Last week, Digital Foundry reviewed the Nvidia Shield - a highly impressive, state of the art piece of technology, somewhat under-utilised by a catalogue of software designed with much less capable hardware in mind. Compare and contrast with the PlayStation Vita - long since left behind by more powerful tablets and smartphones, but where the games just keep on getting better. Somehow, Sony has managed to miniaturise the PlayStation experience into a handheld form factor, creating a platform where traditional mobile games can sit side by side with cross-platform triple-A titles and impressive original games from the biggest collection of first-party studios in the world.
Next month you'll be playing Killzone: Mercenary on Vita, and based on what we've played so far, it's a real achievement, perhaps the most technologically impressive portable shooter on the market and the essence of what sets Vita apart from other portables: full-fat gaming comparable with PS3, delivered in a mobile form factor. In this article, we'll be looking at how successfully Sony has transferred key PS3 franchises across to the handheld, and we'll be comparing a range of games available on both PlayStation 3 and Vita. Can portable hardware truly deliver a current-gen gaming experience?
Despite the hardware limitations compared to PlayStation 3, PS Vita manages to accomplish some highly impressive conversions while drawing just a fraction of power compared to PS3 or Xbox 360. During gameplay the Vita on average sucks up between just 3.5 to 4W of power, while in comparison the latest Slim models of the 360 and PS3 take between 70 to 80W in similar situations. This speaks volumes for the efficiency of the Vita's ARM CPU and Power VR SGX543 GPU cores, which are able to deliver a fairly close approximation of a premium PS3 gaming experience using less than six per cent of the juice, which includes powering the superb OLED display. In terms of gaming performance per watt, we're not sure that any other platform gets close.
While the Vita trails far behind the PS3 in terms of raw processing power, it does feature some small advantages that help redress the balance. The inclusion of unified shaders - as opposed to the separate fixed pixel and vertex shaders on the PS3 - gives developers greater flexibility in the development process, while the tile-based deferred rendering architecture is more efficient, allowing the GPU to do more while economising on bandwidth and fill-rate. The same technology is employed in smartphones and tablets, but it's the fixed nature of the Vita hardware and the quality of the dedicated development tools that really makes the difference. We kick off our analysis with the upcoming Killzone: Mercenary, illustrating that point spectacularly well.
The franchise exclusives: Killzone, Uncharted and more
Both Killzone: Mercenary and launch classic Uncharted: Golden Abyss emphasise the advantages of the Vita's static hardware set-up over gaming platforms based around devices with continuously evolving specifications. In particular we see several advanced rendering techniques commonly found on PS3 implemented on Vita to create a striking console-like experience that we don't see on iOS and Android. Deferred shading is implemented in Uncharted (correction: but not in Killzone), allowing for a vast array of light sources on-screen without incurring a huge performance hit. In Killzone: Mercenary, the use of light and shadow is combined with layers of post-process effects to create a gritty visual aesthetic similar to Killzone 2. Meanwhile, Uncharted's global illumination system fills the natural environments and ancient ruins with an impressive level of depth and ambience that rivals - and sometimes exceeds - the original Uncharted game.
In some ways Killzone: Mercenary is the more impressive of the two games here, demonstrating how intimate knowledge of the hardware, along with optimised code, yields improvements as the platform slowly matures. For example, the level of post-processing is visibly more advanced than in other Vita titles, while the slew of alpha-based effects - such as volumetric smoke and fire - appear well-animated and have a considerable amount of depth to them, despite being rendered in a distinctly lower resolution.
There's also evidence of a dynamic framebuffer at work, too, which occasionally sees the rendering resolution lowered from 960x544 when the engine is under load. While some iOS and Android games (for example, Riptide GP) allow the use of selectable resolutions - similar to PC games - these changes are manually selected by the user, resulting in a permanent sacrifice in terms of quality, whereas the variable resolution set-up on Vita only sees a temporary downgrade until performance stabilises. Unless our eyes deceive us, Killzone only seems to deploy resolution reductions if the camera is in motion - if still, resolution remains native. This is a neat trick as frame-rate drops are only likely to be noticed in motion, and not in still scenes.
Uncharted: Golden Abyss remains one of the most visually impressive Vita games, with excellent use of real-time lighting (also via deferred shading) and environments that feature a huge sense of scale and pack in a considerable amount of detail. This is also bolstered by the use of various effects, such as depth-of-field and surface shaders on the characters - elements that we simply don't see implemented to the same degree on the vast majority of mobile titles. The compromise is that we are looking at a sub-native 720x408 framebuffer without any anti-aliasing (FXAA was trialled by the coders, but it didn't make the grade). However, the reduced level of image quality is less pronounced on the Vita screen than it is when viewed on a much larger computer monitor.
What is striking is just how much of the core PS3 experience is translated onto Vita without having to completely redesign how these games play. While Uncharted lacks the large scale set-pieces found in the PS3 instalments, the game still features its fair share of collapsing buildings and dramatic scripted scenes. All of the basic elements - such as combat and traversal - are similarly polished and quite closely follow the high standards set by the PS3 originals, even if the overall scope has been dialled back in the conversion process. Likewise, Killzone: Mercenary offers up a very convincing experience that certainly echoes that of the PS3 games in terms of attention to detail, and the shooting remains intense compared to the pedestrian action in the vast majority of mobile FPS games.
The downside is that performance generally isn't as stable as the equivalent PS3 franchise entries. Frame-rate is heavily impacted for extended periods due to the level of detail and effects work during demanding scenes and the weaker Vita hardware. This is particularly noticeable in Uncharted, where frame-rates come crashing down below 20FPS when there are several enemies on screen as well as a lot of trees and effects. It's fair to say that in these scenes the shooting is heavily compromised and the game temporarily becomes almost unplayable, with huge spikes in controller latency making aiming and moving feel very heavy.
In other areas shoot-outs have less of an impact on performance, with drops down to the mid-twenties at worst, but the effect this has on gameplay is much less severe - aiming and shooting is still responsive enough for combat to be enjoyable, although the level of controller response isn't as high as in the PS3 games. Comparatively, the Killzone: Mercenary preview code we played appears to be better optimised, with the game more closely adhering to the desired 30fps refresh across general run-of-play, and when gunfights do break out, the drop in performance is nowhere near as problematic as in Uncharted. Elsewhere, both titles remain relatively smooth outside of combat. While performance is sometimes an issue, the games still come across as worthy companions to the PS3 offerings.
Head-to-head: PlayStation Vita vs. PlayStation 3
Both Killzone: Mercenary and Uncharted: Golden Abyss are games that have been built from the ground up around Vita hardware, working with the system's limitations and exploiting its advantages to get a good balance between graphical representation and performance. But how well does the system fare across a range of multi-platform titles, where the underlying technology won't necessarily have been optimised with Sony's handheld in mind? While the results inevitably vary from game to game, it is surprising just how close most titles actually look on the small screen compared to their PS3 counterparts.
"Virtua Tennis 4 demonstrates that certain current-gen game styles translate across to Vita exceptionally well with only minimal graphical differences."
Dealing with lower geometry throughput, reduced video RAM and less memory bandwidth means that most assets and effects need to be scaled back to run on Vita, although in most cases much care has been taken to ensure that core level design and gameplay remain completely unaffected. The smaller screen also helps immensely in minimising the impact. In fact, taking a look across a small range of titles reveals some commonality between the techniques uses in replicating the full-fat console experience on the pint-sized Vita.
Across the board we regularly see that the geometry counts on both characters and environments in various games are pared back, with high-quality textures often swapped out in favour of lower-resolution artwork. This helps graphical assets to fit into the Vita's 128MB of video RAM - half of what is generally available on the PS3.
In terms of Virtua Tennis 4 - one of the most triumphant conversions - we also see the removal and reduction of specular highlights, reflections and lighting. We also see the absence of some of the more demanding effects - such as the coating of sweat on the characters in VT4, or the stylised surface shaders in Street Fighter X Tekken. In addition, the level of anisotropic filtering in many titles is commonly dialled back, resulting in blurrier textures. Again, the smaller screen mitigates the impact of this.
In terms of all the multi-platform games featured on this page, Virtua Tennis 4 and PlayStation All-Stars come closest to replicating the PS3 experience on the Vita, with both games targeting the 60fps gold standard found in the home console releases. Both titles also run natively at the Vita's 960x544 resolution, delivering a crisp presentation not always found on some of the system's flagship titles. Virtua Tennis 4 features the use of 2x multi-sampling anti-aliasing (MSAA), which helps to deliver extremely clean imagery, while PlayStation All-Stars runs without any form of AA, but this has little impact of the quality of the overall image given the fine pixel density on offer with the Vita's five-inch OLED screen.
Impressively, the level of detail in both games comes pretty close to matching the PS3 versions, with the characters in Virtua Tennis 4 being particularly noteworthy. Objects are reduced in complexity, rather than removed, which certainly helps in creating the illusion of achieving PS3 quality on the small screen, while other elements - such as the removal of some visual effects - are barely missed when the core graphical look is so closely reconstructed in the first place.
The zoomed-out action benefits PlayStation All-Stars, too, although the characters do get scaled back a little more than in Sega's game. More importantly, though, nothing has been compromised in terms of how the games play, and this is reflected in terms of performance: both games target a silky smooth 60fps, and manage to achieve this with relative ease during gameplay.
Frame-rates are more variable in PlayStation All-Stars when the action is situated in more complex stages, but Virtua Tennis 4 is the stand-out title here, never dropping a frame outside of the replays or post-match sequences where Vita does struggle in comparison to the PS3. Surprisingly, in some scenarios the Vita even gains an advantage over its bigger brother, although this doesn't result in any benefits where gameplay is concerned: the pre-match sequences in Virtua Tennis 4 run with an uncapped frame-rate on Vita, maxing out at around 40fps, while they are capped at 30fps on the PS3.
Meanwhile, PlayStation All-Stars features less pronounced drops in smoothness at various points on the handheld, which remains solidly v-synced. In comparison, v-sync is temporarily dropped on the PS3 game, resulting in some short bursts of tearing when the engine is taxed, but not necessarily leading to higher frame-rates.
This fine layer of balance between graphical quality and performance isn't quite replicated to the same degree in Street Fighter X Tekken, where certain aspects of the environments are more noticeably pared back to reduce the overall rendering load. Furthermore, it looks like a sub-native framebuffer is employed too, but the usual "jaggies" are suppressed by what appears to be a strong layer of anti-aliasing to smooth over edges. The end result is a game that does well to look clean and fairly crisp on the small screen while targeting 60fps, but struggles to maintain a solid level of smoothness when the action intensifies. Despite this, Street Fighter X Tekken on Vita still plays well enough for hardcore fans to enjoy casual matches on the move, but the PS3 and 360 versions of the game are better suited to more serious competition.
In other titles the balance between graphical quality and performance is further removed on Sony's handheld. Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time also renders natively in 544p without anti-aliasing and with the bulk of the PS3 game's details intact, albeit with some elements removed, such as foliage and cel-shading on the characters. But rather than target the same fluid 60fps refresh as found in the PS3 game, performance is lowered to a more manageable 30fps on the Vita - a similar state of affairs to the Oddworld Stranger's Wrath HD Vita conversion.
In addition, the engine doesn't seem to be that well optimised, with half-second pauses and regular frame-rate drops that make the controls feel heavy and slow to respond compared to the same experience on PS3. Curiously, the in-engine pre-mission area is rendered with the same level of detail as the PS3 game in the handheld incarnation, but as a result of this the frame-rate takes an even bigger hit than usual, causing a huge amount of judder to manifest on-screen - an interesting experiment in seeing how equal rendering loads don't out particularly well for the mobile hardware.
A similar set of trade-offs are also found in the Metal Gear Solid HD collection, although the quality of the conversion work isn't quite as optimised as it could have been considering that we're dealing with PS2-quality assets. Both MGS2 and its sequel share almost completely identical artwork with their PS3 counterparts, except for some lower-resolution textures and modified visual effects.
Besides these changes, the main compromises are again centred around the rendering of the framebuffer and performance. Both games render in 720x448 without any anti-aliasing, meaning that the games lack that crisp "retina-like" look found in native 544p titles like Virtua Tennis 4 and PlayStation All-Stars. Yes, remarkably we have an HD collection that is in no way rendering in any form of high definition: the increased visual benefits all derive from an upgrade to progressive scan and the beautiful OLED screen.
Performance-wise, frame-rate has been capped at 30fps in MGS3 due to the complexity of the environments, which feature plenty of bandwidth-sapping foliage, although MGS2 does still target 60fps. However, the frame-rate is more variable than on PS3, with extended drops down to something approaching a locked 30fps in bandwidth-heavy scenes such on the outside deck of the tanker in stormy weather conditions. In terms of target frame-rates then, the Vita game is more of a match for the PS2 originals' performance levels.
"The Metal Gear Solid HD collection on Vita has the distinction of not rendering in any kind of high-def format during gameplay, but the real problem is the inconsistent frame-rate."
PlayStation 3 vs. PlayStation Vita - the Digital Foundry verdict
While we are to a degree looking at visually compromised conversions in the above comparisons, it's important to stress that the overall gameplay experience is often identical on Vita: the core mechanics, level design and overall aesthetics are usually very close indeed, albeit downscaled for the smaller screen. The only real sticking point with some of these titles is that performance is often more variable, disrupting the flow of play in games that require quicker reactions and more precise movement of the analogue sticks.
"Vita's future seems to be less about cross-platform gaming and more about mobile-orientated titles, with indie development playing a key role. The PS4 connection is also looking promising."
There's no doubt that Vita's ability to handle solid current-gen console titles makes the system an enticing prospect for hardcore gamers, although the slow uptake of the machine does suggest that this alone isn't enough to make it a must-have, and judging by the ongoing absence of planned titles like BioShock, it's easy to conclude that publishers feel the userbase is too small to support the costs of development. There are also compelling arguments that with the cost of these games approaching the prices of the core PS3 versions, a mobile version makes little financial sense - either for the publisher or the end user, who almost certainly owns an existing console.
In that respect, while the cross-platform stuff is fascinating to analyse in-depth, it's Vita-exclusive titles like Gravity Rush, Soul Sacrifice, Frozen Synapse and Escape Plan that begin to provide a more gripping reason to own the system, with a range of innovative and interesting indie titles further backing up the growing library of games. The use of cross-buy with selected retail and PSN games also forms a huge part of the console's appeal, where both PS3 and Vita games are available to download simultaneously for the same price. Key new titles include Retro City Rampage, Thomas Was Alone, Guacamelee! and the upcoming Proteus, so it isn't restricted to older games.
At Gamescom next week, hopefully we'll find out about Sony's future plans for its handheld. Our guess is that cross-platform conversions will take a back seat to more mobile-orientated games, released in tandem with more crowd-pleasing Sony franchise entries. (An Uncharted: Golden Abyss sequel? Yes please!) And secondly, we're confident that Vita's role as companion hardware to the PlayStation 4 will be explored in more depth. Sony sources have indicated to us that PS4 and Vita were developed simultaneously, with many of the same staff deeply involved in both projects. Is the Remote Play hook-up just the tip of the iceberg in terms of inter-device operability? It's just a matter of days until we find out.