Some PS Vita Thoughts

Despite constantly getting burned by poorly launched hardware – hello, 3DS! – I made the decision to pre-order a PS Vita (Wifi) about a month ago. I’ve spent a good chunk of my free time since it was released on Wednesday playing it. Some assorted thoughts are below.

Hardware

What is most striking about the Vita is not the 5″ OLED screen, but the weight. Yes, the screen is bright and beautiful and practically overwhelming – but the device just feels so right. It doesn’t feel like a toy but it also doesn’t start to fatigue you during a long play session.

Sony went out of their way to load up the device with possible functional hooks, so much so that there’s a small minigame collection called “Welcome Park” to show you how some of them work. Out of all of the ways to interact, I’m most intrigued by the touch panel on the reverse of the unit. There’s some interesting use cases that will come out of it, like EA’s new shooting mechanic for FIFA.

Battery life isn’t great but seems better than the 3DS, or at least it’s less prone to draining itself when you aren’t using it.

The lack of any onboard storage – you HAVE to buy a propritary memory card if you want to save anything at all – is completely perplexing and typical Sony.

OS

Sony opted to ditch the XMB for a new OS specifically for the Vita, and I think it’s largely a success. There’s mainly a page and icon metaphor, with 10 icons per page and up/down swiping. No folders (although they’re already badly needed), but you can set different backgrounds for each page.

When you tap a game or application, it doesn’t launch immediately, but instead brings up a “LivePage”. The Livepage gives you access to the manual, a feed of friend activity related to the game, and depending on the title, some quick navigation links. For example, Hot Shots Golf gives you a direct link to jump into the daily tournaments.

The OS does support multitasking to a limited extent (you can jump out with the Home button), and there’s a systems wide notifications/download management system in the top right corner.

It’s not without some flaws – the app icons have some slight jaggies, the PSN social functions are split across too many apps (“Friends”, “Party”, “Group Messaging”, “Trophies”), and feel like the 10 apps-per-screen limit will lead to an overflow of screens quickly. Still, it’s a far cry better than anything I’ve used on a dedicated gaming handheld before.

One funny/odd thing with the PSN functions – not only can you have an avatar, as PSN has supported since it went live, but now you also have a customizable “frame” background behind your listing on people’s friends lists. It feels suspiciously like selecting an icon from Hotline.

Near

I wanted to give a special call-out to one app in particular, called “Near”. This is Sony’s answer to the 3DS’s StreetPass functions.

Rather than running a wireless discovery radio all the time, Near will occasionally ping out with your GPS locations and see who else has pinged in that area lately. There’s an abundance of controls to avoid sharing details you don’t want to, or in locations you consider sensitive.

Rather than acquiring avatars or puzzle pieces, Near’s main function is to help with game rating and recommendations. You can get at a popularity list of what’s being played in your area, which is rather neat. But Near also lets you send “Game Goods”, either to your friends or to people in your area. I’ve seen little unlocks, like avatars, music tracks, and game collectables come through Near so far. It’s rather addictive and fun to collect.

I think Near is a really great feature, and I hope game companies leverage it in meaningful ways going forward.

Games

I’ve picked up a handful of games and demos since Wednesday.

Given how much I loved it at the launch for the PSP, Lumines Electronic Symphony was a no-brainer, and there’s not much more to say than that it’s a current-gen version of Lumines. There’s a few new tweaks to the formula given the new capabilities, but it’s Lumines. If you like forming 2×2 color blocks, you’ll love it.

Similarly, Hot Shots Golf: World Invitational was an easy choice as I’ve been playing the series since college. It’s not a deep deviation from the HSG formula, but it does bring a lot of the online functions from the PS3 releases to the handheld.

Sony is pushing the idea of cross-platform games, and since I already owned the PS3 version of Hustle Kings, I got to download the Vita version of Sony’s billiards title for free. I think it actually plays better on a handheld than it did on the PS3 – the controls and UI seem a lot more tuned to the small screen.

Speaking of crossovers, Super Stardust Delta takes what was a landmark game for showing off the power of the PS3 and somehow fits it inside the Vita. Looks and plays beautifully, although the main mode tries way too hard to make use of touch and tilt for power-ups. I recommend rebinding everything.

I tried the demos for Rayman Origins and FIFA Soccer. Rayman looks as good as all the reviews say. FIFA’s control scheme is fascinating, but I already own enough copies of FIFA elsewhere that I’ll wait a full cycle until the next new version comes out before getting the portable version.

PSN Sharing

I’m sad to end with a first world problem, but it’s worth mentioning.

The PSP was plagued with sky-high piracy rates, and so it was natural with the Vita for Sony to draw some new lines in the sand on what was fair game. One of those choices was to restrict the number of devices downloaded software could be put on from 5 to 2.

Now, this number is actually okay for me, because at most, I could see my household owning 2 Vitas. I prefer digital purchases for games for a variety of reasons, so I didn’t see this limitation getting in my way, even if Katie opted to get a Vita.

Turns out, she opted to get a Vita this weekend. And when I went to install some of my purchases on her Vita, it prompted me to log into the Vita using my account instead of her’s.

What Sony has neglected to suss out here is that there’s a difference between assigning software licenses to a device (as I’d like to do for her Vita) and using the same account for social features on a device (which I absolutely do not want to do for her Vita). These functions need to be split.

Making matters worse: Katie’s PSN account is actually a sub account of mine. Why she doesn’t have right to install the things on the master account, I do not understand at all.