Livin' la Vita loca

You need to hold the PlayStation Vita to understand why it matters. “Game changer” might be the term attached to Sony’s questionable US marketing campaign, but it’s an apt phrase. Staring down at Nathan Drake’s latest adventure on a device not much bigger than a pastry is a watershed moment: this is handheld gaming freed from the shackles that have plagued portable consoles in the past. And while it’s too early to say whether Sony’s latest slice of snazzy silicon will be enough to woo the mainstream market, it’s hard to fault the manufacturer’s desire to offer something tailored specifically to the needs of the enthusiast gamer.

With the system now widely available worldwide, we’ve spent the past several days soaking up as much reaction to Sony’s new hardware as we could possibly muster. And while the device is certainly not flawless, there’s a tangible excitement surrounding the PlayStation Vita that extends far beyond the new hardware honeymoon period. So what are people saying?

You Sexy Thing

Uncompromised comfort

Sony’s always made quality hardware, and the PlayStation Vita is certainly no exception. It’s a bulky system, but despite its size it's surprisingly light. Some commentators have criticised Sony for creating a device too large for the average pocket – let’s be honest, only clowns are going to be carrying around the Vita in their trousers – but Sony seems to understand it can’t compete with smartphones for on-body storage space. Instead, the PlayStation Vita feels like a direct response to the popularity of tablets, similarly large devices that thousands of people manage to squeeze into rucksacks, carrying cases or handbags.

But the PlayStation Vita’s bulk also plays host to its most prominent asset: the gorgeous OLED screen. It’s certainly the first thing you notice about the PlayStation Vita: big, bold and beautiful, the technology feels like a revolution. Switching between the 3DS and Vita makes the transition all the more apparent, with Nintendo’s small, low-resolution screen looking distinctly flat next to the Vita’s enormous, crystal-clear display. In fairness, one screen has the benefit of producing 3D, but reaction certainly seems to swing in the Vita’s favour.

Form is important, but function is even greater, and it’s alarming how well the PlayStation Vita’s shape has been received. In practice the device looks little more than a reshaped PlayStation Portable, but the Vita is surprisingly comfortable to hold over lengthy sessions. The curved shape of the system melts into your hands, with the analogue sticks surprisingly easy to reach. Those with smaller hands have complained that reaching the middle of the system’s touch screen can be a challenge when holding the device in a standard playing position, but from our experience this is more a fault with the software than the hardware. Titles such as Uncharted: Golden Abyss for example, cleverly purpose touch screen controls to the very side of the screen, allowing them to be easily accessed while your fingers hover over the action buttons.

The World Is In Play

Don't slip up

Of course, hardware would be meaningless without the software to back it up, and PlayStation Vita arguably has the strongest launch line-up in history. One common complaint is the difficult decision of what to play next. First world problems and all, but some would argue the PlayStation Vita has too much great content at launch.

But even though there’s perhaps too much of it, the variety of the software is fantastic. Sony’s done a great job not only covering various genre touchstones, but ensuring it does it across multiple price points. The range of software is really quite staggering, from the lowly MotorStorm RC – which just might be in the running for most essential PS Vita launch title – right through to the more expensive, but no less compelling, FIFA Football.

Some of the third-party commitment has been disappointing, though. Sure, many of the big names are present – Ubisoft most prominently, delivering two of the most critically acclaimed launch titles in Lumines: Electronic Symphony and Rayman Origins – but there are also a number of big publisher absentees too. It would have been nice to see a little more support from wider pockets of the industry, but we’re sure that will follow.

Arguably the biggest missed opportunity in the PlayStation Vita’s launch offering is the absence of a solid first-person shooter. We’re a little startled that no publisher saw the value in even porting an FPS to the system, given the attention it would draw for purely technical purposes. In fact, with Resistance: Burning Skies still not due until May, there’s definitely set to be a shooter shaped hole in the Vita’s line-up for some weeks yet. Zipper Interactive’s Unit 13 – which is gathering plenty of enthusiasm for its combination of third-person shooter and social gaming experience – will attempt to plug that hole next month, but as strong as the SOCOM-inspired shooter looks, we’re still eager to get our first taste of first-person action on the Vita. Whether you love or hate the series, Activision’s Call of Duty on PS Vita is destined to become one of the platform's defining games.

If there’s any concern in the community regarding the PlayStation Vita’s software offering, it’s whether Sony can maintain the pace. Sure the launch offering looks strong, but there’s always the worry that things could dry up. With the aforementioned Resistance, Gravity Rush and Sound Shapes all imminent, that certainly doesn’t look likely in the immediate future, but Sony will need to use E3 as a platform to convince players that there’s still plenty more to come.


Out and about

The award-winning XMB has become synonymous with PlayStation over the years, but in the transition to touch, Sony opted to implement a new interface for PlayStation Vita. Dubbed the LiveArea, the interface consists of a series of bubbles which transport users to “live” hub screens for games and software.

The design has drawn some criticism from various press outlets for its inconsistency and the manner in which it adds unnecessary steps to accessing content. It’s a fair criticism; the LiveArea for some applications is completely unnecessary and needs to be reconsidered in a future update. While we like that we can monitor our results in MotorStorm RC without needing to load the game, tapping through two screens to turn on Wi-Fi or access our trophies seems like a touch too many.

For all of its interface faults though, Vita’s operating system is well equipped. The system rivals the PlayStation 3 in terms of community feature set, serving up the long-anticipated cross-game chat that’s been at the foundations of many PS3 users’ most wanted list for years now. It transforms the PSN into a social network, allowing you to track your friends’ progress in various games and comment on it, and it’s all anchored by an omniscient notification system that keeps you up to date with everything happening around you.

Near, Sony’s location based social gaming service, has been rightfully criticised by some media outlets for its unwillingness to explain how everything works, but once you get to grips with sharing game goods within the environment it’s a legitimately compelling experience. It’s an exciting moment the first time you receive a gift from a stranger that you happened to cross paths with, and with clever development, Near could become the software that encourages players to take their Vita out and about. Sony needs to further develop this application though, because it’s not intuitive in its current guise and it risks putting people off the feature before it’s had time to establish itself.

Media vs. Market

The alternative

For all of the goodwill surrounding Vita in gaming communities though, it’s surprising that the media has taken a much more cynical approach. Take CNET’s verdict on the system, which concludes that “hardcore gaming nuts would be better served by something like the iPod Touch.” It’s not a new comparison for those that have been following the build-up since Vita's announcement last year: conversation surrounding the system has been dominated by smartphones and tablets, with many outlets concluding that Sony’s latest device is simply too long in the tooth to compete in an App Store-dominated industry.

We may still be in the system’s honeymoon period, but with a wealth of quality software on the horizon, Sony doesn’t seem to want the party to end prematurely. What do you think of your Vita so far? Is it living up to your expectations or does Sony still have a lot to prove?