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Playstation Vita: First Impressions

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I picked up a Playstation Vita on launch day (Feb 22nd) and have been thoroughly enjoying it so far. It is not without its own quirks but I foresee a long and healthy relationship between us!

There is more than enough information out there describing the hardware and software side of the system so I'm just going to focus on the things that (so far) I like and don't like about it.

Looks great! While it could easily be mistaken for a PSP at first glance, there is a slickness to the Vita that's unrivalled. Massive slick screen, dual analog sticks (not "nubs"), shiny black finish... this is a good looking device! Compared to the bulky, hard edged-filled 3DS the Vita looks damn near futuristic. Games and menus also look incredibly sharp and very colourful. Very impressed.

...but feels "alright": The Vita is a marvel to hold.. for about an hour. Afterwards it becomes apparent that there isn't really one perfect way to hold this thing. Say what you will about the look of the 3DS hardware but its hard to argue against how comfortable the device is. The same can't be said of the Vita. With Nintendo having mastered handheld ergonomic form with the DS Lite (or, arguably, the GBA SP), there was little reason to update much with the 3DS. The Vita, on the other hand, feels like a sleeker device, for better or worse: there is less to "grip" on the system and depending on the type of game you're playing your hands could start cramping sooner, rather than later. I think this is in part due to the small analog sticks (more on those later) but also the height of the the shoulder buttons. My fingers don't naturally rest on the shoulder buttons like they do on the 3DS, making me stretch ever so slightly to rest my fingers on them (that said, I think the Vita's shoulder buttons themselves are much better than the 3DS's). As such I find games that require thumbs on the analog sticks and fingers on the shoulder buttons to be less than ideal (see: any third/first person shooter). Is it functional? God yes! It just feels a lot less smooth than a traditional console controller. Make no mistake: this is the best, most comfortable way to play a game requiring two analog sticks on a portable device. But it's no Dualshock. As such, Uncharted: Golden Abyss suffers from the system's controls moreso than, say, a platformer like Rayman Origins, which is ironic since one was tailor-made specifically to show off the system's functionality, while the other one is a port. Actually, having one thumb on the left sick and the other on the face button (the usual controller setup for most non-shooting games) the system feels quite comfortable.

A launch lineup fit for kings: The Vita has the best lineup of software for any system launch ever. Yes, the Nintendo 64 had Super Mario 64. And yeah the Wii had Twilight Princess, but the former was one game, and the later was basically a gamecube title. When I first got a PS2 the first game I played on the system was Final Fantasy IX. It was nearly a year before I became interested in actual PS2 titles. The Vita starts strong. Really strong. Uncharted, Rayman, Lumines, Katamari, Marvel Vs Capcom 3, Blazblue, Wipeout, Hot Shots, Super Stardust: these are huge brands that had (mostly) excellent titles available at launch for the Vita. Had only one of these titles been released at the launch, the rest being a collection of middling shovelware, the Vita launch would have been on par with the 3DS's launch. Yes, the majority of these titles are ports but they've excelled at making their point: the Vita is the most technologically competent next generation handheld gaming device. All these titles look fantastic. Rayman Origins looks as good as its Playstation 3 counterpart. And seeing as how that's one of the best looking titles on the Playstation 3, the future looks very bright for the Vita. Uncharted Golden Abyss loses the scope of the Naughty Dog titles but retains the aesthetic impeccably. Marvel Vs Capcom 3 is as fast and smooth as the original.. and hell, Blazblue and Wipeout let you play against actual PS3 players! Unreal.

The ultimate retro-JRPG machine (eventually) : On top of the stellar launch lineup of Vita games, you can also download PSP titles. Currently I've got Persona 3 Portable running on the system, which runs beautifully. Games don't just look as good as they did on the PSP, they look better. The Vita has some added filtering and colouring options that make PSP games look smoother and more colourful than ever. If someone picked up a Vita with zero interest in any of the system's launch titles, they'd find an endless supply of quality PSP games to play. A downside to the Vita at launch is that you can't transfer over PSone titles...yet. Sony has confirmed that this is coming "soon", but clearly not soon enough! I think once this feature is enabled the Vita will become the best system for JRPGs. Between PSone, PSP and Vita games, within a year's time you could potentially have Final Fantasy I through X (but not III), along with Persona 1 through 4... (not to mention Chrono Trigger/Cross and Xenogears) all on your Vita's memory card. This, moreso than anything I've ever seen or read in the last ten years, is the definition of "next gen". Having all those games on one portable system still blows my mind.

What comes next? : Give me the Vita ports of Persona 4 and Final Fantasy X, along with the activation of PSone classics and I'd be set. For Life. Buuut beyond that, I've got some doubt about future software on the system. Sound Shapes and Gravity Rush look like fantastic new titles, but beyond those two and a handful of more ports it's hard to see what comes next. Granted, a week after the 3DS launched it was also hard to see what would come next. Nearly a year into the lifespan of the 3DS and we can now see a healthy lineup of awesome games on the horizon... but it was looking cloudy for a while there. Perhaps its too much to ask for the Vita to have an endless stream of announced 2013 games, but I can't help but wonder what comes next. I expect a repeat of what happened last gen with the PSP and the DS: the Vita (like the PSP) will have a constant stream of console-quality experiences, with a handful of classic titles make specifically for the system, while the 3DS will have more interesting, original titles. Are you coming for new JRPG experiences? You should prob get a 3DS. You want the classics? Get a Vita.

Sony's new to this whole touch thing: Took a while for Sony to get into the touch-screen gaming market but they've arrived, for better or for worse. The fact that the system's main UI is touch-only seems baffling to me. Is it functional? Absolutely. But since "buttons" are what sets this apart from something like an iPhone, why not flaunt it? Having to swipe through menus in Uncharted and Super Stardust is stupid. Make it optional, not mandatory. It lessens the experience and severely dates the game. A year from now touch-only Vita menus will seem as tacked on and gimmicky as the use of SIXAXIS in first generation PS3 titles. I don't think this trend will last long, and I can only hope traditional menu navigation will be patched in. I'm pro-buttons. I'd probably continue using touch to swipe through the VIta's UI, but give me the choice not to. I think Rayman will go down as the best retail launch title, not Uncharted, since Rayman uses the touch screen to pinch-zoom. That's it. Uncharted uses the touch screen for nearly everything peripheral to the Uncharted experience and makes it a mandatory part of said experience.

Touch screen on the BACK!? : You mean a way for me to interact with the game without having my fingers all over the screen? Ok, I'm listening...

Trigger Grip: a solid purchase: I picked up the Trigger Grip at my local gamestore and have found it to be a modest improvement on the comfort level of the system. It looks a little bulky at the top, making the "volume +" and the power buttons a little harder to reach than I'd like but it's a very small compromise for an improved experience. And yes it makes the system bigger but was anyone fooling themselves into thinking this device was pocket sized? I strongly recommend it! As of now this is the most comfortable way to play games on a Vita with that use a combination of analog sticks and shoulder buttons. I don't think it improves games that are D-Pad only though since...

Best D-Pad ever: I love the system's D-Pad! It's soft, very moveable and caves in the middle. A+

But the face buttons are a little small: I like the "click" to them, but for a system that seems to be aping the PS3's visual experience, you'd think they'd want to have similarly sized buttons. It's even smaller than the PSP's buttons... weird.. C+

Promising Analog sticks... but not quite there: I love that this system has actual analog sticks. They feel pretty good and are a vast improvement over the PSP's single nub. It's also a step-up from the 3DS's SlidePad... though I think the SlidePad is more comfortable to use thanks to the system's design. Lightyears away from real PS3 analog sticks but still very solid. B

A Golden Abyss of content: The system's Uncharted title is an interesting experience. It loses a lot of the charm and sense of awe of the original trilogy but adds in a couple neat features that I think should get integrated into the main franchise. It's a good title, not a great one, but I'm having a lot of fun with it. Visually, the game is stunning, with character models as sharp as Uncharted 1, though the environments always seem smaller in scale than the PS3 titles. I love the Panama setting and am finding the overall story relatively interesting but its easy to tell that this wasn't written by Naughty Dog. Well voiced and acted, but the script feels "cheap" compared to Uncharted 1-3. This probably isn't saying much, seeing as how those Naughty Dog titles have some of the most realistic, believable character writing I've ever seen in a game. The gunplay, as I've mentioned before, is held back by the size of the system. I found my aiming with the right analog stick to be... poor. I'm getting better, but considering how much time I've spent playing the main series I was hoping more of my skill and comfort would carry over. Oh and I refuse to turn on Auto Aim!

On the flipside, the game includes motion sensor capabilities for aiming. While this at first seems like The Worst Idea of All Time, when used in conjunction with the analog sticks it makes for a pretty damn revolutionary experience. Using the right stick to hone in on my target and then slightly twisting the Vita itself to align my crosshair with the enemy's head is surprisingly smooth and efficient. This gives you a level of precision that rivals a mouse. Its not perfectly implemented but its so ingenius that I hope they include it as an option in every Vita and PS3 title from here on.

The game is also littered with countless treasures to find. Not only that but you'll have a bit of backstory on each individual treasure. Add to that some photohunt challenges and random loot drop from enemies and you've negated the game's lack of multiplayer with a different set of long legs. If the main series gave me a sentence or two describing the historical significance of every treasure I'd found it would really motivate me to find all of them. Thumbs up to the guys at Bend Studio! But make all the touch control stuff optional next time and your game would be as golden as its title. I'll probably write a proper review once I finish the game.

Super Stardust is Super Stardust: Which is to say it's awesome.

Battery life is acceptable but not great: I ended up switching out the main battery on the 3DS and replacing it with a third party battery, which was a huge improvement. I plan to do the same thing with the Vita down the line.

Overall, I'm very happy with the system so far! Expect more impressions later.