One month with Vita – Portable powerhouse or out of touch?

A month already, huh?

PlayStation Vita has been with us for over four weeks now, finding a home in gamers’ pockets and fighting with the 3DS for ownership of the ‘toilet break’. It’s much-touted launch line up has kept the system on its toes for its opening month, but, like a nest of baby birds, we’re chirping for mother Sony to come down and drop more juicy worms/games into our open mouths.

So how has this first month treated the Vita? And how is the future shaping up now that it’s out in the wild? Let’s take a look.

The Games

Sony’s strong first-party support for the system’s launch is probably the highlight for the handheld so far. The system certainly had quantity on its side on day one, but names like Uncharted, Wipeout and MotorStorm meant it had quality too.

Uncharted: Golden Abyss is (deservedly) one of the best-received games on the system. Sony Bend definitely did right by Drake with its first mini-outing for the franchise. The game expectedly didn’t pack in the set piece moments that have put Uncharted 2 and 3 down in the history books, but it brought the graphics and gameplay tweaks that saw it surpass Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune with ease, which is no small feat. Some additions like tilt-sensors on aiming even make for a smoother shooting mechanic than seen in the console versions. Hopefully news of Bend’s next Vita-bound project will show up soon.

Sony Liverpool turned in another solid entry in the Wipeout series too with Wipeout 2048. It’s close enough in size and shape to resemble PSN’s Wipeout HD, but offers a new career and enough tracks to make for a worthwhile purchase. Its format makes it great for quick bursts though its long load times do the opposite. It’s easily worthy of the franchise name, though, and bodes well for the genre’s future on Vita.

Zipper Interactive also provides its most interesting game in years with Unit 13. While the developer failed to impress with both MAG and SOCOM 4 on PS3, here the team embraces the cliché modern warfare setting for the better. This third person shooter isn’t about story, cinematic experiences or even overly ambitious multiplayer. Instead it takes the core of the genre and condenses it into a nifty mission-based title perfect for a portable. Missions max out at ten minutes and encourage players to level up and try for better runs. Had this been awkwardly stuck together to make a campaign to form a new SOCOM title it would likely be another forgettable outing but in this broken down set up the conventional gameplay is given a new lease of life.

PSN’s offerings have also been a highpoint for the system. Cheaper games like the ever-awesome Super Stardust Delta are a perfect fit, while MotorStorm RC may very well be the handheld’s best game so far. This scaled down take on Evolution Studio’s racing franchise has brought the series back into the spotlight and with good reason. Laps take as little as ten seconds, focusing on perfect cornering rather than ramming opponents off of the road, making it the series’ most addicting installment. That’s helped by the brilliant social online features too, which aren’t far off of Need for Speed’s Autolog system.

Less successful was Escape Plan, a game many had hoped would be Vita’s must-own title at launch. Tasking players with helping cutesy duo Lil and Laarge escape certain peril, this puzzler packs all the charm of an indie masterpiece but it’s insistence on using the Vita’s touchscreen and back pad are a major downfall. The control scheme is inconsistent and hugely frustrating when precision comes into play. You swipe across either character in one direction to make them march and then move obstacles out of their way by tapping on them or blocking them with a finger. There are some great ideas but they don’t fit together when you have you do things quickly. It’s probably the biggest disappointment the system has yet seen.

San Diego Studio’s port of Modnation Racers also failed to impress. Amazingly, issues with presentation and loading times went unaddressed in this newest addition to the franchise. And without any online multiplayer to speak of, it felt like a bare bones version of a title that was already struggling to find any reason to exist. LittleBigPlanet Karting seems to spell doom for the franchise anyways.

Meanwhile Little Deviants and Reality Fighters round out the list of ho-hum launch games. The former lays down the gauntlet of gimmicks made possible with the Vita’s extra features while the latter just chooses one of them and sticks with it. Deviants’ mini-games aren’t really any fun and serve as little more than a showcase for the range of unique features the system includes. Fighters sounds fun on paper – taking a picture of yourself, dressing it up and then heading into scraps with the Vita’s camera making it all ‘come to life’, but it’s a shallow fighting game that doesn’t provide anything more than a few laughs during round one. Pass.

Third party support has been a little mixed too. Ubisoft is never one to shy away from new tech. The company usually supports any new peripheral or console with a few titles to varying degrees of success. Thankfully a brilliant port of Rayman Origins and a new Lumines headline the publisher’s Vita debut, though there are also some fairly lazy additions like another pointless iteration of the Michael Jackson Experience. EA have churned out a killer version of FIFA Football, but the absence of some of the company’s core IP while the likes of Dead Space and Mass Effect head to iOS is a little worrying.

The Tech

Software has done an admirable job of showcasing the Vita’s power and features thus far. As a system’s life goes on, games generally start to look better, so it’s exciting to think where we can go if Golden Abyss is what developers can achieve at launch.

Outside the games, Vita has shown some very encouraging improvements over even the PS3’s online offerings. The Vita is a much more social system than the PS3, allowing for friends to swap from game to game without ever losing each other and enabling cross game chat. That said having to bring up separate apps for features that can be found on the PS3’s cross media bar like friends lists and trophies makes it feel disconnected.

It’s also a shame that Vita’s trophies don’t have a presence on PS3. They contribute to a user’s total trophy count and level, but individual trophies and Vita games are nowhere to be seen when looking through a collection. It makes them feel a little less important than the PS3 ones.

The PlayStation Store has given the system a solid foundation for launch, though. Having all of the launch titles available to download from day one certainly makes it much harder to resist spending too much money, and when heading into the archive of minis and PSP games it becomes clear there’s plenty to spend your cash on already. Download times for bigger titles take their time though, which can be an issue if a download if contending with the system’s limited battery life.

And that’s probably the system’s biggest fault so far – battery life. The four hours you’re likely to get out of it between charging goes quick when you’re sunk into the likes of Uncharted. I can also be disheartening to play for as little as 45 minutes and quit out of a game only to find a quarter of the battery bar gone. It hurts the system’s viability as a handheld, but isn’t crippling.

The cameras are pretty low quality too. Posting pictures on Twitter is almost a little embarrassing when friends are posting high quality images from their iPhones. Given the that the front camera has little use right now, it would have been preferable to just have the one higher quality camera on board.

The touchscreen proves to be a very welcome addition to the system though. Given the fantastic 5” screen there’s a lot more room for your fingers than there is on a DS/3DS and while games are yet to nail its implementation, menus have never been easier to navigate.

The Future

There’s no doubt that the Vita is off to a promising start on both the tech and software front, but now that we’re past the huge launch line up, what else can we look forward to?

Well releases seem to be a little spread out for the foreseeable future. A promising port of Mortal Kombat is coming in April as well as a new edition of Disgaea 3 that’s bound to please fans. May also sees the release of Resistance: Burning Skies from Nihilistic Games. That’s beating its chest as the first ever dual-stick handheld FPS, though if that means it’ll be a good one is anyone’s guess.

Gravity Rush is also scheduled for release in June. This utterly brilliant-looking title from Sony Japan is probably the most promising Vita game on the horizon. Part physics-bending platformer, part action game, it boasts gorgeous graphics and the type of innovation that should give the likes of the Vita’s tilt sensor some purpose.

But where the true excitement lies for the Vita is in the unknown. Some extremely enticing titles are currently unrevealed for the system, like Activison’s exclusive Call of Duty title, said to release this fall. That’s bound to shift millions of units around the world. Meanwhile, Ken Levine’s promised BioShock game could end up being another Irrational Games masterpiece, completely exclusive to Vita. The same can be said for Keji Inafune’s upcoming title, not that we know much about it right now.

Past that there’s another Assassin’s Creed on the way, which could be a big deal, as well as further efforts from Sony on the LittleBigPlanet and Killzone front. LBP in particular could see its best iteration yet should it put the Vita’s features to good use.

Past that, all we have is hope and potential. With E3 looming, our hopes are on the return of Patapon and Locoroco as well as increased third party support. If Sony could convince Behtesda to make good on the ill-fated Oblivion port originally headed to PSP or Rockstar to churn out another Grand Theft Auto game, our hype meters would increase by tenfold.

A lot of questions still revolve around the newest member of the PlayStation family. We’re still trying to secure every Elite Pass in Wipeout and go for gold in MotorStorm, but we’re hoping that a plethora of news titles are just around the corner because, from what we’ve seen so far, Vita really does have the potential to go all the way.

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