Hardware Review: PlayStation Vita Console

PS Vita - Front

Background

Sony wasn’t a company know for gaming machines for the majority of it’s lifespan. Sure they released an MSX back in the 1980’s, in association with, yes of all companies, Microsoft. The original PSX, later to be known as the PlayStation, was, in fact, a CD-ROM add-on for the Super Nintendo. Nintendo’s decision to pull out of that arrangement proved to be somewhat of an error.  So, yes you read it right, Sony worked with both Microsoft and Nintendo before they produced their first actual games console… How weird is that? Weirder still I that they worked with Commodore to sort out the CD-ROM logic for the Commodore Amiga CD32, learning lessons for the final original PlayStation in the process.

The development of the PSX into what we now know as the original PlayStation or PS One, was done pretty much in total secrecy while Sony set about setting up Sony Computer Entertainment, which in this country included the purchases of Millennium (now Studio Cambridge) and Psygnosis (Studio Liverpool) among others. The PlayStation hit the UK in September 1995 and thanks to Psygnosis’ Wipeout, and its other titles, managed to explode out into the mainstream much to everyone’s surprise at the time. The fact was they not only impacted on Sega and Nintendo’s business, but created a whole new market for themselves by targeting customers who traditionally wouldn’t have gone near a video game.

The PlayStation was a huge success… Dwarfed by the success of the PlayStation 2, which only just ceased production in the last few weeks (at the time of writing), and probably won’t be caught as the biggest selling home video game console format of all time, as a decline in console gaming seems all but certain.

Rumours of a portable PlayStation had been around for a with even very bizarre concept sketches of a PS One on a belt clip connected to a controller/screen combo in the players hands making the outside world wonder what the bloody hell Sony were up to. Surely they couldn’t muscle in on the Gameboy’s dominance? Thing is the GameBoy’s days were numbered – it’s just that the Nintendo DS took that audience.

The PlayStation Portable arrived in the UK in September 2005 (ironically the original time-frame for the PS3 launch had the machine not been delayed.) At the time it was the biggest console launch of all time with the PSP doubling the sales figures for the Nintendo DS launch the previous March. The PSP was significantly more powerful than the DS and Sony intended to do the same to the handheld sector as it had with home consoles with the original PlayStation. The customers, however had other ideas, and frankly Sony’s marketing prowess had fallen away since the launch of the original console, as had their insistance to develop a large number of games for their consoles in-house. Sony Computer Entertainment were also under serious attack that Christmas as Microsoft hadn’t missed their launch window for their second Xbox format and beat the PS3 to market, with Sony struggling so much to get the machine out that Nintendo even managed to get the Wii out in the UK before Sony’s format made an appearance at it’s much derided £425 price point, even though an Xbox 360 + wireless adapter + external HD-DVD drive to bring the specs roughly in line cost a damn sight more.

The PSP was supposed to be the 21st Century Walkman offering not only gaming, but was supposed to be your portable video player (with films and TV shows available on the formats Universal Media Disc), MP3 player and internet device, thanks to it’s built in Wi-Fi and admittedly delayed web browser. The problem was that managing the videos and music you put on the memory cards was nowhere as intuitive as Apple’s iPod, which had already got a major foothold by this point. The unique UMD discs which made a huge amount of sense in 2004-5 due to the cost of cartridge based media, very quickly became a problem as the cost of flash chips and the like plummeted as digital photography drove SD cards into every home.

The PSP was by no means a failure, however, and for some time near the end of it’s life spent over a year being the biggest selling game console, be it home or portable, in it’s home territory of Japan. It’s just that next to the Nintendo DS, which obliterated the Gameboy’s sales figures, the PSP business looked less than stellar.

PS Vita Logo

The Road To Vita

Sony learned the lessons it could, well they hoped anyway as suggested in many communications out to the press. PSP2 had to come along as the PSP had actually done well in it’s 3 main forms, and the experiment monikered PSP Go! Had also taught Sony that customers were anything but ready for a download only console. The PSP2 rumours flourished, especially when the developers of the new Mortal Kombat (9) announced they were working on the machine and it would be pretty powerful. Makes you wonder how the hell Mortal Kombat wasn’t a launch title for the Vita!

PSP2 became NGP – Next Gen Portable when it was officially announced on January 27th 2011 during the infamous PlayStation Meeting, which had only been used in the past to announce new hardware. As with the PSP being closer to the PS2’s capabilities than the PS One’s, the NGP capabilities were suggested to be rather close to the PS3 (and, in fact , probably would have been even closer if it wasn’t for battery life issues and the potential to “set fire to your pants”, to paraphrase an SCEA rep.)

Within 6 months the NGP was the PlayStation Vita and Sony had announced that the machine would support “Vita cards” for retail game sales, replacing the now all-but-useless UMD format and memory card storage similar to that in the PSP (which used memory stick duos) but featuring much faster flash memory.

The six axis control system from the PS3 controller was announced to be appearing in the console along with two cameras, facial detection, head detection and tracking capabilities. Two analogue sticks were confirmed along with a touch screen, with one spec sheet mentioning a touch panel, though everyone pretty much ignored that thinking it was referring to the screen (whoops!). Software wise it was to include augmented reality gaming – naturally developed from the EyeToy and PSP camera games such as Invizimals and social connectivity (Facebook, Twitter etc.). New software services called Near and Party would allow and facilitate close-by networking functions and cross-game chat respectively – which the PS3 is still waiting for.

The links that the Vita has with Britain were unveiled for the first time too. The main CPU is a quad core ARM Cortex A9 MPCore from the British CPU technology developers that grew out of Acorn in Cambridge. The graphics processor is a PowerVR SGX543MP4+ quad core affair from the British tech company, Imagination Technologies of Kings Langley. It appears that SCE London Studio (EyeToy, Home, EyePet), SCE Studio Cambridge (Play TV, MediEvil) and importantly, SCE Studio Liverpool (Wipeout), had a massive input into the development of the hardware and the closer tied software. In fact it appears that if it wasn’t for input from Wipeout development team that second analogue stick wouldn’t have been on the machine, or might have been nubs or similar rather than sticks.

The first time I saw a Vita in the flesh was at an event in September 2011, although it was a non-functional prototype. However, the build quality of the device and design impressed everyone in the room, even if I had to correct the Sony reps doing the presentation about the Vita on more than one point…

I got my mits on a working early UK 3G unit with a 16Gb memory card and a whole plethora of downloads several weeks before the launch, even before the press got their mits on them, to aid me in getting pre-orders at my store. Suddenly that rear touch pad that had all but been ignored made a whole lot of sense when you booted up Little Deviants, and those I demo’ed the machine to might as well have been drooling over the obvious talents of the machine.

Sony’s pre-order campaign in the UK was nice enough – earphones and downloadable content including the rather fantastic Simon says variant, Frobisher Says! for the machine on launch day, as well as a choice of one of SCEE’s downloadable launch titles (that will be Super Stardust Delta thank you very much!)

PS Vita - Retail Box

Arrival

The launch day came around on 22nd February 2012 and wasn’t quite the launch success of the PSP – but with a price starting at £230 for the Wi-Fi version and £280 for the 3G/Wi-Fi one in the middle of a period of unparalleled austerity in the UK, nothing more could probably be expected.

Looking at the specifications of the machine, it is rather clear that this is far more powerful than any hand held console released, though the screen res dropped along with half the video RAM compared with the target hardware spec, to try and restrict the price ballooning too much. Sony really need to stop announcing specs and then having to cut them back though, as they did it with the PS3 too, with it originally specced with two (!) HDMI ports for instance.

The Hardware

PS Vita Wi-Fi Specifications:

  • CPUARM® Cortex™- A9 core (4 core) – 512Mb system RAM
  • GPU – SGX543MP4+ (4 core) – 128Mb video RAM
  • Multi-touch Capacitive Screen – 5 inches (16:9), 960 x 544, Approx. 16 million colours, OLED
  • Multi-touch Capacitive Rear Pad
  • Front & Rear 0.3MP cameras
  • Built-in stereo speakers
  • Built-in microphone
  • Six-axis motion sensing system (three-axis gyroscope, three-axis accelerometer)
  • Three-axis electronic compass
  • Wi-Fi location service support
  • IEEE 802.11b/g/n (n = 1×1)(Wi-Fi)(Infrastructure mode/Ad-hoc mode)
  • Bluetooth® 2.1+EDR (A2DP/AVRCP/HSP)

The 3G version also cunningly includes 3G functionality and a SIM module slot for, well, a mobile SIM but as part of that tech it also includes GPS positioning, making Google Maps a bit more useful.

I tell you one thing, taking this out of the box for the first time, even when you have had a prototype in your hand months earlier, is a revelation. Now just to clarify, prior to getting the Vita, I owned an original 1003 PSP and a 2003 and one of my sons has a 3003. I have also been very familiar with the N1000 (PSP Go!) and the E1000 (Street PSP), and I owned a DSi XL, 3DS and every Gameboy ever released. From a purely physical form and presence point of view, the PlayStation Vita absolutely annihilates everything that has come before it. The Nintendo’s, Wonderswan, Neo Geo Pockets and even the Game Gear and Lynx look and feel like toys. When the PSP arrived it seemed different, but even the executive toy styling of the PSP Go pales in quality and feel compared with this unit.

Bearing in mind that mine is the ever so slightly heavier 3G version of the Vita, simply picking the machine up, the larger screen makes it significantly bigger than the PSP, and for an adult that’s a massive plus. The machine feels right in your hands and even with my freakishly tiny-for-a-man hands (which is weird as I have big feet, but I digress) reaching all the buttons you need to is no stretch. The mild curve to the back feels natural and looking around the machine as a whole you get the rather upmarket feel of the machine straight away. This is NOT a toy. It feels about as unplasticky as a plastic thing can get.

The edge is trimmed with a gunmetal silver finish, unbroken at the left and right edge. Along the lower edge is the serial number sticker, serial bar code sticker, headset/headphone socket and the multi-connector with which you can either charge the machine or plug it into a USB port on a PC or PS3. Also on the bottom a little further back from the silver trim is the tiny cover for the ridiculously small proprietary memory card.

Along the top of the machine the silver trim recedes form the rear a little in allowance of the should buttons, but is broken up with a panel in the same gunmetal silver trim. This panel includes the silver spun metal effect buttons for power & sleep (to the left), plus the increase and decrease sound volume buttons (to the right). Hold the volume buttons down  together and you can mute the out put. Between the buttons are two cover panels, the left one is marked with the “PSVITA” logo and hides the Vita Card slot for physical games and the other unmarked one covers a mysterious connector which has screw thread holes either side. 4G add-on? Better camera add-on? Video out add-on (one can hope!) Who knows… because Sony haven’t even mentioned the port thus far.

As you can see from any pictures of the Vita it has the same buttons as the PS3 controller (bar the second set of shoulder buttons), albeit arranged slightly differently and smaller, with the PS button now glowing happily at you. The analogue sticks are in fact actual sticks, making them far easier to use than that solitary nub on the PSP. However unlike the PS3 the sticks do not have buttons underneath… and for heaven’s sake don’t press down on them in case you go through the circuit board inside. The buttons all feel firm and responsive, and the front camera site at around 10-11 o’clock up and to the left of the triangle-circle-cross-square button cluster.

The screen is a gorgeous organic light emitting diode (OLED) affair, so its brighter than any screen on the PSP or DS, even the 3DS and yet uses less power. The 16:9 wide screen panel is also a darn sight bigger than the screens on the PSP or XL DS machines. The resolution is lower than originally intended as at one point it was supposed to be at least 720p (1080 X 720 pixels) but is still at a very effective 960 X 544, but with the drop in video RAM from the originally intended 256Mb to 128Mb this is to be expected. But at least the machine isn’t £400 this way.

PS Vita - Rear

On the back of the machine is the misunderstood rear touch panel which is smaller than the screen on the front but still bigger than a PSP screen. There are two finger friendly indentations in the back either side of the touch panel, while the Sony model information sticker appears below the touch panel. As far as the build quality of the unit is concerned it’s up there with product such as the iPhone/iPad and other higher end tablets, making it predecessor look rather cheap in finish. In fact it’s very easy to see it as a 5 inch tablet with gaming controls built in.

In the box you get a quick start guide, the USB cable with converter to plus it into a power socked to charge the machine up, and a set of augmented reality cards (which were not ready when I got my machine, though this has been sorted!) If you get the 3G version a Vodafone SIM should also be in residence (and for registering with Vodafone and purchasing your first top up you should get a download code for Wipeout 2048, until the offer runs out anyway.)

Cards In

So in goes your SIM if appropriate and a memory card. However this is where things go a bit wrong. The tiny little memory cards come in 4Gb, 8Gb, 16Gb and since launch a 32Gb has been released, fortunately. The pricing however is steep at £18, £28, £45 and £80. This is a massive black mark considering that a micro SD of 32Gb starts at around £20 for a class 10, and thus should be faster than the Vita memory cards, which is one of the reasons for the price according to SCE along with security (which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense either.)

PS Vita - 16Gb Memory Card

So with you paying four times as much money for the same storage space as a micro SD that’s faster than the Vita memory card equivalent, it makes buying download games more expensive than the physical versions, where they exist. So there’s the first Vita owning tip – If it’s at all possible and viable… buy the games on Vita Card physical release rather than the downloads. However thanks to PS Plus and all the download only games… budget £80 for a single 32Gb card… but at least you won’t need 3 of them.

System Software

The review machine is at system software 2.02 but started off as a virgin 1.00, and there have been changes. The past versions are now irrelevant as without the latest version, you can’t use the PSN, PlayStation Store, SEN, Near etc. etc., making the machine somewhat pointless.

The system software is basically the operating system (OS) for the device and its GUI (graphical user interface). The underlying OS is a UNIX-like core based on FreeBSD. Originally the console was to have an Android OS core, which was changed for unknown reasons after the initial NGP reveal. However it is clear that the Vita OS was designed to be rather Android-like which is rather blindingly obvious the moment you think about how the menus are working if you have ever had a good play with an Android phone or tablet. Of course when you install the PlayStation Mobile runtime environment, those Android-like parts of the Vita OS come in handy as it basically has to emulate the mobile OS to run PlayStation Mobile games.

PS Vita - Front Touch Screen

The menu system is very touch screen friendly (though you can now navigate with the buttons too now), and completely configurable. Mine is currently a disorganised mess due to the fact I thought the machine was off when I took the memory card out for the photos only to find it was in standby and the database rebuilt itself. As a result my app and game icons are all over the shop!.

There’s another top Vita owning tip – Don’t remove your memory card unless you are completely and utterly sure the machine is off. You could corrupt everything on there, and that, you do not want, so not “hot swapping” memory cards, capiche? (It IS safe to swap memory cards once the Vita is switched off and you can use an unlimited number of these to boost storage capacity – Ed)

The good news is that the menu screens are totally customisable. You can move around the icons to heart’s content and change the backgrounds on a whim, even the welcome screen when you first boot or wake the machine up, which you then swipe down to access the menu proper. The various apps and games are presented across the swipe up and down menu screens as circular icons, as you have probably seen in many a photo of the Vita. Also there is a bubble right in the top right of the screen to inform you of your notifications, such as Near finding game goods (unlocks), messages and the like.

Using the Wi-Fi in the machine is pretty straight forward, and the 3G is also easy to use (though is of NO use for any form of online gameplay, I warn you.) Actually let me reword that – the 3G is very easy to use once it’s all up and running. I had problems left right and centre with Vodafone, even with the specific top up system in the Vita. However, if I popped my Virgin Mobile SIM in from my phone and used my 50p/25Mb a day option it worked seamlessly. To be honest I get the feeling the Vita should have been a 4G device really, and suspect a 4G version won’t be too far away, and I just hope one of the options for that mysterious connector on the top is a 4G connectivity module.

Included Apps

As standard the Vita has more than one page full of pre-installed applications, the most vital of which is probably the settings app, for obvious reasons. If you have a 3G machine you will also get a (mobile) network operator app for interactions with Vodafone or whoever you are with. Probably the most important other app is the PlayStation Store, as with the exception of the purchase of physical Vita format games, almost all your content for your system is liable to come via Sony’s retailing site.

Other parts of the Sony Entertainment Network (PlayStation Network) interact with the Vita via a few other apps. The Trophies app facilitates the machines trophy system as well as synchronising it with the server – and you can also keep an eye on you PS3 trophies through it as well. The friends app is rather important to as it allows you to manage your friends list, who you can also contact through the Group Messaging app, while the Party app allows you to chat with users on other Vita machines, regardless of what games or app any of you are using (in the most part) – something seriously lacking on the PS3.

Of course the machine comes with a web browser, which has improved with system updates since the initial launch, but it was not that long ago that the email app appeared for the first time. I mean, really Sony? You didn’t think an email app was essential? Well at least it is there now and is configurable as it needs to be.

The PSPs Remote Play application has come with the Vita as well allowing you to pair your machine up with your PS3. Connecting either by direct wireless or over the internet, the Vita can wake up the PS3 remotely and you essentially control the PS3 and have it’s video output streamed to the Vita screen. This allows you to browse through your files, play a PS One game be it one in the PS3s drive or one downloaded from the PlayStation Store, play music, videos and photos as long as they are not protected and even allows the play of certain PS3 titles that won’t break with the unavoidable lag. However Remote Play is overly limited, and virtually no PS3 titles support the feature – not even PlayStation Store supports it, which is a massive own goal. One good piece of news, however, is that the first title to support the use of the PS Vita as a controller, Little Big Planet 2, has the appropriate DLC available from the PlayStation Store as we speak. Clearly, the more titles on the PS3 (and PS4?) that support the Vita as a controller, the better.

Near is a strange little puppy of an app. Near basically uses the PSN to locate and interact with either people who are physically nearby (up to a few miles) or those on your friends list. The locals ratings of games and what they are playing is available to you with the idea being you could challenge them to a game or two. Charts of what people think of games and how often they play are available, and for games that support it you can even get little unlocks for games (not a day goes by where a Near interaction doesn’t unlock a Super Stardust Delta music track for me, for instance.)

Google Maps makes an appearance (it appears to be a direct port from Android) and uses network location or GPS, while the browser is decent enough even if the flash support is outdated. I must admit to not having started to use the new email app that has recently been added via a machine update, though I suspect it’s the usual android-style affair for looking at your email from your normal remote server.

Content Manager essentially enslaves a PC (with the Content Manager software installed) or PS3 to allow you to upload and download files, be they video, picture or music in the right formats, but also allows you to back up app, games and save files, either just in case, or because you are running out of memory card space. You can then reinstate them on your system whenever you like. It’s a bit weird at first that the program takes control of the PC or PS3 though, as you would expect it to be the other way around, but you get used to it. Originally it could only be used with the Vita’s USB cable, but PCs can now be connected to via Wi-Fi.

Of course putting photos and other content on the machine wouldn’t be much use without apps to deal with them, and cunningly these are named Photos, Music and Videos! However these programs are quite some way from being the perfect set of media handlers, with some obvious flaws.

The video playback app is decent enough, and has improved since the machines launch. The list of supported formats is rather restricted, however,  with it only supporting  file that are either MPEG-4 simple profile level six up to 1280 x 720 pixels with AAC sound or H.264/MPEG-4 AVC profile level 4 up to 1080p, again with AAC sound, necessitating the installation of a video converter to your computer. Playback is more than acceptable and the footage looks as good as it could be, and you can set it up to continuously play through all the files on your system and skip using the shoulder buttons (but annoyingly not fast forward/fast rewind). One slight annoyance is that you can’t zoom the video, so, for instance, a letter-boxed video file cannot be forced to fir the screen.

The music app was incredibly disappointing at launch as it didn’t even support play lists, but at least it can now import these from the PS3. However the inability for the machine to create a play list is laughable and utterly beyond being forgivable. Ok fine you have automatically created “frequently played”, “recently played” and “recently added” lists and can organise by artist, album, song or genre, as well as shuffle play all MP3s… but REALLY? Seriously Sony – look at an iPod and learn – anything an iPod can do, especially the iPod touch, the Vita should have been doing at launch (hell the PSP should have been doing it 7 years ago…) The touch screen interface is reasonable enough with an equaliser available along with the repeat and shuffle options. The equaliser only has a few settings which is okay but some form of graphic equaliser might have been nice to “shape” the sound as you wanted it. However another unforgivable omission is that the should buttons don’t act as skip/fast forward etc. The PSP music app was better!  Fortunately the app runs in the background happily and appropriate other apps can pause the music while they take over the sound output. The very basic pause/play and skip touch screen buttons are available when you minimise the music app with the PS button. If you hold down the PS for a second regardless of what you are doing, you get access to the basic audio controls as well as a music volume slider and screen brightness slider, plus a tick box to disable the microphone and whether or not to allow the Party app to take priority over the audio.

The photo app is also reasonably basic but does offer slideshow options, and you can use the front and back cameras to take photos and videos. Bizarrely any video footage taken has to be played from the photo app and not the video one though! At least JPEG, TFF, GIF and PNGs are supported. Any images on the system can be accessed using the categories All, By month, Folders, Camera Images and Screen shot, which are all reasonably self explanatory. Screen shots can be taken by the underlying Vita system software from within any of its apps or games by simultaneously pressing the PS, Start and Select buttons. However some game developers need to remember this when setting up their game controls, as grabbing screen shots sometime is a little tricky! Luckily the screen shots menu files the shots by which game or app they were taken from, which is rather useful. When viewing images, unless you are using the slideshow functionality, you have to swipe across to change image, and again like the music app the shoulder buttons do nothing. That’s just daft.

The final pre-installed app is the Welcome Park. Presented as a series of mini-game like tutorials the welcome park essentially teaches you how to use the features of the Vita including the touch screen, motion controls and microphone, gaining trophies on your way. You can even tap the little man in the corner to replay the video that introduced the Vita to you when you first booted it up.

Free Apps

On top of the pre-installed apps, you can choose to download various other applications and other software from the PlayStation Store.

YouTube is probably going to get more use than most of the others, as this is an internet connected entertainment device, and wasn’t available at launch, unfortunately. The good news is that it is way better than trying to use YouTube XL on the PS3! Once it knows your sign in details for YouTube, upon launch it presents you with your subscriptions. You have icons for YouTube’s recommendations for you,  search, you viewing history, and crucially your favourites and watch later lists under your play lists.

Playback, subject to your internet connection, is smooth and again like the video app makes the footage look as good as it can be. Initially the app didn’t support the shoulder buttons nor allow you to add videos to your play lists, favourites or watch later lists. This is now all in place and the app makes the Video app look a bit daft as, as well as supporting continuous playback, and the shoulder buttons for skipping back and forth between videos, you can even zoom in on the videos. There is an option to share by email or Twitter, so it’s difficult to knock it – a must have download!

An array of social apps are also available including a limited Skype app that doesn’t support text chat, which kinda makes it a bit pointless for me. The Facebook app is pretty much a straight clone of the usual android affairs and does it’s job, including supporting Facebook messaging. LiveTweet is a bit strange and the layout is not in line with most Vita apps, but again it does the job, and reasonably well. Flickr allows you to browse the site, but I am afraid as a non-Flickr user I am not really seeing the best of it, I suspect – so a download and trier I feel. Finally there is FourSquare, which like the check-in function of Facebook appears to be a good way to inform people I am not at home so they can burgle my house. Errr. No.

However there are some blindingly obvious omissions to the apps available for the machine. One app I particularly enjoyed on the PSP was the electronic comic reader, which allowed music playback while you read your comic, purchased from the PlayStation Store. Where is the Vita version? I purchased quite a few IDW comics that way, and miss that functionality. (The comic store has now been removed from PlayStation Network and are no longer available for any system – Ed)

One thing I would like to do is read documents on the machine. Okay, understandably a Word reader might be a bit of a push, but a reader based on OpenOffice might have been nice. However what is just ridiculous is the lack of an e-reader or even a PDF reader! I mean COME ON, why on Earth can’t we read PDFs on this machine… It’s more than capable, and I am sure Amazon wouldn’t pass up the chance to put a kindle app on the thing either.

One question I would as of SCE though – we have a machine capable of taking photos and video footage. It can also import higher resolution images and videos – is it capable of editing those bits of media? I suspect it is even if only at the resolutions of the camera, so perhaps photo editing and video editing programs should be made available, even at a small cost, to allow that on the go.

AR Games

There’s also three free games to download from the PlayStation Store to use with your AR cards that came from your machine box. These are Cliff Diving, Fireworks and Table Football and are all pretty obvious what they are. Using the AR cards the action is based in the area which you viewing through the Vita’s rear camera. They use either the touch screen, or buttons and are fun little diversions, if a bit insubstantial. But then again… they’re free! Reviews of all three will no doubt make an appearance on the site in due course.

Discovery Apps & Games

Further to the limited fun to be had with Welcome Park, Sony have also made a series of other “discovery app” games available, all for free. The first one made available to those who pre-ordered their machine was Frobisher Says! A kind of updated Simon Says, that also gets you used to the Vita machine, again it’s worth a play, and there is a full review elsewhere on the site.

Paint Park is a very basic little paint program where you can paint alone or with others in a shared room, but a play with this makes me want Deluxe Paint back! Treasure Park on the other hand is a cross between a game of Battleships and Long John Silver’s treasure map…

Using the 3G Vita’s GPS, t@g basically allows you to virtually tag your surroundings with spray paint, for other t@g users to find, while Ecolibrium allows you to create a new Ecosystem on a new planet from scratch.

Travel Bug encourages you to create a little insect character you then send off on his merry travels running into other users and giving them a message from you. The newest addition is Imaginstruments, a fun little music making tool, but kinda makes me want ProTracker on the system!

A nice array of free downloads to get you started with the machine once you have it online. In fact you can get a little preview in the official trailer at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0W7HjbY7ocA

Pre-Vita Compatibility

Sony have made a large number of games for the Vita’s predecessor available as downloads from the PlayStation Store, all of which can be used on the Vita. This is a massive library well into three figures of titles, many of which were overlooked on the PSP, including some of the more innovative titles such as Invizimals and classics such as Final Fantasy I – IV. I must admit to sneaking in a little Split Second from time to time! It is worth noting that of the titles I have tried out, I have yet to have a single issue, but it may be worth checking Vita Player reviews as time goes on.

Pinball Fantasies PSP Mini 02

There is also a plethora of “minis” (formerly known as PSP minis) to enjoy that not only work on the PSP but also the PS3 (in fact only Tetris from EA isn’t functional on PS3 and Vita, as far as I know, as it has been locked due to rights issues). (At present, no Electronic Arts titles have been made available from their back catalogue on any format for the PS Vita – Ed) Minis are literally that, small titles that don’t take up more than a couple of hundred megabytes at the most and my favourites include the Pinball Dreams and Pinball Fantasies ports from the Amiga (and the graphics are more AGA than original Amiga) and A Space Shooter for 2 Bucks which is a laugh. There are absolutely loads of them to check out with prices usually around £2-4.

PS One Games

Then there are the granddads of the current game generation. A large number of PS One games are available to download from the PlayStation Store that can be used on the PS3, PSP, and now the system software is capable, on the Vita too.

The good news is that Sony are even bringing PS One titles that never got a disc release in the UK and Europe to the European PlayStation Store (though there are still glaring titles missing that ARE on the Japanese and American PlayStation Stores such as R-Types!). Titles I have in my Vita include the original Wipeout, MediEvil, and Metal Gear Solid. I would dearly like to see Wipeout 2097 re-instated to the store, as it is no longer available due to incompatibilities, and Wipeout 3 Special Edition would be nice at some point! R-Types is a title that could just be copied across from the USA store frankly (do EU PlayStation Store titles really need to be language localed for 17 languages?) and there are a couple of hundred titles out of the thousands on the PS One that would be welcome.

PlayStation Mobile

Sony have started an exploration into the world of Android support with the PlayStation Mobile programme, and the accompanying PlayStation Mobile Runtime environment to allow such certified Android apps to operate on the PS Vita. These are essentially Android games and apps that have met certain quality controls and designed to work via the PlayStation app on “certified” Android devices, which shockingly include non-Sony products from the likes of HTC but doesn’t include all Sony Android devices. However it does mean some cheap products for the Vita. These products are not going to stretch the machines hardware by any means, however it’s working within restricted hardware profiles that produced many of the classics of yesteryear.

Alien Breed Playstation Mobile 002

This is borne out by the fact that I have Alien Breed, Lemmings and a game called Life Of Pixel (which I have reviewed here on Vita Player) on my machine. Though I must say that Team 17 have now announced that Alien Breed is coming as a full blown Vita release, and one had to wonder quite why Lemmings hasn’t followed Wipeout and Super Stardust out of the stable door and onto the Vita in full blown fashion, perhaps using the cameras just as the PS2 version used the EyeToy. Other products of note include Beats Trellis, a music making program and the rather bizarre Samurai Beatdown musical rhythm title.

Vita Games

Fortunately Sony learned the lessons from the PSP Go! As mentioned above, full blown Vita games can come on Vita cards, or as downloads only if they are small enough (in data space) to warrant that. In any case every full blown Vita title is available as a download, regardless of whether a boxed copy is sitting in your local video games store. However downloading something like Uncharted will eat nearly all of a 4Gb memory card, so I will refer you to the tip above; buy the physical version if you can.

The business model employed by Sony also means that titles are licensed and cleared for release on both Vita card and for download form the PlayStation Store in the same process, saving time and money for the developers and software houses. Sony also allows various game monetisation options to allow the softcos to earn their money. This is where the term “extra content” becomes a little loose. You can buy Vita games on card or download for say £40, and have extra minor cost optional downloadable content or free extra content, like, for instance, an extra costume in Little Big Planet.

Treasures Of Montezuma Blitz PS Vita 05

Sony are also quite happy for companies to release “free” games such as Treasures Of Montezuma Blitz which encourage the purchase of extra lives and in game currency using real money in the PlayStation Store (though it must be pointed out, that title is still playable fully without doing so as long as you are patient!).

Then you have stealth charging. Ridge Racer is a bit of a cad in this way as the “full” game as you purchase it, either as a download, or more annoyingly, as a Vita card consists of not much more than a demo and a bit – like a Grand Turismo Prologue. Okay, fair enough it was only £19.99 RRP at launch, but there is actually proper parts of the game to purchase separately such as tracks and cars, which might boost it up to what I would call a “full game”.

One thing that is really hurting the Vita is the total lack of any store (and I do mean ANY store) that has every title in stock. Even at launch there was not a single store that I could find that had every physical release on their shelves for people to purchase. This combined with the fact that there was half the number of launch games again on top of the physical releases available as download only, and the launch line up looked poor… even though it was the largest launch line up of games on any handheld (and home?) console ever.

This unfortunately has continued on ever since, so no prospective buyer gets a decent view of everything that’s available as a native Vita game. There is virtually no visibility of the downloadable PSP, PSP Mini, PlayStation Mobile and PS One games that work on the machine. But frankly that’s more down to the utterly ineffective marketing on Sony Computer Entertainment Europe’s part rather than anything else!

The worst part is that there is a range of damn fine games that are native to the Vita (before you even look at all the other games that will run on the machine), it’s just that they might as well be almost invisible, for all the notice that appears to have been taken by the general public.

Super Stardust Delta PSVita 08

My personal favourites are Mortal Kombat, Super Stardust Delta, Wipeout 2048, and Treasures Of Montezuma Blitz, as these get played most often. However there are many titles I can heartily recommend based on playing them, and knowing they aren’t quite my cup of tea, but seeing the quality in the titles, for the right person. Little Big Planet is a must have really, and I can simply say that showing people Little Deviants hooks them into the machine more often than not, and with the cost it can be found at now, really needs to be given a go at least. I do keep having my machine nicked by various people in the house so that Frobisher Says!, Sound Shapes and Escape Plan can be played. I am also partial to Smart As and Gravity Rush when I have a bit of time to play with. Mind you I am wondering quite how I do get anything done with this device running around.

Frobisher Says 01

The Full Monty?

The Vita is a full package, more so than any other hand held games console ever produced. In fact compared with almost any other handheld device even outside of gaming it has a near-unassailable feature set. However it isn’t the full package it should be, at least not yet. The missing apps and basic functionality you would expect from certain apps, the music player especially, stop it from usurping other devices you may carry with you. You make this capable of doing everything that an iPod or third party portable media player can do, and it would be able to replace them, and offer more. The inability to play all sorts of video files and not make playlists of music or videos and it’s a little bit of a white elephant.

The underlying OS is a missed opportunity of gargantuan proportions. Why is there not an Android sandbox on the machine, being as there is the PSM Runtime layer? This would allow any product to be downloaded from the Google Play Store while being “supervised” by the Vita’s specific software layer to stop it causing damage to other software, or opening up a back door for hackers. This would instantly give the Vita all the abilities of any Android tablet, but in a more pocketable form. Would I run my bank app, retailers apps, an alternative web browser etc. etc. on my Vita rather than my android phone? You’re damn right I would. That screen alone makes it a more pleasurable experience for YouTube and those other supported functions than an Android phone. This would also sell machines hand over fist and open up a horde of what would have been tablet purchasers into potential buyers of Vita games and other content from PlayStation Store.

It’s so close to being everything that it could be, and everything a true 21st century Walkman should be it hurts, but those little niggles just trip it up. The problem is, that trip up might be leading to a fatality.

The Future?

Does the future look bright? No. Seriously, with the way the Vita is being regarded by the industry, the market, and the general public, you might be forgiven for thinking it’s been discontinued already. The thing is, it’s all pretty much down to Sony. Between them pitching the machine badly to the public and, as usual (PS3’s Play TV anyone?), being distinctly unable to convey to the populace quite what this machine IS capable of added to their closed-minded over protection of all things intellectual property, they have stifled the poor thing since birth.

In store POS needs to shout about all the downloadable content and games. It doesn’t. How many people realise they can download films from the PlayStation Store for the machine before they buy one? Almost none. This needs sorting, let alone getting the PS One/PSP/Mini/PlayStation Mobile marketing sorted.

The machine must be allowed to run Android apps somehow, or at least Sony needs to encourage Android app makers to  convert the apps to PS Vita, though to get say the Lloyds, Barclays, Virgin Money, Natwest, Halifax, etc. apps all converted is plainly daft when a sandbox would allow all the current ones to run. Once that’s done… In store POS needs to shout about it.

The games releases are drying up fast, and this needs reversing. Sony’s original PlayStation plan of making sure there were plenty of in-house developers producing software is in reverse. A U-turn is needed before Vita, and PS4, for that matter end up being the last of their kind. Sony really needs to be supporting 3rd party softcos too in offering cross play and cross buy on their games. For instance, FIFA 14 PS3 (and PS4?) needs to have the Vita game on the Blu-ray too, ready to install to the Vita from the PS3, with on-line codes for both versions in the box, and as long as EA have enabled the ability for PS3/4 players to play against Vita players, only take one licensing fee. See, it’s really not rocket science. Do that with the next Call of Duty and so on… and you’re laughing. In store POS then needs to shout about that too. Did you know that PlayStation All Stars Battle Royale was Cross Buy as well as Cross Play? No? That’s because the dummy/display boxes in most retailers didn’t have it mentioned on the front cover as the real ones did. That’s a schoolboy error that Sony need to be ashamed of and sort out, especially when places like Asda had the PS3 version at £28 and the Vita version (one of 4 games they had for the format, I’ll add) at £35. Also… a download code? When there is gigabytes of unused space on the Blu-ray? Really?

There is also another way Sony could allow this machine to fly and bring in a lot of attention and affection. Open it up. Get a software development kit out there that Bedroom coders can download and use with the Vita linked to their PC using the USB cable. Use a supervisor mode or something, but allow them some space to create, be they games or apps. Encourage them to submit them back to Sony Computer Entertainment for release at a decent price on the PlayStation Store, with a cut being taken by SCE to fund the quality programme for such submissions and the development cost of the SDK. I want to see the next generation of Deluxe Paint, ProTracker, Worms, and so on coming to the public, in a way we haven’t seen since the fall of the home computers. This machine as the most powerful handheld ever released offers the potential to shatter perceptions. Do it and make both Apple and Nintendo look a little silly, while offering the broadest range of content ever seen on such a machine.

Conclusion

The PlayStation Vita, when you look at the machine as a whole, is easily the best piece of hardware you can play games on in the palm of your hand. If the market had been fair, and the Vita had gained the sales and exposure it deserved I would have been able to unreservedly recommend the purchase of the machine. However Sony’s choice of memory cards, the frankly pathetic omissions in basic non-gaming app functionality, and the various little niggles mentioned above tarnish the shine somewhat.

I love my Vita – I take it almost everywhere I go, as it is my media player as I refuse to get sucked into the Apple music monopoly let alone what else they are up to. However the issues outlined above mean that it’s nigh on impossible to recommend the machine as an iPod beater.

Then again why does it need to be? It’s a handheld game console, not a media player. Sorry guys, it’s a different era now. If people have a media player in their pocket, which you can download game apps for… like an iPod touch or an iPhone, why do they need a handheld game console? However sell a handheld game console that does your media playback better than what else is on the market, as well as everything an Android tablet can do… Well you get the picture. The thing is the Vita could do this with a software update.

As it is though, with having to budget a minimum of an extra £80 for a 32Gb memory card on top of the price of the machine (which we will be generous and call £200 for the Wi-Fi only version at the moment rather than the SRP), you really need to look hard and find games that you will REALLY want to play. Yes I love Mortal Kombat – but being as the main game is the same as the PS3 version, would you rather play it at home? Look at those titles or real variations on titles that are Vita only. Are there 4 or 5 that you think are worth buying? If so, and finding 4 or 5 games really shouldn’t be that hard especially with looking around Vita Player – get a Vita, as you’ll love it.

Everyone else… can I recommend you buying a machine in the hope that Sony sort the niggles and get enough software out there, from themselves and third parties, to make it worthwhile getting it? No, much as it pains me, I can’t, and I really REALLY want to.

Sort it out Sony, because you are killing this machine, no-one else. Get the media playback sorted. Get the Android compatibility put in. Let your customers use Class 10+ Micro SD cards for heaven’s sake. 4G’s the thing so non-Wi-Fi network gaming is feasible! Sort out your marketing (and not just for the Vita). Then watch it fly.

Sven Harvey

(The opinions in this feature are those of the writer and not necessarily that of Vita Player)

 

UPDATE

With today (6th December 2013) being the first birthday of Vita Player, it sort of makes sense to update this review today.

Since the original review was published on the 14th February this year, one major change has of course come to pass in that the Playstation 4 has now been released. Unless you have been under a rock for the last few months you will be aware that the PS Vita can be used in a second screen type scenario with games that support it, but perhaps more interestingly, remote play has been given a major kick up the backside for Sony’s new baby.

On the PS3, remote play, via the PSP and the PS Vita was an add-on that game developers had the option of supporting. Most didn’t, which was a shame. However with the PS4 the option is taken away with the remote play function being a standard on the machine that only the use of PS Move or another future accessory we know nothing about may break. You want to play Killzone Shadowfall, Knack or Call Of Duty Ghosts on the PS4 via the PS Vita? Well you can regardless of whether the software developer chose to let you or not.

PlayStation-4-box-cover-art

This, of course, is an extra string to the PS Vita’s bow (and that of the PS4, too) and makes the PS Vita a very appealing add-on product for those lucky enough to own a PS4 thus far, especially with some of the stellar deals being offered by retail in the UK on the PS Vita hardware – especially, currently, those involving a 16GB memory card and the download of Tearaway!

The software development side of things still seems a little sluggish, though things are certainly moving in the right direction and independent developers especially are coming to the PS4 and PS Vita in droves. Indies however are bringing digital games, and the release schedule for physical games on PS Vita cards looks decidedly thin – and decidedly Japanese with many titles coming from Japan in the next few months especially.

Sony have also repeated the mistakes made with the vita regarding it use as a media player, and then some, on the PS4 with it having basic requirements like the ability to play MP3s and connect over DLNA for streaming and proper YouTube support missing at launch, though these will be corrected via a firmware update in the not too distant future. One does have to ask though, where’s the firmware update to bring the PS Vita’s media capabilities in line with expectations of anyone wishing to put MP3s on the device, let alone the other “easy fixes” to concerns raised in the original review.

However all that said and reviewing how things have changed since February, and looking at my conclusion to the original review I have felt compelled to revisit and re-evaluate.

I always really wanted to recommend the PS Vita. The machine is brilliant at a hardware level, there is no denying that. Yes a few tweaks to the system apps especially in the media area are desperately needed. Memory card prices have come down quite drastically, though perhaps not quite as low as they need to be.

The crux of the matter is the games, however, and with so much having come out that almost everyone may well have missed due to them being digital only in most cases, even Sony Computer Entertainment’s total inability to get the point of the PS Vita across to it’s customers and illustrate the huge catalogue of games you can play on the machine cannot detract from the fact that if you can’t find ten games, or more to play on the PS Vita and love playing, then you need to open your mind to other genres of gaming away from the acute focus you must have.

PS Vita TV supports Dual Shock 3 controllers.
PS Vita TV supports Dual Shock 3 and Dual Shock 4 controllers.

Then there is the advent of PS Vita TV, and only an idiot can’t see that such a brilliant move can do nothing but result in more gaming content being developed and cause the amount of streaming content to balloon.

To put it simply;

If you don’t have a PS Vita, you can’t play a fantastic mobile iteration of Little Big Planet that can share the PS3’s LBP2 add-ons.

If you don’t have a PS Vita, you are missing Tearaway.

If you don’t have a Vita you are missing the sublime Wipeout 2048 – now with all the Wipeout HD and Wipeout HD Fury content available as a download (which is free if you own HD/Fury on the PS3!)

If you don’t have a PS Vita you may be able to remote play from your PS4, but lets face it without the dual analogue controllers it’s gonna be clunky.

If you don’t have a PS Vita you don’t have a machine that can play downloaded PSP, PS One, PS Mini, PS mobile and of course both physical and downloaded PS Vita gaming titles.

If you don’t have a PS Vita yet, and you are thinking about it, for heaven’s sake don’t wait for the slim one with the downgraded LCD screen as the OLED on the standard model is fantastically gorgeous.

Still don’t have a PS Vita yet and you are reading this, then bloody well stop and go and pick up one of those bargain offers on the hardware immediately!

 

Why don’t YOU have a PS Vita? I do, and it’s fantastic!

Sven Harvey

(The opinions in this feature are those of the writer and not necessarily that of Vita Player)

Vita Player Rating - 08

 

 

(One decent firmware update could take it to a 10!)

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