La Dolce Vita: Why I’m psyched for Sony’s new handheld

By Brenna Hillier, Friday, 9 December 2011 07:06 GMT

This is not just a case of shiny-object-itis. The Vita is a piece of tech engineered to part Brenna Hillier from her precious cashmoney.

Vita

Arrives in Japan December 17 at ¥24,980/¥29,980 for base and 3G model respectively.

Due in the West on February 22:
Base model: £229.99/$249.99/€249.99/AUD$349.95
3G model: £229.99/$249.99/€249.99/AUD$349.95

As Sony starts winding up the hype machine – and finally letting loose some concrete details – the Vita is all over the gaming press, and following the crashing disappointment of realising it’s not as thrifty as I had hoped for (especially in the memory card department), I’m starting to get excited again.

Mike Capps said this week that he’s not backing the Vita, because of competition from smartphones. The Epic Games boss is just one voice among many other doubters, and the unhappy story of the 3DS is only fuelling concern.

But as much as I enjoy the half a dozen games I have on my Android – and some of them, like Game Dev Story, have sucked up hours of my life – I could name hundreds of core platform games which I have enjoyed as much and more. The mobile market continues to offer compelling, bestselling games, but to my mind, there’s no mobile game which rivals the delights of Skyrim, Saints Row, Dark Souls, Assassin’s Creed, Mass Effect or any other triple-A experience. These are experiences of a quality we have never been able to squeeze into a handheld.

Given the chance to play Tiny Wings, which I adore, or to play Skyrim … well. It’s not much of a dilemma. Assuming people do want to play core games on the go – I know I do – there is a gap in the market for a gaming portable which can manage do it. The 3DS, arguably, should have filled this hole, but a lacklustre software lineup and lack of forward-thinking features cast a dark shadow, one which the console is only now beginning to edge its way out of.

The Vita, then, is pretty well-positioned to fill a niche, and some of the angles Sony is pushing have me convinced it’s going to.

We will fight them on the phones
Sony’s major advantage of Nintendo in this battle is its existing online infrastructure. Criticise the PlayStation Network as much as you like; it’s a world away from what you got on the 3DS. You’ll be able to hook your Vita to the PSN on day one. You’ll be able to download some demos, buy some more games, and play multiplayer with friends and strangers – these are all features the 3DS has only just mustered in the last few weeks, a good eight months after launch.

But for Sony, this is the baseline offering – the barely acceptable, launch day minimum; it’s going much farther than that. Pre-paid 3G means you’re finally untethered from WiFi hotspots. Day and date digital launches end your reliance on retail, and Sony’s push to keep digital prices low bravely counters an industry trend to pander to the price fixing of the bricks-and-mortar cabal. Both of these tactics prime Sony to take the coming digital revolution in its stride. They give the Vita a feature set equal to the advantages of smartphones while remaining technologically superior, something no other console can boast of.

Zipper’s Unit 13.

We will fight them on the social networks
The cleverness doesn’t end there. Sony’s making a strong push to capitalise on another front which the industry is struggling to meet – the rise of social gaming. The apparently unceasing popularity of Facebook games ending in “Ville” shows an enormous appetite for experiences which connect you with your friends. Attempts to integrate this with core games has been largely hit and miss, but Sony has implemented a set of features which look capable of managing it.

The console comes pre-loaded with a number of apps including Twitter, which can be run in the background while gaming. This enables players who like that sort of thing to keep an eye on their social networks while they game, but it also gives developers the opportunity to readily integrate these services. Imagine taking a screenshot of your best LittleBigPlanet effort and posting it straight to Flickr, or tagging your defeated opponent in a Facebook image of a particularly nasty victory.

Beyond existing social networks, Sony has a few offerings of its own, all seamlessly stitched into the system software. Each game has its own launchpad where players are fed a stream of information about events, friend activity and new updates. You don’t have to seek it out – it’s just there on the wallpaper when you navigate the the game’s XMB icon.

Games which take advantage of this in interesting ways will really play to the console’s strengths, for example Zipper Interactive’s Unit 13. The game’s social features will, for example, let me know every time Johnny Cullen tops my best score (rarely, obviously). If you’ve ever played a game with AutoLog you’ll know precisely what that means: Never. Ending. Rivalry – and a reason to keep coming back.

On top of that, Zipper’s clever use of Near, Sony’s proximity-based network, means if someone in my housing complex manages a perfect score on a level, I get the reward too – a crack at a boss. It’ll be flying cars and cities on clouds next – we’re in the future.

It’s social and network features like this which have me convinced Sony’s onto something with Vita, and a strong first- and third-party launch line up certainly won’t hurt. There will come a time when the phone you carry out of perceived necessity can do everything the Vita can, and probably more – but in an age when the admittedly excellent Fruit Ninja is one of the best rival platforms can produce, core portable gaming has plenty of life in it.

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