Hey now buddy, we only just met.
by Eric Chima
Only time will tell if the Vita is a good investment, but sometimes you have to leap to judgment based on a quick first impression.
Pulling a Playstation Vita out of the box is like pulling a polished gem out of a pile of rubble. The packaging looks more like a knock-off Wii accessory than a Next Generation Portable, and the device itself is buried several layers deep. But the Vita makes a good impression out of the box, and not like an Apple device, all brushed metal and glossy packaging that turns up its nose at your grimy hands. And not like a 3DS, either, with its candy-coated plastic promising mellow fun. The Vita is somewhere in the middle. It’s not quite as sleek or refined as an iPad, but it looks like it might judge you for playing Nintendogs.
Once it’s in your hands, the Vita is an impressive piece, like a PSP that finally figured out how to dress. The Vita is no heavier than its older sibling, but feels more solid because the weight is more evenly distributed. When you held a PSP, you could almost feel every individual piece of metal housing beneath the plastic, but the Vita feels like one continuous piece, integrated with an enormous, beautiful screen.
That screen will be the first thing that most people notice when they turn on the device. It’s bright and crisp, the prettiest display I’ve seen on a handheld. But the first thing that struck me was the noise, or the lack thereof. After years of playing a PSP, I unconsciously brace myself for the WHUZZZZ-CHUK of the UMD drive every time it starts up. By comparison, the Vita is shockingly, blissfully quiet. It’s a small thing, and expected, but it might be my favorite “feature” of the device.
Unfortunately, the base OS isn’t so visually quiet. It’s entirely touch-screen based, with bubbles that emulate the apps on an iPhone’s home screen, and it looks about as cheesy as the screenshots suggest. The touch itself works fine, and it’s as snappy and responsive as the best touch-screen phones, but the icons feel jumbled and hard to find. Because they’re not laid out in a grid, there’s no natural way for your eye to read through them, and you can’t organize them into folders they way you would most devices. Frankly, I would prefer to swipe through the cross-media bar.
Once you buy a few games, you will have pages and pages and pages of these bubbles.
The rest of the OS feels similarly clunky. Depending on what you’re doing, if you want to go back one screen, you might have to peel the screen away, tap an on-screen button, or hit the PS button on the unit. You’re never quite sure which. Similarly, you have to tap an icon once to bring up a game’s welcome screen, then tap again to start it. They’re annoyances, but then again, they’re minor ones. You’ll be doing these things unconsciously in two weeks, and they’ll probably be patched away in two months.
In-game, which is where you’ll ultimately spend most of your time, is where the Vita shines for me. The PSP was known for impressive graphics accompanied by low framerates and high load times, and while the Vita can certainly fall prey to these issues, it can also rise above them. I’ll cover individual game impressions after I spend more time with them, but Uncharted, in particular, is technically fantastic. Some of the game design doesn’t live up to its PS3 siblings, but it looks and runs amazingly well. Forests are lush, waterfalls cascade beautifully, and Nathan Drake moves just like he does in Uncharted 3. You wouldn’t mistake it for a PS3 game, but it might make you do a double-take. Uncharted serves as an example of what the system can do, and while there are disappointments in the initial crop of games, they seem to be faults of the games themselves, rather than the Vita. The promise is there.
Sete Cidades. Duh, Nate.
The one area where the Vita might fail its games is in the ergonomics. The much-discussed touchpad on the back of the system doesn’t suit my hands at all. I’ve been playing the PSP with my fingers splayed out across the back of the system for years, and suddenly that’s not allowed anymore. The curled clutch grip they expect you to use isn’t very comfortable for long periods, though I was able to mitigate it somewhat by switching positions in my lap. And the implementation of the rear touchpad in the games itself has ranged from trivial to poor, with the exception of Fifa’s brilliant shooting system.* In the long run, I think we’ll see more games ignore the touchpad altogether. There are plenty of other unique inputs on this device.
* In Fifa, the back touchpad represents the goal, and touching any part of the pad will aim a shot into that precise spot. It’s the best shooting implementation Fifa has ever had, except when you accidentally brush the touchpad and take a wild shot from midfield.
The rest of the Vita’s inputs are small, but effective. The face buttons look tiny at first glance, but work fine in practice. The analog sticks don’t have the throw distance of a full-size stick, but in comparison to other handhelds, they feel revolutionary. You will never want to use a slide pad or, God forbid, an analog nub ever again. But while the sticks promised to finally make shooters playable on a handheld, that hasn’t been proved out yet. The analog aiming in Uncharted is imprecise and uncomfortable, the game’s biggest failing. Only time will tell if it’s the fault of the game or the system it runs on.
The other apps on the Vita feel largely inconsequential. It will play music and take pictures, but no better than the phone you already carry. The screen is great for videos, but it’s not going to be the reason you buy the device. “Near” introduced me to a user named Flibbo, who lives 10 miles from me and likes Katamari. I don’t think much will come from that relationship. Welcome Park is a boring feature that introduces you to the system, and you’ll turn it off faster than you can touch the numbers “1,2,3,4” on the touchscreen. And the browser is terrible – ironically, the main ad on youtube right now is for Playstation Vita, but you can’t actually watch Youtube videos on a Vita.
But let’s be honest, nobody will ever use the Vita browser. Ultimately, it’s going to be a gaming device, and in that sense I think it holds a lot of promise. The Vita delivers a full console experience on a handheld, and Sony is gambling that users actually want that. I think I do, but I may be in the minority.
A lot of that potential audience is going to be people that may have been somewhat disappointed by the PSP. The comparisons between the two are obvious: It’s like that boyfriend you used to date, only now he’s lost some weight and got a job and doesn’t make obnoxious whirring sounds whenever you touch him. Technically, the Vita delivers on a lot of what the PSP promised. The question is whether it’s a promise that you – and game developers – are interested in.