It has now been nearly three months since Sony’s much-anticipated PSP suc­cessor, the Vita (code-named NGP), was released in North America.

As an early adop­ter—thanks more to an excel­lent trade-in offer from GameStop than any par­tic­u­lar fer­vour for the device itself—I have now spent an appre­ciable amount of time with the new con­sole and wanted to assemble my thoughts in a way that might help those who are con­sid­er­ing buy­ing the device, as well as those who may have been dis­cour­aged by a pro­lif­er­a­tion of doom-and-gloom reports from vari­ous tech blogs.

Here, then, are some things I think you should know about the Vita; how Sony marred the present­a­tion, why the Vita might have an iden­tity crisis loom­ing, and why you’d be hard-pressed to find a more impress­ive slab to put in your pocket even so…

Con­text: Bridge Over Troubled Waters

The mine­field of the cur­rent mar­ket is an unlikely place to expect a wise com­pany to throw in their new con­sole, espe­cially a port­able one. If you’ve been fol­low­ing the news, you will have run into numer­ous dis­cus­sions about how the port­able gam­ing world as we knew it (those of us who grew up with Game­Boys and the like) is chan­ging, mono­pol­ized by Apple’s ubi­quit­ous eco­sys­tem and those who com­pete with it.

This is not at all an unfair real­ity to point out, but it needn’t be sen­sa­tion­al­ized. And it is espe­cially true in light of the fact that Sony isn’t pos­i­tion­ing the Vita to com­pete with iOS games, or even with the 3DS; rather, they are inter­ested in ful­filling the long-standing dream of car­ry­ing a fully fea­tured, extremely cap­able piece of gam­ing hard­ware with you wherever you go—and on this level, the iOS devices remain unable to com­pete for now.

Ideally, we could claim that Sony is there­fore aim­ing to sail right over the hyper-casual gam­ing mar­ket and aim for a loftier audi­ence of more involved gamers who have wished for a true console-quality gam­ing exper­i­ence on the go. Unfor­tu­nately, the real­ity of the situ­ation is that right now they appear to be hav­ing trouble mak­ing a com­mit­ment to one side of the spec­trum or the other, the res­ult being that the Vita’s pos­i­tion in the gam­ing uni­verse is lean­ing awk­wardly toward the half that it can’t com­pete very well with. Who, exactly, is Sony intend­ing this thing for?

But before I try to answer that, let’s talk a bit about the device itself.

Hard­ware: A Slice of Awesome

Any­one who’s glanced at a spec sheet for the Vita will come to the real­iz­a­tion that the engin­eers at Sony have shoved nearly every avail­able piece of tech­no­lo­gical won­der into this device, both famil­iar and less so. The res­ult is an incred­ibly ver­sat­ile piece of gear that offers developers an almost over­whelm­ing array of fea­tures to work with. This is a bril­liant move because it makes it easy to pro­duce games that emphas­ize what Vita can do that its com­pet­it­ors cannot.

Actu­ally spend­ing some time with the Vita quickly reveals the high­light of that long spec sheet: the OLED screen. The dis­play is utterly gor­geous, with vibrant col­ours, deep blacks, and an appre­ciable res­ol­u­tion. It’s not a ‘Ret­ina’ dis­play, but it’s lovely and its touch cap­ab­il­it­ies are respons­ive. It is also quite large, which makes the device itself a bit more cum­ber­some than you might be used to, but it’s well worth it for the cine­matic gam­ing exper­i­ence it provides.

Ergo­nom­ic­ally, the Vita poses some chal­lenges. Because of the many dif­fer­ent input meth­ods (front touch, rear touch, but­tons, dual sticks…) and the fact that you may have to use sev­eral in con­cert, play­ing the Vita becomes an exer­cise in awk­ward man­oeuv­ring. There doesn’t seem to be a con­sist­ently secure way of hold­ing the thing while you’re play­ing games that require you to switch between dif­fer­ent input meth­ods, sug­gest­ing either that games should con­sider this more ser­i­ously in their design, or that we should all play our games on beds or sit­ting above a cush­ion so that any acci­dental drops aren’t catastrophic.

The but­tons them­selves feel agile and aren’t too clicky, which I love, and the dual sticks have a sur­pris­ingly dynamic range of motion, man­aging to be very usable des­pite their smal­ler size. They don’t click in, and they’ll take some get­ting used to in order to trans­late your badass con­sole con­trol­ler skills to the mini­ature ver­sion here, but the chal­lenge comes from the less com­fort­able ergo­nom­ics of hold­ing the Vita rather than any defi­ciency in its actual con­trol systems.

Along­side the more famil­iar fea­tures, Sony also pion­eered the back touch panel. This unusual input sys­tem does what you’d expect it to and is well thought out in terms of offer­ing touch input while you’re hold­ing the device like a nor­mal con­trol­ler. Thus far, not too many games have made extens­ive use of the back panel, but those that have are doing a good job of begin­ning to explore the pos­sib­il­it­ies of the new concept.

Over­all, Vita’s build qual­ity is sturdy and attract­ive, and the arrange­ment of but­tons and ports is famil­iar. Those con­cerned with size and weight should def­in­itely go try one before they place an order: these are not ‘port­able’ in the sense that you can pocket them. The Vita defin­i­tion of ‘port­able’ is more along the lines of “now you can have great gam­ing exper­i­ences without car­ry­ing your PS3 around with you.” Bot­tom line is that if you have room for a paper­back novel, you’ll have room for the Vita, and that’s per­fectly fine by me.

Speak­ing of stor­age, Sony’s most robust anti-piracy meas­ure has been the use of an entirely pro­pri­et­ary memory card sys­tem for the Vita. The cards are tiny and come in a con­veni­ent array of capa­cit­ies, but they’re very expens­ive (thank­fully slightly less so than when they were first announced) and can’t be used by any­thing else (yet). If you’re plan­ning on buy­ing your Vita games digit­ally, like me, then plan to invest a bit extra in a higher capa­city memory card.

Oh, Vita also has a cam­era. So that’s…um. Yeah.

Soft­ware: Inter­face Shame

If you are the kind of per­son that doesn’t notice inter­face design, then ignore this sec­tion. For the rest of us, we have a ser­i­ous prob­lem here. As far as I’m con­cerned, Sony dropped the ball on this aspect of the Vita’s design, and they did it in a way that coun­ter­acts their oth­er­wise con­sist­ent emphasis of how the Vita sets itself apart from the rest of the pack.

Con­sider the pur­pose of the user inter­face exper­i­ence. Bey­ond get­ting you from game to game and back again, it also sub­lim­in­ally estab­lishes the aes­thetic of your exper­i­ence with the device—and this is why I have a prob­lem with the Vita’s. I don’t mind that Sony bor­rowed lib­er­ally from both Nin­tendo and Apple in its imple­ment­a­tion of homescreen icons and their func­tion­al­ity, nor that they ditched their mag­ni­fi­cently subtle and iconic XMB from the PS3 and PSP (yes, that’s right, I like the XMB). What both­ers me is that their new inter­face is bizar­rely out of step with the sleek and soph­ist­ic­ated hard­ware design. Everything about the Vita screams next-gen gam­ing, a plat­form open to cre­at­ive devel­op­ment for all tar­get audi­ences, and yet the inter­face is a child­ish, bub­bly, and biased sys­tem that assas­sin­ates all the pos­it­ive expect­a­tions that Sony has built up with every other aspect of the Vita.

On the most super­fi­cial of levels, why is it so juven­ile? I under­stand that one can­not ignore the pres­ence of the cas­ual mar­ket and that they need to be enticed, but not at the expense of the device’s iden­tity as a product of the cut­ting edge of port­able gam­ing. One of the reas­ons I liked the XMB so much was that it was a neut­ral and ver­sat­ile inter­face: by default it didn’t imply that the PS3 was a cas­ual or a hard­core gam­ing sys­tem; it provided a sleek and cus­tom­iz­able sys­tem and then let the games dic­tate their own aes­thetic so that the con­sole itself remained agnostic. This was a massively import­ant concept that Sony seems to have dis­carded without any appar­ent jus­ti­fic­a­tion—and at the expense of their console’s credibility.

This new inter­face, for instance, can only be nav­ig­ated via touch. And only using the front screen. Why would a sys­tem that boasts at least 3 pos­sible con­trol areas only allow the use of one of them on its own menu sys­tem? They had to build an entirely dif­fer­ent app, the ‘Wel­come Park’, to provide users an envir­on­ment in which they can famil­i­ar­ize them­selves with all the vari­ous input options. The fact that it’s nicely gami­fied is great, and the concept of the ‘Wel­come Park’ is fine for more advanced func­tion­al­ity, but it’s no longer a seam­less learn­ing exper­i­ence if we have to go to a sep­ar­ate tutorial app just to learn the basics. Are we hon­estly expec­ted to believe that the best minds at Sony couldn’t think of a way to build an input method tutorial in more organ­ic­ally? If only they had a more dir­ect envir­on­ment they could do that in…you know, like their main inter­face system!

Frus­tra­tions aside, the Vita’s inter­face is at least func­tional, and even innov­at­ive in one par­tic­u­lar way: the tear­ing ges­ture. The basic premise of Vita’s inter­face is that each of the naus­eat­ingly infant­ile homescreens presents you with an array of app icons, each of which opens into its own ‘page’ of sorts that con­tains some basic inform­a­tion about the title and some addi­tional func­tion­al­ity depend­ent upon what the app is. These pages remain open, let­ting you keep apps in a sort of stasis that implies mul­ti­task­ing. To close them, you simply ‘grab’ the top corner of the page and ‘tear’ it off the screen in a sat­is­fy­ing ges­ture that’s unique to the Vita.

This kind of flash of bril­liance makes me even more dis­ap­poin­ted in the inter­face, because it shows me that they had the cre­ativ­ity to pro­duce some­thing revolu­tion­ary and authen­tic, and instead chose to real­ize a sad syn­thesis of famil­iar ele­ments, cobbled together from com­pet­ing paradigms. For shame, Sony.

Apps and the Store

If you can get past the look of the inter­face itself, you encounter the core sys­tem applic­a­tions. I won’t bother delving into the details of the Con­tent Man­ager, Browser, Videos, Music, Remote Play, etc. because they’re all quite self-evident in their func­tion­al­ity and aren’t really going to make or break anyone’s decision to pur­chase the Vita. They work. Some of them more eleg­antly than others.

Instead, I’ll focus on some of the more influ­en­tial ele­ments. The Vita, as of this writ­ing, boasts a fairly mod­est num­ber of avail­able third-party apps, but they include giants like Face­book, Twit­ter, and Net­flix—all three of which are very well designed and feel like nat­ive applic­a­tions rather than just re-skinned wrap­pers for the web inter­faces of the vari­ous ser­vices, so kudos to Sony for that.

They’re all accessible via the Play­sta­tion Store, and since the push toward a digital-only dis­tri­bu­tion sys­tem for games is unmis­tak­able, I want to talk a bit about the exper­i­ence of using Vita’s store. Thank­fully, it’s fairly easy to get around, and the wel­come area sorts titles into help­ful cat­egor­ies like “Vita Only Games”, “Cross-Play Games” (Vita -> PS3), “PSP Games”, “Apps”, and a few oth­ers. This makes it very easy to nar­row down your brows­ing to the cat­egory that’s most rel­ev­ant to your needs, but you quickly come up against a few fun­da­mental issues that detract from the shop­ping experience.

The most prom­in­ent issue is load­ing time…for some inex­plic­able reason, even on a very fast Wi-Fi con­nec­tion, the store takes ages to render games lists and descrip­tions. Per­haps this is a minor quibble, born of being spoiled by quick access on other devices, but it’s notice­ably laggy and dis­cour­ages people from idly brows­ing for games as much as they might oth­er­wise do, simply because it’s annoy­ing to wait for things to catch up.

Next, you’ll notice that in each cat­egory, there’s no easy way of skip­ping to a dif­fer­ent let­ter of the alpha­bet. This isn’t a huge con­cern now, since there are rel­at­ively few games avail­able, but for the moment if I’m look­ing for WipeOut 2048 and don’t want to search for it, I have some scrolling to look for­ward to. In the PSP games sec­tion, they’ve rec­ti­fied this by adding in another menu layer to sort things, but this seems unne­ces­sary—a sys­tem like the iOS music player’s scroll list where you can simply tap the appro­pri­ate let­ter along the edge of the screen seems like a more straight-forward solution.

Once you’re ready to buy a game, you encounter my final issue with the store exper­i­ence: lack of inform­a­tion. Each item’s list­ing includes the price, the buy but­ton, and the publisher’s descrip­tion. This is great, except that I also love see­ing some screen­shots, per­haps even a trailer. No such luck in the Vita store. Given the already slow load­ing times, I guess that’s a good thing, but for me it has meant that each time I see a game that looks inter­est­ing in the cata­logue, I have to put down my Vita and Google it on some other device to get some more inform­a­tion (or exit the store and use Vita’s browser).

Everything else about pur­chas­ing and man­aging games and apps works like clock­work and I’ve encountered no issues so far, and I’ve bought all my games as digital ver­sions rather than bother with the boxes.

Near

Sadly, Near is another example of Sony tak­ing cues from the com­pet­i­tion but fail­ing to assemble them into a mean­ing­ful altern­at­ive. Near is the equi­val­ent of Nintendo’s Street­Pass & Spot­Pass sys­tems built into the 3DS, and it’s inten­ded to be a sim­ilar sort of live social inter­ac­tion gim­mick between play­ers, allow­ing you to exchange pro­file inform­a­tion, game goods, and statistics.

In the­ory, all is well here, but in prac­tice Near is full of issues and man­ages to be one of the most obtuse sys­tems you could ima­gine. Worse, in the pro­cess it com­pletely des­troys whatever chances it had of being as dir­ectly invit­ing as Nintendo’s offer­ing, which not only fea­tures the same basic social func­tion­al­ity, but also extends to encom­pass the activ­ity centre (count­ing your steps, etc.) and turn­ing the pro­cess of exchan­ging gifts with other play­ers into a more charm­ing and per­sonal experience.

Open­ing the Near app brings you to a screen with 4 tiles: ‘Out and About’, ‘Friends’, ‘Dis­cov­er­ies’, and ‘Set­tings’. There’s also the ‘Near’ update but­ton in the top right of the screen. As a gen­eral idea, tap­ping that but­ton will per­form a manual update and beam out what you’ve been play­ing, how far you’ve traveled, and your basic pro­file info to nearby play­ers based on how you’ve con­figured the set­tings. At home, I’ve found that this works pretty well, but just last week I spent a num­ber of days in Boston attend­ing PAX East and was appalled to dis­cover that my desire to con­nect via Near to that wealth of gamers was con­sist­ently foiled by the device’s inab­il­ity to “obtain data for my loc­a­tion”. After 5 dif­fer­ent Wi-Fi net­works and 3 days all around down­town Boston, I gave up.

Rather than let­ting you access all the vari­ous aspects of Near from the main screen, you have to dig to get to them. Tap­ping ‘Out and About’ is the entrance to the rab­bit hole, show­ing you an over­view of what games are top­ping the charts nearby, what titles have seen a surge in pop­ular­ity, and what dis­cov­er­ies you’ve made. Tap­ping any of the items will take you to another screen depend­ing on what type of entry it is; if it’s a pop­ular­ity notice, a strange radar screen that dis­plays who’s been play­ing the title in ques­tion as a sort of cir­cu­lar dis­tance scat­ter plot appears. If it’s a game notice, the ‘Player’s Voice’ page for that title shows up. More on that later. Beside this list­ing, you’ll see an unex­plained crown icon. Fol­low­ing your curi­os­ity, you tap it to reveal the pop­ular­ity chart, dis­play­ing all the titles you’ve encountered so far and how many people are play­ing it, as well as details like whether it’s gone up or down in the charts recently. Good to know, I suppose.

To the left of the inter­face, you’ll also notice that each of these screens opens as a vir­tual tab, so the expect­a­tion is that you can flip back and forth between them. But, bizar­rely, that is not the case. Tap­ping on any of the tabs will close any sub­sequent ones, and tap­ping the home tab will take you right back to the main screen leav­ing you no way of return­ing dir­ectly to the pop­ular­ity chart, for instance, without per­form­ing two more taps. Why? And why aren’t the tabs simply present all the time so you can quickly get to the part of Near that interests you? More inter­face usab­il­ity madness.

Since it’s inten­ded as a social sys­tem, view­ing the ‘Player’s Voice’ tab for any game or app will show you a store link, an option to launch the title if you have it, a list of emoticons people have chosen to rep­res­ent their exper­i­ence of the app, and a ‘Buzz Rat­ing’. You can view the ‘Player’s Voice’ data either from people you’ve encountered, your friends, or just people you’ve played games with. Those Buzz Rat­ing concept has poten­tial, but the num­bers are pretty mean­ing­less for now since the way they’re cal­cu­lated is never explained and you have no real sense of what the scale is. Face­book has a 1.3 among my peers, for now. Is that good? Bad? Who knows. The Vita’s manual explains the Buzz Rat­ing cal­cu­la­tion as fol­lows: “aver­age rat­ing by the play­ers who have played the game and the num­ber of people who have played the game”. Just smile and nod.

And on the topic of smil­ing, I hope you enjoy doing it because if you want to use the emoticon sys­tem to rate games, then your only options are vari­ous forms of smil­ing. Need to give a neg­at­ive review? How unfor­tu­nate for you. You thought Treas­ures of Mon­te­zuma Blitz was exploit­at­ive garbage? Hmm, did you mean Heart­warm­ing? Cap­tiv­at­ing? Engross­ing? Head-desk at will—for instance, a good time would be when Near pops up a help­ful “Pick an emoticon!” alert every single time you open any application’s ‘Player Voice’ page.

If you stumble back to the main page of Near, you can also stalk your Friends and view your Dis­cov­er­ies, which may include good­ies that you can use in your games. This remains the only reason I can think of to put up with the oth­er­wise cata­stroph­ic­ally broken Near application.

Games

Thus far, I have played the fol­low­ing titles on my Vita:

  • Uncharted: Golden Abyss
  • WipeOut 2048
  • Ray­man Origins
  • Treas­ures of Mon­te­zuma Blitz
  • Super Star­dust Delta
  • Mutant Blobs Attack

Rather than go into depth about them, I will say simply that the line-up of cur­rently avail­able games on the Vita is not as strong as I would like. This isn’t to say that the games them­selves aren’t strong indi­vidu­ally, because they gen­er­ally are very impress­ive and make good use of the system’s cap­ab­il­it­ies. The prob­lem is simply that there aren’t that many of them, and some of the titles I was most anti­cip­at­ing—Warrior’s Lair (ori­gin­ally Ruin), for instance—are nowhere to be seen.

So while I wait for Warrior’s Lair, for Lit­tle­Big­Planet, and for the many other excit­ing titles that are com­ing in the next few months, I’ve been play­ing through PSP games that I hadn’t fin­ished before. They mostly look excel­lent on the OLED screen, even though they’re upscaled to fit. The games’ indi­vidual art styles have a huge impact on how well they trans­late, I’ve found.

The fact that I have had to buy these titles again does not make me happy, but the fact that they’re mostly dirt-cheap now has made it bearable.

Con­clu­sion: To Vita, or Not to Vita?

The short answer (he says, hil­ari­ously, after writ­ing a 3,000 word review) is that I con­sider the Vita to be worth a purchase.

A slightly expan­ded ver­sion would admit that per­haps it’s not a sys­tem you need to buy just yet, nor at all if you’re only inter­ested in the kind of gam­ing that you can get on your iPad, but if you appre­ci­ate a truly impress­ive level of tech­nical fidel­ity and poten­tial con­trol flex­ib­il­ity in your gam­ing life, then the Vita is quite simply peer­less and will have no trouble lead­ing the port­able pack if only Sony would make some adjust­ments to the present­a­tion and com­mit to cel­eb­rat­ing the many dis­tin­guish­ing fea­tures of the console.

I have come to really love my Vita, des­pite its gar­ish inter­face and the issues I noted above. As a gam­ing con­sole on the go, it’s fant­astic and I eagerly await the com­ing titles that will begin to push the console’s poten­tial to its limits.