This morning as I was driving from New York City to the medium sized suburb in Connecticut I live in (Branford, if you want to find me on Near) I was trying to reasonably extract what my expectations were for the Vita out of the completely insane hype i’ve had for it in my head, on my twitter, on the podcast and across various forums over the last few months. That sentence is a mouthful, and so was the process. I guess the first thing I needed to do was figure out why, exactly, I was hyped in the first place.
The Vita, since it was first announced, has been an impressive concept. It basically takes everything that’s happening in the handheld space and puts together in a way that doesn’t feel like anything is tacked on(certain games will take care of the tacked on feeling). In a time where the 3DS has a frankenstick to make certain game types work and the iphone has about 9000 controllers competing because no one on earth likes a virtual dpad, Sony designed something that doesn’t have any drawbacks. It has two sticks, it has a touch screen, it has GPS, it has 3G and wifi (if you want 3g, that is), it has motion sensing, it has front and back cameras and, unlike Apple gadgets, it has a port out to expand if needed and it allows you to pick your memory size. Though I guess that does lead into a drawback – all of this costs a lot of money.
So that’s the reality of it. But I’m not exactly sure why that is why i was hyped. I think in a lot of way we put our hopes into these gadgets because we want our lives to be better. I know that’s a fucking crazy statement, but I think there is some truth to it. You see a phone coming out and you are just so fucking excited for it because it does all this cool shit and that cool shit is going to make you happy. And that’s what we want, right? Happiness?
The device will never truly make you happy though. I mean, it will in the short term, but eventually you will lust after some new piece of tech, because it will be so fun to play with that. That’s not to say that all things die in a matter of weeks. That’s where the winners and losers are created. And I can’t speak to that yet, because as the title states, im only 12 hours into this with the Vita. I know with the Nintendo Wii the first two weeks I had it I thought it was the greatest shit ever and then I played it maybe 5 hours over the next 4 years. But, with the iPad I thought it was the best shit ever and two years later I still think my first gen iPad is the best shit ever and not a day goes by where it doesn’t get atleast an hour of use. There’s no way for me to know if the Vita is the Wii or the iPad so I’m not even going to try, but I do know that’s it’s an inspired piece of hardware.
So let’s get the obvious shit out of the way. The unit is insanely well constructed. This does not feel like a toy, it feels like some sort of futuristic device. And after seeing the 5″ OLED screen for several hours straight my iphone seemed quaint in comparison. The analog sticks are the best in class, which isn’t hard since handheld analog has been a clusterfuck of terrible so far, but it is worth noting that they obviously don’t compare with sticks on a real controller. In fact the first few hours with the device I was barely lukewarm on the sticks, but like anything else (including the terrible nub on the PSP before it) you adjust and it’s just fine.
The touch screen is very responsive. The back touch also is and I think once developers start wraping their brains around it (and the escape plan devs already have) it will be a huge addition to touch gaming. Because I do like touch gaming, but I hate that I can’t see the fucking screen. Back touch. Brilliant. How did it take this long?
The buttons are smaller than I assumed but feel fine. The right stick is very close to them and I was bumping it with my thumb for a while but that passed. I was also hitting the back touch screen for a while but after messing up enough in FIFA I trained myself to hold it properly. The triggers feel better than they did on the PSP and (3)DS, but also don’t feel as wonderful as their big brothers. The back touch screen is much more intuitive than I assumed, helped by visual prompts in most of the software.
Graphically it’s basically a PS3. If you are a pixel counter you will likely disagree with this sentiment, but to my eyes FIFA and Virtua Tennis especially look like PS3 games. I know the resolution is lower, but the screen is also smaller. Call it an optical illusion, I don’t care, but the bottom line is the graphics are fucking nuts. Rayman, for instance, will be out for the PC soon and will likely look amazing in 1080p, but I know on my $300 monitor it won’t look as amazing as it does on my Vita. That screen is just amazing, i’ve never seen colors on any screen – no matter the size – like the colors that Rayman Vita has. It really is that good.
So other than some small issues the hardware has delivered on the promise of a console experience in a handheld. Cool. So how does the software stack up? Honestly, I can’t say yet. I know that I’m very, very happy playing everything I have. But part of the launch day mania, especially when you get a bunch of games with it, is you can’t concentrate on anything. Rayman seems amazing, though obviously you can go play that basically anywhere else. Stardust is a worthy sequel to an amazing game. FIFA is FIFA, though the gameplay is the 2011 game not the 2012 game and you can kinda feel that. Escape Plan is visually stunning and very fun and uses the back touch in smart ways making it feel like a game you can’t play anywhere else. Lumines is Lumines, but on the best screen ever. Little Deviants was talked so down over the last few weeks that it’s actually emerged as underrated to me because i expected shit. The demo to uncharted was impressive in parts, and felt forced and kinda terrible in parts. I will play through it, but it’s hardly a top tier game for me.
But each of those games i played about 4 times a piece for 15 minutes at a time because I have new hardware fever, so i’m not trying to dish out full fledged reviews here. I think once the dust settles the launch lineup will be one of the better ones ever in terms of quality but pretty average in terms of originality. I know a lot of people don’t give a shit about the launch lineup at all, because they never liked these series in the first place. If you fall into that camp I don’t think these versions will change your mind. But they all certainly live up to their PS3 counterparts.
So that’s the nuts and bolts of this thing and it all comes off in the early going as extremely positive. Like I said earlier I can’t say whether this is a flash in the pan for me or something long term, and I’m certainly not going to jump into the shitstorm of whether handhelds are even needed in the age of smartphones. Because, really, they are if you want one and they aren’t if you don’t. It’s that fucking simple.
What has me excited going forward, however, is the operating system – of all things. The second most striking feature of the Vita (after the godlike screen) is that the operating system leaves the rest of gaming – console or handheld – in the dust. The live area is basically Facebook but instead of bitching about your boss it’s about shit we care about – trophies, high scores, game purchases, etc. It will tell me that my friend bought Lumines and unlocked a certain trophy. I can then go in and comment “You bought that for $36 you’re nuts!” and then when he looks at that he will notice that i bought it for myself 5 minutes later. I’ve just been going around giving thumbs up to everyone’s trophies. Why? Because it’s fucking funny.
But this level of social interaction is fantastic. After playing my first (horrible) round of Stardust a box popped up and said “You are in last place on your friends leaderboard for Arcade mode.” Well ain’t that a bitch!?! Social interactions in videogames are the next logical step after achievements. 99% of the reason that Bejeweled Blitz is so popular on Facebook and Google+ is because of the leaderboard. Leaderboards obviously aren’t new, but the more they are built into the OS of the system the better.
And then you add to that the rather brilliant Near app. On a basic level it just shows people within about 15 miles or so (for me atleast, maybe the size increases/decreases depending on population density) that have been online with their vitas. Right now, the day of the First Edition Bundle, there are 12 people in my town that have a Vita. I can see their game lists (if they chose to make that public) and look up their trophy lists and whatnot. It’s neat because this works as another way of creating rivalries. First and foremost I want to beat my friends, but I also want to beat dudes in my town. I want kids in high school talking about “Did you see Famousmortimer’s score on Little Deviants?” They don’t need to know im a fat 34 year old, but they need to know I can roll a fucking ball around with the best of them. The more games that take advantage of this in the future the better. This is a feature that just isn’t available on the ps3 or 360 and it really is awesome.
It’s these things that are keeping my hype moving forward. Today, I figured, was the end of the hype and start of the reality. And it was a big dose of reality, which thankfully was very positive… but I feel like the Vita is running at about 80% right now. Once developers wrap their heads around features like the live area, Near, the back touch and other functions I think the Vita can be absolutely amazing. As it stands now it’s a very exciting platform, but more importantly it feels new. Even in all of my hype I didn’t really expect that.