Review: Sony PlayStation Vita 1st Edition

Note: The following is cross-posted from Gemakei, where I am the Community Administrator.

While the PlayStation Vita didn’t officially launch in the US until this past Wednesday, for those willing to fork out the extra cash, Sony offered a special First Edition Bundle. For $350, you got to enjoy a 3G model of the Vita, Little Deviants, a special case, a 4GB memory card, and bragging rights a week early with a February 15th release date. However, Field Test Edition may have been a more suitable name. The Black Screens of Death reported from Japan were not a lie. But, post February 22nd, things are looking much better, but not flawless.

What’s in the box… es!?

That’s right, boxes. In a rather interesting packaging move by Sony, the box for the First Edition Bundle is actually a box with another box in it. Please kindly direct your drool to the following unboxing video:

Without a doubt, after the actual Vita itself, the most valuable part of the bundle was the 4GB memory card. While Sony did have a F*** You to offer with the Launch Day Bundle getting an 8GB card, I’ll take the 4GB card. Plain and simple, you can’t do shit without a memory card. Vita Cards are read-only, so no saving of game data to the game card like on the Nintendo DS. It appears the only thing that is written to the Vita’s on-board memory is the firmware and home screen database. Everything else goes on that tiny little card.

The Hardware

The Vita starts at $250 (before lovely old taxes) and for a good reason. The Vita is a certified beast of a machine. While you won’t get any PS3 graphics out it, they’re certainly better than a PS2’s and blow the DS’ right out of the water. The Vita might not be the easiest thing to fit in a pocket if you have small or already filed pockets, but it will not weigh them down. It’s light, thin, and overall easy to carry around, despite its long body. The Vita is mainly made out of plastic, but it still feels like a very solid piece of hardware. On the downside, the plastic body does make it a huge fingerprint magnet. Unlike an iPhone, the Vita does not appear to have any fingerprint-resist coating at all. Unless you feel like cleaning it on a daily basis or wearing gloves each time you go to pick it up, get used to seeing smudges all over the place. Oh and that front-facing camera? Good luck keeping that clean. Not that you’ll want to ever use it anyway.

The Vita’s cameras are 1.3MP each and certainly show it. While the picture quality appeared to be a bit better than the DS (and not just because of the higher MP), if you have a digital camera or even an iPad 2, you’re better off using those instead; the Vita’s cameras appear to be clearly engineered for AR usage rather than a daily camera. You can see more camera shots and a couple of game screenshots here. For a couple of video tests, head over here.

In regards to the buttons, joysticks, and touch controls, overall, they work very nicely. The dual joysticks are much smaller than those of a PS3 controller and do not click for R3 and L3, but they work and feel a hell of a lot better than any slide pad I’ve ever used – once you get used to them. At first, yes, they are very awkward, especially if you have big fingers or hands in general. Sony appears to have engineered the Vita in general with more petite hands in general. Nonetheless, by day three, I had adjusted to the smaller buttons. The d-pad and shape buttons are again smaller than the PS3’s, but are easy to push and very responsive. The Start and Select buttons are the smallest on the device and, as a result, the hardest to press, however I’ve yet to play a game that requires a lot of use from them. As for touch, the front screen has a few issues with responsiveness, but is certainly on-par with any iOS device screen. As for the rear, well, just hope you don’t have to use it as a form of primary control. For simple things like accelerate in Wipeout 2048 or climb in Uncharted: Golden Abyss, it works just fine. For more involved things like character control in some modes of Little Deviants, to be blunt, sorry Sony, but you need to go back to the drawing board on that one. The rear touch pad is a royal pain in the ass for primary control. Unless you’re really good at guessing where your fingers are in relation to the front display or like being unable to see where in the hell you’re touching, you are probably going to find yourself wanting to use to Vita as a $250+ Frisbee. Wrapping up the controls, there is not much to be said about the L/R triggers: they work, they’re responsive, easy to push, and don’t feel like they’re going to go flying off any time soon if you get trigger happy.

As for the insides, the Vita has a quad-core processor, much better than any DS and a bit better than an iPhone, arguably the Vita’s main competitor right now. However, it does seem to be lacking in graphics processing. For the most part, the Vita provides a solid frame rate, but I found it struggling to render action-intense races in Modnation Racers: Roadtrip in real-time, with the frame rate occasionally coming to a complete crawl. The Vita also occasionally struggled to render the animation for the Near Livearea screen. In regards to load times, go find a modem and an AOL disk and install disk. Get out a stopwatch and start timing the Vita vs. the connecting to AOL screen. For having a quad-core processor, the Vita loves to wait, especially in Wipeout: 2048. It takes a good full two minutes or more to load up a race, or in other words, plenty of time for a quick pee break. On the other hand, load times in Uncharted: Golden Abyss, which I would’ve expected to have the worst, are meer seconds. That said, load times right now are dependent on the game and are indeed further dependent on if you’re playing off a Vita Game Card or the Vita Memory Card, with the Game Card producing the better results. Also in the inside, the Vita’s battery life is acceptable. Depending on your settings and what game you are playing, expect to get about three hours of play time. Music lasts about five. Standby depending on what is open in the background and as a result, I can’t provide a good estimate at this time, but it’s obviously more than you’d get leaving the screen on full blast all the time.

Wrapping up the hardware, the Vita has stereo speakers, just like the DS. Given the Vita’s overall higher specs, it would be unfair to compare the Vita’s sound quality to the DS’. However, the Vita appears to have no problem playing orchestrated soundtracks – just not super lush ones. If you loved Drake’s Theme in Uncharted 3, the rendition in Golden Abyss will leave you disappointed. It is not nearly as lush nor does it sound as rich in terms of instrument quality. It by no means sounds like a weak midi, but it won’t make you want to loop it over and over. That being said, the speakers on the Vita are pretty good for a mobile device, they sound better than my iPad 2’s speaker, do a pretty good job playing the soundtracks in games, but of course headphones will yield best results. Rather surprisingly, the official Vita Headset offers remarkable sound without a wallet-busting price. I do suggest grabbing a pair, especially if you were just planning on using an iPhone headset. They put Apple’s headphones to shame and cost about the same as a basic replacement pair. They also offer three different sizes of earphone inserts, with the mediums installed by default.

The Software

Plain and simple, the Vita’s onboard software does its job pretty well. It does have room for improvement, but for being a 1.0 (OK, technically 1.61 at time of writing) it’s solid and generally bug free. Most of my suggestions for improvement are on the user interface side.

The home screen. The heart of the Vita. If you’re used to a touch-based OS, you should feel right at home. If you’re used to the XMB, it does leave room to be desired. In its current state, save for the support for multiple pages, the Vita’s home screen has zero support for content grouping. The closest you’ll currently find are the Photos, Videos, and Music apps, which are menu hell. The Music app has zero support for search nor playlists. If you wanted the Vita to be your new iPod, be prepared to a) fork over an additional $100 if you want the 32GB, the largest, memory card and b) flick like there’s no tomorrow.

The first app you’ll likely open, mainly to get it to stop jumping at you, will be Welcome Park. As the name suggests, Welcome Park is the Vita’s tutorial for controls. It’s entirely optional, but if you want some quick trophies, spend a couple of minutes in the app. The games are simple and offer a decent way to get introduced to the Vita’s controls and capabilities.

If you have the 3G model and plan on getting service through SH&T, oh sorry, AT&T, for the love of sanity, make sure your Vita is up-to-date. 3G activation on the shipping firmware is an impossible hell on Earth. Even with the updated firmware, it’d be nice if I could just hook up my Vita to my computer to activate the 3G, mainly due to the Vita’s rather disappointing keyboard. Of all the touch keyboards I’ve used, the Vita’s is the worst. Mainly thanks to its size, typing with two thumbs is difficult, there is no caps lock, no double space to insert period, and the symbols/numbers keyboard is simply WTF is this shit? Whoever designed the sym/num keyboard has clearly never seen a keyboard in their life. Numbers are all shoved off to the right side like they were supposed to be a continuation of the QWERTY keyboard, with the symbols on a lovely four-page scrolling list on the left.

Thankfully, Content Manager is less rage inducing. Navigation is simple: “are you connecting to a PS3 or PC?”, followed by “alright, so did you want to copy stuff, backup, or restore?” Friends, Trophies, Group Messaging, Party, Near, and the PS Store are all equally simple with straightforward controls and navigation. Of the bunch, Near is certainly the most interesting. In a nutshell, it’s Sony’s take on the 3DS’ StreetPass. In more detail, depending on hope open you are with it, it’s basically a mini social network. You can share your location, what games you’ve played, what you think of said games, and if you’re lucky, discover little presents for games. On the downside, it can lead to massive random friend request spam. But again, you control what’s shared through Near. You can even opt-out of using it completely.

In regards to downloadable apps, they get their associated jobs done. The AR card games, Table Soccer, Fireworks, and Cliff Diving all exist to show off the Vita’s AR capabilities, providing a couple of minutes of fun. The Flickr app is simply beautiful.  The level of eye candy is just right, looks just like a Metro app from Windows 8 or a set of Live Tiles from Windows Phone, and pictures just look fantastic on the Vita’s OLED screen, which is insanely bright even at the lowest setting. However, short of taking a screenshot, there is sadly no way to save photos from the app. LiveTweet, aka Twitter for Vita, is a simple Twitter client. It’s not as beautifully done as Flickr, but it works. However, like the Flickr app, in order to authorize it, you do have to actually write down a numerical code. The worst of the bunch and oddly pulled from the store and further no longer functional, is Facebook. If you really need to update your FB status, whip out your phone and send it a text. The Facebook app for Vita is 100% certified garbage. It’ll show you your feed sure, but not much else. No groups. No pages. And of course no games. However, the fact that it has been yanked from the PS Store makes me think I managed to get an accidentally launched copy of the app, hopefully one unfinished. Finally, the best app I’ve seen for Vita so far is sadly Japan-only. NicoNicoDouga has managed to produce a beautiful, fully functional, exact mobile-optimized copy of the site. It’s what every Vita app should want to be. Even the flying comment madness Nico is known for is there – and it looks great on the Vita’s screen.

To wrap up software, the Vita’s browser is a browser and while better than the DS, it won’t replace Mobile Safari on your iPhone. Like the iPhone, it lacks Flash support (but it might be coming) but supports HTML5 – or so claims Sony. That said, don’t expect to be able to play HTML5 video. The Vita might have support for HTML5 somewhere, but it’s missing Video tag, h.264, and WebM, or in less technical terms, all the things that matter for video. If you have a PS3, you’re better off using Remote Play to use the PS3’s web browser. You can use that for YouTube.

Games: First Impressions

As I’ve yet to finish any game and this is a review of the system, not its games, I think it would be unfair for me to give a full review on any yet. However, I will share some first impressions.

Little Deviants, the game that came with the First Edition Bundle, is very obviously a game designed to introduce you to the Vita’s controls and hardware. While not designed to do so, it is also a game better called Little Deviants 1: Huge Rage. Let’s just say some modes work better than others. As previously mentioned, stay away from any requiring rear touch. Bottom line, if it didn’t come with your Vita, you’re better off with the demo from the PS Store. Save the $30 for another memory card.

Wipeout: 2048 didn’t actually support online play, including the heavily touted Cross-Play (and I don’t mean the dress up kind), until the official Vita launch on the 22nd, but given the heavily addicting, albeit slow loading, single-player campaign, it’s a flaw that can be overlooked. Of course, it’s also not an issue now. At $40 it’s one of the more expensive Vita apps, but it’s a great racing game that will keep you up until the early hours of the morning or until you battery runs out, which ever comes first. If you already have Wipeout HD for PS3, the buy is a no-brainer. If you don’t, grab the demo first to be sure you’re willing to shell out the $40 for the Vita Card or $35 for the PSN download.

Uncharted: Golden Abyss is easily the Vita’s crown title at the moment. And its price shows it. While the graphics aren’t as good as the PS3’s and it doesn’t feature a multiplayer mode, hey, its freaking Uncharted on your Vita. What’ve you got 3DS? OoT: 3D? Meh. Golden Abyss offers plenty of puzzles and exploring as anyone who’s played the series on PS3 should come to expect. Sadly, Sony seems to have wanted to make this a noob-friendly installment into the Uncharted series. Collecting treasure and other “hidden” things are just too easy in Golden Abyss. And if you want to argue that, there’s a button right on the Livearea screen to buy maps of where every single treasure is. Apparently the hints in Drake’s journal weren’t enough. Nonetheless, Golden Abyss is definitely a game to check out.

Finally, it’s not out yet, at least not in the US, but Gravity Daze is easily a game to keep an eye on. If your local GameStop has a demo Vita, it should be one of the demos loaded on it. I couldn’t hear anything from the game while I played the demo, so I can’t say what the voice acting nor music is like, but it is a beautiful looking game and likely to be the Vita’s next crown title.

The Bottom Line

While the First Edition Vita lacked many of the Vita’s selling points: Twitter, Facebook, apps in general, and online play for games, it was still nice having bragging rights an extra week. Overall, the Vita starts at $250 for a good reason. It’s a solid piece of hardware, has a fantastic selection of launch titles, and is definitely a worthy iOS competitor in terms of games. However, the required, proprietary memory card is a dick move on Sony’s part as a somewhat hidden additional cost. The Vita has only been out in the US for just over a week (if you go by the First Edition’s launch date), but it is a system that shows a huge amount of promise. It is definitely an investment and in a world where people are turning to $3 App Store/Marketplace/Whatever games, a risky one. While it is too early to tell for sure, the Vita has the potential to catch on better than the PSP and Sony could use a win in the mobile market in the US. In its current state, the PlayStation Vita gets an 8.6 out of 10 and a recommended buy.

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