I think it’s safe to say that Nintendo is in some serious trouble here. The PlayStation Vita (almost a worse name than WiiU, by the way) is a seriously powerful little device, sporting what are easily the best graphics ever seen on a handheld platform. Packing tons of features and an incredibly competitive price point, Sony is looking to win the next handheld war against Nintendo. I got to spend some hands-on time with Vita at the Sony press conference and came away generally impressed with what I saw, though with a few caveats.
First and foremost, I was thrilled to see that not only would the Vita have dual thumbsticks, but that they’re far superior to the PSP’s dinky little analog “nub”. They’ve got just the right amount of spring. The problem I ran into is one that will likely not be an issue for the majority of people – my hands are simply too large. Almost every time I was tasked with pressing the X button, I would end up putting my thumb on the right stick by accident. Likewise, it was difficult for me to handle shooter controls as the shoulder buttons and sticks were are simply too close together to be comfortable for me. I can’t really fault Vita for any of this, though, as my fellow Piki staffers did not have the same issue. Guess that’s the price I pay for having man hands instead of dainty little fingers!
For people like me with giant hands, I’m pleased to report that they did not hinder my operation of Vita’s dual touch interfaces. The big, bright OLED screen is as responsive to the touch as it is beautiful to look at, and every game on display had some control method or another that utilized the touch screen. Some of it was better than others, though. LittleBigPlanet, for example, utilizes the touch screen to do things like move objects out of the way, push platforms into the background and operate slingshot mechanisms. It was generally intuitive and seemed like a natural way to extend the gameplay. Uncharted, on the other hand, basically uses the touch screen as a giant “Easy” button. Climbing up a wall? Trace your path on the touch screen and watch Nathan play the game for you. Hopefully, more games will follow LBP’s example, not Uncharted’s.
Vita’s got even more touch controls in the form of a touch pad on the back of the unit, though this was ultimately less impressive and much more unwieldy than its front-facing counterpart. Not being able to see what you’re actually touching is a major drawback and makes the touch pad a pretty imprecise control method. For games like Little Deviants (basically a collection of minigames meant to utilize Vita’s many input methods), the touch pad is used to do things like raise hills on a landscape or tap backward facing enemies. Maybe Little Deviants is just not a good game overall (it wasn’t), but if devs are going to insist upon use of the back touch pad, I can only hope they figure out more intuitive ways to go about it.
In addition to the buttons, analog sticks and dual touch interfaces, Vita has also got SIXAXIS tilt control built in as well as front and backward facing cameras for augmented reality games. The tilt was used most effectively in LittleBigPlanet, being a largely physics-based game. Platforms on wheels or wires could be manipulated by tilting the Vita one way or another and it generally worked well and felt natural. Vita’s brand of augmented reality, on the other hand, was less impressive. Again, it may just be that the one game on display that actually utilized the ARG functions (Little Deviants) is simply not a great game, but I found augmented reality on Vita to be less fun and intuitive than it is on Nintendo’s 3DS.
As Josh pointed out, in spite (or perhaps because) of Vita’s many features, Sony is going to have a tough time figuring out a hook to market the device. Do they sell it based on its good graphics? What about its multitude of control methods? Maybe they could simply take a page from the PS3 playbook and say “It also does everything”. I feel like Vita’s biggest hurdle is going to be the market itself. These days, most people are carrying smart phones or tablets that list gaming as only one of their many functions. How do you sell a handheld device to a crowd that’s already carrying one? Nintendo is currently facing a similar issue, as 3DS sales have not taken off the way their previous handhelds have done so.
There are also a few unanswered questions I would like to see explained before I can be totally sold on Vita, namely – How much will games cost, what sort of media will they be on, and what kind of battery life has the device got? Until Sony addresses these questions, I can not fully endorse Vita, but my initial impressions were still mostly positive. It’s the closest thing there is to truly having a console-like experience in your pocket. If Nintendo isn’t at least a little worried, they should be.