There is no doubt that the Nintendo 3DS has been enjoying its time as the only next-generation handheld console, but all of that is about to change. On February 22nd, the Playstation Vita will finally launch in North America. The system boasts two thumb-sticks, a rear-touch panel, and a stunning 5″ OLED touch-enabled display. With an impressive launch lineup and a reasonable price tag, one would expect a clear-cut winner in the handheld market. Unfortunately for Sony, the Vita’s Japanese launch says otherwise. The system has no design flaws and is full of potential, yet Japanese gamers have rejected it. After many hours of hands-on time, its honestly hard to see why.
The first thing you will notice is the size of the Vita. The screen alone is thicker than an IPhone 4S, and is almost as long. While I prefer a larger screen, especially for touch controls, it can be a hassle to carry around and fit in certain pockets. Fortunately, it makes up for its size in weight. The system is surprisingly light, and never feels the way it looks. Other than that, Sony has perfected the system’s design. The rear-touch panel is sleek, covered in a wallpaper of Playstation button symbols. These tiny squares and circles are directly below the rear-facing camera, and in between the two finger-grips. Turning the system around, the Vita is equipped with four face-buttons, two thumb-sticks, the best D-pad I’ve ever used, the “Start” and “Select” buttons, a front-facing camera, and of course, the PS button. The speakers are placed beside the thumb-sticks, but never get blocked by your fingers when playing. Once again, everything here looks sleek and stylish, yet very familiar to any PSP owner. While the left and right triggers aren’t completely up to standards, the overall feel of the system is very reminiscent of a comfortable console- controller, rather than a handheld.
While it is easy to praise Sony for the beautiful look and feel of the Vita, the design of the system will only take it so far. The true genius behind the Vita rests in its user-interface, its raw power, and its software. Sony said goodbye to the XMB interface that Playstation fans are very familiar with, and introduced a new UI. At first glance, it is over-simplified and too similar to most touch-centric smartphones. Both of these initial observations remain true. While the bubbled icons can even be considered immature, everything feels much more natural once you customize and reposition them. While the Nintendo 3DS’s interface allows custimization, things can start looking rather awkward. For example, placing a collection of DSi Ware games beside the 20 ambassador games may look unbalanced. Surpisingly, Sony’s new interface has proved itself, if solely because there are multiple pages like an IPhone.
The Playstation Vita also succeeds in connectivity. While a strong single-player experience is ideal, it is nice to have a robust friends list and a proper messaging system. The Vita’s social experience runs on a PSN/SEN account. For Playstation 3 owners, the PSN account can be used on both systems. This opens up a multitude of features. Firstly, PS Store pre-paid cards can be spent on either system, unlike the Wii and the 3DS’ eShop. Also, this allows you to continue playing your game on the Vita after shutting off the Playstation 3. The inclusion of exsisting PSN accounts may be the Vita’s most impressive feature. Of course, the Vita plays nicely with the PS3 in many ways. WipEout 2048 introduces “crossplay”, the ability to play against PS3 gamers from the Vita. Additionally, one’s friend list and trophies are syncronized between the two consoles. In this sense, the Vita almost feels like an extension to the Playstation 3.
Labeling the system as an extension to Sony’s PS3 is also appropriate considering the Vita’s power. Graphically, the Vita impresses from day 01. While consoles usually need months, if not years, to fully realize its potential, the Vita delivers instantly. WipEout 2048 is visually equivalent to its PS3-counterpart (WipEout HD), yet offers a unique art direction by blending the futurisic-WipEout look with an urban and modern-day aesthetic. Uncharted: Golden Abyss is almost on par with Uncharted: Drakes Fortune. Of course, great visuals mean nothing without comfortable controls. This is why gamers should have no problem flocking to the system. The importance of two thumb-sticks should not be understated. It is what makes these experiences possible. The PS Vita’s thumb-sticks may be small, but they feel very comfortable and flexible. In comparison, the 3DS’ circle pad is stiff and is hard to grip. With a launch-lineup including Uncharted, WipEout, Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, ModNation Racers, and Super Stardust Delta, a day 01 purchase is much more justifiable than expected. This only scratches the surface of the system’s software. While most of the Vita’s built-in software, like Near and Welcome Park, aren’t even worth mentioning, the promise of an original Call Of Duty, BioShock, and Resistance game assure the system’s potential.
Unfortunately, no launch is perfect. When Sony first announced the system’s pricing at E3 2011, the Nintendo 3DS costed 250 dollars. $250 is a great cost for Sony’s impressive peice of technology, but is simply too much for a handheld system, at least for the average consumer. Nintendo had to learn this the hard way. Of course, this would be somewhat tolerable if the system was as flawless as this review has implied. Unfortunately, the Vita already has its Achilles’ heel; proprietary memory cards. The Playstation Vita doesn’t come with a memory card. With no on-board storage, buying one becomes mandatory. In fact, some games won’t even let you play them untill you insert a memory card. Adding to the problem, the Vita requires a new memory card format, unlike the 3DS’ use of the common SD Card. This means that the system doesn’t come with a card, and requires yet another purchase. One can actually spend up to $120 on a single card. For an already pricey console, it is hard to recommend a purchase to those tight on cash.
While this may sound like a deal-breaker, the Vita still is a ground-breaking peice of hardware. Other than the system’s pricing, the Vita does everything right. Sony’s new handheld feels like a step forward. The Vita looks and controls like its big brother, the PS3. Additionally, the two are a match made in heaven. PS3 owners will experience next-generation connectivity, while new ambassadors will get to experience Sony’s first-party titles for the first time. Furthermore, third-party developers will undoubtedly support the system for its superior control and near-console-parity. Sony’s beautifully sleek Vita impresses from the starting line, but with such a bright future, the system demands your attention.