PlayStation Vita: A Console Conundrum
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.
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.
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.