The PlayStation Vita will probably be the last handheld gaming console you will ever buy.
It’s the ultimate swan song for an industry that is already about to die.
But rather than die with a whimper (Dreamcast, we’re looking at you), it’s going out with a cataclysmic beautiful explosive fireworks show.
In terms of gameplay, the Vita crushes the Nintendo 3DS. And it crushes the iPhone and every other smartphone and tablet out there when it comes to gaming.
And this is the last time we will ever say anything like that.
Look, feel and design
The Vita on its own is actually a gorgeous device. It feels like the artificially fertilised child of the iPhone and the PlayStation Portable. It has a sleek metal band running along the perimeter and features a bold volcanic black look, much like the iPhone.
Check out photos of the PlayStation Vita >
It doesn’t feel fragile or uncharacteristically light. Each button presses down with a satisfying “click” when you tap it. The control sticks have a little bit of a rubber feel to them and move freely — though they do feel a little too close to the rest of the buttons.
The touchscreen is pretty much what you would expect from top-end smartphone today. It’s an amazingly high resolution screen where colours fly out at you and are more vibrant than any other smartphone to date can produce. The back touchpad — though sparingly used — feels smooth to the touch and has an elegant look to it.
It takes a while to get used to holding the Vita. You might feel your hands cramp up from the “claw” position initially. That comes from having your thumbs on the directional pad and index fingers on the shoulder buttons, which do feel a touch flimsy. There also seems to be an unnecessary matte-covered indentation for your other fingers in the back, which just feels awkward.
The device also has front-facing and rear-facing cameras, though they are considerably less powerful than a typical phone’s camera. Odds are you won’t be using these cameras to shoot actual photos, but they play into the larger scheme of the Vita: a beautiful and huge array of ways to control apps.
Controls, controls and more controls
It feels like the Vita was supposed to exist in 2008, just before Apple kicked off the smartphone app revolution. Most apps today still feel wonky and hard to control with virtual joysticks used via the touchpad. You can pick up the Vita hating touchpad gaming and put it back down feeling much more comfortable with it.
In short, it’s the missing link between handheld consoles like the DS and the iPhone.
All those tiny design elements play into the Vita’s whopping strength, control. Each game you pop into the Vita typically has three or four different control schemes. They vary from using the touchpad to tap, draw, and swipe your way to the end of the level to traditional schemes like the ones you would find on a PlayStation console.
But the beauty of the Vita is its possibilities. Take a game like Uncharted. You can draw your path with your finger, or use the analogue sticks to move. You can aim with an analogue stick like a traditional game, or move the Vita around to move your cross-hair. For every action, there are at least two or three ways to control the game.
It feels like the touch pad is a little too close to the directional pad. You can accidentally tap the screen while furiously using the directional pad or buttons. That can cause some unnecessary deaths and errors in games like Lumines where touching the pad will rotate your falling block and kill the set up you were trying to build, but you can work around that problem.
The back touchpad is sparingly used, but it feels just as natural as the front touchpad. When holding the iPhone like a typical handheld console in games like Assassin’s Creed and Shadow Complex, your back your fingers on the back of the iPhone go totally unused. That’s wasted real estate on the iPhone, but not on the Vita.
Tim Cook should call up Sony’s Kaz Hirai and pick his brain, because the Vita’s control experience is fundamentally better than the iPhone’s
The Vita Experience
All the extra apps that come with the Vita are probably the weakest point of the whole experience.
That’s not to say the operating system isn’t enjoyable: in fact, it’s one of the most fun operating systems out there. The device opens up from its lock screen when you peel away what looks like a transparent sticker. And man, is it a satisfying experience.
The whole operating system reeks of satisfying moments like that. Sure, they’re small and trivial, but it shows that Sony had an eye for detail when it was building the operating system. The sounds are all also very unusual, but, again, very satisfying.
You can swipe up and down to view al your existing apps and then left to right to browse through open and running apps. When you swipe down on an app, it shows you more information about that app. The whole operating system feels like a “grid” of squares like a game of connect-4 instead of everything laid out on a straight line, like with the iPhone or other Android devices.
On a frustrating note, it feels like Sony hasn’t nailed down the multitasking tool just yet. For example, you can’t open the web browser while you’re running a game in the background. You can only have one game running at any given time. It’s something that Apple and Google have spoiled us with, and something that Sony should have included.
The whole experience, though, is silky smooth. The Vita is a powerful piece of hardware and it shows. The operating system never slows down and it never feels choppy. The games run beautifully at a ridiculously high frame rate.
And man, do they look great.
Should You Buy It?
We’ve said that Sony is at a major fork in the road. On one hand, it’s putting a big bet on Android and smartphones. It’s selling games from the PlayStation Network that will work on Android devices and it’s PlayStation phones.
And then we have the Vita, what will likely be the last bastion of handheld gaming devices. It’s a gorgeous device that sings a beautiful swan song for its biggest fans.
If you like to play games on the go, even casually, then the answer as to whether you should buy it is a resounding yes. The Vita experience is more than worth the extra real estate that the Vita takes up in your pocket or bag.
For the everyday person, it’s probably still worth a buy, even out of curiosity. The price tag is just shy of some of the more expensive phones out there ($249 for a Wi-fi only model and $299 for a 3G-enabled model). The price of admission (one or two games) should be more than enough to hook you to the experience.
But there are a lot reasons to be sceptical.
- If you aren’t a tech enthusiast, the Vita price tag could be considered high. The average person is probably going to get more “oomph” out of a Kindle, which costs considerably less and feels considerably more revolutionary.
- The success of the Vita’s future also depends on whether good, powerful games that use all the tools on the device continue to come out. The launch lineup for the Vita is particularly strong: Marvel Vs. Capcom, Lumines, and Rayman Origins are all stunningly beautiful and addictive games. Sony has to keep that momentum up.
- There is not going to be another handheld console (probably). That means all the games you by for the Vita have a chance of being forever trapped on the Vita, and you won’t be able to port them to your new phone or next-generation device.
- Outside of gaming, the Vita’s appeal is limited. The web browser is particularly un-spectacular and some of the device’s extra features are very game-centric.
Even with those concerns, the Vita still remains a strong buy. I know I will be picking one up.
Here's the lock screen. Looks kind of like Windows 8 — you peel away the sticker with your finger to unlock it.
Overall, this is a gorgeous device. It feels great in your hands and the operating system runs smoothly.
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