Diablo 3: Ultimate Evil Edition exemplifies everything I don’t like about knocking through certain games on Sony’s PlayStation Vita using Remote Play.
That’s supposed to be the thing you buy a Vita for these days: its wireless PS4 screen-sharing feature, since the handheld’s future as a place to go for new content is gradually closing up, board by board. Instead, the Vita is now the PS4’s $200 second screen, Sony’s unplanned answer to Nintendo’s Wii U GamePad.
But as a second screen employed to judiciously whack away at fields of Fallen Overseers and Flesh Gorgers or Bone Reavers and Boggits in a game like Diablo 3, it leaves a lot to be desired. I say this not to slag Diablo 3 itself, which is at least as terrific on the PS4 and Xbox One as it is on the PS3 and Xbox 360 (I now prefer the consoles versions to the PC original).
I mention it only to warn Vita owners who may be eyeing Remote Play as a selling point for the PS4 version of the game, out Tuesday, August 19. It’s not.
Fire up Diablo 3 on the Vita courtesy the PS4 and you’re transported to a world that’ll give you some sense of what yours is going to feel like when you’re finally trundling through middle age with a pair of reading glasses dangling from shirt pocket or lapel. Words that correspond to face button selections in the game and that look just right on a TV screen per Blizzard’s PC-to-console redesign are practically Lilliputian on the Vita’s minuscule display. The text in my copy of The Compact Oxford English Dictionary — which reduces the entire 20-volume to a single grimoire-sized tome resized by a third of its original dimensions — is roughly on par. Of course, this dictionary comes with one of those slide-over magnifying lenses; the Vita has no such feature.
Text-schmext. Who cares, you’re probably saying. It’s a Blizzard game! Granted, no one plays Diablo 3 for the sculpted prose or imaginative plotting, but let’s say you ignore the writing team’s potboiler blather — there’s a lot of gameplay-specific stuff that’s lost in the shrunken muddle, even if you hold the Vita close and squint.
You’ll need to memorize face-button ability assignments, for instance, because the icons at screen bottom identifying what’s what are lookalike blobs of light smaller than eraser heads. Secondary feedback panels are equally obscure: you can tell you’re benefitting from some sort of power-up, but only that, the icon-of-whatever in its nanoscale square rendered inscrutable.
Just keeping your bearings turns into a needle-hunt: the automap at maximum zoom becomes a faint overlay that’ll let you keep track of the edges of things or pinpoint simplistic map icons like red hearts (healing nodes), but where points of interest lie clustered together, you might as well be sorting specks of sand in an anthill. And the game’s informational nexus, where you fiddle your inventory and skills or check your paragon level and quest objectives, is…actually not too bad, except when you’re looking at colored text. Deep blue (normal magical) items, which look deep purple to me, are almost illegible against the screen’s black background.
As usual, the Vita’s rear touchpad stands in for the missing DualShock secondary triggers, but it’s about as reliable as Microsoft’s Kinect, failing to trigger at first tap about a third of the time. If you’re standing back a ways from a cluster of enemies, no problem, but get yourself blocked up by a squad of Wallers, say, and that lack of one-to-one hair-trigger dependability leads to wasted potion quaffing at best, and at worst, sudden (and unwarranted) death.
Have you ever held a DualShock controller next to the Vita? Try it, paying attention to the length of the thumb controllers. You could stack at least two of the Vita’s nubs to meet one of DualShock 4’s, and that’s being conservative when you factor in the subsurface rotary base and joint. There’s significantly less play, in other words, which when you factor in the Vita’s inherent screen lag, makes for fussy results. Where I have yet to misfire an Entangling Shot wielding the DualShock 4 playing on TV, when playing on the Vita, my Demon Hunter’s missile-fire will careen wide of the mark at least once per scrum, and on occasion fire in the opposite direction. There’s just not enough control space to stretch out and fine-tune your tactics in a game that’s chiefly about tactical fine-tuning.
I’ll give Blizzard this: At least the battle numbers that rise over your or your enemies’ heads are magnified, crit counts or damage amounts looming large for a microsecond, like when you type on an iOS device’s onscreen keyboard. If you just want to wade into a level and farm a bit without tactical nuance, keeping tabs on the mathematical results, it’s doable. But I wouldn’t call it enjoyable.
Like I said, I love Diablo 3 on the PS4, I’m just pointing out that the Vita as a second-screen device for a game like this — and for others with similar problems, like Assassin’s Creed 4 or Need for Speed: Rivals – is an afterthought, something no one’s really designing to. Who can blame them? You’re essentially taking a sledgehammer to an exterior wall and trying to convince someone the hole you get is a window.
Diablo 3 is one of these games that might have worked as a native Vita port, assuming you could get the camera down close enough without breaking design elements specially tailored for the target resolutions (say precisely how far such-and-such spell travels across the screen). It’ll never get one, of course, because no one’s buying the Vita as a destination platform these days, so we’re left with Remote Play’s interpolated half-measures.
This is not, to be fair to the Vita (and Sony, and Blizzard), the Vita’s fault. It wasn’t designed to play games like Diablo 3 on its otherwise gorgeous five-inch OLED screen, or with its tiny thumb nubs in lieu of a full-sized gamepad with full-fledged thumb sticks. Studios will sometimes admit that porting an older game to a newer system and giving it the HD trimmings isn’t a horsepower or even recompilation conundrum so much as an interface or asset scalability one. That’s the trouble with so many Remote Play games, and the reason why games like Final Fantasy X and X-2 HD take years instead of a few brief months to come together.