Hands-on preview: Sony PlayStation Vita Part 1

The 22 February release of Sony’s second generation handheld is fast approaching, and Wired.co.uk has been giving it some play time ahead of that date. But we’re asking: Does the PlayStation Vita have what it takes to earn a place in your pocket next year?The Unit
The first impression the Vita makes is how light it is. Having dropped the oft-maligned UMD disk format for games and movies, the unit also loses the optical drive that ran them, contributing considerably to the weight loss. While we weren’t able to actually weigh the unit, and Sony hasn’t stated an exact weight in the Vita’s specifications yet, it feels even lighter than the slimline PSP‘s 189 grams.It’s also a rather smart-looking bit of kit — all smooth edges, rounded corners and comfortably placed grip points on the rear. The screen is embedded beneath the black and silver surface of the machine, giving the unit a slick,iPhone-like appearance. Access ports for cards — both the new solid-state PS Vita cards that publishers will release games on and the removable memory sticks — are neatly hidden beneath flush rubber caps, as is the SIM card slot for the 3G model, while the volume control buttons are easily accessed by your right forefinger. Symmetrical and frankly quite sexy, on looks alone, the Vita is a very desirable addition to your tech arsenal.The only real disappointments on the hardware side are the cameras. The front-facing 320×240-pixel camera took noticeably blurred pictures of faces, while the rear cam fares only slightly better by hitting 640×480 resolution, both far short of even a low-end phone camera nowadays.The Screen
To use the technical jargon, the PS Vita’s screen is a 5-inch OLED multi-touch capacitive touchscreen, offering 24-bit colour, 960×544-pixel screen resolution and a 16:9 aspect ratio. At only 0.7 inches larger than the standard PSP, you’d think the difference would be almost negligible, and looking at it while switched off it doesn’t strike as being that much larger. With a game or video running, the difference is vast — bold, bright colours, a noticeably sharper picture and a viewing area that makes its predecessor feel tiny in comparison.

In practical terms though, for those with smaller hands the screen may be almost too large. With hands positioned at the extremes, tapping into the middle of it to utilise touch-based controls requires quite the handspan. Individual experience will factor in here, but for some this might prove a bit awkward, no matter how good it looks.

The Controls
The Vita finally addresses arguably the biggest criticism of the original PSP — the lack of twin thumbsticks. However, while the dual sticks now allow for a full range of controls mirroring that of its stay-at-home big brother, they do feel a bit, well, twiddly. Unlike the PSP, with its easy-grip thumbpad that sat flat against the unit, the Vita’s pair are raised, sitting on a full-angle ball joint with smooth indentations for your thumbs to rest in. They’re as smooth and responsive as you’d expect, with the only potential problem being one of storage — protruding as they do, the sticks are likely to catch on the insides of bags or coat pockets and not sit properly. It’s not enough of a negative to put anyone off buying the Vita, but it’s likely to be an annoyance for some.

Another small change is that the D-Pad is now a solid “cross”, rather than four individual directional buttons, though this felt more a cosmetic change, with no real impact on gameplay. Otherwise, the Vita has the traditional four PlayStation face buttons and left and right shoulder buttons.

The capacitive touchscreen is swift and responsive, as smartphone users have come to expect. This is certainly no coincidence — with Angry Birds alone racking up a half-billion downloads, the market for touch generation titles is huge. If Sony can tap into even a fraction of that audience with simple controls and an easy to use digital store, it will.

The touchpad on the back is a little less intuitive, simply because of the element of guesswork in not being able to see where you’re intending to interact with. It’s just as responsive as its front-facing compatriot though, and after something of a learning curve you’re soon tapping in the appropriate places.

The really interesting control functionality comes with the incorporation of Six-Axis motion controls, often in conjunction with the cameras. First wave games such as Reality Fighters and Gravity Rush are already using this to dramatic effect, allowing you to pan around your self-styled arena or direct characters in-game simply by shifting the Vita around in meatspace.

At its heart, the Vita is a terrifically tactile device. While all the games we played utilised a combination of traditional, touch and movement controls, how we chose to interact with them was largely at our discretion. Whether future games continue this trend will vary from developer to developer but the emphasis seems to be on giving the player choice, rather than forcing gimmicky mechanisms into games where they’d be ill-suited. Overall, the Vita’s multiple control inputs make you feel a lot more immersed in the games you play — something the addition of 3D has failed to do for the 3DS.

Next, software the Part 2 of the Hands-on preview of Sony PlayStation Vita…


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