PlayStation Vita

I have a Vita and yes, it’s pretty amazing.

Hardware:

I went for the Wi-fi only version in the end. I wanted to get the Wi-fi + 3G version because get ALL the things, but decided against it after looking at how much Vodafone (currently the only Vita 3G provider) charge you. (Plus we don’t like Vodafone because they don’t pay their taxes.) It seems that the only thing you can really do with the 3G model that you can’t do with the standard one is use GPS – and while it would be well swish to have a pocket console that’s also a GPS, I don’t need it that badly.

The Vita is a more elegant shape than the PSP: its form is one continuous cartouche instead of having truncated shoulders. As with the PSP, the two shoulder buttons are contiguous with this shape, and are mirrored on the base of the console by two slits, presumably to attach wrist straps to. (A lanyard would be silly.)

It’s much easier (in convenience, not in accident-potential) to turn off or put into sleep mode than the PSP; you just press the power button quickly (to sleep) or hold it down (to turn off) instead of farting around with the PSP’s trigger switch’s position.

The screen is touch-sensitive, and so is the back, with two recessed inert areas on the back to put your fingers when you don’t want to touch the rear pad. The touchscreen has exactly the problem you’d expect – as it doesn’t use a stylus, it will grow a sheen of finger oil. This usually isn’t that visible, but it’s really obvious when you’re using anything that makes the screen display mostly white (such as the Twitter app), then you can see just how slick with oily interference patterns it’s become.

The touchscreen is remarkably sensitive, and I’ve made several accidental selections by just waving my fingers over it instead of actually touching it. It’s also capable of detecting two touch points: in many applications you pinch or spread your thumb and forefinger to zoom in and out, like a baffled finger-faced bird futilely pecking the screen.

There are two thumbsticks, and they’re proper thumbsticks with ball-and-socket bases as opposed to the PSP’s little slidey nonsense. The home button is curiously situated under the left thumbstick. Hard to accidentally press, true, but it seems more obvious to place it centrally under the screen, where the PS Vita logo is. The face buttons don’t appear to have pressure sensitivity (or I’m just sausage-fingered), but do have a nice decisive feel to them when pressed. It’s a little disappointing, as WipEout 2048 uses square for airbrake and I’m using to playing WipEout HD on the PS3 and being able to apply a gentle squirt of airbrake. The Vita’s face buttons feel much more digital.

The cameras – a front-facing one that looks at you and a rear-facing one – are a bit crap. You tap the touchscreen to take a picture instead of pressing a physical button, which feels wrong, and the shutter sound effect is obnoxiously loud. The cameras do badly in lighting other than very bright, and it can sometimes be hard to take a picture of something with the rear camera because the Vita’s shadow falls on it. Everything you photograph also looks quite desaturated and washed out. You can also record video using either camera. Again, the quality isn’t great, and if you have a nice phone you’re probably better off just using the camera and video on that. Even my 6 year-old Nokia lets you zoom in or out when taking photos or recording video, which the Vita doesn’t.

The Vita comes with absolutely nothing besides its charger and some AR cards (more on those later). No carrying case, or even a memory card (the PSP came with a 32mb one, which was much too small for a game or add-on, but was enough for save files and a few mp3s). There are also no game demos included or pre-installed. I bought a memory card with my machine, and it’s absurdly tiny. Seriously, you could swallow it without a glass of water.

The game boxes are just darling; probably about half the size of a DS game box.

Default software:

The Vita ditches the Cross Media Bar of the PSP and PS3 for a couple of pages of dinky bubbles. It’s a little similar to the Wii’s system of adding blocks (‘channels’) to the home menu. The menu is very customisable: you can rearrange the bubbles (within a set grid) and add and insert pages. I immediately shoved all the bubbles I don’t think I’ll use often down to an extra page on the bottom, and kept the top page for games and page 2 for apps I like. You can also change the background of each page. I haven’t uploaded any pictures to use as wallpapers yet, so I’ve used some of the default animated wave ones, going for a nice rich pink-red one at the top gradienting down to a pale yellow on the last page.

The first thing the Vita tries to get you to do after entering the time, date, your DOB, and doing a system update, is to play with the Welcome Pack. This introduces you to the device’s functions and is somewhere between toy and tech demo. It even has trophies for beating the best times etc. You can use the tilt control to make a wee stickperson on a skateboard dodge incoming marbles, tap some numbered bubbles in the correct sequence to make them disappear (showcasing the touchscreen’s ability to register two touches simultaneously by making you tap two equally-ranked bubbles at the same time), and take a photo of something and have the Vita make it into a little slidey-panel puzzle (boring – remember how disappointed Child You was when receiving a slidey-panel puzzle in a Christmas cracker). The most odd of these gamelets is Faces, in which you take a photo of something that looks like a face, and then the Vita animates it, making it blink and talk. The results are invariably terrifying. I took a photo of a little painting of a barn owl I have on my desk, and the Vita animated its beak in a manner disturbingly reminiscent of the Navigators in Dune.

Near is a slightly sinister application that attempts to gamify your movement in the real world, and lets you see who nearby is playing what. You can set some locations as private (in which you’ll appear to other Vita users as an anonymous player instead of by your PSN name), so in the end I chose to let it show my location to other players, except for in a nice fat radius around my home town. You can also set individual games and apps to private.

The Vita also comes with a group messaging function for your PSN contacts, Google Maps (a little slow, but usable), and Party: essentially group chat using the mic. The web browser is much the same as the PS3’s. Nintendo had the right idea: they outsourced the DS browser to Opera. I’d love to see a version of Chrome or something for the Vita and PS3.

Test of anything with a browser: can it play Echo Bazaar? Yes, it can; it’s just rather clunky.

The onscreen keyboard is dire. I shouldn’t have to toggle another set of keys just to type an apostrophe or a number. There’s also no caps lock, meaning that to type anything in caps I have to keep tapping this button. That said, having it as a touchscreen makes it a damn sight easier to use than the Sixaxis-controlled PS3 keyboard (I do have a USB keyboard plugged into my PS3, but it’s usually under a pile of games and I can’t be bothered to excavate it).

You can take screenshots by pressing the Home and Start buttons simultaneously. I’ve yet to try this out because I’ve got only WipEout 2048 at the moment, and it sports a very fine screenshot mode of its own.

Other software:

Twitter app is ace. It even has a button for old-school RTs (used for writing MTs, as I don’t think there’s any way to copy and paste text). You’ll probably need it if you want to do any tweeting at all via your Vita; the actual Twitter website runs appallingly in the Vita browser, and often makes Javascript crash. The app only supports one account, though, unless I’m missing something.

The Flickr app is okay, pretty much what you’d expect. You can also upload photos you’ve taken with the Vita directly to Flickr, which I can’t see myself doing, as I see Flickr as a site for nice processed photos, not a place to dump your snaps.

Predictably, there’s a Facebook app. Not used it myself, but it’s there.

AR

The Vita comes with 6 AR cards, with basic QR code-like shapes on them, simple enough that if you lost the cards you could probably draw some new ones. Placing them on a table and pointing the Vita’s rear camera at them allows you to play some cute but gimmicky little games. You get 3 after redeeming a code in the PSN store (you can just download them free from there anyway, but the code conveniently loads them all into your download queue simultaneously): Table Football, Fireworks and Cliff Diving.

Fireworks is a piece of piss. You put an AR card down and it’s a house. The garden has a machine that ejects fireworks, and you can tap the fireworks to detonate them – do it at the apex of their ascent for more points. And that’s it. You can make it ‘harder’ by putting down 3 cards, each one generating a different building. Even with 3x the fireworks it’s still pretty much impossible to fail, so you can just sit there tapping fireworks until you get bored. Hardly a game at all; pretty much just a tech demo, and not a very exciting one at that.

Cliff Diving is quite funny: put down a card and a pool and diving board erupt from your table, and you then press buttons to make a little man do a dive. If you get it wrong the poor wee man crashes and you lose some of your prize money to his hospital bills. You can also use two cards at different elevations (one on a table, one atop a mug or something) and have the higher one be a diving board and the lower be a pool. It’s actually pretty hard to get both cards in frame in a manner that satisfies the Vita, and the game itself has limited appeal.

I didn’t get to play Table Football because it needs all 6 cards (3 for the pitch, 2 for the stands and 1 for the scoreboard) and I don’t have that much free space at my desk. I could go and try it on the dining table or something, but I can probably imagine what it’ll be like. I expect you’d need to play this one on a surface you can easily approach from all angles.

The AR seems to have the same problem the EyeToy had: it’s cute, it’s quite fun, but once you’ve been impressed by the tech it doesn’t have much to keep you visiting it, and you also need lots of room to play, and chances are you don’t have nice big open rooms like the people in the adverts. At the moment I can’t think of any use of the AR that would actually enhance a game rather than just look cool.

Demos I tried:

Lumines: nice, but it’s just Lumines. It’s still the exact same game you played on the PSP, just with different songs, backgrounds etc. There are a couple of new types of block, but can you really be arsed?

Dungeon Hunter: Alliance: crap. Game mechanics seemed okay, if generic (it’s an action-ish RPG), but the atrocious slowdown makes it unplayable.

I also downloaded the PSP game Daxter (an interquel between the first and second Jak & Daxter games) for £7, as it was one of my favourite titles on that machine (plug: I reviewed it for Gamestyle in 2006 here). It’s a little ugly, as the PSP game’s lower res is stretched to fill the Vita screen. I’d like to see a way of shrinking it to the original resolution, like you can do when playing PSone or PS2 games on the PS3. Speaking of PSone games, there doesn’t yet seem to be a way of downloading them to the Vita; I’ve bought a few for my PS3 and I’d quite like to put some of them on my new handheld. Considering you could play them on PSP, I’m assuming this is functionality that’ll be added to the Vita later.

Update: since this post was first written, PSone games downloaded from the PSN Store are playable on the Vita.