The PS Vita never came close to fulfilling its massive potential, and with scant attention to the portable at this year's E3, it looks like Sony has all but given up on it as the system it was originally meant to be. But that doesn't necessarily mean it isn't still worth a look – as Sony has succeeded (with some asterisks attached) at reinventing the Vita as a modern streaming console.
To say the Vita has been a big commercial dud would be an understatement. It launched right as smartphones and tablets – and the countless "free" mobile games that they run – were skyrocketing in popularity and ubiquity. And while Nintendo has somehow managed to carve out a big place for the 3DS in today's climate, Sony had no such luck with the Vita.
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That doesn't just affect Sony's bottom line; it has also had a damning effect on the Vita's gaming ecosystem. Though the Vita is still a great place to find new indie titles, development of AAA fare for the Vita, which was never great in the first place, has screeched to a halt. Considering the high hopes many of us had for the Vita when it arrived, it's been hard to watch serious portable gaming – pay US$30 or so to get a full, real game with the physical controls it deserves – losing out to the casual, freemium, endless in-app-purchase-dominated fare that populates mobile app stores.
Ideally, there would be a place for both, but the masses have spoken. And, by a landslide, they appear to prefer a casual or touch-only gaming experience on the devices they already own, rather than a console-like, pay-once-for-a-full-game experience that the Vita can provide. Thanks for the memories, Vita. It was a slice.
But what if the Vita could be something more than a failed PSP successor? What if it could pair with Sony's market-leading PS4 and a streaming back-catalog of PS3 games to push portable gaming into the future?
If you can put up with a few compromises, that's exactly what the PS Vita is today. And, at its best, it's pretty awesome.
If you own a PS4, then the Vita basically turns it into Sony's answer to the Wii U. There's technically a second-screen element, where the Vita can show an in-game map (or something along those lines) for playing on your PS4, but that's been used so little by developers that it's barely worth mentioning. The real star of the show is PS4 Remote Play. As long as you have a good Wi-Fi connection, the Vita transforms into a handheld gateway to your home console.
In our experience, Vita Remote Play is one of the coolest recent innovations in gaming. You can use it both at home, when someone else is on the TV (or when you simply want to game in another room) or even while you're away from home – provided your home end has good upload speeds and your receiving end has good download speeds.
Vita Remote Play lets you "bring" your PS4 with you everywhere you go, without lugging around the actual console. Even if where you go is hundreds of miles away.
The other big change that transforms the Vita into a next-gen cloud-based console is PlayStation Now. PS Now is Sony's answer to backwards compatibility on the PS4 – allowing you to stream select PS3 titles onto your current-gen console. But it also works on the Vita.
That means you can play PS3 classics like The Last of Us (above), the first three Uncharted games, Infamous 1 and 2, Batman: Arkham City, Deus Ex: Human Revolution and many more – all on your Vita.
And most of those are included in PS Now's (Netflix-like) all-access subscription portion, which lets you play all you want for $20 per month. The Vita technically doesn't support the subscription part yet, but as long as you have a PS4 to sign up on, you can then use your active subscription on the Vita.
Like PS4 Remote Play, PS Now streaming worked great on our Wi-Fi. Unless you have network problems, it's as if all these terrific games live on your handheld.
The biggest problem with PS Now and Remote Play is that the Vita doesn't have all the controls that the PS3/4 Dualshock controllers do. So you end up having to use the front or back touchscreens to replace the L2/R2 and L3/R3 buttons, which can lead to some awkward (in some cases, uncomfortable) hand contortions – like you see above.
Many games don't rely much on those buttons, and in those cases it isn't an issue at all. But for titles where things like shooting or driving acceleration are mapped to the Dualshock's back triggers, there's going to be a period of adjustment for learning to use that back touchscreen on the Vita.
On the whole, it's somewhat annoying, but workable. We've been enjoying Batman: Arkham Knight and The Last of Us on the Vita, both of which use those buttons for some key actions. But if you don't already own a Vita, you may want to play with a store's display model, and see how it feels reaching your middle and ring fingers around to the four corners of that back touchscreen, before investing in the portable.
(PS3 games through PS Now can map those buttons to the front touchscreen instead, which may be easier than the back ... but PS4 Remote Play only lets you map the buttons to the back, since the Vita's touchscreen is reserved for mirroring the Dualshock 4 touchpad)
If not for that one compromise, we'd be urging every PS4 gamer we know to run out and buy a Vita. We still think Remote Play and PS Now can make for a great setup – awkward control mapping and all – but it certainly isn't for everyone. Ideally, Sony will see the potential here and make a new version of the Vita with physical controls that perfectly match the Dualshock's.
While the Vita is seen as something of a commercial turkey, you might want to think twice before opting for a 3DS or the smartphone you already have for mobile gaming. When you add up the Vita's native titles (a small group, but one that does include a few great games), digital versions of PSP games, PS4 Remote Play and PS3 game streaming through PS Now … it's probably the most versatile gaming console we've ever seen – and perhaps a glimpse of what gaming will look like down the road.
There are much worse ways to spend $200.
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