March 12, 2012

Quick Impressions of the PlayStation Vita

*UPDATE* I got some hands on time with the back touch panel while trying out Little Deviants. It was... disorienting. It's a cool idea in theory, but I get the feeling it won't be used to its full potential. In the game I had to slide my fingers across the back in order o raise the ground and roll around this little round monster, collecting items and solving puzzles. It's sounds cool in theory, but I found it really difficult to judge where my touch on the back would register on the front. Just hearing about it, it may not seem like much of a task, but trust me when I say it's really awkward. You have to get used to holding the system so that your fingertips touch the back and I can tell it'll take a lot of getting used to before gamers can adjust to the idea of interacting with a touch screen they can't see. Imagine playing Angry Birds or Fruit Ninja, except having to touch the back of your phone to play. It sounds difficult, right?

I had the chance to play around with a Vita the other day and I was surprisingly impressed by it. I noticed two things immediately: the thing is f'in huge, and it's also f'in light. Even with a huge wired security brick latched on to the bottom, the thing felt like it was mostly hollow. I don't know how they did it, but I sure was impressed. The screen takes up most of the space on the front of the system and for good reason. It's fantastic. So big and sharp and touchy and wonderful. Also wonderful: ergonomics. It's the perfect size and shape to fit comfortably in the hand. Fingers fall in just the right places on this one!

Not wonderful: touch screen navigation. All menus use it exclusively. This is not something unique to system UI, either. Every game I played used the touch screen to navigate menus. It makes absolutely no sense to me why standard button input cannot be integrated as well. This thing has control options up the wazoo and they make menu navigation touch screen only? I mean, they could have done worse, but it's just that the system is so big. Your fingers fall naturally on the buttons and to constantly reach thumbs over them to select this or that is just plain irritating. It's awkward to hold in one hand too, since it's so wide. 

The standard control inputs I found to be a mixed bag. On the one hand, holy crap there's a ton of variety for control. But while the Vita does have all the buttons you need, they've really been played down in favor of touch and motion options. I find this weird especially because they bothered to put two analog sticks on the damn thing! Speaking of those, they're quite the improvement over the old PSP slider, but still not the ideal for handheld gaming. See, not only are they elevated which makes the system less portable, but they don't have nearly as much travel as the 3DS slide pad. As a result, they don't have the same feel as real analog sticks on a controller do. I hate to break it to anyone expecting greatness, but I'd actually rather use the sliders. These sticks are tiny, and despite their "mushroom" design don't tilt as far as it seems like they should. Looking closely, I noticed they actually have a rubber stopper around the neck so you can't push them all the way.

The Zodiac stick had a feel surprisingly identical to the Vita.
Only about four other people will know what I'm talking about here, but the Vita is actually not the first handheld to do analog sticks. The Tapwave Zodiac was actually first, way back in 2003. It failed because it was way ahead of its time, but that's besides the point. The point is, the anlog sticks feel identical. I remember having the same issue with the Zodiac stick. I just felt awkward because it didn't have enough travel. If you're one of the four other people who used one, then you already know how the Vita sticks feel.

The face buttons were small but adequate and the shoulder buttons were large and perfectly contoured with a feel identical to the PSP. Those really felt great! Menu buttons are flush to the system, I guess to prevent accidental pressing, though I found them a bit hard to purposely press. Probably strangest of all is the Vita's d-pad. It retains the signature PlayStation look, but not the feel. In fact, it is a standard Nintendo-issue plus shaped pad. Yes, that's right. The four directional buttons are not buttons at all and are actually connected together. I suppose it could only work this way, since they shrunk the thing down. Personally, I much prefer this shape. What I don't prefer, however, is the stupid hard plastic that it (and the four buttons) are made from. I have a similar issue the the 3DS. Too clicky!

Now to the games. I can confidently say they look great! I wasn't blown away, though, and I guess it's because I'm spoiled at this point. They did look to me like current gen games, but early gen. Visuals on par with 2007, perhaps. Now, I don't want to downplay that– it's an amazing technical achievement. I mean, the damn thing has a quad core processor that I don't think is anywhere else on the market yet. But seeing games like Infinity Blade... I know this thing can do better. Anyway, I'm not much of a graphics whore so the lineup of games is what's really important to me. I played three: Wipeout, Gravity Daze, and Uncharted (for about 90 seconds).

Wipeout is a damn fine looking game!

Wipeout was great. The last Wipeout game I played was Pulse back on the PSP. 2048 was, obviously, a big improvement. I wasn't impressed by the touch only navigation or the absolutely terrible load times (seriously the worst I've seen in years). Once the game got going, however, I was instantly into it. Maybe it's just my desire for a new F-Zero, but I had a great time with it. There were plenty of control options to be found, but I went with the default "racing game" type, which was more or less standard racing game controls. Left shoulder accelerated and the buttons were used for items and air braking. The "Wipeout" setup wasn't one that I tried because I remember being turned off by the weird braking system when I used to play Pulse. There's also a gyroscope steering option I'm sure no one will use. What I found especially great was the steering assist. It basically creates a magical forcefield around your hovercar that will push it away from walls when you get too close. I set it to max and had a much easier time piloting my ship. Overall, it was pretty fun.

Gravity Daze (Rush in the UK for some reason) was a weird one. The demo (it doesn't release until June) was pretty short and didn't really give me much of a sense of how the full game will play. With no discernable story, the only thing I really did was float around. There sure was a lot of floating. And that's the game's gimmick, I guess. You can defy gravity by entering a free-float mode, then land on the sides of objects. In the second half of the demo, you learn to float-kick enemies in the face. It was pretty slow paced and I honestly don't think I'd want to play the full game if the focus is just floating and aiming. I think the demo is actually available for download now, if anybody reading this happens to have a Vita and is interested in trying the game. My take? It looks a lot better than it plays. But holy shit, is the trailer music awesome!

Lastly, I played Uncharted for about 90 seconds. It was, uh, fine... I guess? I climbed up some grating and then I had to balance as I walked across a pipe, which I failed at because the game didn't tell me how to do it. I probably had to tilt the system, thought I just automatically assumed using the analog stick was the way to go since, you know, the Vita has two of them. Oh, and if you're wondering, none of the games I played used the back touch panel at all so I can't comment on its usefulness. I think Uncharted supports it but not in the 90 seconds I played.

Overall, the system was impressive. I don't think I'll be picking it up for quite some time, if I ever do at all, simply because the games don't interest me that much. Nothing personal, I'm just not a huge fan of Sony games. I really have to question the "handheld" label, though. Sure the whole system fits in your hands, but it's not the type of thing I can see myself carrying around with me wherever I go to play a quick game because 1) the thing plays full-fledged console games, and 2) the battery sucks. I don't want to sound like I'm cutting the thing down (in fact I have similar feelings about the 3DS), though. I'm just staying that's the state of things these days. If you buy a Vita, just know that you'll spend the majority of the time playing with it in your house, and then couldn't you just play your PS3 instead?

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