Dabe Alan

The Vita offers portable gaming with no compromises, and we’re smitten

The Vita offers portable gaming with no compromises, and we’re smitten

The Vita is Sony’s latest gaming portable, but it doesn’t fit into the pocket of most pants, and everyone is quick to point out dedicated portable game systems are either dead or dying. There is a laborious conversation about the Vita going on across the Internet that links the potential market of a device to its quality as a means to play video games. The idea that the Vita is a portable gaming system isn’t wrong, but the Vita also doesn’t offer portable gaming in the way we’ve become accustomed to it in the past 20 years. This is a lesson I learned when I brought my review unit on a recent work trip. Many of my hours were spent spirited away in my hotel room, pounding hours into the Vita’s impressive launch lineup. I wasn’t playing because the Vita is portable, I was playing because the experience of gaming on the Vita is addictive and almost entrancing. It feels like a magic trick.

The system was with me because it was portable, but I was playing it because I was having too much fun to stop. 

There is a sort of punk rock idea among gaming purists that graphics don’t matter, or that Sony is taking the easy way out with a portable gaming system that’s more powerful than anything else you’ve held in your hands. Graphics do matter, and the size of the screen and the amount of detail developers can put into Vita games is a major selling point. It’s hard to describe this without having a unit in your hands, but the screen is five inches and runs at 960 by 544 resolution. When I play Wipeout I see this beautifully realized futuristic world, and I lose myself in that world and I get the full sense of speed I’m used to from the game’s console versions. I feel like my hair is being blown back. I want to pick bugs out of my teeth. The large screen, and the graphics it outputs, makes those feelings possible. There is very little graphical compromise made even though you’re holding the system in your hands.

The Vita delivers immediacy and immersion in a way that no other portable system can, and that’s worth celebrating. I like new game play ideas and wonderful stories as much as the next person, but I also love to see new and beautiful things, and the Vita delivers on that promise. The large screen does more than just keep the system from fitting in your pocket, it also operates as a window into another world, and what I’m finding in these launch games is that Sony is launching with many worlds I want to explore.

You can argue the iPad also offers a high level of interactivity and intimacy for players, but the lack of physical buttons will always limit Apple’s systems as gaming devices. The Vita offers a d-pad, two analog sticks, four face buttons, and two shoulder buttons. The touch screen is just as responsive as your smart phone. The rear touch panels don’t seem to be quite as capable, and they’re often easy to touch when you don’t mean to, but they still offer developers new possibilities for control. Any kind of control mechanism you want to use for your game is available on the Vita. The system feels decadent, with a touch screen to play a game like Plants vs. Zombies well, alongside buttons that handle Marvel vs. Capcom 3 with ease.

And Marvel vs. Capcom 3 looks and plays brilliantly on the system. Launching with a fighting game isn’t just a smart way to cover all the genres, it’s a chest-thumping show of confidence in your hardware. It’s saying your buttons and directional pad are up to the task. “Come at me, bro,” the Vita says to 2D fighting games, and the system delivers. Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 isn’t a port as much as it’s a beautiful version of the console game that happens to go anywhere you want to take it. I was playing a beautiful fighting game with capable controls in the bathroom while my youngest child was in the tub, and I didn’t feel like I was sacrificing anything to gain that portability. That’s the magic of the Vita.

There is something grand about playing a console-quality game on a plane or in a hotel room, but once I returned home my passion for the system remained. I wasn’t playing the Vita because it was a portable gaming system, I was playing it because even when I was home it was convenient. I can play a game that feels large in scope with my headphones on next to my wife in bed. I can play a violent, M-rated game while my children watch an age-appropriate show on the television. Everyone mocked the fact that the Vita was gaining Netflix support, since everything in the world has Netflix support, but that’s missing the point. Have you tried to watch a Netflix movie on your 3DS? It’s a miserable experience. The Vita’s screen makes it one of the few pieces of hardware you’d want to use to watch a movie.

Sony has also completely rethought the user interface of the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Portable, and the solutions the company has baked into the Vita are easy to use. Everything is handled with the touch screen, and the interface is responsive and snappy. The PSP used to be a system that people were afraid to touch; it seemed like an imposing piece of technology. The Vita, on the other hand, is welcoming. It’s fun to play with, and when I’ve shown the system to people who’ve never seen one they delight in playing with the interface, watching the icons jiggle and exploring everything the system can do. People become slack-jawed when they see a video playing on the device.

There are downsides, of course. The three-hour battery life when playing games is a huge bummer, although third-party external batteries should help that situation. The inability to keep multiple accounts on a single piece of hardware is also a huge annoyance for those of us with kids. I’d love to have a separate account for my son so he can play age-appropriate games and earn his own set of trophies and high scores. The proprietary memory cards for saving your games are also hard to defend, although since Sony is shooting for every game available digitally on the day of launch—for 10 percent less than retail, no less—they had to throw retailers a bone in order to get the systems in physical stores. Sony is pushing towards a digital future, and we’re starting to see how many ways the industry just isn’t ready. The expensive memory cards and inability to migrate the game data from the cartridges to a purely digital format without buying the game on the PSN are two symptoms of that tension.

Don’t expect to do much more than play augmented reality games on the system’s front or rear facing cameras; both produce mediocre images in all but the least demanding circumstances. The web browser isn’t going to replace your tablet or smart phone. The Vita handles gaming well, but the audio and video players are merely capable. The system does many things and many of them well, but the more you stray from gaming the more you’ll see compromises being made. Save the rest of the functions for your existing devices.

The challenge of launch software

The greater problem with the system, at least at launch, is that everyone seems to want to use every aspect of the available control schemes. Little Deviants is barely a tech demo, and would have worked better as a free download with a few minigames. It’s fun to use the front and rear touch controls to play at first, and the augmented reality shooting game shows that the Vita can do almost everything the 3DS can do in terms of motion controls and camera, but the game wears out its welcome in about ten minutes. Wipeout 2048 is a wonderful game, but the ability to race by tilting the system is best ignored in favor of the classical control schemes. The ability to play Marvel vs. Capcom 3 by tapping the screen is a gimmick that seems to be designed to allow toddlers to rail off combos at will. Almost everyone over the age of ten will move to the standard control scheme and enjoy the game’s graphics and play. The best games on the Vita are simply good games, not showcases for every nook and cranny of the system.

If Uncharted: Golden Abyss interrupted the action in order to force me to use the touch screen to play a lame minigame one more time, I would have thrown the system through a window. These asides are gimmicky and lame, and they hurt games more than they help them. I’m sure that games controlled by the touch screen will do fine on the Vita, but that’s because some games are controlled better on a touch screen, not because a developer was forced at gunpoint to shoehorn in a lame minigame or control concept just to prove that the Vita could do it.

One of the best uses of the touch controls in a standard game so far is the ability to zoom in and out of the world of Rayman Origins, which is also one of the best launch titles. You can zoom in to see the wonderful artwork in the game’s characters and background, and it doesn’t do anything to the game except give anyone else working in 2D graphics a sense of despair at having to compete with the game’s level of detail. Rayman Origins is coming to the 3DS, but Nintendo’s system won’t be able to match the richness of the game’s visuals on the Vita, and this is a game where the graphics matter. Half the fun is exploring this wonderful and brightly-colored world. Seeing all the details and visual flourishes in the game’s levels is a big reason why the game is such a delight, and the only way to do that is to play the game on a modern console on a nice television or on the Vita.

This is Sony’s advantage. The 3DS can certainly render beauty, but the Vita allows developers to put it in a better frame and hang it in a museum.

Sony is taking a leadership position

I’m not concerned about the system’s chances at retail; that’s a conversation that’s going to evolve in the next few years. I’m not an analyst, and I sure as hell don’t own any Sony stock. My question is whether or not Sony released a good system and in my opinion Sony has done much more than that. In many ways the Vita is great, and once developers get a feel for the hardware and third-party battery packs hit the market it will get even better. Sony improved the PSP in every respect, and the company has exceeded my expectations in terms of usability and design.

The controls feel capable, even though the placement of the face buttons may take some getting used to. The addition of the second analog stick is something portable gaming systems have needed for years, and Nintendo’s awkward add-on for the 3DS is a poor excuse for a solution. The screen is big enough to allow you to see every detail in the games, but still portable. You may even be able to put it in your pocket if you’re wearing the right kind of pants.

People say that their iPhone is good enough for them, and I respect that opinion, but I’m going to argue that the $250 starting price for the Vita is a good buy even if you have an iPhone. The experience of gaming on the Vita is simply better than what you get on the iPhone, due to the system’s graphical power, physical buttons, and larger screen. The 3DS beats the Vita in 3D support and price; In every other metric the Vita plays games better than Nintendo’s handheld. The graphics are better, the screen is larger and clearer, the touch screen is more responsive, there are dual analog sticks built in… the Vita is simply a better game playing experience than the 3DS for most titles. The main problem is that you’ll have to pay for all these nifty features, with the costs of the memory cards and games it’s hard to get a usable Vita package for less than $350 or so.

The Vita is very much a luxury item being released in a time when the economy isn’t at its best, so the question is whether people want to spend the money on another piece of gaming hardware. That’s a personal decision that doesn’t concern me. I can say whether the Vita is worth the money Sony is asking for it, and that answer is yes.