Hands-on With The PlayStation Vita – PSNation Visits The Vita Hill Social Club

While our resident podcaster (Torgo) has been enjoying the Vita for what feels like a year now, the rest of us have experienced it vicariously through his video postings and information passed along via the podcast.  For me that changed today.  We paid a visit to the Vita Hill Social Club.  Their base was set up in a little well-known bar here in Austin, Texas.  We were received with friendly faces and generous offerings of snacks and drinks, not to mention some Vita goodies (including a Vita shot glass).

Not more than a few minutes later, my co-gamers and I were sitting our collective butts on soft-cushy couches and experiencing the PlayStation Vita for the first time.  We had access to a large number of Vita titles, and I wasn’t leaving until I checked them all out.  There was plenty of checking done today, and here are my initial thoughts.

The first thing I’d like to address is this notion that the gaming world doesn’t need the Vita because we all have phones that play games (not to mention tablets that do the same).  As a relatively-proud iPhone and iPad owner, I can assure you that there is room in my gaming world for this thing.  I game on my iPad quite a lot.  Don’t believe me? How about a screenshot of my iPad library.

Wait, I’m not done…..

This is the library of games currently available on my iPad.  I don’t have room for more because I have episodes of The Office and Parks and Recreation taking up some serious storage.  So when I say that I have jumped on the phone and tablet gaming wagon, I consider that to be an understatement.  What I experienced today on the Vita differed greatly from anything sitting in that library (yes, that includes the games that were once on a console).

The first game I asked to play was Wipeout 2048.  Sorry Nathan, but I have a thing for the hover-racing series.  I own a couple of Wipeout clones on my iPhone and usually end up playing them for an hour and never touching them again.  Why?

I’m not going to blame the touch controls because, quite frankly, in my years of playing games on the touch screen I have grown pretty comfortable with touch controls (though I will never prefer them over traditional).   Wipeout 2048 on the Vita was a serious extension of its PlayStation 3 cousin.  And I mean that in every possible way.  It’s not a watered down game that I can get for a buck.  It doesn’t play like a game that’s worth a dollar.  It plays like a “console game”.  And there is a lot more to that statement than simple preference, much like folks exclaiming that there is a difference between a dedicated PC game versus a console-only game ported to PC.   Wipeout 2048 felt polished, smooth and, most importantly, it felt “complete”.    There is a subliminal expectation that comes from buying a PlayStation 3 game like Skyrim or Uncharted 3 that does not come when buying Cut The Rope.  It’s not that the latter game is bad, or that its developers didn’t put as much effort into their creation.  It’s quite simply that Angry Birds is the game you play when you are waiting for a table at a restaurant, and Uncharted is the game that you play when you want a full interactive experience.

That’s not to say the my iPad doesn’t have games that attempt to offer a similar experience.  I own Shadow Guardian on my iPad and iPhone.  For those of you unfamiliar with Shadow Guardian, I can only describe it as an Uncharted clone, developed for the iPhone.  The same developer who worked on this game has also developed games that take their influence from anything like Halo, to Gran Theft Auto.  At the time of purchase (Shadow Guardian) I was excited to play something like Uncharted on my phone, during a lunch break or while waiting at a restaurant.  But what I played today on the Vita was Uncharted, brought to you by the experience of a developer that has taken it upon themselves to borrow the reigns from Naughty Dog and bring the couch experience to portable level.   The same expectations that I had for the PlayStation 3 version of Uncharted were placed here, and I was not disappointed.  This doesn’t indicate that Uncharted: Golden Abyss is triple-A title, I didn’t play enough to tell you that.  Hell, it may get the worst reviews in gaming history (though I doubt that), but it will still be a console gaming experience on a portable system.

I have played the best-looking games on my iPad 2, and I have seen some amazing things on it (Infinity Blade).  I have heard the arguments that the Vita doesn’t fit into today’s gaming environment because the handsets are delivering some amazing graphics, while still serving as a phone, and social machine.  While the following may be the case a year or two from now, nothing that I have played on my iPad 2 compares to what I saw in Uncharted: Golden Abyss and Wipeout 2048.  The few games that do come close on my tablet or phone either run at 15 frames a second, or crash my iPad after 15 minutes of gaming.

Here is what happens.  Let’s say that this year we get a new share of tablets.  They will have the hardware to punch out some amazing visuals.  Game-development is a business, like any other.  Publishers are here to make money.  With millions of iPads in circulation, each weaker than the more recent one, a developer will have to compensate for the slower machines in order to allow the game to run on multiple tablets and reach out to a larger number with their releases.  While I’ve seen a game like Galaxy on Fire running a different version for my iPad 2, the framerate suffered greatly because the tablet just couldn’t handle the geometry and effects that were being thrown at it.  The Vita is one system, one hardware.  As soon as a developer learns it, they know exactly what it can and can’t do.  They know that this is the hardware that will be in everyone’s hands, and they don’t have to compensate for older Vitas.  This is where the difference in visuals will be the most evident.

But enough about that.  Chances are that if you are still reading, you are more interested in the actual hands-on.  The one thing that made me initially nervous about the Vita were the dual sticks.  Since I could not hold one in my hands, I expected the twin-sticks to feel like the PSP Go.  While I thought the Go’s analog stick worked well, I didn’t think that I could get used to two of them in such a small space.  The PSP Go’s analog nub was too stiff, and I found myself overcompensating a lot when aiming in a game.  The best thing I can say about the Vita’s twin sticks is that while playing Uncharted: Golden Abyss, I lost myself.  I forgot that I was holding the handheld and simply started playing Uncharted.  I held down the left shoulder button and started aiming with my sniper rifle.  I found my target easily enough and took out enemies with as much ease as I would on Uncharted 3.  But here’s where things got interesting.  The much-touted motion-sensing controls kicked in while I was sniping, and I was able to fine-tune my aim.  This was another thing that I was initially apprehensive about, but not so anymore.  Not only was the feature non-intrusive nor forced upon me, but it actually worked, and worked well.  Sometimes my aim was just a hair off, so I’d turn ever-so-slightly to the right and nudge my reticle just enough to hit my target.  Great use of gyros!

Little Big Planet was next.  I never thought I would be this excited about the implementation of touch controls.  I was running through a level with my little sack boy and I stumbled upon a gate that would not open.  I couldn’t see a switch anywhere, so I was stumped.  Then I noticed that the background consisted of piano keys, so I started touching the screen and realized that I had to play some notes to open the door.  Later on, I jumped on a sling that I had to pull and aim with my finger.  Granted, these additions weren’t needed, but they were done in a way that didn’t feel like they were taking over the entire traditional gameplay of Little Big Planet.   In fact, it’s the touch controls that made Little Big Planet a two player-experience, playable on one Vita.  One of the sample games was a small table-hockey game.  Two players can hold the Vita and slide their finger left and right to control their goalie.  Another user-created level had me holding the Vita vertically in a mini game that could be described as a Spy Hunter clone.  The vertical positioning made seeing what was ahead a lot easier, making it easier to see what was ahead.

Graphically, Little Big Planet Vita looked identical to its bigger brother.  And it looked beautiful on the Vita’s LED screen.

The Vita’s menu interface is going to take some getting used to.  It works well, it looks great, and it’s fancy.  I’m just partial to the XMB.  I assume that Sony figured touch controls wouldn’t work as well with the XMB, and I can somewhat see how this would be the case.   By the end of my play-time with the little system, I was going through the various apps with ease, so I’m sure Vita owners will warm up to the interface after playing with it for some time.

Between the videos that Torgo has posted and my own time with it today, the Vita has absolutely sold itself to me.  It’s not 3D, and it’s not my phone.  But my tablet isn’t 3D, and it’s not my phone, nor is it my gaming device.  I game on it, but not one experience on it has ever come close to some of the better games on my PS3, 360, 3DS, or PSP.  The PS Vita is a gaming device that takes the current console generation level of gaming and places it in a portable system.  All of the launch titles are new to their respective series, so we aren’t getting ports from PS3 games (though a portable Shadow of Colossus would make my day).  Whether or not you are convinced about the Vita’s place in your gaming collection, I would recommend at least giving it a go.  It’s certainly a device worth checking out.

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