Review by Phange

"By far the best "launch" handheld unit, but weakened heavily by draconian proprietary measures"

The Playstation Vita represents, in a way, the natural evolution of the intent of the original PSP. In 2005, the PSP was the most feature-rich and exciting handheld on the market. It seemed that nothing - not even the Nintendo DS - could stop the PSP from completely taking over the handheld gaming scene. It had better graphics, an awesome launch lineup, a phenomenal (for the time, at least) screen, impressive online functionality, and a plethora of multimedia functions.

But that's not really how the PSP panned out. Over time, it became the system for odd imported RPGs and near-indie style games, with very few major blockbuster titles. Sony had intended for the PSP to be the center of a portable multimedia world, but the unruly UMD format proved to be not very appealing, especially for movies. After unsuccessfully attempting to bring the PSP to the full-digital era with the Go, Sony wisely crafted the PS Vita.

So, here we are. Playstation Vita. It is, in short, the 2005 PSP with 2012 technology with a high degree of influence from smartphones. There is nothing at all innovative at work here - no 3D, no revolutionary features. Instead, the Vita is a pure, unadulterated console experience in your hands. In a way, that is far more impressive and innovative than superfluous gimmicks. It is also indicative of Sony's inability to understand that there is more to handheld gaming than mimicking a console experience and, yet, having played a plethora of launch titles, I have to say I am left incredibly impressed with the future of the Vita - far more so than I was with the PSP at launch. Because the Vita actually succeeds, handily, at providing these console experiences on a handheld without leaving the sour taste of "I'd rather play this on a console" that the PSP left.

What the Vita lacks in innovation it certainly makes up for in technology - quad core CPU's and GPU's, two capacitive touch panels (one being the front screen), 802.11n WiFi and even 3G, an online integration that easily rivals the PS3's, an OS that would easily be misconstrued for a smartphone's, and much more. It's very much in line with Sony's "everything and the kitchen sink" philosophy to hardware design, though in an era of smartphones this may not be of much relevance to most.

Design

Surprisingly light and thin, the PS Vita is still a large unit, but in many ways it is bolstered by this combination as it feels far more like an actual console controller than any handheld before it. This is key in providing games the important "feel" of their console brethren. The screen is, of course, phenomenal. Brilliant. There are no words - despite the lower pixel density than iPhone's "retina", its OLED contrast puts iPhone to shame - and even other smartphones like the Galaxy S, for that matter. It would be very hard to fault the Vita's screen - there is no ghosting, the refresh is flawless, and because of OLED's technology, brightness has little impact on battery life.

Speaking of battery life, all things considered, the Vita's battery is quite impressive. 5 hours is no mean feat for a handheld with the tech it has, at the size it is.

The D-Pad is fantastic - probably the best I've seen on anything since the 16-bit days. On the other hand, the face buttons seem a bit too small for my tastes. The analog sticks feel acceptable though they lack the range of their DualShock superiors. Dual-analog on a handheld is a major game changer, however.

Minor gripes - the cheap cover over the game card slot is unnecessary and obnoxious, and the start and select buttons could use some elevation. Neither have a huge impact on overall aesthetics or ergonomics, but they are annoying.

Software

It's worth mentioning that the Vita's OS is very obviously inspired by iOS - almost to the point of plagiarism, though not quite. It's also a bit messy and ugly, with uneven rows and rotating bubbles and.... ugh. It's hard to tell what Sony was thinking, but while the OS itself is functional and even sort of cool, it's not at all visually appealing and without iOS-style folders, can very quickly become cluttered.

A major gripe in this early stage of the Vita's OS is that nearly every feature is given its own individual application to launch. Instead of a media player, we're given a video player -and- music player. Separately. Friends, Party Chat, Chat, and Near are all separate applications that could have easily been integrated. In a very odd design choice, even games purchased on cards will still leave their icon on the OS, whether or not the game is actually inserted. Again, more clutter.

It's hard to slam a company's OS in its early stages - afterall, the Xbox 360's current OS is wildly different from the original "blades", but Sony has traditionally been less keen on radically changing their OSes (the current XMB is still quite close to the original PSP XMB from 2005). One hopes they buck the trend with the Vita's obtuse, though functional, OS.

Games

Much like the software, it's usually unfair to gauge a system's gaming selection from launch titles, but the Vita has an unusually strong launch lineup with the likes of Wipeout, Uncharted, Rayman, and Stardust. In general, the early titles feel much more like console titles than handheld games of the past ever have, and that is quite impressive indeed.

The Dark Side

Praise time is over. Bottom line, the PS Vita has very serious, if not egregious and even draconian, digital rights management choices that directly hurt the consumer. As has been discussed ad nauseum, the memory cards are outrageously overpriced and proprietary, but this issue goes much deeper.

The only way to write to said proprietary memory cards is through the Vita. Through the Vita's content manager. Synched with the PC's Content Manager. Only while online. While synched to Sony's own database. The kinds of content one can actually send to the Vita (IE, movies) are heavily controlled by the PC's Content Manager, and there is little if anything the user can do about it. It's obvious why Sony is so heavily controlling what can go on the Vita, but this is by far the most heavy-handed content control I have ever seen - even more significant than Apple's control of iOS.

Worse, there are hints of what this "walled garden" approach is doing, even now. While it's an obvious and even acceptable limitation that PSN purchases cannot be shared, every game with online functionality cannot be played online if purchased used unless you purchase $10 "online passes". This means the used game market for Vita titles is instantly neutered of its viability, despite the fact that physical media is a viable choice for Vita gamers. Likewise, most Vita titles are huge (upwards to 4 GB), so the digital purchases very rapidly fill the horrendously overpriced memory cards.

Unless Sony massively changes how they're approaching this system, people will (rightfully) view the Vita as an endless money hole. One can only hope that Sony sees the error of their ways before driving people away from an otherwise spectacular system.

Overall

The Vita is a phenomenal handheld - probably the best ever released in terms of design and performance - but it comes with huge digital rights stipulations that feel like borderline-punishment to consumers. While Sony's PSN prices seem more reasonable than Nintendo's eShop, they are still totally unreasonable in an era of iOS games. Odd, since the system itself is clearly mimicking the smartphone experience.

Despite these complaints, there is a lot to love about the PS Vita, but it walks a dangerous edge of alienation to a user base that just wants to play some games.


Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 03/19/12

Game Release: PlayStation Vita (w/3G) (US, 02/22/12)


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