As listeners to the GameSpot UK Podcast will know, I've had my doubts about the PlayStation Vita. Its size, its use of proprietary memory cards, its price. And now, having had one in my possession for over a month, those doubts have solidified. It is a relic; a product of a bygone era of handheld gaming that has learned little from the mistakes of its predecessors and the direction of the industry as a whole.
Sure, from a purely technological standpoint, it's impressive. The 5-inch OLED screen is something to behold, displaying visuals that would have been unthinkable on a handheld just a few short years ago. It has every input method you could possibly want: dual analog sticks, a touch screen, a rear touch pad, gyroscope, accelerometer, cameras, and a GPS. And it's pretty darn comfortable to use too.
But to view the Vita purely as a technological achievement would be missing the point somewhat--it's all about the software. And I don't mean games (you'll have to wait until next week for my take on those). For any product to really succeed in today's market--whether it is a phone, tablet, or handheld console--it has to be easy to use, have a UI that doesn't make you want to smack your head against a brick wall, and have an ecosystem full of content that's reasonably priced.
The Vita has none of those things. It comes close, but there are so many niggles, so many things that make using one frustrating that I've grown to loathe using it.
Let's start at the top: the UI. It's functional at best. From a purely superficial point of view, I don't think it looks nice at all. It's like someone handed over the UI design to a 5-year-old child with a fetish for Smarties and a penchant for drawing in crayon. It's bright, garish, and lacks sophistication. Start using it and things get worse.
"It's like someone handed over the UI design to a 5-year-old child with a fetish for smarties"
For starters, there's unlocking the damn thing. When you press the power button to wake it up, there's a three to four second delay before the screen comes on so you can peel away the fancy lock screen to access the main menu. It's long enough to make you wonder if your button press registered or if the battery might be flat, causing you to push the button again and inevitably relock it.
Say you want to change some settings. When you tap on the shiny green settings icon, you're presented with another screen that asks you to "Start" settings. Why? I've tapped on settings, so clearly I want to change them; there's no need for another step. There's also a five-second delay while the settings menu loads after click start. WHY? It's a settings menu, not an eyeball-melting polygon fest. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. There are confusing and inconsistent AI elements, a painfully slow Web browser, the fact that the "Friends," "Messaging," and "Party" functions are inexplicably divided into three separate apps…the list goes on and on.
How about charging the Vita over a USB? That's something everything does nowadays, so it should just work right? Wrong. You have to go into settings and enable USB charging. Why? When would I not want my Vita to charge over a USB? Will the power demands be so great that my laptop will spontaneously combust? Do I risk turning the Vita in a sentient being with a thirst for human flesh? Oh, and forget about using all those spare mini/micro USB cables you have lying around to charge it. The Vita uses a proprietary cable. If you lose it, it's off to the shops for another before you can recharge. Hooray for progress.
Then there's multitasking, or lack thereof. Here's an example. You're playing a game and you get stuck. "I know! I'll use the Vita's built in Web browser to look up a guide! Hooray for technology!" Except, you can't do that. If you try to boot up the browser, you have to close any game you have open. "But, hey, I can just boot it up again. Where's the problem?" Sure, you can do that, if you don't mind horrendous loading times.
Some games are worse than others, but by the time you've gotten back to the main game menu, loaded your save game, and got into the action, you've already wasted three or four minutes. That's long enough to make a quick blast on a bus journey immensely frustrating. How in this day and age a device can go without any form of simple multitasking is beyond me. We expect these things. They're commonplace across almost every computer, phone, and tablet we use.
"If the Vita is Sony's attempt to pry people away from their mobiles, then I despair."
And that's the Vita's biggest problem. It's not competing with just specialized gaming devices like the 3DS; it's competing with every single Android, iOS, or Windows Phone device on the market. I'm sure Sony knows that, but if the Vita is its attempt to pry people away from their mobiles, then I despair. It's not as easy to use; lacks basic functionality such as multitasking; doesn't have a library of Apps to expand its functionality; and--most importantly of all--the games are far too expensive.
Mobiles have changed how we consume portable games and how much we think we should be paying for them. The new standard is 69p ($0.99), with £4.99 seemingly expensive. And while it would be remiss of me to compare the likes of Angry Birds to something like Uncharted: Golden Abyss (£40), Angry Birds is a great game. It's cheap, can be downloaded anywhere, and provides more than enough entertainment for the morning commute. There are more than just cheap thrills available on the App Store too. Just look at the likes of Infinity Blade II, Grand Theft Auto III, or the recently released Ghost Trick for evidence of that.
I'm not convinced that the lure of big names like Uncharted or Wipeout is enough for people to drop £40 on a portable game anymore--at least not at the levels that the DS and PSP sustained. Especially when it's tied to a device that starts at £230, without a memory card that costs an extortionate £30 for a mere 8GB of space. They're proprietary of course, so you can't go buying cheap SD cards to fill with games. And forget about sharing your Vita with the family because each is tied to a single user account, as are the games. It's like Sony's been screwing us for so long that it just expects us sit there and take it.
Except, we're not. We've been wined, dined, and given a gentlemanly kiss goodnight by the likes of Apple, Google, and Amazon, and you know what? It felt pretty darn good. Things aren't perfect with those companies, but they're a damn sight better than they are with Sony, which has completely failed to respond to where the market is going and where consumers are spending their money. It has resulted in an overpriced, gargantuan piece of hardware that--while impressive at a technical level--just incites anger at every turn.
Unlike my phone, I don't need to carry a Vita around with me. And, given my experience, I don't want to either.