PlayStation 4 Remote Play Is a Great Idea Marred by Scaling Issues

If you're eyeing a PS Vita purchase, justify it on its own terms.

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If you want an in-depth breakdown of the technology behind the PlayStation 4’s Remote Play feature, which turns Sony’s PS Vita into an adjunct mini-PS4, Digital Foundry has a pretty thorough writeup here. I have one quibble with the site’s otherwise excellent overview: DF says the make-or-break issue with Remote Play is latency. I agree that latency’s an issue, but it’s not the make or break one.

Writing as a gamer who wouldn’t dream of playing twitchy shooters like Call of Duty: Ghosts or Battlefield 4 or Killzone Shadow Fall competitively on a tiny screen while twiddling attenuated controls, the make-or-break issue for me is the Vita’s 960 by 544 pixel 5-inch screen, in concert with PS4 games optimized for 1280 by 720 pixels and up.

I don’t have a problem with small-screen gaming in principle. I love the Vita — it’s the Tesla Model S of handhelds! I’m talking about someone taking an experience designed for at least a 19- or 20-inch screen, and cramming that into something roughly 75% smaller. Smartphones are great for all sorts of gaming experiences, but they will never supplant games that benefit from (and often require) large viewing areas. The reasons for this are obvious enough.

Take EA’s Need for Speed Rivals. At startup, you’re poking around a virtual garage where you can tweak your car, fiddle with mission parameters, pore over performance statistics and so forth. When you exit the garage, you first have to pick where you want to exit to using the game’s world map. On the PS4, I can see all the map’s text and iconography clearly, but on the Vita, my eyes struggle continuously to focus on the Lilliputian “objective” lettering or the activity icons that comprise the menubar near map bottom. When I exit to the game world, the automap is essentially useless, the display rondel too shrunken, the course icons like hieroglyphic flecks. And while I can track the general motion of my tachometer and nitrous gauge needles, I’ll often misread pursuit tech tallies because the numbers are so tiny. In short, the game needs a screen that’s at least an inch bigger — probably two.

It’s a lesser problem in games that have minimal interfaces or that already use large fonts: games like Resogun, LEGO Marvel Super Heroes, Knack and — surprisingly — Assassin’s Creed IV. Those games all use large enough fonts that the interfaces feel on par with native Vita games. That said, anything with huge draw distances and intricate distant details loses some of its clarity in Remote Play mode. Is that a person standing by a far-off market stall in AC IV‘s Havana or a palm tree frond? What does that sign in the not-so-distant distance say? Is the foliage on the other side of whatever area thick enough to offer cover or just extra-detailed grass? A game like AC IV may not require split-second button mashing, but it does benefit from being able to reliably parse distant scenery (especially when trying to escape pursuing guards).

I never have these problems playing Wii U games on Nintendo’s 6.2-inch, slightly lower-res Wii U GamePad. Forget about which system’s games you prefer, the GamePad’s extra real estate beats the Vita hands down for legibility when downscaling. This isn’t meant to be a Nintendo vs. Sony piece, but consider how much better it feels to hold the Wii U GamePad and use its full-sized thumbsticks, as opposed to the Vita’s comparably bitty nubs. Imagine the Vita with a 6- or 7-inch screen. Imagine a Vita tablet with Wii U GamePad-like controls. If wishes were horses…

On the other hand, the Wii U GamePad has the range of a tethered toddler. I’m not exaggerating: it’s pretty much “play in the same room as the Wii U or bust.” The Vita, since it connects through your wireless router, can roam much further. In ad hoc tests, it worked without hitching in all corners of my two bedroom apartment (in a house or even larger area, of course, your mileage is going to vary). I had to leave my apartment and walk down to the other end of the complex’s hallway and down a flight of stairs before the Vita flashed its connectivity-problems icon.

What about latency in the subtler gameplay sense? DF has this broken down to as close a science (in terms of millisecond lag, factoring both Remote Play and interface response) as we’re likely to get, so if you’re an eSports nut and latency is everything, you’ll want their numbers. For the rest, which is to say the majority of gamers, you can get a more immediate feel for the lag times if you put the Vita and your PS4 TV beside each other: the music and sound effects on the Vita play a micro-beat behind the PS4 (say “ka-chunk” several times out loud quickly and you’re hearing a rough approximation — “ka” for the PS4 sound, “chunk” for the Vita output — of the audio lag time).

In less twitchy games like AC IV, the lag is almost indiscernible and certainly never impactful from a gameplay standpoint. In others like Need for Speed Rivals, it’s noticeable when you’re cranking through turns or finessing the car around traffic at crazy-high velocities, but there’s an adaptation curve and eventually your brain works around it. And if you’re determined to pursue Battlefield 4 online vis-a-vis Remote Play, you’re going to gripe less about lag than clinching headshots on target points roughly the size of the head of a pin. Eliminating lag won’t solve fundamental issues of scale and display-interface misalignment.

I haven’t tested Remote Play over the Internet yet, say you’re on a different Wi-Fi network and you’ve left your PS4 connected to your own network at home, but Sony supports it. I assume, given the greater potential for latency issues when you’re pairing devices remotely, that if you did this, you’d want to limit yourself to visually inert games, like…oh yeah, the PS4 doesn’t have any yet. Think Bejeweled, if that ever makes the jump, otherwise this notion that you’re going to be able to play Knack sitting at Starbucks is probably a pipe dream for now.

In the meantime, if you already have a Vita, Remote Play at launch feels like a quirky but nonessential additive — worth goofing around with, but that’s it. But if you don’t have a Vita, I wouldn’t pay $200 for the privilege; if you can find Vita-specific reasons to own a Vita, and I can think of at least five named Velocity UltraPersona 4 GoldenTearawayRayman Origins and Super Stardust Delta (to say nothing of all the legacy PS One and PSP stuff available in the PlayStation Store), there you go, but you’ll want to justify the Vita on its own terms at this point.