E3 2011 – PSVita In-Depth Preview
Sony hopes to redeem its less-than-expected run of the Playstation Portable with the Playstation Vita. This next-generation portable boasts a 4-core processor, six-axis motion, 802.11 n WiFi, bluetooth, and 3G (premium model) beneath a beautiful 5 inch multitouch OLED screen, rear multitouch panel, front and rear facing cameras, 8 face buttons (2 shoulder), and everyone’s favorite – 2 analog sticks. All of this is wrapped in a very PSP-inspired housing that is surprisingly light yet sturdy.
I managed to get my wrist in a shiny blue band of power (aka Sony VIP pass) for some one-on-one time with the new handheld as well as ModNation Racers, WipeOut 2048, and Uncharted: Golden Abyss.
The first thing I noticed when I picked up the PSVita is its surprising lightness. Considering the overall size of the system one would expect a substantially heavier package. The weight is shaved off predominantly by the use of an OLED screen. This burgeoning technology not only allows for fantastic high-resolution images but does so at a considerable cut in glass size and weight.
The screen looks great, especially when pushed by software like Uncharted. Getting near PS3 quality graphics now means we’ll likely see games that are indistinguishable once developers really get a feel for the system.
I was very hesitant about having a touch display (let alone a real panel) on a system with only two buttons less than the DualShock 3, but I found its use surprisingly intuitive when implemented properly. Although none of the games I demoed used either the front or rear touch in a way that I felt was necessary, both Uncharted: Golden Abyss and ModNations used them in a way that felt practical. I originally did not plan on this being enough (and I still want to see games that take full advantage of the screen and rear panel) but am surprisingly won over by the ease of moving between face controls to touch interaction when given the proper time and instigation.
Where I’m not completely convinced is in the dual analog sticks. The addition of a second stick has been long sought after since the PSP 1000 hit the scene, but it took me an unusual amount of adjustment to feel at all comfortable with it. The good thing is that the sticks feel much better than the PSP’s nub. Though obviously not as raised as the DualShock’s sticks, the movement is much smoother and responsive than the sliding disc of Vita’s fore-bearer.
Unfortunately, there are a few potential problems with the sticks. The first is that the placement feels low when holding the system. While holding a controller with both thumbs on both sticks works fine, the added size and weight of the entire handheld made keeping my hands that low feel precarious. This will, of course, feel differently for other people and their variously abnormal hand sizes, but for me, it felt like a stretch to hold the system comfortably while using the sticks.
The second issue is much more based on preference and will only effect players such as myself: The analog sticks feel like those on the DualShock 3. If you’re like me and you’ve spent quite a bit more time with the Xbox 360′s controller, you know that there is a distinct difference between the two system’s controllers, and if you’re really like me, you don’t feel as comfortable with the touchy sticks of the PS3. If that’s the case, you’ll feel a little uncomfortable at first with the PSVita as well.
Finally, a minor qualm with the right analog stick. Having spent a decent bit of time with my old PSP and DS (or all handhelds for that matter) has burned in my brain the fact that there is no second stick. I expected my console instincts to kick in and draw my right hand down to aim but it was amazing how conscious of an effort it required for me to rotate the camera around Nathan Drake when playing Uncharted. It just isn’t in portable gamer’s logic to have that option. But really, this is a nice issue to have and anyone interested in the PSVita will happily overcome it. Just be prepared for a little adjustment.
Moving away from the direct control, let’s talk six-axis. Do you like controlling something by physically moving your device? Well then that’s how you’ll feel about motion control for the PSVita. Moving on.
A final bit of cool tech with the PSVita actually arises out of its wireless play connectivity. Called Cross Play, this ability allows for eligible games to be played competitively between both PSVita and PS3 gamers. And it allows for any combination of such players up to the supported number of the game. Say for instance you’re playing a four-player local match of WipeOut 2048. So long as you have enough systems and televisions (in the case of the console) you could have 3 people playing on the PSVita while 1 sits on a PS3 or have 3 set up on lanned PS3′s while one competitor holds his PSVita. The choice is yours and the system works great. In the end it will really be up to developers to take full advantage of this capability, but they’ve got a very stable base to be working from.
Overall the PSVita feels like a real contender for the handheld market. Whether or not fans will turn out for it remains to be seen and Sony is absolutely going to need the support of third-party developers to present titles that take proper advantage of the system’s hardware. But as it stands now I’m just about ready to give Sony another chance when the PSVita releases this holiday season. Just, please Sony, for the love of Odin, tell us the partnership with AT&T is just a prank.
I didn’t care much about ModNation Racers when it released for the PS3. I have nothing against it, I’m just indifferent. I only need a few kart racers in my life and I’ve had them for several console generations now. With that being said, I made it a point to check out this PSVita iteration as it, out of all of the games available to demo, showcased the range of interaction with the new handheld.
In the track construction mode I was able to manipulate the world in a variety of ways. It started by looking down on a clean slate of grass from high in the air. Using my finger on the screen I traced the general layout that I wanted the track to take. The screen felt responsive though it got a little hung up at times when I got too close to the edges. Because the game doesn’t want tracks to exceed a certain boundary, I’m chalking up this stall to the software, not hardware.
After getting the course set I zoom in to tune the track some more. I can move the camera around with the left stick and pull in or out with the right, but all of the track manipulation is done by touch. There area a variety of adjustments available from the drag-out menu including hills, twists, and embankments. I decide to throw slopes all over the track despite Jeff Ross, the Senior Staff Game Designer’s advice. Psht, what does he know?
Next came the real fun: land manipulation. By holding my finger on the screen I was able to create divets and trenches in the landscape. The longer I held, the deeper it went. To counter this, I could place up to four fingers on the rear panel of the PSVita. A small circle appeared for each finger and I found them to be incredibly accurate. Even though I couldn’t see exactly what I was touching on the hardware itself, knowing that the panel and screen were the same size allowed me to confidently use the control. Once I had built a mountain well exceeding Mr. Ross’ comfort zone, he decided to show off a little of ModNation Racer’s dynamic lighting.
In this light simulation mode I was able to push and pull the sun (or moon) through rises and falls to examine just how the shadows on my mountain would shift based on the position of the light source. We’ve seen dynamic lighting for years on the console but this was the first time I had experienced it to this level on a handheld.
The final step for building my track was to populate the surroundings with trees and houses. Again, this was controlled by touching the screen and I wasn’t really interested so we jumped into a race.
This was another opportunity to show off the Vita’s processing power as Jeff loaded a track that had been made by a player for the PS3. Aside from some culling adjustments, I was assured that no compensations had been made porting the track from console to handheld. And for my money I couldn’t seen anything that looked scaled down.
For the actual race, the controls were the standard fare but handled well. There was fortunately no forced touch interface and Jeff seemed very aware that making the player move their hands without a great deal of necessity would go over poorly with gamers. His awareness of the inherent risks with trying to fully utilize the PSVita’s different functionality made me hopeful that other developers would be similarly mindful.
I have to say one thing before discussing WipeOut 2048. During my hands-on with the game I was guided by Dr. Stuart Lovegrove PhD, the Technical Director for the Sony Liverpool Studio (and thus WipeOut). Dr. Lovegrove was the most infectiously enthusiastic and genuinely amicable person I met at all of E3. This man loves what he does and I love that he loves it. I just wanted to put that out there.
As for the game, if you’ve played other WipeOut games you’ll be right at home here. It’s all about flying fast, sliding through turns, and collecting (and using) powerups to get an advantage over the competition. The ships looked great and handled just as well. The two tracks I demoed were similarly gorgeous and had interesting layouts with strong verticality, multiple routes, and deceptive twists. The game could be controlled using the sixaxis mobility to steer and the rear panel to accelerate but it felt like playing Mario Kart Wii with the steering wheel (see: not fun).
The real demonstration of WipeOut 2048 was its Connect Play support. A fellow (in this case rival) journalist was brought over to play on another PSVita like myself while Dr. Lovegrove manned the PS3 version of the game nearby. It took only a few moments to set up the race and get everything connected. Once in, all three games ran at a perfect 30 frames per second, with players visible on all three screens (when applicable). I took this time to hold up my Vita and compare the graphics to the PS3 counterpart. While the console version of the game certainly exceeded the handheld graphically, the differences were actually quite minimal and attributed more to the television’s wider viewing area.
All in all WipeOut 2048 will be a blast for fans of the series and should appeal to anyone looking for some high speed multiplayer racing.
Uncharted: Golden Abyss
This is the one everyone wants to know about so let’s get down to it. Yes, it’s Uncharted. No, it’s not directly connected to the plot of the console games. Duh, it looks great.
Let’s actually start with the controls. It took a little while to get used to the layout of the buttons and especially how the on-screen prompts related to them. The big issue was that the game is being designed in nearly every way (except general movement) to be compatible with both traditional controls and touch/motion. This means that prompts need to correlate to both, which is confusing. As far as everything actually feels though, I was very pleased. Nathan runs, shoots, and climbs like I expected. I had to make a conscious effort to remember I had a right analog stick again, but once I surmised that hurdle I was taking cover and scaling walls with ease.
The most surprising aspect of Uncharted’s controls was just how intuitive transition between traditional and touch controls felt. Though I avoided tilting the actual device (to lean for a hanging gap), I found myself naturally drawn to tracing Nathan’s path as he climbed the side of the temple ruins. The handholds glow a faint gold and in spite of being able to move the left stick, I felt more comfortable simply touching the next brick I wanted to grab. This was the absolute last thing that I expected from my time with the PSVita and I am pleased to find that this comfort can exist. The real decider was that I wasn’t forced to use either. I had the choice and was able to control the game in the way that felt best for me. Players will benefit greatly if other developers can adopt this tolerant approach.
As far as graphics go Uncharted: Golden Abyss is nothing short of astonishing for a handheld. After having already demoed two other Vita titles, I still found a “whoah” escaping me as I picked up the game. High-poly models, HD textures, and dynamic lighting craft imagery worthy of the PS3.
But this is where I found a new and unexpected concern arising. Even though the PSVita is capable of looking like a console and even controlling like one, in the end it is still a handheld and we’re going to need developers to remember that. Console games are meant to be played on televisions that can accommodate the large visual landscapes. But with the PSVita, all images will be confined to the 5″ screen. With Uncharted I felt that everything was scaled and positioned like its console counterpart. This is great for showing off the Vita’s graphical capabilities but the result was characters that felt a little far away, swallowed up by scenery proportioned for a T.V. Putting in more time with a game like Uncharted will determine whether or not this qualm holds but of the three games I did get to play, it was Uncharted that suffered from this potential problem the most.
If you’re going to get a PSVita, you’re going to get Uncharted. But just in case, keeping checking back with GameFront to see our full reviews of the PSVita, ModNation Racers, WipeOut 2048, and Uncharted: Golden Abyss when they release.