With the advent of smartphones and tablets, portable handheld gaming devices have taken a serious hit. Why get a device like a PSP or a Nintendo 3Ds when you can get an iPhone or iPad that provides a great gaming experience — with access to new titles every day through an app store?
Sony’s not backing down, though, and its new PlayStation Vita gamer’s handset is intended to trump smartphone gaming in every way. It has physical controls, a four-core processor and a beautiful touchscreen. Attempting to bring portable video games to levels on par with current-generation home consoles, Vita gets very close to offering an ideal on-the-go gaming experience.
So how will it stack up against competitors like the new (third generation) iPad?
With the Vita, Sony caught up with Apple by adding a touch screen to the multi-button controls on the PSP. Then it blew team Cupertino away with the addition of dual joysticks. IPad controls are fine for point-and-click games, but unless a standard controller peripheral appears, it will continue to be annoying to navigate 3-D worlds using only the iPad’s touch pad and accelerometer.
The Vita’s joysticks do take a little bit of time to get used to; they’re small compared to a PS3 controller and you can easily tap them with too much force. But once you’ve had some time to adjust, guiding your characters becomes easier.
A touch pad has also been added to the back side of the Vita. The jury is still out on how useful or fun the back touch pad will prove to be, and my guess is “minimally.” “Uncharted 3″ uses the rear touch pad to allow you to fling your character up walls, a novelty control that I quickly gave up when I found the joysticks and buttons were easier. In games like “Little Deviants,” pushing items around using the Vita’s underside is a bit like hugging someone and trying to give them a back rub at the same time — you’re never quite sure that you’re doing it right.
The best new game play I experienced with the touch surfaces? One of the mini-games in “Little Deviants” asks you to pinch/pull at the Vita with a thumb on the touch screen and an index finger on the touch pad. Doing so slingshots your character across the screen and turned out to be pretty good fun.
Now standard for augmented reality play, front and rear cameras have been added to the PS Vita, matching the iPad. The Vita features 480p video recording, better than the iPad 2, but nowhere near the resolution of the new iPad, which boasts 1080p recording. Advantage iPad, though you likely won’t be able to tell the difference on the Vita’s smaller screen.
When playing with augmented reality titles, the Vita’s picture was far sharper than I expected it to be, producing complicated animations against the sharp, real-time backdrop of my living room. I’ve yet to see a game really nail augmented reality’s possibilities on either iPad or Vita (usually the games don’t interact with your environments enough for my taste), but I am sure the future of both will be interesting to watch.
The PlayStation Network’s PlayStation Plus Store is no Apple App Store (with 585,00 Apple apps available to date), but what Vita’s store lacks in quantity it more than makes up for in game quality, offering a large selection of old-school console games and mobile staples like “Plants vs. Zombies.” Almost any Apple Store game could easily be ported to PS Vita, so expect the most popular of the bunch to make the trip over. IPad developers are attempting to push the quality of their games up a notch with titles like “Infinity Blade,” but again, without physical buttons the device will always be hard to recommend for first-person shooters and other games heavy on 360 degree world exploration.
Vita launched with a strong and varied slate of titles, succeeding at satisfying casual and hardcore gamers alike with mini-games, first-person shooters, platformers, sporting and racing games.
Some titles had some real tender loving care put into their design. Motion-sensor steering felt natural while I played Wipeout racing, for instance. And the Fifa soccer series includes touch-screen passing, which I consider groundbreaking for open field sports games.
Other titles felt phoned in to fill the release slate. “ModNation Racers” and “Hot Shots Golf” were two games with potential that both could have used some polishing and could have used the Vita’s powerful tools better.
Vita’s 5-inch, 960 x 544-resolution screen is perfectly sized for mobile gaming. It is two inches longer than the iPhone but four inches shorter than the iPad screen. Treading that middle ground lets the Vita have a big enough screen for gamers to be immersed in play while still allowing the machine to fit in a pocket (though it’s a snug fit). The Vita gets nicked a few points for screen brightness; you can crank the screen up and see fine in bright, direct sunlight, but compare the display to an iPhone and the Vita is significantly dimmer.
There is a lot of buzz about the new iPad’s groundbreaking 264 pixel-per-inch screen and it does top Vita’s 220ppi screen. Still, those playing on the Vita won’t be disappointed by the pixel count — the screen just isn’t large enough for one easily to discern any difference.
Apple claims that the new iPad will have up to a 10-hour battery life, while the Vita maxes out at nine hours of continuous use. These estimates are usually for music listening and don’t mean as much when you’re processing the heavy data of a video game, which drains batteries more quickly. We haven’t had a hands-on session long enough to drain iPad’s battery while playing games, but PS Vita is known to last up to five hours of continuous game play. While the iProducts flash a big onscreen “charging battery” as they suck in power, the Vita does not make it clear if the system is charging or not. This minor annoyance becomes a major one when you’re plugging in Vita’s charger cord, as it is very easy to plug the cord in backwards and “charge” for a few hours only to find the system still dead. Why the cord fits in the charger slot backwards, only Sony knows. The Vita will also not charge when plugged into a USB port, so Apple takes the win on this front.
Apple’s A5X chip was used to show off “Infinity Blade” last week, a title with impressive visuals but one that many noted caused some choppy lag on the new iPad. Ouch. The Vita’s Cortex-A9 processor offers smooth visuals with no delays, but it has caused the system to crash every now and then. About an hour into our “Uncharted” play-through, the Vita bricked, with the screen going black, the PlayStation button turning blue and all buttons ceasing to respond. We charged it for an hour and held the buttons down for a hard reboot, but neither brought the device back. It took some serious Googling to discover that the only solution was holding the power button (not the PS button) down for 15-30 seconds. A quick Twitter search led to more complaints along similar lines.
Launch titles for the Vita try to replicate the look and feel of current-generation systems and mostly succeed. “Uncharted: Golden Abyss” has the cinematic camera work of the PS3 series and “Fifa Soccer 12″ has ample amounts of audio commentary, on par with PS3 experiences. Most impressive thus far? The graphics in “Rayman Origins” are identical to its console counterpart.
It’s hardly fair to compare the two, as iPad does so much more than gaming or Internet browsing, but if you’re looking at one vs. the other mainly for gaming purposes, you’re going to drop a minimum of $499 for an iPad, and $249 minimum for a Vita. In that light, suddenly Vita’s much-bemoaned high asking price doesn’t sound so bad. Need wireless gameplay beyond wifi hot spots? iPads start at $549 for an AT&T- or Verizon-enabled device while an ATT-only enabled Vita starts at $299. Games generally cost less for iPad, especially with some Vita games are being priced at console standards of $40-$50. Still, it is good to keep in mind that you can resell any physical game you bought for Vita. Bought a stinker from Apple? You won’t see any money back from it.
Apple’s iCloud storage is ideal music and photos, but most apps still do not support the service. This means if you need space on your iPad and you take “Angry Birds” off your device without syncing to your computer first, all of your game-play data will be erased. Vita games come in dime-sized plastic rectangles and can be popped in and out of the system with relative ease, as long as you don’t mind chipped fingernails (Vita’s slots are hard to pry open.) You can get an iPad with 16, 32 or 64GB to fill while Vita’s memory cards are interchangeable and come in 8, 16 and 32 gig sizes. One major gripe: purchasing additional memory cards is now a little costlier than it was with the PSP, with a $99.99 asking price on 32 gig storage.
At the new iPad’s announcement Wednesday, Phil Schiller said portable device owners claimed that the iPad was their favorite device for gaming. Clearly the focus group had not spent any time with a PS Vita. Indeed, anything the iProducts can do, Vita can do better… for the most part.