Little Big Idea – Playstation TV Review

Given what happened last year, I certainly didn’t think I’d have any new pieces of gaming hardware to review in 2014. But now I’m getting two in the space of a week! Here’s the first, which hit Australian shores on November 14th.

PSTV_Topshot

“What the hell is a Playstation TV?”

There’s a question I’ve already been asked a few times. If you’re reading this, you may be asking it yourself. And there are millions of gamers and non-gamers alike who will be asking it over the next several months. It’s a question that is actually really easy to answer, but Sony’s marketing slant on the device has muddied the waters quite a bit, to the point that you’d be forgiven for thinking they themselves didn’t actually know what it’s capable of.

To boil all its little quirks down to one sentence, the Playstation TV is essentially a tiny Playstation Vita console without a screen or touch controls, as well as three added ports for HDMI, ethernet and USB connections on top of the standard Vita memory card and game cartridge slots. That means the things it can do are also things that the Vita can do – that is, play Playstation Vita games (upscaled from a 540p resolution to 720p), play PSP games, play PS One classics and stream PS4 games on a local network via Remote Play. Assuming anything else is foolhardy, but by calling it the Playstation TV, Sony is encouraging such assumptions, as comparisons to the likes of the Apple TV and other such streaming boxes are perhaps natural with a name like that. I was in Japan last year when the device launched there under the name “PS Vita TV”, which is a much more indicative name for it, but hey, the Playstation Vita doesn’t really sell in western markets, so Sony couldn’t possibly call it that.

The package, which includes three Vita game download codes and retails for $150 AU

The box. I love how Sony insists on marketing all its hardware standing up, even if said hardware physically cannot.

Confusing marketing aside, it’s hard to deny that the Playstation TV is physically yet another technical design marvel from the folks at Sony. Even despite the fact that it only contains Vita innards, the box still feels far smaller than it has any right to be, and indeed because it’s running Vita innards, it boots up and shuts down far quicker than most any other video game device you can hook up to your television. All this adds up to make the PS TV a highly flexible gaming device, as it can be moved from TV to TV at a moment’s notice if necessary. The system’s user interface remains largely the same as its close cousin the Vita, only without access to the touch controls for which it was designed. This may be mildly annoying for some, but I’m so used to the “bubble” layout myself that I don’t see any real substantial problem with it.

Clearly not designed for a non-touch interface, but at least it works.

Clearly not designed for a non-touch interface, but at least it works.

The most widespread appeal of the Playstation TV will no doubt be its Remote Play feature. This allows the little box to link with a PS4 connected to the same home network (or indeed a separate one, although that really isn’t recommended) and mirror its onscreen content, in theory enabling you to keep playing PS4 games on another TV in the house. This is the most significant feature that the PS TV actually does better than the regular Vita, for three main reasons – resolution, control and ethernet compatibility. For people who regularly play their PS4 but live with others, the ability to keep going in another room when the main home theatre TV needs to be used, without resorting to the smaller screen, inferior control (the PS TV supports both Dualshock 3 and Dualshock 4 controllers, though it doesn’t come with either as standard) or occasionally erratic connection of the PS Vita, is likely a rather enticing prospect.

Unfortunately, achieving the best Remote Play experience possible with the PS TV is easier said than done. Using an average wireless connection, it actually performs no better than the standard Vita, or Sony’s new Xperia Z3 phone for that matter. Even with my new Netgear Nighthawk router serving as a bridge, the same level of lag and graininess was present for me, and on a bigger screen than the Vita/Z3’s ~5 inches the experience suffers as a result. When I wired the PS TV into the router, however, image quality and lag improved drastically, and when I brought the PS4 itself into the PS TV room and wired that in as well for the sake of testing, it felt pretty much like I was playing the PS4 natively, albeit at 720p rather than 1080p. If you have an all-wired household, the PS TV really shines in this department.

A size comparison of the PS TV (top left) with my 2012 Apple TV (top right) and my regular PS Vita.

A size comparison of the PS TV (top left) with my 2012 Apple TV (top right) and my regular PS Vita.

Which brings me to the other thing the PS TV does better than its screen-wearing cousin – internet connection, for very similar reasons. That ethernet port is a godsend for the console, as the normal Vita Wi-Fi chip is pretty horrendous. Understandably, games and updates download noticeably faster on a wired PS TV than they do on a PS Vita, which is a breath of fresh air after two years of disgustingly slow progress bars. What’s more, Vita games with substantial online functionality, such as the recently released and highly addictive Freedom Wars, are actually playable without rage-inducing online lag when the TV is all cabled up – although it’s worth mentioning that the PS TV only supports bluetooth headsets, so you may have to resort to Skype calling when playing online with friends.

If you have no interest in shelling out for a box that lets you stream your PS4 games, the PS TV will of course live and die by the games it can play all by itself. Playing PSP and original Playstation classics on your big TV is good fun, though they don’t benefit from the PS TV’s native 720p upscaling, and some of them can look quite rough indeed. Most PS Vita games do upscale, however, and those that work look pretty damn good on my 42 inch television screen. I say “those that work”, because a disappointingly substantial section of the Vita’s library is currently incompatible with the box. Sure, it makes sense that some of the Vita’s more touch/gyro/camera intensive games, such as Uncharted: Golden Abyss, Tearaway, Gravity Rush and LittleBigPlanet Vita, aren’t really going to have a chance of working. Yet when games with minimal to non-existent touch features fail to load up at all, it’s pretty disappointing, especially since the PS TV lets you use the Dualshock 4’s touch pad (or indeed the Dualshock 3’s clicky analogue sticks) as a fairly decent substitute for touch screen controls. It doesn’t help that the system lets you download games from the PSN Store without telling you whether or not said games have been patched with PS TV support. Sony has an official list of compatible games on its website, so there’s that, but the list is already out of date and hasn’t been updated yet. Trial and error and Reddit are your friends here.

Oh, and you may be tempted to use your PS TV like an Apple TV or similar device, to stream YouTube videos, TV shows and the like. Don’t bother – the apps for such services do not currently work at all on the unit.

Not great.

Not great.

Literally six of these games can already be played on PS3, yet they don't work. Weird.

Literally six of these games can already be played on PS3/PS4, yet they don’t work here. Weird.

All that said, there are more than a few great games that do work on the PS TV, and they’re some of the best the Vita can offer. The standard Australian PS TV SKU comes packing three full downloadable games already in the box, and they’re a pretty awesome starting point. I haven’t had much experience with Worms Revolution, but the critically acclaimed shoot-em-up Velocity Ultra and the inventive skateboarding game OlliOlli are excellent titles. The aforementioned Freedom Wars works a charm, not only because of the Vita’s online capabilities, but because having a Dualshock 4 in your hands is just that much more precise than the Vita’s standard control set-up. Beyond that, you can play the newly released Tales of Hearts R, both mind-screwing Danganronpa games, their equally messed up cousin Virtue’s Last Reward, the gorgeous Muramasa Rebirth, the ever-present Minecraft, several Blazblue games, Spelunky, Borderlands 2, the HD remasters of Final Fantasy X and X-2Hotline Miami and the toxically addictive Rogue Legacy, to name just a few.

The PS4 controller's touch pad gives you an onscreen hand symbol to replace touch screen inputs in Freedom Wars and other games.

The Dualshock 4’s touch pad provides a white hand icon to replace the touch screen in Freedom Wars and beyond.

The already highly polished and very enjoyable Killzone Mercenary is one of the Vita games given the most attention regarding PS TV compatibility, as it actually goes as far as changing the control layout screen to reflect a Dualshock 3 when played on the TV. All of the game’s menu controls also reflect the change, as do the button prompts when engaging in formerly touch-sensitive melee attacks and actions. And then, of course, there’s the superlative Persona 4 Golden, quite simply one of the best games of the last several years. To some, the fact that the Playstation TV is the cheapest and perhaps most comfortable way to enjoy the JRPG masterpiece will, or perhaps should, be enough to justify a PS TV purchase. The game works right out of the proverbial box and looks great on a HD TV. More games and game compatibility patches will surely follow, though just how many developers will be bothered to update their games for such a tiny niche market remains to be seen.

Now that's attention to detail, Killzone.

Now that’s attention to detail, Killzone.

A quick note on system memory – Like the PS Vita Slim model, the PS TV comes equipped with 1GB of onboard storage, which is just enough to fit the three downloadable games that come with the system, as well as any game saves utilised by Vita game cartridges. However, as most of the Vita’s best games are either download-only or incredibly difficult to find in stores, an additional Vita memory card is highly recommended (Yes, one of those proprietary Sony memory cards). These certainly aren’t cheap, so keep that in mind if you’re a complete Playstation newcomer. The incredibly good news for current Vita owners, however, is that playing your stored downloadable games on the PS TV is as simple as taking the memory card out of your Vita, sliding it into the PS TV and waiting a minute or so for a quick database rebuild. The reverse process works just as well. Bam.

So now that we know what the Playstation TV can do, we are left with another question: “Who is the Playstation TV actually for?” This is the million dollar one, of course, and based on my time with the device thus far, I think it’s simple enough to answer.

The Playstation TV is for:

  • People who have a PS4, live with others, and have an internet setup that is at least partly wired to allow for solid Remote Play performance;
  • Playstation Vita owners who spend a lot of time playing their Vita at home and would rather play for long stretches in a more comfortable set-up;
  • Fans of online-heavy Vita games (whether or not they already own a Vita) who want something resembling a decent connection environment for them;
  • Really heavy Playstation fans who already have every other PS device anyway;
  • Non-Playstation Vita owners who are interested in one or more Vita-exclusive games but can’t justify purchasing a regular Vita because either:
    1. They find it too expensive for their budget, or;
    2. They don’t generally enjoy playing portable games.

If you do not fall into any of these camps, you are probably better served purchasing / staying with the regular PS Vita, Apple TV, Playstation 4 etc. The PS TV is an impressive box to be sure, and it will in theory only get more attractive as its odd compatibility issues get sorted out, but it is practically the definition of a niche product, and while it may appeal greatly to someone like me, I realise I’m in the minority in this case.

.

THE VERDICT

-◊-◊-◊-◊-
Good:
 Lovely design, great remote play functionality, plays plenty of amazing Vita/PSP/PS1 games
Bad:
Confusing game/app compatibility omissions, steep cost for PS newcomers
-◊-◊-◊-◊-

3.5 VsG !

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