PlayStation Vita - the essential guide
Everything you need to know about Sony's latest handheld console - the games, the hardware, the future - analysed and assessed
The first video game hardware launch of the year hits Europe on Wednesday. And while everyone seems to love the look and feel of the PS Vita, question marks remain over its prospects in a portable gaming market dominated by smartphones and tablets.
So is the world still interested in a £200 dedicated gaming portable? And if it isn't, what can Vita do to change its mind?
Here's our in-depth guide to the device of the moment.
Weighing in at a mere 260g, Vita is lighter and thinner than most gamers expect before they see one. The casing is sleek, glossy and reasonably robust, the "super oval" shape continuing the design philosophy of the PSP. The front is dominated by the huge 5in OLED screen, which provides gorgeous detail, colour and contrast. Playing something like Uncharted: Golden Abyss or WipEout 2048 is really quite astonishing for the first few minutes - like that first go on Ridge Racer on the old PSP.
Of course, we're beginning to see smartphones with 5in screens. The Samsung Galaxy Note and the forthcoming LG Optimus Vu are creating a new category between tablets and handsets. But right now, the Vita is certainly at the upper end of portable display technology.
The control configuration, too, is close to perfect. The two analogue sticks are very small - as are the standard four PlayStation buttons - but they're well spaced to ensure comfort and clarity and they are highly responsive. At last, we have a handheld format that can offer the same sort of fast, detailed manoeuvrability we're used to from a console controller - without the need for a hugely ugly add-on. Suddenly, proper first- and third-person shooters are a distinct possibility. Sure, with my large hands I found it slightly uncomfortable to cover the two shoulder buttons and the analogues at first, but after a few hours of Uncharted I'm getting used to it.
The front has a standard PlayStation button to get you back to the menu screen, as well as Start and Select buttons. Around the edges are the USB port, a slot for games, a slot for memory cards and an extra port for as-yet unannounced accessories. Surprisingly, there's no video-out so you won't be connecting your Vita to your 50in TV any time soon. Sound is also a little disappointing with a slightly tinny playback through the external speakers, though of course a headset port is provided.
The multi-touch display is sensitively tuned for gaming purposes. Interacting with the gloomy monochrome world of Escape Plan is a real pleasure, allowing you to tap on in-game items like light bulbs and signs, making them swing or collapse. And in Uncharted, you can show Nathan where to climb by simply swiping across the screen to plot out a route.
Meanwhile, the huge multi-touch swipe pad on the rear of the device brings in a fresh range of tactile gaming possibilities - not least, allowing you to interact via touch without having to cover a quarter of the screen real estate with your fat thumbs. WipEout, for example, lets you slide your finger along the back to accelerate, but more interesting, is the level in mini-game collection, Little Deviants, where you prod a landscape from beneath to create little hills, thereby guiding a ball around the map.
Both the back and front touchpads can be used together, so players can literally pinch onscreen objects between their thumb and index finger. In the brilliant mini-game app, Frobisher Says (distributed free with Vita pre-orders but availble to everyone in May) there's a task named Squash the Toff where you splatter the plasticine heads of regal figures by pinching them in this way. It's surprisingly therapeutic.
At the heart of the machine is an SoC with four ARM Cortex A9 processors, working together with a quad-core PowerVR SGX 543MP4+ graphics processing unit. Considering that the SGX 543 implementation in the iPad 2 and iPhone 4s is dual-core, we already have the capacity for twice the graphics performance of those devices. But that's not all: this GPU tech is apparently a unique version of the 5-series set-up, specifically tuned for Vita by Sony. A spokesman for PowerVR manufacturer Imagination Technologies told us:
If you want to define the '+' in SGXMP4+, it's really all the things that Sony can take control of because they know so much about the system and how it will be used at all times. It starts from their own API for talking to the graphics, which enables them to know how data will be submitted and ultimately delivered to the screen. Then they have tight control over the SoC bus infrastructure which passes information for the graphics through the system - think of this like AGP or PCI-Express in a PC, though in fact it's neither of those standards.
And then finally you have the way they've designed the cache infrastructure to control where data is at any time and how quickly it can be accessed and how efficiently it can be moved. Think: very quickly and very efficiently. Sony and its developers can console the geometry pipeline, how memories are partitioned, and how and when they render to screen. There rare all sorts of low-level, to-the-metal tricks that go toward gaining the best possible performance.
Can we compare the performance with PlayStation 3? Graeme Ankers, the game director, on WipEout 2048 certainly thinks so. "We've had the hardware from early on, right from the earliest prototype units," he says. "When we were working on WipEout, we did some benchmark tests against WipEout HD fury on the PlayStation 3. We took an HD track and we piped it through the Vita, we put the polys through, we put a similar shader solution through, and we were getting a 250,000 polygon-per-frame throughput - that is comparable to what we were doing on PS3. So we developed the tracks for 2048 as though we were working on a next-gen console."
At the very least, the Vita specifications are at the upper end of current smartphone performance. The question is, for how long? A couple of handsets will be using the new ARM A15 chipset this year, and Imagination Technologies is already touting its massively more powerful Series 6 Rogue GPUs. Nothing stays state-of-the-art for long in this business.
What's interesting is how closely this architecture parallels current thinking in smartphone design - it's almost as though Sony knows that a lot of young studios these days will be cutting their teeth on iOS and Android projects, rather than on complex console titles. There's no sign here of the PlayStation 3's arduously complicated set-up, complete with eight Synergistic Processor Units. Open Vita up and its modular design and efficient CPU/GPU system say phone rather than console.
It seems then, that ease-of-development is a key concern. "The Vita is really nice to develop for," says Ricky Haggett, the co-founder of HoneySlug - creator of Frobisher Says. "The architecture is straightforward, and for the most part, the APIs are clear and easy to use. Of course, there are some teething issues - to be expected with a console that hasn't launched yet - but there weren't that many things that tripped us up during development, and the dev support team were always on hand to turn around solutions quickly.
"The fact that the tech of Frobisher Says - a game which aims to use every bit of functionality available on the Vita - was made by just two programmers should give you an idea of how straightforward the Vita APIs are to work with. Although, to be fair, they are awesome programmers!"
Disappointingly, however, Sony doesn't seem to be capitilising on this accessibility with an open development platform. At the moment, there are no indie APIs available online akin to the Xbox XNA developer centre: making games for Vita remains a closed shop for a lucky few affiliates only. This seems almost catastrophically reductive in an era of bedroom coders producing hugely popular mini-games such as Little Wing and Tiny Tower.
There are other techie letdowns. The device's front and rear-facing cameras won't tempt you to leave your Nikon DSLR at home - at a measly 0.3Mp a piece, they're far behind even the most basic contemporary cameraphones. However, Sony has said that the camera specs are designed with augmented reality games rather than photography and film-making in mind, so the lower resolution will lead to smoother framerates in AR titles like Reality Fighters.
Another key bugbear: Vita is awash with proprietary formats. You need a proprietary USB cable to plug the thing into your PC or PS3, and the system has no internal memory for game data, so if you want to save your progress or download titles you'll need one of the - yes - proprietary memory cards. These come in 4GB, 8GB and 16GB iterations (the 32GB versions won't be available in the UK at launch), with the 16GB option priced at £40. For that you could get yourself two 32GB SD Cards.
Of course, this is all about controlling the peripherals market, and Sony will claim it needed a smaller, custom-built memory card solution for its feature-packed device. But with the comparatively high price of the console itself, gamers might not appreciate having to pay over the odds for memory, too. The cards are also tiny so swapping one while on the go is a precarious and potentially costly endeavour.
The Vita will have around 30 games available at launch. The line-up ranges from major titles such as Uncharted: Golden Abyss (above), WipEout 2048 and Virtua Tennis 4, to smaller downloadable games like Escape Plan and Super Stardust Delta. Prices are set to range considerably, with Uncharted at the upper end on £40, and downloadable games starting at a fiver for Motorstorm RC.
It's a strong selection, not just in numbers but in quality. There are decent renditions of major console brands (Fifa is there, too, alongside Marvel v Capcom 3 and Ridge Racer) as well as interesting newcomers like augmented reality fighting game Reality Fighters and mini-game collection Little Deviants. Plus, there are Vita versions of favourites like LittleBigPlanet, Call of Duty, Resistance and Bioshock on the horizon, and Sony Japan's awesome open-world physics adventure Gravity Rush should be out here in May, and as visual showcase for the hardware that is unmissable.
I also like the look of two lesser-known downloadable launch titles - the platform puzzler A-Men from Polish developer Bloober Team and Subbuteo-style augmented reality sports sim, Table Football by Hull's own Four Door Lemon.
On the subject of augmented reality, each Vita will ship with six AR cards and three apps to try them out on - just like the AR offering with the Nintendo 3DS. "We've experimented with AR in WipEout and we may well do something with it in the future," says Ankers. "The interesting thing is when you combine AR with the Vita's powerful gyros and accelerometers ... you'll be able to project an image onto a specific point and then walk around it, move in close to it, get further away - and it adjusts perfectly."
Ricky Haggett concurs: "tThe gyroscopes are incredibly accurate, so the games where you're moving the Vita around the real world and it is changing the display in real-time feel amazing. We'd love to make some more games using this tech because it works fantastically well!"
Vita owners will also be able to download classic PSP and PSmini titles from the PlayStation Store (which also gets an icon on the main menu). According to Sony, 275 "legacy" PSP titles will be available from launch along with 117 minis (from 60p each), and more will added to the list in the future. If these are sensibly priced, it's a smart idea - especially for gamers who didn't take the plunge with PSP, but heard all about landmark titles such as Patapon, Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness and Persona 3.
There are two models to opt for - one comes with Wi-Fi support, allowing you to get online via any hotspot or your own wireless internet connection, the other has Wi-Fi and 3G, so you'll be able to use it like a mobile phone and get internet access whenever you're in range of a 3G service. We found the Wi-Fi to be easy to set up, and downloading the requisite system update is quick and painless. The current version is 1.60 which adds the ability to capture video footage, and puts Google Maps on your menu.
The Vita comes with a basic web browser, which currently lacks support for Flash and won't show YouTube videos. It does, however, support HTML 5, and updates will no doubt arrive later to add features. It's not the fastest web browsing experience on the planet, either, but it does the job.
Perhaps the most interesting option is the Near app - Vita's answer to the Nintendo 3DS StreetPass function. It allows you to check the whereabouts and favourite games of people on your friends list, as well as finding out if anyone else is playing a Vita nearby. Gamers can leave virtual gifts or challenges for each other in specific locations, perhaps dropping off weapons, costumes or ammo. Plus, if you have mates nearby, you can set up ad-hoc multiplayer sessions with them.
"The next step is a location-based network, where you can leave challenges around the world and get rewarded for doing so," says Ankers. "The connected nature of the device is the key element going forward."
Haggett, meanwhile, sees Vita becoming an accessory in more ambitious urban gaming sessions. "What could work is using the Vita as a peripheral device in a real life game. So if a bunch of friends went to a park to play one of those nerfgun zombie ARG things that are popular these days, they could use Vitas to do interesting stuff - like showing them where their teammates are, or warning them if zombies are near. I'm quite into facilitating more free-form experiences, so rather than dictating what the actual gameplay is, the Vita becomes a tool which different games can use."
Elsewhere on the menu, there's a Party app, allowing voice and text chat between friends, even when they're playing different games. And the Group Messaging option lets you send out text messages to all your PlayStation friends. And naturally, there is support for Flickr, Facebook and Twitter, the latter via a dedicated Vita client named LiveTweet.
It's a pretty comprehensive social gaming service, which exploits the intrinsically portable nature of the hardware. If Sony can produce some kind of Killer App to really exploit the sense of real-time social connectivity engendered by Near, it could be an important part of tempting sceptics over.
Elsewhere, the Vita can of course connect with the PS3. This will allow users to side load their videos, music and compatible games onto the handheld, but there are more interesting possibilities. Already, several Vita titles allow in-game communication between the two machines. With WipEout, for example, Vita players can challenge PS3 owners who have a copy of WipEout HD to multiplayer racers. Cross-platform play is also supported in Motorstorm RC, Ultimate Marvel v Capcom 3, Hustle Kings and Top Darts - and some titles will be free to download on one platform if you purchase them on the other.
There are also titles that allow continuous play across both platforms. In effect, owners can make progress on the Vita version, save their game, and then pick it up on the PS3 version when they get home. The forthcoming dungeon slasher, Ruin, supports this feature.
Furthermore, Sony is bringing over the Remote Play functionality introduced on the PSP, which allowed certain limited PS3 content to be accessed remotely via the handheld console. At the moment, it's unclear how this will work, but Sony has demoed the PS3 game Killzone 3 being streamed from a PS3 to a Vita, so you're able to play the game wherever you are. This doesn't seem to be working right now, but a firmware update should make many of your PS3 titles accessible while on the move.
And finally, the Remote Play connectivity means your Vita can also double up as a PS3 controller. At the moment, this would be a little novelty extra, but in the future it could prove a crucial part of competing with the forthcoming Nintendo Wii U console, which features a new tablet-style controller with its own built-on screen. We're all getting used to the "two screen" concept - simultaneously watching a large TV while interacting via a smaller one (for most people this means tweeting while watching Dancing on Ice, but you get the picture). If this is the way living room entertainment is going, Vita looks set to be able to capitalise.
Sony says we should expect between three to five hours for gaming. Indeed, at our recent Indie Social event, the three Vitas demo units were in continual use for over five hours. The official specs say we should also get five hours of video and nine hours for music playback (the Vita can read a variety of formats including MP3, MPEG-4, Wav and AAC). The battery recharges from empty to full in 2.5 hours.
The official price is £230 for the Wi-Fi model and £270 for the Wi-Fi and 3G model. In this country, Vodafone is Sony's partner network for 3G, but it's not an exclusive deal, and you'll be able to use your current 3G sim in the device, whatever your operator.
The video game news site MCV has provided a comprehensive list of pricing deals and bundles, with Amazon offering the basic Vita for just £210, and Play.com going with £213 for a Wi-Fi Vita and 8GB memory card.
No one in the industry is going to argue with the fact that Vita is a beautiful piece of consumer electronics merchandise. And very few pundits will suggest it has anything less than a strong software line-up. The key contention is saleability: in the age of smartphones, will people still pay morre than £200 for a dedicated piece of gaming hardware any more?
My answer is ... well, yes, a lot of people will. Certainly Android and iOS devices cater brilliantly to those daily impulse gaming moments - if Angry Birds, match-three puzzlers and the odd isometric RPG do it for you, Vita won't be a wise purchase. Furthermore, a handful of smartphone titles (such as Dead Space and Infinity Blade) are beginning to offer some genuine console-style depth.
However, the touchscreen-only interface of most phones can't provide one important element: spatial accuracy. Pinpoint control is needed for shooters or athletic third-person adventures like Batman or Assassin's Creed - and these are the mainstay genres of the console experience. With the Vita's 5in OLED screen, these will look lovely and play exceptionally well.
Perhaps it will be something of a luxury platform - not something users will take everywhere they go (I wouldn't want to slide it into a back pocket), but perfect for longer journeys. Or for when someone else is watching TV but you still want to collapse on the sofa and play a big, meaty action adventure.
And in some ways, the term "luxury" is ever-so-slightly misleading. It's not cheap, that's for sure, and in these dark economic times it'll hover out of reach for many until a price drop occurs. But Sony says it will support Vita for 10 years - which, considered beside your average smartphone or even laptop lifespan, is a veritable eon of usage.
As for the 3DS - well, this is the same old argument as the PSP v DS era: whose games do you prefer? Nintendo's machine is cheaper, more portable and sports a novelty 3D interface. Plus, Super Mario 3D Land and Star Fox 64 3D have made it a hugely desirable purchase. But then, if you actually love Sony exclusives such as Uncharted or LittleBigPlanet, or want accurate handheld renditions of Call of Duty or Bioshock, you'll be in exactly the wrong place with the Nintendo option.
Like the PSP, the PS3 and the Bravia TV range, Vita is a piece of consumer tech for people who love consumer tech. It's strongly specced, ostentatious, desirable, but not exactly essential for the masses. Its feature-set promises a new era of wildly interconnected gaming experiences that mine location data, chat to your home console and allow you to form weird Venn diagrams between real-life, friendships and games. But then that's the promise; the reality may be five years of PS3 ports with the odd indie gem chucked in.
Thing is, that worse case scenario may be enough for some; for many even. Sony, after all, really believes in this thing, and Sony isn't mad. You'll need deep pockets, both to buy and carry this thing, but if you're - ahem - a "core" gamer with a love of epic gameplay design, I doubt you'll regret it.
What the experts say
The PlayStation Vita is a truly lovely machine. To be honest, I'm still slightly in awe of its power, its countless inputs oozing potential and its unparalleled launch line-up of games, which would be considered strong even for a home console.
However, there are niggles, most notably the generally high price of said great games, but also its reliance on the PS3 or PC as a surrogate life support machine. If you're a Vita buyer sans one of these mothers and their data-wire umbilicals, you will be reliant on proprietary memory cards (why not SD?) of excessive expense (£40 for 16GB) and unrealistic size caps (16GB is the largest, with Uncharted 4GB alone). Memory cards that, going on our evidence, you will repeatedly lose and/or curse every time you have to insert or extract due to them being half the size of a Monopoly house.
It seems curiously retrograde on a system that otherwise oozes class, quality and sophistication. That said, a couple of hours in the company of WipEout 2048 or Gravity Rush and you will forgive it practically anything.
Matt Hill, Deputy Editor, T3
It's a remarkable handheld - the screen is beautiful, and Sony has delivered on its promise of console-quality gaming on the move. While it faces a challenge standing up to the vibrancy and low prices of the App Store, gamers will flock to Vita if great games emerge that capitalise on its raw power and flexible control inputs. It's therefore up to developers to make the best of Vita.
Craig Owens, games editor, Edge
Without question, PS Vita is a powerful device with lots of potential. I think it's the best answer the traditional parts of the games industry could have come up with against the advance of smartphone gaming. Retailers are very optimistic about the launch and hopeful that it will provide a boost during what has become some very challenging trading weeks. The trick for something like Vita to succeed is software and pricing - can that stand up to the huge volume of games apps on mobile and newer things like 3DS? Given Day One for Vita means around 30 games are available from £4.79 up to £49.99 it will certainly get off to a promising start.
Michael French, editor-in-chief, MCV