PlayStation TV

For its Japanese release last year, it was branded as PS Vita TV, and no wonder. What arrives in the west bearing the more massmarket name PlayStation TV is clearly a Vita in slender clothing, with the same OS, menus and Home screen music. Yet where Vita itself is large by handheld standards more showy hardware design from a company famous for it PSTV is almost amusingly small.


Measuring a mere 6x10cm, it’s just tall enough for the rear to accommodate an Ethernet cable, an HDMI cable, USB drive and Vita memory card, plus the power supply. On the side sits a slot for card-based Vita games. It was the headline feature for a device that launched in Japan four months before PS4, but PSTV’s role in the west is very different. The £85 device forms a third pillar of Sony’s gaming strategy that, on paper at least, is ripe with potential: a low cost My First PlayStation that launches with a vast library of games from across Sony’s two decades in the videogame business.
On a big screen, games are cut back from their full splendour, capped at 720p and 30 frames per second
Currently, the big selling point is Remote Play, allowing streaming of PS4 games over a local network or the Internet. It’s never been perfect, but its flaws have been easier to forgive given the thrill of playing a PS3 game on the move, using a device with an OLED screen that does a fine job of tidying up variable video data. On PSTV, things are different: you’re playing on a big screen, albeit one in the bedroom, and games are cut back from their full splendour, capped at 720p and 30 frames per second. In our tests, even with both PS4 and PSTV wired into a home network as per Sony’s recommendation, enough input latency was  introduced to render Destiny and Sleeping Dogs: Definitive Edition uncomfortable, if not unplayable, with artefacting sullying busier moments. Our hopes that things would improve when running a less graphically intensive game were dashed when Rogue Legacy performed similarly.

Luckily, a Cross Play enabled Vita version of that game exists, and when thought of as a Vita with HDMI out and support for DualShocks 3 and 4, PSTV makes more sense. The system upscales from Vita’s 960x544 resolution to a maximum of 1080i, and while the scaler isn’t best in class, it doesn’t diminish the satisfaction of playing on an HDTV and a sofa games designed for a five inch screen. The thought of continuing the commute’s Persona 4 Golden run on the big screen of an evening is an enticing one, as is playing a game ill-suited to Vita’s small screen and analogue sticks a shooter, say on a bigger display and with a DualShock in your hands.

If only we could. Persona 4 Golden was one of the few games that actually ran during our test, with PSTV’s lack of touchscreen support sounding the death knell for a chunk of the Vita catalogue. While we didn't expect to be able to play Tearaway and other games built around Vita’s swollen featureset, nor did we expect error messages when trying to load first party big hitters such as Gravity Rush or Uncharted: Golden Abyss.

Even games that use the touchscreen in superfluous, optional ways fall foul of this limitation. If you want to play Lumines: Electronic Symphony or Everybody’s Golf: World Tour, you’re out of luck. Street Fighter X Tekken, which lets you map special-move inputs and button combos to quadrants of the front touchscreen and rear panel, but is perfectly playable with traditional sticks and buttons, is another that simply refuses to load. While some newer games have been made functional by patches, older games have been ignored. Of the 11 games available at Vita’s UK launch in February 2012, only one, Evolution Studios’ MotorStorm RC, works. Six of the current top ten sellers on Amazon are supported, which still doesn’t feel like enough. Fortunately, Sony has secured support for what might be the only game that matters.
PlayStation TV arrived in the UK on November 14. It’s £85 and bundled with download codes for OlliOlli, Velocity Ultra and Worms Revolution Extreme. For all its faults, the device may get a boost when the PlayStation Now streaming service launches
PSTV’s potential as a Minecraft box could be critical. It is the most popular game going with the demographic at which PSTV is aimed, and at under £100 for the system and a download copy of the game, it offers the cheapest route to full fat Minecraft on the market. With that in mind, it’s staggering that the two haven’t been bundled together for launch, the £85 bundle comes with download codes for OlliOlli, Velocity Ultra and, for reasons that presumably made sense to
somebody along the line, Worms Revolution Extreme. A Minecraft bundle has to follow at some point at least assuming that Microsoft, Mojang’s new owner, has been honest in its promise not to block the game from appearing on other platforms but having one on shelves for Christmas could have made all the difference.

Yet regardless of compatibility issues, PSTV’s support for PS1, PSP and PS Mini releases means it launches with a library of some 700 games, giving it a clear competitive advantage over other set-top boxes. That, it turns out, is just as well given how far PSTV lags behind the likes of Apple TV, Chromecast and Amazon’s Fire TV as a media box. While a Netflix app was on the PlayStation Store when Vita launched in North America almost three years ago, it has never made it to Europe. As such, PSTV launches in the UK with no support for the world’s most popular subscription video service. Amazon Instant Video, BBC iPlayer, YouTube and Now TV all, like Netflix, available in app form on PS3 and PS4 are absent from the PSTV store. Bafflingly, you’re even forbidden from accessing the PS4 versions of the apps over Remote Play, the system throwing up an error message and then booting you unceremoniously back to the PS4 Home menu.

It’s all a bit confusing. Set-top boxes should be simple to set up and easy to use. While PSTV’s setup is straightforward enough, the problems begin the minute you sit back and start using the thing. It  is an irresistible idea in theory, and a  fine bit of industrial design too, but it is blemished by substandard software support. It is, in that sense, a perfect metaphor for the current state of Sony.

After Microsoft spent most of 2013 leaving its goal untended and gently ushering Sony towards it, the latter half of 2014 has been very different. DriveClub, the game Sony used to dull the pain of charging for online multiplayer on PS4 by offering a cut down version of the title to PS Plus subscribers, has endured a disastrous launch. The only thing saving it from reaching Sim City and Diablo III levels of shame is the fact that it can still be played in singleplayer when the servers are down. However, at the time of writing, the game has been on shelves for almost a month and it remains an almost entirely offline pursuit. The long-promised PS Plus Edition, meanwhile, has been delayed indefinitely.

It is a sorry tale for Evolution Studios, whose supposed PS4 launch game was 11 months late onto shelves and then arrived stripped of key features by network troubles. But Sony’s response or lack of it is the more damning part. It took three weeks for Worldwide Studios president Shuhei Yoshida to acknowledge the problem, while senior Evolution staff, who were open on social media during development, fell suddenly silent.
There’s little wrong that isn't fixable, but who, given Sony’s current form, would expect it to be fixed ?
Sony’s network problems extend far beyond DriveClub, however. While extended periods of PSN downtime for ‘scheduled maintenance’ were an inconvenience in the PS3 era, they are unforgivable now that Sony is charging for its service. Once a month, Sony takes down its £40 per year online service for up to eight hours, taking with it always online games like Destiny, the multiplayer component of many more titles and, in our experience, blocking access to digital purchases because PSN refuses the console’s handshake to check for the proper licences. The network has a
recurring DDOS problem one recent attack was conducted specifically to show that Sony has not invested in improved network protection and since Destiny’s launch in early September, PS4 users have had to endure five protracted periods of downtime, only one of which was planned for.

It affects PSTV, too. A bug in PS4 system software 2.0 the console’s first substantial firmware update since launch meant its standby mode, for some reason renamed Rest mode in the update, didn't work properly, shutting the console down fully after a time, and even locking up the unit. Remote Play only works if the PS4 is in Rest mode, so our tests meant a few disconsolate trips back downstairs to
turn on the machine by hand. Version 2.01 followed a week later to fix the problem, but a week is a long time to solve a system locking bug. And none of this inspires confidence in PlayStation Now, the on demand streaming service that in its current beta state uses exorbitant rental pricing rather than subscriptions, and which will not function at all when Sony’s server infrastructure falls over.

With all this in mind, it’s little surprise that a bite-sized device full of potential should launch beset with so many seemingly avoidable issues. There’s little wrong with PSTV that isn't fixable, but who, given Sony’s current form, would expect it to be fixed? Sony has long been excellent at hardware and poor at software solutions, and while its masterful PS4 marketing convinced millions of players that the company had changed, apparently behind the scenes still lurks a litany of ancient problems. Microsoft, meanwhile, updates the Xbox One interface once a month, has cleared out much of the executive deadwood that almost ruined the console before it had even launched, and has started making all the right noises to its audience.

Sony’s latest fiscal update boasted of “a significant increase in network services revenue related to the introduction of the PS4”. It is time to start spending it on shoring up the services that raised that revenue, and quickly.

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