Grumpy Gurevitz: What is it like to live with a PS Vita?

The hardware is really well made. High quality plastic; it feels good, is the right weight and oozes quality.

The web has been full of Vita reviews. The vast majority arrived before the device’s release so lacked real world testing with full launch titles, PSP backwards compatibility testing and experience of network services. I’ve been living with my PS Vita since launch and it’s become my constant travelling companion, so I have more than adjusted to how portable the system appears to be along with how PS3 like the end experience is.

Firstly, let us discuss the UI. The Vita does not use the XMB bar as found on the PSP and PS3. Instead it uses a its own 100 percent touch, bespoke interface. There has been some talk of this OS becoming a platform in its own right on future Sony phones and tablets. If it does it will need some refinement, but all OS systems need refinement. As a 1.0 build (well technically 1.6 build) it’s pretty good. The apps sit as bubbles on the main screen (it would be nice to put these into folders, but you can’t). Once an app is selected it doesn’t load but takes you to its live screen. The live screen at first seems superfluous and over fussy however it is there to build a community and act as a social bulletin board around the software. For example, Uncharted’s live screen shows you and your friends’ trophies and achievements for that title. It also has a link to forums (it would be cool if the forum feed could be on the live screen itself) and to a trading system which works over the Internet. This is a great idea and could be developed further.

That home page in it's glory. Bubbles = apps!

Where the live screen does not make sense is when settings are also treated as an app. In fact some of the apps just shouldn’t be apps, and would make more sense as part of the core OS. Why have a live screen for settings? I’m yet to work it out. I think it simply has a live screen as that is how apps work and Sony decided to make all functionality work as an app. Near, a location based community app, friends and chatting are all separate apps. These should be integrated into one app or made a core part of the OS, always available and always on.

Moving between apps is very fast and smooth. App bubbles sit on panels and you can create multiple panels with which you can rearrange your apps to suit yourself. Also once a few apps are open, as well as sliding between them, you can enter a fast selection mode to quickly see what apps are open. Some apps can be open whilst games are playing, others cannot. There is no consistency to this – for example Camera (both static and filming) can be open whilst a game is paused whilst Videos (separate from the videos created in Camera for some strange reason) for showing movies results in the game closing. This lack of consistency makes the system, at times, feel a little disjointed.

Additionally it would be great if there was accessible on board memory so games could be paused and closed, which the PSPGo has. Another alternative would be to allow the user to partition their memory stick (something you must purchase to get any value of the system at all – I’m using a 32 gig card) and allocate ‘x’ amount of storage for game pauses.

Often used settings can be accessed by holding down the physical PS button at any time, but they lack obvious things such as the ability to switch off WiFi or 3G services.

'Near' is one of the Apps which uses the 3G and GPS to help provide location data. It tries to make the platform feel 'socia' and connected to the wider world.

I’ve read reviews commenting on poor battery life. I disagree. Whilst the battery life is only around four hours if you play it constantly, in reality it’s actually much longer. Most people will not play for four hours, unless perhaps if you are flying. In my real life tests I might play for five minutes here or there, with an evening play of around 45 minutes (whilst the wife watches TV!). What is remarkable is when you put the device into standby the battery hardly reduces at all. This is terrific and better than many smart phones. It also means the device is very portable if you don’t have a second charge cable (which is Sony made only). Whilst in full use the Vita does expend its charge in a few hours, the fact it can hold onto it when not in use really allows the system to deliver a day’s gaming on the move.

Controls are what makes the Vita exist. If we just wanted hi-def portable gaming, we could use an iPad or one of the countless other tablets out there. However try playing an FPS or third-person shooter on one of those touch only devices. It is clear they are wanting when it comes to controls. Physical is better and that is not going to change any time soon. Indeed, even in the world of tablets, Samsung is pushing it’s ‘Note’ brand where the tablet comes with a touch screen pen (like the DS) as fingers are just too imprecise and fat for many activities.

The Vita’s control sticks take a little getting used to. They look like small dual analogue sticks, so at first you try applying the same grip and pressure to them. This doesn’t allow them to perform well. They need a very light touch, and in fact the whole device is best not gripped but rested into your hands with a light feather touch applied to the control sticks. Once you have realised it’s not a dual shock it then becomes very natural to use and the closest any manufacturer has got to recreating a full game console experience in a portable device. It’s not a ‘make do’ solution but a real technical achievement.

The face buttons are a little smaller than on previous iterations, but precise and easy to access. Some reviewers have commented on hitting the X button by accident whilst accessing the right control stick. I have large hands and fingers and have not experienced this at all. Incidentally some have claimed that their hands block the speakers (which are to the sides of the control sticks) but again I have not experienced this. I suspect that if you grip the device like a PSP or Dual Shock, then you might have those issues, but relax with the device and its ergonomics work perfectly.

Games on the Vita look superb. Forget the new iPad with its high resolution screen. Resolution is only a small part of the recipe of good images. The Vita has an amazing amount of processing power, and the fact its resolution is not as high as true HD means the processor can work harder on textures and polygons. The screen of the Vita is a revelation and makes the images seem more HD than they are. OLED screens display pixels in a very different way to LCD and this blurs the resolution issue somewhat.

Whilst some might criticise Uncharted on the Vita for only having one location, (presumably to reduce asset storage), the location it does have looks amazing. It displays PS3 levels of quality at times, with a superb draw distance and detail you would expect on a top console titles such as Gears of War or, of course, Uncharted on the PS3. Wipeout on the Vita looks as good, if not better than on the PS3 (probably that OLED screen playing a part in that), and Fifa (which is based on FIFA 11 and not 12) looks, pretty much, like Fifa 11. The crowds are static, and the animations for goal scoring and teams coming out have some framerate issues (these seem more to do with bugs or inefficient coding than an issue with the platform), but the in-game experience is flawless. Quite simply this a full blown console.

Seriously, games look THIS good. They control how a traditional PS3 should too - no Infinity blades style limited gameplay here...

Network and social features on the Vita show great promise and certainly make me feel connected when out and about. As mentioned earlier, the problem seems that the experience does not feel joined up. I should be able to receive messages in real time, but instead it seems to check for updates and messages periodically. Additionally, titles and services log into the network each time you open them which makes me suspect that the Vita does not offer an ‘always on’ connection, even with the 3G model. Perhaps I’m wrong, and Sony will refute this, but the software certainly doesn’t make the user feel they are constantly connected to the PSN but instead have the ability to pop onto the PSN. This is still a great ability, it’s just a shame it’s not more BBM like.

Near allows users to see which other users are around them and what they are playing. You can use it as a way of increasing your number of friends and you can share in game ‘goods’ with them such as avatars and items found in games. It’s very precise and knows your location and the location of those around you accurately. It’s something parents need to get a grip of though as some of the users are young children and I would imagine parents have no idea their kid is broadcasting their location to total strangers via this system. It’s a serious issue and Sony needs to educate people about it more.

Friends allows you to see, add and block friends. That’s it. If you want to talk to them you have to load another app called Party. This is daft and badly thought out. As mentioned earlier, this should all be in one app or in the core OS and not an app at all. Notifications can be opened as an app, but also sit on the top right of the device, seemingly always on. The idea being you are notified you have a message, and then you open the messages app. It works and is not a disaster, but it is a little strange.

The device is also Twitter enabled, has access to Facebook and is adding other social networking apps. Currently there is no Skype client, but one is expected soon. If it supports video as well as audio it will be a superb communication tool if the Twitter app is anything to go by. This is a superb app, well built and easy to look at and use. It would be nice if apps could tap into the notification system so Twitter messages came up on notifications. The potential for Sony to use PSN as its own form of BBM seems to have been missed but perhaps there are patent issues from stopping this taking place, or perhaps it would affect the standby battery situation?

More non-game apps are promised and in theory the Vita can run any type of app an iPad can run. They don’t have to be game focused, but can be streaming media (Netflix and presumably LoveFilm, are on their way), non-gaming functionality and so on. These will enrich the Vita experience and give people more reasons to give the device ‘hands on’ time.

However, as I have stated in previous articles, the truth is that what will sell the system are games. As with 3DS gamers, Vita owners want new and exciting games to play. They also want them for fair prices and if the games are expensive they want longevity. The Vita has launched with a strong mixture of titles which not only offer a range of gameplay but also price points to support the argument for investing in the games. Titles are as much as £40 and as little as £4.50 with the ever present Minis carrying the flag for the sub £3 purchase. Titles such as Motostorm RC are great value titles at £4.50. Indeed buy it and you get the PS3 version for free too. The Vita doesn’t have free games, but it seems that this might change in future. Free to play is infecting PSN later this year with the PS3 shooter Dust 514 utilising this business model which will also launch a companion Vita app. It is rumoured that a Vita version of the actual game might launch later too. So whilst there might not be 100,000 apps, many of which are 50 pence, free and ultimately never downloaded, the PS Vita might be able to host a high quality mix of titles and experiences aimed at the core gamer.

Memory sticks are made only by Sony and cost a fortune. Mind you a system with a 32 gig stick (only available from Asia at present) still comes in at less than the newly discounted Ipad2

One note of concern is that following the initial rush of launch titles the system has gone quiet. There are some key, big game releases spread between now and the summer, but there should be a regular stream of £3-£5 games similar to Motostorm RC being released onto the PSN store each week. Since launch day there have been no new games in that area, and only one major release (Unit 13). Sony seems to be relying on the sudden decrease in the price of PSP games and hoping many owners will pick these up too. Not a bad idea as PSP games still look fine (games such as God of War look immense on that OLED screen) and the choice is very large. Some of the games now play better too due to the Vita having the ability to map certain functions (such as a camera in Monster Hunter or Syphon Filter) to the second analog stick.

Buying games comes in two ways. One is a traditional retail copy or digital download. Retail is only for Vita games over a certain price. Whilst digital download covers all Vita titles, Minis and PSP software. If you can pick up a 32 GB memory card (currently only from Asia, but due in the UK soon) then you’ll be pretty much sorted. The PSN store on Vita is very fast and easy to use, but it is lacking preview images or videos of the software. I never thought I would say this, but Sony could really learn a trick or two from Nintendo, with their E-Store on the 3DS. Additionally, Sony need to get round to revamping a user’s previous download list. We need to be able to filter it by date and platform so that re-downloading old content is fast and easy.

Despite being fast and intuitive, the PS Store lacks image or video previews. Come on Sony, do a makeover FAST.

Talking of old content, at present Minis given away as part of PS Plus do not work but we think Sony are working on having this corrected. Sony are also claiming that PSP titles bought using PS Plus (hence they got a discount) might not work too. Clearly this is a major issue but we have raised it with Sony, along with titles received as part of offers on the PSPGo, which at present do not work. Sony needs to fix this pronto, as the early adopters of the Vita are the customers that supported the PSP through its darkest days and should not feel cheated of content. Content which is ultimately tied to their PSN account, so can’t be abused anyhow.

Annoyingly the system can’t be simply connected to a computer with the memory stick showing up as a storage device as with the PSP. This, I assume, is to combat piracy. You have to use the PC or Mac software (free of course) to handle all data exchanges or your PS3. Again, you can’t use the PS3 itself, but everything is handled from the Vita, which tells your PS3 what to do.

Wipeout looks as good as it's PS3 counterpart. Plus you can play multi-player across platforms.

Will Sony release a Vita 2.0 at some point? For sure. It could be slimmer, but not massively. It could be lighter, but it’s pretty light now. It will probably have some on board storage memory, but probably not much. There is no reason to hold off getting a Vita now if you are tempted by the above. It’s a great games system and with firmware and software updates will continue to improve and could possibly become the portable tablet for social communication you take with you, leaving your iPad at home on the coffee table where it belongs.

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Written by Steven G

Steven Gurevitz is the CEO of 2002 Studios Media LTD and a founder of gaming accessory company Asiiya. 2002 Studios started off as a music production company, but produces a range of content from videos to videogames. The company specialises in localizing content for global brands.

He also owns the Urban Sound Label, a small niche e-label. He is a freelance music tech writer, having co-written the Music Technology Workbook and is a regular contributor and co-owner CriticalGamer.co.uk. He enjoys FPS, Third person ‘free world’, narrative driven and portable gaming.
He is a freelance music tech writer, having co-written the Music Technology Workbook and is a regular contributor to CriticalGamer.co.uk.

2 comments

  1. Kevin M /

    I do love my Vita, it’s a well designed console, and the controls are a revelation. The screen is simply gobsmacking, and games like Rayman Origins and Ultimate Marvel V Capcom 3 look stunning on the Vita’s OLED screen. I was glad to see that both my PSP games Little Big Planet and ModNation Racers work well on the Vita, and in fact the PSP ModNation online play works well, when the new Vita version doesn’t support it! Remote Play is another feature that has a lot of potential, and being able to play your PS3 games on the move certainly appeals to me. As you said the OS has a few rough edges that could do with some tweaking and a bit of Apple style minimalist redesigning, but overall it’s a great console that deserves a lot of love.

  2. Steven G /

    UPDATE: Latest firmware now out and working. Fixes NEAR and adds some other functionality. Nothing major though.

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