Wednesday, 7 March 2012

PS Vita: Last throw of the dice for dedicated handheld gaming?

Winning an Xbox 360 (courtesy of LOVEFiLM) nixed the planned PS Vita purchase and has relegated my PS3 to Blu-ray playback only! Never thought I'd ever write that the Xbox 360 is a superior multimedia and gaming platform...

Therefore, I'm handing over this post to Matt Charlton, for an in-depth review of PS Vita, while I wake Master Chief.

Is it the end of Sony's portable gaming gambit? Read on.



Guest post written by Matt Charlton

This review is going to be written from quite an interesting perspective. After owning (or at least having invested a lot of play time in) pretty much every handheld console released since the original Game Boy, I’d decided that the handheld console market was dead, or at least dying.

I purchased a Nintendo 3DS last year (prior to the highly publicised price drop) in order to take advantage of the NES/GBA game downloads for ‘early’ adopters, my reasons for doing so were mostly because of the offer of ‘free’ GBA and NES games. I’m a sucker for retro gaming. I was also very interested in the rumours of Luigi’s Mansion 2, and first party title wise, I purchased Ocarina of Time, the new Mario Land and Mario Kart.

Shortly after procuring the 3DS, I picked up a few discount games from the Zavvi eBay outlet – Nintendogs (the shame!), Raving Rabbids and Street Fighter 4. I traded in points collected from buying Disney Blu-ray discs for LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean.

Over the course of the few months, the above purchases were played on for less than an hour each – I had no interest in the non-Nintendo software whatsoever and so for the most part, the 3DS has been sat gathering dust for the past few months, eagerly anticipating the release of Luigi’s Mansion 2.

The recent surge in iOS and Android handheld gaming must have Nintendo/Sony on the edge a little – who would want to pay £44.99 for Fifa 12 for a PS Vita for example when you can get it for the iPad for £6.99? The App Store and Android Market have the games industry in turmoil. Obviously costs to publishers are somewhat reduced as there is no physical store presence – no need to print up boxes or labels or manufacture cartridges. You can’t help but think that the pricing models for the mobile market would have skewed the general public somewhat.

Of course, one of the biggest things missing from an iPhone/iPad is a physical controller system. No matter how well game developers try to overcome the limits of a touch screen, there is just no substitute for a physical controller with analogue sticks and buttons. Many of the games targeted at the casual market have no need for such controls but for the old-skool gamer, not having a controller can be a bitter pill to swallow.

Back to the PS Vita; I hadn’t really read all that much up on the console, I knew it was coming out in February, but aside from the occasional (very occasional since becoming a dad last year) hour on the Xbox 360, I don’t have nearly as much time available to dedicate to gaming as I would have done in the past. As such, I didn’t really investigate a pre-release in store test to see what it was like.

The hardware is quite impressive and the Vita boasts one of the nicest screens I’ve seen in a handheld device and the 5” OLED really does have to be seen to be believed. The screen is a capacitive touch screen supporting multi-touch. It has a quad core processor (3 cores available for application use) and a rear touch pad. It sports a front-facing and rear-facing camera, which are 0.3mp each. Both cameras feature face detection, head detection and head tracking. The Vita has 512MB of RAM and 128MB of VRAM. The base model is wi-fi only and the 3G model has both wi-fi and 3G. Both models have Bluetooth.

The Vita brings two new proprietary storage mediums to the table. The first is the Playstation Vita card, replacing the ill-fated Universal Media Disk (UMD). It is very similar in form factor to the Nintendo DS game cartridge. 5-10% of the capacity is reserved for game save data and patches.

The Vita makes use of new Playstation Vita memory cards which come in a range of capacities from 4GB to 32GB. Some Playstation Vita card games and applications will require an available Playstation Vita memory card for use. These cards also allow you to download demos, full games and applications from the PlayStation Store. Some of the pre-installed applications are Google Maps, a web browser, and a video and music player.

Around a week after launch, I happened to be in town and managed to pop into a branch of Gamestation to go and see what all of the fuss was about. One of the first impressions you get with the Vita is just how big the console is. It’s actually a refreshing change to find a handheld console that actually feels comfortable for someone with larger hands than a 5 year old child. The weight of the console is similar to that of a 3DS, but doesn’t have the advantage of the weight being spread across a clamshell case so it may feel a little heavier.

The demonstration Vita was running Uncharted Golden Abyss – I found it to feel like having a PS3 in my hand, you really become immersed in the game. I didn’t get to grips with the control system, but really enjoyed the game enough to consider a re-play at some point.

I was told that the Vita contained quite a few applications and games and the assistant demonstrated how to get back to the menu screen. I’m really quite glad that Sony have decided to choose a different menu system for the Vita. I find the XrossMediaBar to be a little outdated. The Vita has a new touchscreen based UI called LiveArea.

The next game I played was FIFA. EA really have put some thought into the way that the PS Vita control system can compliment (and in some cases overcomplicate) the game – for example, you can touch the player you’d like to pass to on the touch screen. You can also swipe a shape on screen when taking a free kick and the ball is meant to follow that set trajectory. The most fun aspect for me is the use of the rear touch pad.

Imagine the rear rectangular touchpad is the goal, you press your finger (or slide your finger from an initial touch to your destination) and this is where the ball will go. How long you linger your finger decides just how much power to apply to the shot and trust me it’s all too easy to apply too much pressure here.

The Gamestation package I was interested in was £300. This included the Vita, Uncharted, an 8GB Vita memory card and a £10 PlayStation store card. They were also offering a ‘play for £10’ trade in which allowed you to return your Vita in the first two weeks of launch and receive all of your money back for the console bar £10 (£20 if you wanted a cash refund over store credit). This extra guarantee was a nice touch and quite a big gesture for them to make.

I left Gamestation to mull things over – after all, it was an expensive initial outlay and I don’t have the same disposable income I had 12 months ago. I decided not to make a purchase on this day.

When I got home I priced things up on Amazon – the package I was after was about £50 cheaper. I was glad that I hadn’t made the initial purchase, but I was very grateful to GameStation for giving me the opportunity to try the unit in-store and the assistant was very chatty and informative. After I’d decided to make the purchase I felt obligated to go back and give them my business, this way I could also make use of the Trade-in facility.

I gathered together my original PSP-1000 and the 3DS games I didn’t play and ventured back to the store to complete my purchase. I picked up FIFA for an additional £25 and an accessories kit containing a silicone case, a carry case and a screen protector.

Once I got home, I plugged the unit in. The initial charge time was less than 2.5 hours and I got to work straight away by delving a little deeper into Uncharted. The control system once you figure it out is pretty neat. When climbing walls and ledges you can swipe the path you’d like Nathan to take when climbing and he does that – I found it quite intuitive to include the touch screen with the regular PS controls we’ve all become familiar with.

Speaking of control systems – that leads me on to my next point regarding manuals – there are none whatsoever (in the boxes of three games I’ve purchased anyway) that exist in the physical form. That is, when you buy the game on its own physical cartridge you are getting the game on a Playstation Vita card, a micro sized Blu-ray style box and a sleeve. That’s about it. It’s a real shame that the downloadable versions of the games are just as expensive (or in the case of MvC actually more expensive) than their physical counterparts, especially considering that you’d only get 2-3 games at a maximum on an 8GB card which in itself is around the £30 mark at the moment!

Connecting the Vita to the wi-fi network you realise just how integrated the Vita is with the Internet. It’s something we have come to expect in the modern era and your friends lists and trophies are all available. The availability of demos from the store for many of the major releases is also a nice touch – I’ve always preferred to try a game demo if possible before purchase, and in many cases demos do allow me to make an informed decision on whether or not a game is for me?

Accompanying the headliners we also have some lesser known games. A whole host of PSP games are available to download and some have even had the secondary analogue stick functionality mapped to them in that it will allow camera rotation for example.

One of the biggest surprises was a game called Escape Plan. If you pick up a Vita, you want to pick up this game to really show you what the control system is capable of. The game is a puzzler and is in black and white – reminiscent of Limbo. The basic aim of the game is to have your character move to the exit door on the other side of the room, navigating past obstacles and manipulating your environment with both the front and the rear touch screens. I don’t want to give too much away suffice to say it’s definitely worth a purchase for £9.99. No demo for this one but there’s a play through video of someone playing on a demo available on YouTube which will give you a taste of the first few levels.

One of the biggest features missing from the PS Vita at launch would appear to be backwards compatibility with PSOne titles. In fact there isn't a single one to be seen anywhere in the store for download. A little digging around the net appears to indicate that this feature isn't available at launch, but will be coming soon. The hardware is certainly capable of the emulation, I wonder if there was some kind of technical issue that caused the feature to be pulled just before launch? The PS store does however contain a good selection of PSP games and you'll find that any previous purchases should be available (if compatible).

I downloaded LittleBigPlanet and purchased Lemmings. Both of which seem to run quite nicely, but it is important to note that you won't get the full PS Vita graphical experience when you're effectively emulating a PSP. The most noticeable thing about the graphics is the lack of anti-aliasing on the text! Holding down a finger on the touch screen will bring up the Vita emulation menu that allows you to turn on Bilinear filtering which does smooth things out somewhat, but obviously the game is still coded for the PSP. So, you're limited by the original textures. Some PSP games also allow you to map the right stick to something such as camera movement which can also be quite a handy feature.

My overall opinion on the Vita is that I’m very impressed, the number of A+ titles available at launch makes a nice change from recent years and I think Sony have put an awful lot of effort into the R&D of the unit. If the quality titles continue to flow, and the store is updated with new software, I can see the Vita gaining popularity in leaps and bounds this year in the run up to Christmas.

Whilst Sony may have spurned including a 3D function on the Vita. I feel that this can only help it break into the mainstream by removing any problems adults were experiencing with the 3DS making them feel dizzy and ensuring that the console (if not some of the release title PEGI ratings) are suitable for children who were warned off the 3DS due to possible vision problems.

After spending a week with my Vita, I can categorically state that handheld consoles are not dead, at least not yet anyway. Hopefully the cost of the memory cards will drop over the coming months to provide a slightly more cost effective purchase path for downloading games and applications from the store.

Bottom line – If you’re a gamer, pick one up or at least try one out. You owe it to yourself.