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La Dolce Vita

It’s good. Really good, in fact. I’d go so far as to call it the Cadillac of handhelds.

No, silly. I’m not talking about the Atari Lynx. I’m talking about the Sony PS Vita, which crept into stores silently and without preamble yesterday. At least that’s what it seemed like if you were trying to get that three for two deal at Target, where electronics department employees were blissfully unware of the launch.

I picked mine up at the local Gamestop early in the morning and there were six people also in line to get it, which kind of surprised me. One guy asked how the 3D works and if he needed to buy some special glasses. Another bought almost every launch game. Another guy bought two. I couldn’t even open mine until late in the evening, having to sit and look at the damn thing in a box all day long in my home office while I worked. I just wanted to touch the damn thing. But I had my time with it last night, and here’s my day one report.

Let’s be clear about it up front. The games the Vita can play, at least from what I have on hand, are not $40 versions of dollar App store games- Dungeon Hunter and Asphalt notwithstanding. The Vita, after day one, has me convinced that the gaming it offers can be a home console-quality experience in a portable format. Rayman: Origins and Blazblue look and act almost exactly like their PS3 counterparts. They actually look better on the five inch OLED screen than they do on my 42 inch LCD. Detail is crisp, colors rich, and framerates never falter. Controls are smaller than a Dualshock, but form factor is a mobility concern so it’s an acceptable trade-off. FIFA Soccer might be missing some of the more high end features, but the action on the pitch is just like a full FIFA console game (FIFA 11, to be precise). Shooting on the goal with the back touch panel almost makes me want to trade FIFA 12 in for the Vita edition. Hot Shots Golf is pretty much instantly addicting and the touch features are minor, but nice to have.

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The downloadable titles I tried were great- Super Stardust Delta HD looks amazing and it’s perfect for the format. Tales from Space: Mutant Blobs Attack is eight bucks so it’s not too far out of App store pricing but it looks like it’s going to be a great indie-style platformer with a cool Katamari-like devouring mechanic. Buying them was painless, the Playstation Store acts just like it does on the PS3. There are a couple of demos available, I tried Unit 13 which looked pretty good but it locked up the Vita. If you get the “flashing blue light of death”, don’t panic- hold down the power button for 30 seconds to bring up a recovery menu.

As for the non-gaming features, so what. To be frank, I care sweet F.A. about all of the widgets and pseudo-apps that the Vita ships with. I’ll likely never take a picture with it, so I can’t and probably shouldn’t comment on the cameras. I don’t care about Facebook and Twitter on it, and the odds of me watching Netflix on it rather than on the TV are pretty much zero. Near seems like a cool idea, but then again I don’t find myself sitting around wondering if somebody close by is playing a Vita game. The UI is kind of a mess, obviously aping the Apple design but far more bubbly, ugly, and menu-happy. It isn’t very intuitive. Usability is sacrificed for cuteness.

I almost wish that there was a less expensive, no bullshit version that played games and that’s it. It is an expensive product, really kind of priced out of the market. It’s easy to counter with “iPad is $700”, but iPad is also a much more versatile, useful computer that also happens to play games.

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Overall, I’m very impressed with it and I don’t have that day two buyer’s remorse that I had with the 3DS. In comparison to the 3DS, I’m already more interested in the Vita and not just because of the stronger launch line-up or the far better hardware build and technical capabilities. I think there’s more potential with the Vita, and much less gimmickiness. It feels like a product intentionally designed to bridge the gap between mobile devices- including iPhones and iPads- and home-based consoles. Features like touch and gyroscope feel better implemented than in the 3DS, and everything about it makes it feel like a serious gaming device.

The question remains if there’s a market for that kind of thing. I think that there could be, if the right kinds of games are developed for it and it leverages its unique features like the cross-platform play with PS3 games and its capabilities as a auxillary display for PS3 games- beating the Wii U to the punch. Sony really needs to sell this as a game console and not as a Swiss Army knife with a bunch of silly apps and social networking gewgaws. Unfortunately, even the name of the system hints at that- “life”. Not games or play, but “life”. This is not an all-inclusive “life” product. It’s a toy with Facebook. I’m sure there’s an inclination in the marketing department to sell it along the lines of “It can do the same things your phone can”, but that’s the wrong approach. It should be “it can do the same things your PS3 can”. That’s a huge differentiator in the marketplace, and one that could make the Vita a big hit.

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It comes back around to software, as well. The available games are good. Some are really good. But they are mostly ports and spin-offs, and there isn’t yet a game that defines the platform and what sets it apart. Out of the gate, the Vita desperately needs a Ghost Trick, Elite Beat Agents, The World Ends With You, or Advance Wars to define it. Maybe that game will be Gravity Rush, not releasing stateside until May. But as it stands, the software is impressive but not particularly distinctive. Another serving of Ninja Gaiden? Really? I’m also not that hot to play a portable version of widescreen, cinematic game like Uncharted. I just played Uncharted 3, thanks. I’m not really quite why a scaled down, B-team version of a AAA game is touted as the killer app.

Big question. Is it worth $250? It could be. It’d definintely be worth $150-$175, without a doubt and with the right software I think it could bury the 3DS. At a Cadillac price and without a firm direction for its development as well as the question as to whether it’s going to fall flat against the IOS onslaught, it’s still something of a question mark.

Contentious price point aside- not to mention the absolutely idiotic “piracy fighting” proprietary memory cards- I’m a happy early adopter. And since Gameshark is apparently unaware that the Vita is coming out and won’t have a section for it, all of my writing about it and its games will be here until further notice. Stay tuned for more.

Consider this a nod from an early adopter, for what that’s worth.

Bill Abner

Bill has been writing about games for the past 16 years for such outlets as Computer Games Magazine, GameSpy, The Escapist, GameShark, and Crispy Gamer. He will continue to do so until his wife tells him to get a real job.

10 thoughts to “La Dolce Vita”

  1. I walked into Best Buy an hour after opening. Picked one up, they had a large stack of them and no one else was there. Then went to Target got some games. Total time of trip 45 minutes.

    I’m impressed with the system but I don’t think the quiet launch has anything to do with lack of marketing I just think most don’t care. I bought mine for one reason only to play The Show and be able to play my season on the PS3 and take it with me and get a game in at lunch time at work.

    I like Hot Shots Golf, Mod Natrion Racers is cool. I have UC and Marvel but haven’t touchedthem yet. I also downloaded Monster Hunter because I read it was a game to have from the PSP…. I’m still puzzeled how the MH series is a hit…that’s $19.99 I won’t be getting back.

    Over all I am really impressed with the system and I am the opposite of a Sony fan but I am really waiting for March 6th. Only wish D&D Tactics was a downloadable PSP game.

  2. You’re right, it is likely that most people don’t care. Most folks, come to find out, don’t care jack shit about a new console launch. Including people that like and play video games but don’t visit blogs or follow developments online. Another reason why early sales are no indication of a console’s viability.

    I didn’t get UMvC even though I love it…I’m happy with the console game, but the Vita version looks almost 1:1 with it. Blazblue was my fighter of choice for it…maybe I’ll actually take the time to master its mechanics, it’s really complicated.

    Give Monster Hunter a chance to grow on you. I’ve only played Tri, and at first I didn’t get it either. But eventually, I got OBSESSED with it because I liked the structure of it so much, and the combat is second only to Dark Souls in terms of tactical depth and visceral intensity. You have to grind, gear up, and prepare to take on the big monsters. It’s a lot of work, really, but then when you have the big fight the stakes are super high. You can duke it out for 30 minutes and die, so the tension is enormous. I haven’t played Freedom Unite, but it’s tempting. I’ll definitely get whatever MH title comes along for the Vita.

  3. You were a day late, but you have a good excuse; apparantly you were working, however I decided to take the plunge and pick up the Vita yesterday.  Wipeout is incredible.  If you like racing, and have a vita; wipeout is a must have; period.  Picked up Blazblue as well; friendly reminder that I’m terrible at fighting games and that iI’ll have to learn to deal with the smaller buttons and remember how to play.

    You’re spot on about the apps, picked up netflix just because I pay 8 bucks a month for it; I’m gonna use it damnit.  Battery life hasn’t been an issue yet; but we’ll see how long that lasts.

    The real kick in the pants though; is that damn memory card.  I just dropped 250 bucks on a system that; let’s face it, has a pretty weak background of being supported.  I don’t want to have to drop another 40 on a memory card that’s required to play any of the games that you just bought with it.  Pricing on the games need to be normalized to about 30 bucks for the average title; 40 for the console sellers.  No reason for a 50 dollar hand held game; I’m sorry, the game may be amazing, but the IOS trend is going to tear sony apart when it comes to pricing. 

    Looking forward to Little Big Planet and Gravity Rush.

  4. I have never seen a system tailored less towards my interests as a gamer.

    But that’s been Sony all over for me for years.

    Seems very nice if you want every Sony franchise you just played on the big screen now on a handheld, I give it that.

  5. Yeah, I’m hoping it doesn’t go down that path. Resistance…handheld! Infamous…handheld! Ratchet and Clank…handheld! Barnes…doesn’t care!

    I got Rayman because it was a freebie, but I was thinking…why would I buy a $39.99, smaller version of a game I can buy “full size” at $19.99?


  6. I like WipeOut and I love racing, but for some reason I’m not too hot on getting 2048. Please tempt me no further, though. Being able to click “buy” and have the game show up is too great a pull.

    Yeah, $50 for a handheld game is absurd.

  7. I’ll keep pluggin at Monster Hunter but I spent 30 minutes with it last night, 20 of those was reading lots of really tiny text that I think was suppose to be funny. The other 10 was me learning how to do a fed ex quest where I had to find some raw meat and deliver it. The area is small as can be and I couldn’t find the meat.

    I said to myself the game is training me on how to do a delivery quest and I am failing, time to play Hot shots golf

  8. Heh, didn’t see that; go go high prices?  Plus I already have Rayman, didn’t see the point in getting it again.  Not so sure I wanna see Infamous on handheld; the last one wasn’t all that great in comparison to the first.  But I’d love to see some Spyro, Crash Bandicoot (original platforming crash) and maybe some Sly Cooper.  Sony’s got a huge catalogue of games they can bring to the Vita and really reignite some Sony love.  Always happy to blow money on a new Ratchet & Clank adventure.

    I’m expecting more games like Little Deviants and over priced ports of console games though, call me cynical; but I’m not even a game journalist nor a true enthusiast to see gaming trends.

  9. Give it a few weeks if you’re strapped for cash, there was already an Uncharted used at my gamestop; still said no to it’s 45 dollar price tag though.  Let me know if you get a sneak peak at Gravity Rush, only saw the boxart and it got me hoping.

  10. I mean, for people who aren’t interested in Twitter or Facebook on the Vita, that’s fine, but there’s nothing about the Vita hardware that could be made cheaper if those apps weren’t around. And if they didn’t exist people would just bitch about why Sony doesn’t get with the times on their touch screen, network connected portable by adding Facebook and Twitter support. If you’re talking about 3G, Sony does in fact offer a cheaper version without cellular data capabilities. But things like the Netflix app are literally offered at no expense to Sony. The app was made by Netflix. It’s supported by people who pay for Netflix. Having it on Vita adds nothing to the price. Being a very powerful portable computing device designed for games means it’s also very well suited to many non-gaming functions.

    And, well, even if you normally use your phone, or whatever, for social networking stuff, if you’re already playing on your Vita it’s way faster to pause a game, and quickly switch over to check the Twitter or Facebook apps, than it would be to get out another device. You can also post an update, or even a screenshot from the game you’re playing and be back in the game in seconds without losing your place.

    Maybe it’s just that people don’t yet fully grasp the implications of Vita’s multitasking OS, but it’s not like on the 360 where Twitter is this useless app you launch where you can’t be doing anything else. Facebook and Twitter can be up in the background and you can suspend a game instantly to go refresh them at any time. Pretty soon the web browser will be updated so you’ll also be able to have a gamefaq open in the background while you play (a current work around involves launching a browser instance from inside the Twitter app while a game is running). Custom music is accomplished through the music player being open in the background, as are things like cross game voice chat with the Party app. Ironically, lots of the complaints I’ve seen about the Vita OS are from people who don’t seem to understand the UI metaphors are built the way they are because it is doing real multitasking.

    Like I said, its just weird to complain that the Vita offers too much functionality. Everyone doesn’t have to use everything, but there are still lots of people out there who don’t have smart phones, who can’t afford a cellular contract, who don’t have a tablet and who might get a lot of use out of the Vita’s non-gaming apps. And there are use case where Vita could be more convenient even for those who do, as I’ve illustrated. In fact, I’m hoping we’ll see a lot more. Hulu+ seams like a sure thing. A Kindle app would be cool, or at least access to Sony’s own eBook store. We’re still getting Skype, and 4Square. In Japan the Vita can stream gameplay live to the niconico video site. I’d like to see a similar app for Ustream or YouTube, naturally, would be great. Other Google offerings would also be appreciated, a gmail client, rss reader, google voice, etc. Some of these may eventually come as third party apps through Sony’s cross platform PlayStation Suite program, which allows cross compatible deployment of small games and apps to both Android and Vita.

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