Here’s something I never thought I’d say in a million years: Sony has a great shot at beating Nintendo in this generation’s handheld war. The PS Vita, as the NGP has now been unfortunately named, is an impressive system, both in terms of its form factor and the technology its sporting under the hood. More importantly, though, the WiFi only model is priced at just $249.99, putting it in direct competition with the 3DS.
After spending time with five of the system’s upcoming titles, I think it’ll be a close fight. As an early PSP adopter whose seen that system get more life as a paperweight than a gaming system, I’m frankly amazed to discover that Sony is capable of making this many great design choices. With a good enough software lineup and the right marketing campaign, the Vita could easily eclipse Nintendo’s latest portable offering.
To start with, the Vita feels great. It’s light, easy to hold, and the dual analog sticks are an amazing upgrade from the PSP’s paltry, springy nub. With the comfortable button layout and two sticks, I could see a wide variety of traditional gaming experiences porting readily to the Vita, including the perpetual bane of mobile gaming, the first-person shooter. I could honestly see anything from Assassin’s Creed to a simple 2D sidescroller working fluidly on the Vita, which is an excellent portent of things to come.
The massive OLED screen is bright and beautiful, with rich color depth and definition that makes even visually busy 3D games like Uncharted instantly readable. It’s certainly one of the nicest features of the system, and given the Vita’s graphical horsepower, you can count on a lot of eye candy. Uncharted: Golden Abyss and Little Big Planet both seemed to keep the charm of their console big brothers intact. I know it’s a stretch to say that the Vita offers graphics on par with the current generation of consoles, but when the system is offering real time shadows and high poly counts on a five-inch screen, it’s hard to notice any serious visual downgrade.
The screen’s touch capabilities were responsive, even with elaborate multitouch gestures and multiple people playing on a single system. While there were a few more gimmicky uses of the touchscreen controls (Uncharted melee combat, I’m looking at you), they were mostly employed thoughtfully and fluidly. I’d wager that we’ll see a lot of simpler, App Store-style games making their way onto the system alongside complex games that use the touchscreen for more reasonable things like level creation and menu navigation. There’s certainly a lot of potential here. My only real gripe is that the screen felt a bit stickier than what I’m used to on the DS and iOS devices. Then again, I’d been sweating in a stadium for two hours by the time I got to play, so that might not have been a fault of the the system itself. Sony also had its employees religiously wiping down each system with a cloth, so there’s a good chance it attracts its fair share of fingerprints and smudges, too.
The rear touch screen, in contrast, was a bit awkward in every game I played. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to have touchscreen controls that engage different physical planes. You can push things out of the screen towards you and interact with objects that face backwards, all without ever having to cover the screen with your fingers. Still, having to aim blindly and reposition your hands to fumble around on the back of the screen isn’t comfortable, nor is it as inherently understandable as standard touchscreen controls. Perhaps with a bit more practice it’ll become a useful, fun feature, but it certainly wasn’t something that struck me as a huge leap forward.
Where the PS Vita most flagrantly stumbles – and where it may well fail – is in its lack of coherence. For all its innovative control schemes, it seems a bit muddled and confused about which it wants you to focus on. Many of the more casual games picked out one or two control features per minigame and let them be the focus of play, which helped to keep things manageable. The Little Big Planet demo, for instance, forced you to use both touchscreens, tilt and standard controls throughout the course of the level, but it never engaged more than one gimmick in rapid succession. There was a comfortable delineation to the pacing, and I never felt overwhelmed by the control options.
The core games, like Virtua Tennis and Uncharted: Golden Abyss, seemed to take the shotgun approach, letting you use either the buttons or some combination of touch and tilt control to accomplish tasks. This isn’t a bad thing, per se, but it felt strange having to choose between such vastly different gameplay experiences. Do I want the tedious repetition of shepherding Nathan Drake up a cliff with twenty button presses, or do I want the unengaged boredom of swiping my finger across the screen and letting him do all the work? Do I want to swipe the screen to plan out my tennis swings in advance, or do I want to sit back and wait for the ball to come to me so I can rally with perfectly timed button presses?
In a way, having a choice between both control schemes just made the faults of each more apparent. The touch mechanics often felt dumbed down and simple compared to the button presses, and in the process they managed to make the buttons themselves seem like an unneeded complication. I can’t help but feel that it’s a misstep to make both the simplified control options and the standard ones accessible on the fly.
In moments like those, it’s obvious that the Vita lack some sort of overarching vision. The 3DS, in spite of its marginal tech and N64-redux lineup, has a pointed, eminently accessible rallying cry: “Glasses-free 3D.” It may be a gimmick, sure, but I’ll be damned if it’s not a marketable one. Sony may offer more sticks, more touchpads, better graphics and 3G support, but not a one of those features immediately rises up as the handheld’s defining trait. I’d go so far as to say there isn’t one. There’s just no system-seller bullet point that they can slap on boxes and showcase in ads. The Vita, for all its successes, seems to be middling in generic greatness. It’s not mind-blowingly amazing at anything, but it’s rather good at packing in a lot of smaller innovations.
After going hands-on, I’m a firm believer in the PlayStation Vita. Sony has managed to put together a phenomenal handheld, capable of more robust and varied experiences than any other portable on the market today. The company’s greatest challenge will lie in finding the handheld’s focus and marketing it appropriately. It’ll be an uphill battle to convince the masses that the kitchen sink approach was the right one, but if they can pull it off, Sony will have a real winner on their hands.