PlayStation Vita (vs iPad) review

Thought that Sony was doing the sensible thing and exiting the handheld market? Not likely, it's returned with a vengence with this: the PlayStation Vita, an all-singing super-duper upgraded version of the PSP with everything but the kitchen sink included. It blends the old (physical controls and a cartridge slot) with the new (touch screen, WiFi + 3G, and downloadable games). It’s big, bulky, and powerful. It’s also quite a lot of fun.

Mind you, it takes a certain bullishness to underestimate the impact Apple has had on the videogaming market with the iPhone, iPod touch, and more recently the iPad.

Put bluntly, the traditional videogames market looks screwed. Between Angry Birds making millions for 69p a shot, and FaceBook games like Farmville eating up millions of hours of gamers time, the idea of paying £40 for a game is increasingly looking faintly ridiculous. Game in the UK is in trouble and GameStop in the US seems to be setting up an exit strategy based on hardware refurbishment.

With many gadget geeks and gamers armed with either an iPhone (or some Android variant), and an iPad (or less likely and Android tablet) is there any space for a dedicated handheld device?

Probably not, but from Sony’s point of view, there better be. Both Sony and Nintendo posted losses during 2011, and although the global electronics industry is a large and complicated beast, we can all note that Apple’s revenue grew by 71% during the same period.

Meanwhile the traditional UK games market was estimated to be down by a whopping 25% last year.

Ironically Apple hasn’t shown the slightest bit of corporate interest in the videogames market, the company only ever made one game for iOS (a quite visual poker variant called Texas Hold'Em), which it withdrew from sale last year.

However, Apple’s competent digital distribution platform (the App Store), combined with the relative low cost for development, and the huge popularity of its handheld devices has ensured a vibrant cottage developer scene, and a large third-party gaming developer base.

Nintendo has responded to Apple’s iOS endeavours with a dedicated gaming device with a 3D screen, which seems to have failed to excite the market so far. Now it’s Sony’s turn.

The PlayStation Vita is best described as an upgraded Sony PSP with every new piece of technology thrown at it. Superficial it sports a similar design to Sony’s early handhelds (a black oblong with a horizontal screen with controls on either side) but where it excels (or over-compensates) is with its controls.

Deep breath: the PlayStation Vita sports dual analogue sticks, four regular buttons, a d-pad, two dual action shoulder buttons (you can tap either side of the button for different input), an accelerometer, gyroscopic compass; multi-touch display, and touch sensitive rear display (we presume because Sony didn’t want a single surface that wasn’t input-ready in some sort).

For the launch lineup this means that some games are hilariously attempting to shoehorn in every single control method as Sony showcases its technology, leading to some gaming experiences with hand contortions akin to playing Bop It Extreme.

Sarcasm aside, the presence of touch surfaces and gyro controls ensures that the PlayStation Vita delivers a lot of the input functionality of iOS devices, The difference being the addition of full physical controls. It’s especially pleasing to see that Sony has finally embraced dual analogue sticks in portable gaming, finally ensuring a similar experience to Xbox or PlayStation 3 gaming on the go.

In terms of graphics performance the PlayStation Vita really isn’t that far from the PlayStation 3 either, which is a hell of an achievement for a handheld device. Although this does beg the question of how pertinent the current generation of consoles are if the next wave of smartphones and tablet devices are going to be on par with Sony’s flagship product.

One truth that few people talk about on the iPad (as well as iPhone and Android devices) is that no matter how great Angry Birds is, a touch-screen display and motion controls suck when it comes to traditional games like Grand Theft Auto, Batman: Arkham City and Modern Warfare. And these are big and popular blockbuster titles, making it hard to dismiss their value to the gaming community.

The physical controls of the PlayStation Vita ensure that many gaming experiences are simply better than they’d be on a touch screen: more precise, fluid, intuitive, and you can give the display your full attention, neither having your thumbs covering up part of the screen, or having to focus your eyes to find the virtual controls.

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