Hands-on Preview: PlayStation Vita
During the weekend I had a chance to have a long, sweet date with a PlayStation Vita and six of it’s incoming titles, finally managing to spend some undisturbed quality time with Sony’s upcoming technological jewel.
The model I tried was still not final, so please remember that nothing I will write from here on is set in stone. That said, the Japanese launch is near, so the SKU should be rather near to what our Japanese friends and some lucky importers will soon get their hands on.
When I picked up the Vita I almost immediately noticed it’s weight, or lack of thereof. While the SKU I tried was still powered externally, so the weight of the battery wasn’t included, the handheld is surprisingly light. Despite it’s relatively larger size, it won’t burden you much more than a smartphone.
Despite that, the console still felt solid, it definitely didn’t look or feel like a cheap plastic toy, retaining a tactile feel similar to that of the PSP, just lighter.
It took me a few seconds, though, to notice how light the Vita was, because I was simply stunned by it’s best feature: the screen.
The large (for a portable) OLED panel is nothing short of a joy for the eyes. If you’re used to any other portable console, or even to anything else than the most advanced TVs and monitors, the screen of the Vita will have you scrambling to pick your jaw off the floor.
The picture is bright, colorful and the contrast and definition are absolutely top-notch. It’s impossible not to be impressed, because just a few months ago I didn’t believe I would be able to see something like that on such a small scale for several years longer.
Aside from the beauty of the panel, the graphics of the games are really impressive, getting very near to the standard of home consoles and reaching levels of fidelity and visual impact that any other handheld, including the most advanced smartphones, simply can’t even dream to attain. It’s not even in the same league and any comparison would really be unfair to other devices.
As soon as I started playing I found out something equally pleasing. No matter how beautiful a handheld looks, if it’s not comfortable, we’re going to have a rather large problem. That was my issue with the PSP: it looked great for it’s time, but it gave me cramps in my fingers and palms after a hour of gameplay.
The vita Is different. I can’t easily put my finger on what changed in it’s structure compared to the PSP, but it fit perfectly in my hands, allowing me to reach all the controls comfortably, without forcing me to stretch or unnaturally contract my fingers.
The thumbstcks used to be one of my main concerns, as it’s hard to build decent ones on a portable. Again, I was surprised, as they are sensitive and fluid, not too different from those of a DualShock 3, despite the smaller size. They’re simply light years ahead of those built on the PSP or the 3DS.
The front and rear touch panels are equally sensitive, allowing for a precision of input that I honestly didn’t expect.
Both didn’t miss a single touch, and allowed me to control the games with an amazing finesse, despite the fact that I was using my rather big fingers and not a stylus.
The only controls that weren’t much to my liking are the start and select buttons. They are encased too deeply on the surface of the console, turning pressing them into a bit of a mission. I’m quite sure it’s an intentional measure to avoid accidental pressing, and it’s excessively successful in that, making operation a tad awkward.
Loading times also seemed a little too long, even if a Sony representative told me that they’re still going to be optimized further in the final version of the console.
A last little flaw is part of the screen itself: the glossy finish that turns it into a real fingerprint magnet. Considering the fact that it’s a touch screen, this can irk some, but looking at Amazon Japan there are already several different kinds of protective film that should remove the problem, hopefully without compromising the brightness of the panel.
Despite the minor flaws I just listed, I was extremely impressed, with my (already quite lofty) expectations completely blown away by reality, and that’s something that rarely happens.
That said, Sony seems to have learned very well, that no matter how much technology they pack in a console, it won’t be successful unless they pair it with a lot of great games at launch. During my hands-on time I had the chance to test rather extensively six of the titles that will be available when the Vita will hit the shelves.
As a classic PlayStation franchise Wipeout couldn’t be missing from the launch lineup of the vita. The game is very similar to the PS3 version. Actually, it looks almost identical graphics-wise, which is a really impressive feat in itself. The speed of the anti gravity racers also remains unchanged, and the environments really shine on the screen of the Vita.
The framerate seems perfectly consistent and driving seems even easier than on the PS3, thanks to the sensitive thumbsticks. The only real issue i noticed are the rather hefty loading times before a race.
The demo I tried included four levels, a cave level that challenged Rayman to climb thorugh the platform to escape a gigantic monster raising just behind him and freeing Electoons at the same time. The Jungle level included more classic platforming and Electoons freeing. The Ghost level put me in a race against a ghost Rayman to get through a part of the Jungle level, forcing me to jump from platform to platform at insane speeds, normally failing miserably.
Finally, the desert stage was the most interesting, placing Rayman in an Egypt-like setting, with a metric ton of bats covering almost every area of the screen. The only way to pass unscathed was to activate some gongs placed along the way, and emitting sound waves that would scare the bats away. The sound waves faded in intensity with time, forcing me to run against time in order to avoid being popped.
The gameplay doesn’t distance itself much from the home console version of the game, but what was really impressive were the graphics, that prove a perfect match for the quality of the OLED panel. I can go ahead and see that Rayman Origins looks almost better on the PS Vita than on any other platform, including the PS3. The colors are so vivid and vibrant that it’s a true joy for the eyes.
Little Deviants is considered almost a tutorial for the innovative controls of the PS Vita more than a full game in it’s own right. Those that think so would be surprised, as the game is actually really fun. In the portion of the game included in the demo I had to touch the panel in order to extrude the ground under my little deviant, making him roll towards a black hole that represents the goal, catching floating stars and avoiding a flying enemy.
Like Rayman Origins, Little Deviants demonstrates how perfect the Vita Panel is for cartoonish and colorful graphics. Not only the colors are absolutely beautiful, but shapes and polygons are extremely defined and there’s definitely no aliasing to speak of.
Hot Shots Golf Next
… Or Minna No Golf as it’s known in Japan, it continued the trend of awesome graphics shown by the previous three games. This time around I did notice a little bit of a stutter when the camera moved around.
The game was fun, the controls where intuitive, but the touch pad functions seemed a tad underdeveloped. Maybe they just weren’t yet activated, though.
Virtua Tennis 4: World Tour Edition
The fourth edition of the Virtua Tennis franchise (Power Smash 4 in Japan) has already been released on PS3, PC, Xbox 360 and Wii, and one of the most interesting aspects of the PS Vita port is how similar it looks to the home console versions, despite it’s realistic graphics. It looks simply stunning, with a level of detail that I definitely didn’t expect to see on a portable.
The exhibition mode was the heart of the demo, allowing me to chose a tennis star to face another one controlled by the AI in a short match. Touch controls are heavily used in this mode, as you just need to “slice” the screen with your fingers in order to deliver the ball where you want on the opposite field, and touch it to move your character.
Tilt controls are used a lot in the VR Match mode (in which tilting the PS Vita lets you look around the field) and in the rolling ship minigame (in which you have to tilt the Vita to make the ship roll and hit the targets) . Finally there was a working Augmented reality mode that didn’t require a card, but still seemed a little clunky, with the character failing to settle with any stability on the surface I was aiming on. That said, the AR mode actually allowed me to partly test the outward camera, that sports top notch definition and no noticeable lag.
Ultimately I can easily say that Virtua Tennis 4 is, between the games that I tested so far, the one that best showcases the technological potential of the Vita. Too bad that it may prove a niche title due to the sport featured, that isn’t exactly as popular as soccer and football.
Uncharted: Golden Abyss
I purposely left this one as the last game of my hands-on, as it was the one i was most looking forward to. The demo was pretty limited, set in a house on fire like the first demo of Uncharted 3, prompting me to lead Drake towards an escape route. Movement and camera control were handled through the analog sticks like on the PS3 games, but all the platforming was done through the touch panel. I just needed to touch the element of the architecture I wanted to grab, and Nathan Drake would jump to it.
As in all the games I tried, touch controls were extremely precise and responsive, even if there was a gimmicky aspect I really didn’t like. At a certain point I had to cut a curtain with a machete. That’s a pretty easy task in real life, but in the game I had to slice the screen several times with my finger, following a pattern. It looked really unnecessary, and forced me to interrupt the action in order to do this menial task. Hopefully it’s there just to demonstrate the precision of the touch screen and will be removed from the actual game.
The graphics looked absolutely gorgeous, with a lot of detail shown, dynamic elements and lightning, as you would expect from a house on fire. The only problem was a visible aliasing, that made the edges of characters and objects look a little rough. It’s not really surprising, though, considering all the the things that were happening on the screen at the same time.
Ultimately, besides a few minor problems, the PS Vita is shaping up to be a beauty and a beast at the same time. A beast due to it’s sheer power, that is definitely noticeable while playing just a few of it’s games, and a beauty due to that lovely, lovely, lovely OLED panel, that is most definitely one of the highest-quality, brightest and most vibrant ones I ever laid my eyes on.
At the end of my date with the PS Vita, I really wanted to bring her home with me, but the Sony reps weren’t really keen on the idea.
I was just allowed to take a picture with me, as a memento. You can see it at the top of this preview. Have you ever seen such a beautiful smil… ahem… portable console?