Recently, I wrote an article titled "Damn, CNET has to talk about Apple all the time???"?" Some readers didn't appreciate that I'd talked about the Vita in the context of Apple or as one reader put it, "
Worse yet, another reader chillingly removed us from his Google home page, stating that our articles don't have enough "variety and range" for him anymore.
Ironically, a couple days ago I ran into an Apple employee at an event who complained that all we talk about on CNET is Samsung this and Samsung that as a woman stood nearby snapping a photo with a giant Samsung Galaxy Note Android smartphone. Funny how people see things differently.
But I digress. Let's get back to this week's column, where I ignore my detractors and tangentially pit an Apple product against a Sony product. I say tangentially because this week we're talking software--or more precisely, comparing a game app on the iPhone against a game that's also available for the just-launched PS Vita.
That game is FIFA soccer, which goes by the title of FIFA 12 in the Apple App Store and simply FIFA Soccer on the Vita. I bring up this title because I consider FIFA to be one of the best games on iOS and arguably the best sports title made for a smartphone or tablet. Its list price is $4.99 ($9.99 for the iPad version), but plenty of readers will be quick to note that they bought it for 99 cents during one of EA's frequent app sales, one of which is happening right now for Presidents Day weekend (the iPad version is also 99 cents).
By contrast FIFA Soccer for Vita is $39.99. That's $20 cheaper than FIFA 2012 for Xbox 360 or PS3, the "true" console versions of the game, but EA Sports touts FIFA Soccer on PS Vita as the "first true next-generation sports experience in the palm of your hand, with console gameplay, HD graphics, and the largest feature set ever created by EA Sports for a handheld device."
To me the price delta between iOS and Vita games--you can choose to view it as a 40x differential or 8x differential, depending on that week's iTunes price check--is at the crux of whether the Vita will succeed or have a rougher go of it. To put it another way, with so many people having a smartphone (and/or a tablet) these days, the much cheaper world of iOS or Android gaming makes jumping to the Vita a harder sell for Sony. Which means its top-notch titles (such as FIFA) have to be alluring enough for users to plunk down $250 for a base system (that doesn't include memory).
So, is it?
Well, before I answer that, let's take one thing of the table: FIFA Vita is not 40x better. Nor is it 8x or even 3x better.
You can fault EA Sports for that because the developer behind FIFA 12 for iPhone/iPad (a different team from the folks who made FIFA Soccer for Vita) did such a great job. I mean, whether you paid $4.99 or 99 cents, you get a really solid portable soccer experience with impressive graphics, smooth gameplay, and a pretty deep franchise mode (the iOS version of FIFA 12 is a big file--slightly more than 1GB).
Here's some gameplay footage of the iPad version from our sister site GameSpot (graphically, the iPhone version looks very similar but obviously the screen is much smaller).
All that said, the FIFA for the Vita is better. For starters, the screen on the Vita's 5-inch screen is significantly larger than the iPhone 4/4S's 3.5-inch screen (the Vita's screen is the same size as the Samsung Note's). While the Vita's screen doesn't have quite the pixel density of the iPhone 4S's Retina Display, it's an impressive 960x544-inch OLED touch-screen display with 221 ppi (Apple's Retina Display has 326 pixels per inch).
Graphically, FIFA Soccer for the Vita is also a clear level up from its iOS counterpart, with more-detailed player models, stadiums, and smoother, more natural movement. The game doesn't quite match up to FIFA 12 for the PS3, but it's pretty close, and offers a robust career mode (the Be a Pro mode is included), as well decent multiplayer options that outclass those offered in the iOS version.
Check out gameplay footage below (you can play videos at the same time with sound off for a true comparison):
The real key here, of course, is the controls. Some people just can't stand the virtual controls on the iPhone and iPad, and while I've gotten used to them (it works pretty well with FIFA), it's less than ideal, and the Vita's dual analog sticks offer more-precise controls and the experience is simply better.
Like with the iPhone, you can touch players to pass the ball to them, but the Vita adds the touch controls on the back of the device for precision shooting (if you touch the top-right corner of the back panel, your shot will head toward the top-right corner of the goal). The only problem is you have to be careful not to touch the back panel when you're not supposed to, which means holding your fingers in a slightly awkward position. Many people, I suspect will opt to turn off the back touch panel and stick with the classic control system.
So the long and short of it is, FIFA Vita is a great game and a nice step up from the iOS version. That said, the price delta remains a problem. While early adopters and FIFA will pay $40 for this version, to reach a broader audience, the price for Vita games will have to come down, especially as smartphones and tablets continue to get more powerful and the games continue to improve.
Of course, the more-exclusive titles that Sony puts out to showcase the Vita's talents, the better hope it will have for success. I've been an Uncharted fan for a long time, and while Uncharted: Golden Abyss looks and plays great on the Vita, you do lose something playing on the smaller screen, and that game costs $50.
I'm more hopeful for MLB 12: The Show, which arrives next month and will clearly be the best mobile baseball game out there (you'll also be able to start a game on your PS3 and continue it on the Vita, which is cool). And when Madden Vita turns up later this year (it's currently slated for August), it should have a leg up on the iOS version, which has been very lackluster.
But Sony really needs to take a long look at the price of Vita games. In a world where Steve Jobs and Apple made 99-cent content a business mantra, the public's expectation for what it should--and can--get for five bucks on a mobile device has changed dramatically over the last five years. And if Sony isn't careful, that new mindset may very well keep people from playing the best version of the game on the best mobile gaming device.