Playstation Vita Impressions

The Device

I’d been forewarned by my colleagues that the PS Vita was deceptively lightweight device for something so powerful. But hey, what do they know? Thinking myself well prepared, I continued onward and held the future of portable gaming tech for the first time. My first thoughts? Jesus Christ, this thing is light! I mean REALLY light, far more so than the 3DS and perhaps even the PSPgo (oh boy, remember those?). Maybe the battery pack had been removed from the demo units or something, but still, it felt as though I was holding nothing but an empty shell, and not the most powerful handheld gaming console ever made!

However, I resist the temptation to call the Vita “fragile”, mainly as it wasn’t socially or professionally acceptable to put the device through its paces at the time. But even if they had let me throw it around a bit, I doubt that I’d want to risk doing the Vita any harm anyway. Just holding it felt so…… nice. My hand’s extensive memory of the many years of abuse suffered at the “mercy” of the PSP’s rough and uncomfortable edges were washed away as they gently wrapped around the Vita’s perfectly rounded contours. The entire device was exceptionally smooth, with little to no uncomfortable protrusions. Everything about it was beautiful to the eye and to the touch, right from the crystal clear OLED screen all the way round to the ……*sigh*…. rear mounted touch panel (yes, that’s a thing now).

But while my index fingers and palms where busy having trauma therapy, my thumbs were busy exploring something else entirely: the new twin analogue sticks. Not analogue “nubs”, not “circle pads”, not “d-pads with some kind of exotic mounting”, but actual analogue sticks on a portable device! My thumbs promptly reported back (after much random fumbling which I think slightly confused the booth clerks) that the sticks were relatively firm and functional, but also had a surprisingly limited range of movement. While I assume that might make precision movement very difficult when a situation inevitably calls for it, I didn’t really have enough time with the device to see for myself if it was a problem.

Unfortunately, there were a few other minor but irritating issues that struck me unawares. For one thing, those analogue sticks are WAY too close to the face buttons, making it exceptionally easy to nudge the former when attempting to utilise the latter. And it wasn’t until I was prompted to “Press Start”, as every gamer is at some point in their lives, that I realised how ridiculously awkward the start/select buttons are! Not only are they tucked away in a corner of the Vita that’s near impossible to reach when in standard gaming posture, but the actual buttons themselves are significantly firmer that you would either expect or desire such a thing to be. I ended up having to take several attempts at the gargantuan task of “Press Start”, eventually using the tip of my fingernails to force the button down far enough for the system to acknowledge my intentions.

Are these fairly small and petty criticisms? Totally. But that’s only because I’m really struggling to find much fault with the Vita as a gaming device right now (Well, other than how ridiculous that rear touch panel still is!), I’m not trying to say it’s perfect or anything like that, but it’s certainly more than satisfactory in all the areas that count:  portability, visuals, controls and ergonomics. Whether the games on the Vita will correctly leverage these assets is another thing entirely, as the ones I was shown at E3 were a bit of a mixed bag.

The games

Note: During my hands-on session I was only allowed to play the 5 separate games for a maximum of 4 minutes each, so I can’t do much more than make a fairly cursory analysis at this point.

Little Big Planet Vita

It should be no surprise that this game is more of the patchwork platforming that you (hopefully) know and love. The graphics were fairly decent and the jumps were suitably “floaty” to the point where, from a distance, it’s more or less indistinguishable from its console cousins.

Gameplay wise, the only big change is that certain physics objects (most of which were marked with a special blue texture) can now be interacted with using the touch screens rather than sackboy’s grab ability. I got to play with a several different applications of this new mechanic, such as being able to “push” objects out from the background using the rear screen or pulling back a slingshot with the front screen. Even though these were pretty basic examples, they were still quite fun to mess around with. Regardless, there’s a good chance they will pale in compassion to whatever crazy stuff the LBP community will make once the game goes public. Can’t wait!

Virtua Tennis 4:

Much to my own surprise, this ended up being by far the most entertaining title of the lot! Technically it was just your standard Virtua Tennis game, except now in order to hit the ball you had to swipe across the screen. The angle of your stroke determined the trajectory of the ball, and the direction of the stroke added either a top or bottom spin to the shot. At one point the booth clerk reminded me that the game is also playable with traditional analogue stick and face buttons, but that she “preferred the touch screen controls anyway”.

Even though I have fairly strong suspicion that that’s just a pre-canned phrase that she was being paid to tell people, it totally echoed my own sentiments on the matter! Using the touch screen to control the ball’s trajectory and spin felt infinitely more precise than simply taping a button, possibly making it the first time I’ve ever felt touch screen integration actually enhancing my gameplay experience rather than being a tacked-on gimmick! This is one to watch.

Little Deviants:

You may remember Little Deviants from Sony’s original “NGP” press conference a while back. It was shown as a possible application of the rear touch screen, allowing you to “push” parts of the game-world upwards in order to solve puzzles. But it turns out that that was actually only one of several different mini games present in the full title, all of which somehow involve these little orange monsters (who I assume are the titular Deviants). This gives me the impression that Sony are keen on making Little Deviants the Vita’s answer to Ubisoft’s smash hit Raving Rabbids franchise. Unfortunately, while the three segments I played made neat little tech demos and all, I can’t really see any of them providing much entertainment after the first few tries.

The first one was an augmented reality minigame where you had to use the Vita’s gyroscope and front camera to hunt down enemies hidden around you, then press the shoulder buttons to shoot ‘em. If that sounds a little familiar, it’s because it’s almost identical to the 3DS’s built in Face Raiders game (but without the face-scanning party trick!), something that I doubt was a mere coincidence.

Next was a slightly more original game where I had to use the Vita’s tilt sensor to steer a flying character through a maze of hazards. Trying to see where all those aforementioned hazards where while moving the Vita about in such a fashion was extremely awkward, but I think that’s just a testament to the general stupidity of tilt based games as a concept.

And to finish off, I played a quasi whack-a-mole style game where I had to poke the Deviants using either the front or the back touch screen, depending on which direction they were facing. Sounds simple enough, but unlike Little Big Planet Vita, the game gave me no indicators as to where my fingers where on the rear screen, which made it nearly impossible to hit the targets I was actually aiming for!

Uncharted: Golden Abyss

This is probably many a Sony fan’s most anticipated title for the Vita, and for good reason! It seems perfectly in keeping with Naught Dog’s ludicrously high standards when it comes to visuals; a wonderful showcase for the Vita’s vast graphical capability if ever there was one! Sadly though, the control system really lets it down hard, particularly when it comes to the extensive (but thankfully optional) touch based controls that have you make all sorts of weird gestures to do even the most basic of actions.

I really tried my best to embrace this new control scheme rather than be a fuddy-duddy about the whole thing. I failed. Long before my 4 minutes were up, I was already reaching for the traditional button inputs out of shear frustration. But even with old school controls, aiming and moving felt far too sluggish and imprecise for me to really have much fun with it. Overall, a rather disappointing experience that I really hope will be touched up before the game launches.

Sound shapes

This was more or less the only “original” title on display at the public Vita booth; created by none other than Queasy Games, the developers of the somewhat overlooked PSN classic Riff: Everyday Shooter back in 2008. Much like Riff, Sound Shapes is all about music that dynamically affects gameplay, this time in the guise of a side scrolling platformer instead of a twin stick shooter.

Your main objective (as far as I could tell) is to get to the end of the level while collecting as many glowing orbs as possible. As you obtain those orbs, the background music changes according to where the orbs where on the screen when you picked them up. E.g. orbs found at the centre of the screen might add a subtle chime to the track, while ones in the top left might add some funky synth to the mix.

It differs from Riff in that the music is far more than just a neat little distraction. Enemies will often shoot at you in time with the beat, requiring you to keep a constant feel for the level’s rhythm if you want to survive.

Although I didn’t have time to take a look at it myself, I’m told that Sound Shapes will also have an extensive level creation system akin to Little Big Planet. But sadly there’s no word on if there’ll be any sort of online infrastructure in place to support a full blown community around that feature.

It was definitely a very enjoyable title from what I played anyway, but it was also extremely abstract compared to the rest of the PSV lineup. So yeah, don’t expect it to set the retail charts on fire. Hopefully they’ll at least have the sense to make it a downloadable title; I’d hate to see Queasy’s second professional game be their last!

Summary

I don’t think the Vita quite lives up to the dream of a portable PS3, but it defiantly met me half way there with a well-crafted and (mostly) logical successor to the PSP that looks like it’ll stand the test of time. While quite irritating at first, the few minor issues I had with it were just that: minor. Of course if we’re lucky, Sony may just deal with them at production stage before the console even hits the market anyway.

The only real elephant in the room, in my book anyway, is that goddamn rear touch screen. It seemed silly before, and after my hands-on time with the Vita, it just seems even more ridiculous than ever (no mean feat!). I’ve yet to see anything that makes it look like anything other than an ill-conceived gimmick, and my heart sinks whenever I think about how much could have been shaved off the Vita’s production costs if it had been omitted from the design all together.

As for the games, while each of the ones I played did a good job of expressing the individual strengths of the Vita, they all did so in isolation. None really came even close to demonstrating good graphics, gameplay, rear/front touch screen usage and decent controls all in one complete package. But then again, that’s likely something for future generations of Vita games to be concerned with. For now at least, it looks like the Vita should be off to a fairly solid start. At worst, it should make the 3DS launch look more of a joke than it already does!

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