you€™ll do.

The PS Store is Vita friendly offering a mini site for Vita related downloads. You have Games, Demos and Add- Ons as your main selections, then there are also Special Offers, PSP titles, Minis, Social Apps (like Facebook, Twitter, Four Square and Flickr) as well as trailers. You can also get into the Video store to rent or buy a selection of titles (something I€™ve not really ventured into). I found the demos and games I downloaded to be about as fast as my downloads on my PS3 and they€™ve all run without issue.

Trophies mean nothing to some and everything to others and for me, I€™m in the €˜everything€™ camp, so having a very user friendly view of my trophy collection as well as the smart move from Sony to allow Vita titles to add to your existing count without issue is a much applauded move. You can view just Vita trophies or include your full PS3 listing. You can hop into each game and see a list and description of each of the trophies and you can also compare against friends. I€™m personally in and out of this €˜bubble€™ all the time and find it a fun presentation of the trophies I€™ve collected or want to seek out. The Music and Video bubbles are a little drab. Easy to use but very simply set up. However, moving content to and from the Vita is a different story but there€™s more about that in the Content Manager section.

Maps is sort of pointless unless you go out of your way to find a use for it and simply links to GPS and can find you directions to desired locations. I€™m sure I€™ll use it one day but haven€™t needed it so far. Which bring me onto Near which does a few things, none of which I€™ve had much use for so far. One it pinpoints your location and then shows you any Vita players nearby, to challenge, compare scores, times etc with and share opinions on titles, so you can see if Uncharted is the game people are enjoying the most today. To be honest I€™ve fiddled with this for a bit but nothing that made me want to go back for more. This is definitely something Sony need to do more with because as a social tool it€™s a bit weak so far.

Group Messaging takes the poor messaging system on PS3 and actually makes it more accessible, what with the touch typing and easy to follow conversations much akin to a mobile phone chat application. On top of that you also have Party which enables you to create parties of friends to chat and play games with friends. Also we also have a Friends bubble which simply lists all your friends and you can look at their trophy counts, your shared play history, send friend requests and block people too.

Photos is a super basic system with a super basic camera that will only take a good picture in the best of circumstances. Generally within games like the demo for Reality Fighters, the image quality was good enough to pass in the game. The augmented reality games did enough to as well but there€™s no way in hell this will replace a digital camera or even mobile phone camera.

The Content Manager is a little bugbear for me. For starters you have to be wired to share content between PS3 and Vita, even via Remote Play but more annoyingly you have to have the PS3 online to transfer the data when you are wired and then the Vita doesn€™t work as a simple portable hardrive, it essentially locks off the PS3 and you have to navigate the music and video you want via the Vita, wired to its big brother. Same goes for connecting to a computer, where you have to install a content manager to do anything and once again the Vita doesn€™t simply become a drive you can drag and drop things onto. Of course this is probably Sony trying to prevent their little console from getting hacked and modified to death like the PSP was and prevent piracy of games but really it€™s annoying and there has to be a better way.

As for Remote Play, this as an idea, is fantastic. Remotely accessing your PS3 either via a private network or across the internet is crazy good... when it works. So far I€™ve turned on and accessed my PS3 from within my home but my only attempt via the internet from another town has returned no connection results. When it does connect it's sort of a miracle in gaming that I can see and control my PS3 menu via my portable Vita but so far I don€™t have a single game I can remotely play off my PS3 other than Singstar (which is the wife and kids' game - honest) so obviously Sony have to fix this one to impress me ( I want to be able to play everything remotely ideally). Also don€™t expect to view Blu-ray across the PS3 / Vita connection and more annoyingly, I can access my music and video files but not wirelessly transfer anything over to the Vita or vice versa. I want Remote Play to be much better than this and it's the area I€˜d love to see Sony develop a lot more. Last up bubble wise, there€™s Settings and poor Web Browser and optional bubbles Facebook, Live Tweet, Four Square and Flickr of which I€™ve only used Facebook and it was a reduced version of my page and it was slow and tedious and only good for status updates really so I ended up using the Web Browser to access the full Facebook site.

Overall this is pretty much all additional stuff, you€™ll either find a use for or never touch. For me The PSN store is convenient, the Trophies and Messaging are used quite a bit, Remote Play I keep experimenting with and want more from and even though I€™ve got used to the Content Manager it does annoy me every time I use it. Listing what the bubbles do (or try to do) misses some of the charm of how the Vita enables you to use them, so it seems a good time to mention it here. You can have them all open at the same time and flick between them to the right of the main menu. Closing them, you have to flick them away by dragging (or is that peeling?) them off of the screen with a sliding finger and even though a fair few of these application bubbles are fairly underused they are a joy to interact with, with the touch screen.

Games

So despite the mixed bag of bubble application, not one of them is what you€™d buy a Vita for. This is a games console, made for gaming and this is where the Vita really starts to impress. To start, the built in Welcome Park game is a series of mini games that gets you used to tilting the console, using the front and rear touch panels and playing with the microphone. Smartly Sony have made this trophy supported so I actually wanted to get better at these games and I€™m not too proud to admit I spent a good long while trying to better my times on the number touching game.

As for the other freebies. The augmented reality games Cliff Diving, Fireworks and Table Football use the Vita camera to create a virtual arena to either jump a character into a lake in your kitchen, set off fireworks in your living room or play a terrible football game on a rug simply by placing some cards on a surface and pointing your Vita camera at them. None of these games do much besides raise a short lived enjoyable grin but as freebies they are a bit of fun.

Now it€™s time to pull out the big guns. The real games, that you buy on a cartridge or via the PSN. Simply put, the Vita comes with a nice range of titles that really do impress on the Vita€™s screen and use of touch and dual stick playability. Straight out of the gate Uncharted: Golden Abyss 5/5 looks stunning with an almost 3D feel on the OLED screen and offers up a pure Uncharted experience on par with the first game in the series. The more cinematic and epic moments of the sequels are not really on show here but what€™s reduced in that area is made up for with the increased gunplay and the optional touch screen climbing, fighting and exploring becomes second nature after about a minute. There are also tons of collectables to make replaying high on the to do list and the length of the game is on par with thePS3 Uncharted games, making this a must have for any fans of the series.

Wipeout 2048 4/5 (only because it's not as good as HD or Fury) is again the visual delight Wipeout always is and fans of the series should get a kick out of the early days of the sport, with more familiar modern day surroundings through Central Park-esq locations and city based races. It plays like the Wipeout we all know and love (though you might have to change your controls to what you are accustomed to) and the graphics here look absolutely fantastic. Wipeout was always the logical title to make the leap to Vita and it's as impressive as ever.

Some of the other titles I opted for and have been playing all week are Marvel vs. Capcom 3 4/5 which looks bright and colourful, plays well and has optional front touch controls making for a different way to beat up all those character we love a new kind of fun. Fifa Football 4/5 lured me back to football games after about ten years of not bothering. The precision of the rear touch when shooting on goal is any football fan's dream (essentially picture the back of the Vita as the goal and wherever you tap - and hold for power - is precisely where that ball will be headed) and even though the front screen passing is only about 70% successful, the ability to tap the ball into open space is something I€™m really enjoying getting to grips with. Lumines 4/5 seemed like the obvious title to pick up for a hand held device and its thumping beats and flashy visuals make for a puzzle game thats easy to pick up and play wherever you find yourself with the Vita. Lastly I picked up Super Stardust Delta with my £5 PSN voucher from the pre order pack included with my Vita and while I€™ve not played it a lot this week, my first impressions were that an already impressive game has been improved in all the right ways with the touch options.

Vita €“The Verdict... Week One.

So a week into Vita and despite luke warm sales, chants of the new console having to struggle to find its place in the market and reviewers writing off this little handheld console before it's even had a chance to settle into our gaming lives, I personally think this little Playstation portable deserves a fair go. For starters its game line up is mixed and incredibly strong this early in its life (of course wave two and three of game releases need to live up to the standard as well). Generally, out of the games I've played so far, (and the plenty of demos the PSN are offering up as well) the gaming experience on Vita matches that of the PS3. The graphics are not quite on par with PS3 games but the illusion the small and beautiful Vita OLED screen generates makes it a very close comparison. In addition to that, the console has some nice touches. It's incredibly easy to use and quite friendly with its bubbles. The ability to screen grab most games is a nice addition. The front and back touch controls feel very functional and if a game like Uncharted can slip them in so well, not to mention Fifa using them to expand the football experience then I'm pretty sure any developers out there worth their salt can step up and see where they can push it next. Of course there are downsides. A good few firmware patches should fix a lot of them and hopefully Sony will listen to any functional issues players have and make their new console the best it can be to please the early adopters, ready for others to join the fun. The whole 3G thing doesn't seem to have lured anyone in either, I know it didn't come into play when I decided to buy one, Wi-Fi will do me fine. Obviously the price will also be an issue for many, given the Vita has many of the same abilities as a decent phone, tablet or other handhelds out there. However with all that said, this is a very impressive new console, that feels like it's pushing for quality gaming on the go (or simply lying in bed) and if all the big promises of cross play, remote play and using clever ways to make touch play part of a solid gaming experience pans out there's no reason Vita shouldn't continue to impress. In a few month's I'll report in on the state of play with Vita but with all the hard work done and with a great console in the palm of our hands, Sony just have to keep it simple for a while and bring us some more quality games. If they stick to that formula, Playstation Vita could really be something special.
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Marcus has recently released his first Game on the App Store. Check out Turtle E here http://www.facebook.com/TurtleEGame and @KeySecretStudio #TurtleEgame for more.