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Hands-On: PlayStation Vita

During this weekend, and up until Tuesday (17th Jan), Sony have rented a shop front in Manchester and are showing of their brand new handheld - the PlayStation Vita - for all to play. I popped in and managed to get a decent play on most of the games in there, as well as getting used to the Vita console itself. 

Console

The Vita itself looks fantastic - all the press photos you may have seen simply don’t do it justice. The shiny black plastic is extremely solid, the face buttons and d-pad are extremely high quality and the screen is simply beautiful. Frankly, the build quality of the PS Vita makes the 3DS feel like a toy. Sony have gone all-out to make the Vita look like a premium product. One aspect I particularly liked was the shoulder buttons - looking from the front they’re clear, but the top side of them is black, they look strange and wonderful at the same time.

The dual analogue sticks are both a joy and a disappointment. The sticks themselves work extremely well and, like the rest of the console, are incredibly well-built. The downside is the placement - both sticks require the thumb to be bent into an unnatural position. The ideal position would be slightly more to the centre of the centre, but this would have then needed for a larger console (it’s massive as it is) or a smaller screen, so Sony have done their best with the space they have to work with. The back touch screen is responsive, but the natural way to hold the Vita has your fingers on the rear touch screen, so you need to hold the Vita in an uncomfortable way for any game that uses it.

The interface is incredibly slick and fast. Pressing the home or power menu will bring up the unlock screen in the form of a digital sticker. Peel if off the screen and you’ll continue from where you were with no delay. Going into the home menu itself also happens instantaneously, a first for a games console.  The downside is the design itself. The bubbles simply don’t gel with how slick the rest of the Vita’s design (both software and hardware) is. A simple “app drawrer” look would suit it much more. 

The Vita is an incredibly piece of kit. it looks amazing, feels great in your hands and the version on show was surprisingly light (however, it didn’t have a battery). The interface, minus the bubble design, was quick and very smooth. All it needs now is amazing games to go with it.

WipeOut 2048

It both plays and looks a lot like WipeOut HD/Fury. In fact, if someone had told me that if was a direct port then I wouldn’t have known any better, which goes to show how great the graphical capabilities of the Vita are. The tracks are extremely detailed, some of which are only noticeable when the camera pans around at the start of the race. The controls work really well, even if the sexy-looking shoulder buttons aren’t analogue, and I was dashing around the track without having to think about the controls before the end of the first race. I did encounter one problem: the “Ready...Set...Go” countdown is built into the environment above the starting line. From the default position you start races it’s nigh-on impossible to make out on the Vita’s screen, making it feel like the game was designed for the PS3. 

ModNation Racers: Road Trip

The track editor is quite simple to use. Draw a squiggle with your finger, datter some objects around and fiddle with the terrain. As simple as it is, creating a precise design is incredibly hard with a drawing device as podgy as a human finger, and is more suited to a resistive touch screen with a stylus. Unless some precise, button-based controls for the track editor are hidden around somewhere, the track editor is fairly unimpressive. The game itself feels like a bog-standard generic kart racer with nothing special about it. 

Super Stardust Delta

I won’t talk about this much. The series has a great reputation, but some clever spark at Sony decided that it was best to make the only accessible level in the demo one where you slowly blow a fairly static asteroid to bits. Extremely dull and I’m sure it’s a very, very poor representation of the game’s design. The ability to tilt the camera with the Vita’s gyro is a pretty decent feature, and works well with the spherical levels.

Motorstorm RC

You know those single-screen racing games where you have a top-down view of the track and race on that? Well, Motorstom RC is one of those. There’s nothing to make it unique, no power-ups to add excitement, nothing to mix things up a little bit. The Motorstorm name is only used because it’s a known name, and not because this has anything to do with it. While the controls work really well, and the physics are spot-on, it’s just...soulless. With a different lick of paint, some more charm and a few things thrown into the mix to add to the fun and this could have become the next Micro Machines - it had the potential, just the wrong design team. 

Little Deviants

Little Deviants is a ball-rolling game with a brand new control method - the rear touch screen. The object of the game is to roll a ball around a “maze” (the ones in the demo just seemed to be areas with a few random barriers, not exactly mazes) collecting keys and stars, keys are required while starts are just extra points, while avoiding enemies. After the initial “wow” factor of controlling the the game by pushing the landsacpe up from the back of the console, as well as the very impressive visual effect, the game simply feels like a poor attempt to justify the gimmicky rear touch panel. 

Escape Plan

While I just explained how Little Deviants shows that the rear touch panel is a poor idea, Escape Plan justifies it’s existence.  It’s a platform/puzzle game where you have to lead your character through rooms, helping them past obstacles along the way. Objects can be manipulated via the front touch screen or rear touch panel, both with different effects. The most basic thing is pushing objects forwards/backward by tapping them from the front or back. Although, somewhat ironically considering the Vita’s competitor’s main feature, I did die in a few sections simply due to the camera angle making it hard to see how forward some objects are. The graphics are nicely stylised and the helplessness of the main character is quite funny at times.

Gravity Rush

I don’t even know if this was on display properly, as I didn’t spot a console dedicated to it. The Vitas at the event had the full software on itl, and at one I decided to have a look at the homescreen where a pile of demos were, this being among them. 

Gravity Rush is an action/adventure game where gravity manipulation is the core of the game. The demo was essentially a tutorial comprising of two sections: movement and combat. Tap  the L button and the main character, a girl with no memories and a cat who can manipulate gravity, will hover in the air. You then aim at a wall - any wall (in the demo you unfortunately had to follow waypoints) - and press R to jump to that wall and shift gravity to it, usually the side of the building. You can also hover mid-jump to aim at a different wall, which leads me to believe that there will be some brilliant-but-confusing platforming sections later on in the game.  

In combat, you have one attack button and the ability to dodge by swiping on the screen, which works surprisingly well. The same process to shift gravity and launch yourself at a wall is used here to kick enemies, which feels great. Some enemies also hover in mid-air so you need to chain jumps, similar to Sonic’s homing attack but much, much more satisfying as you have to do the aiming yourself.

It’s a very unique game and the graphics are brilliant. While you don’t see much in the demo, it feels like it’s going to be a big adventure. It just gives across the feeling that this is something...special. 

Uncharted: Golden Abyss

After three incredibly games on the PS3, Naughty Dog hand their beloved franchise over to Bend Studio in order to create a new Uncharted for the Vita. They’ve aimed to bring the same gameplay as the home consoles to the Vita. Does it suit it?

The demo starts off with Nate in a locked room in an old building, with all his equipment taken. His new buddy, Chase, pops her head through the window to tell you to get out. To make the situation worse, the building is on fire. You must make a quick escape before the fire consumes you. Except...it doesn’t. It’s pretty static, actually, and nothing gives you a feeling that you need to rush. Choosing this level to start off the demo after the breathtaking burning building scene in Uncharted 3 makes it even worse. 

While the controls are roughly the same, Nate feels much more clunker and platforming is noticeably slower-paced. The “platforms falling around you” thing Uncharted is known for is still here, but the lack of any impressive effect or camera movement makes it seem pointless. It just doesn’t work. 

At the end of the second room Drake picks up a blade, and heading to a cloth panel covering a door prompts a quick time event where you have to slide your finger across the screen in the direction an arrow points. It’s pretty unresponsive and, frankly, feels stupid. The touch screen is also used to make the platforming an automatic process, leaving you to just...watch. Thankfully, the touch screen platforming is completely optional. 

Once you’ve gotten out of the building (which is quite small) you reach a shooting section. Like the platforming, this is also slower and clunker. The touch screen slider for the sniper rifle is a nice touch, but ultimately the gameplay simply doesn’t suit a handheld at all.

Even with the detailed graphics, which should be very impressive for a handheld, the bits of the game in the demo are immensely bland it may as well have the same graphics as the original Tomb Raider. On top of this, Nate’s constant witty remarks don’t seem particularly constant or witty, turning them into general remarks every now and then; and Nolan North’s performance is phoned-in. I had to check via Google as after hearing the voice, I didn’t even think it was Nolan North.

The Golden Abyss demo shows us that if Naughty Dog had the idea for Uncharted before the PS3, it probably wouldn’t have worked. The basic gameplay of Uncharted is still here, it just lacks the whole feeling of it. 

Others

There were a few other games I tried. Everybody’s Golf is just another Everybody’s Golf. A new feature is the ability to look around with the gyro, which is fairly pointless. Reality Fighters shows off the Vita’s augmented reality. Which, aside from better graphics, is still wonky and works marginally better compared to the 3DS. 

While the Uncharted demo was a massive disappointment (even thought I wasn’t expecting it to be brilliant anyway), Gravity Rush looks to be an amazing game and WipeOut is extremely well made. The console itself if top quality and it should be home to some amazing games sometime in the future. I think the biggest challenge Sony will have is finding the balance between making something that utilizes the Vita’s power, and something that just feels like it should be released on a home console. Even so, the Vita has massive potential. 

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