When Sony entered the portable gaming market with the PlayStation Portable way back in 2005, its sexy screen and sleek design made it an instantly desirable product. But over time, a lack of consistent, quality features and somewhat patchwork control scheme lent the device more of a novelty status, as opposed to being a platform for hot new titles. With the PlayStation Vita, Sony clearly set out to correct the issues with the aging PSP — but did it hit a bullseye, or is this just a shot in the dark?
Grown-up portable gaming
The most immediately apparent thing about the Vita is its size. At 7.2 inches wide, the Vita is considerably larger than the PSP, which measured 6.7 inches in width. It's also slightly taller, thicker, and weighs roughly 2 oz. more than the PSP-3000 (the most popular model of the PSP). You won't want to slide the Vita into your pocket — it's simply too large to be comfortable. You'd have better luck tossing it into a purse or backpack, where it likely won't add any noticeable weight to your everyday haul.
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This added size is a two-way street. Gamers with larger hands (such as myself) don't have to worry about cramped controls, but those with smaller mitts might find using the touchscreen with their thumbs a bit of a stretch. Thankfully, the Vita's backside includes comfortable, rubberized grips and is clearly designed to be held with one hand when the need arises.
Ease of control
In a move sure to please anyone who has ever attempted to play a shooter on the PSP or Nintendo DS, the Vita comes with dual analog sticks. The importance of this inclusion simply cannot be overstated. The lack of adequate analog controls is something that plagued the PSP and even the recently released 3DS, and the Vita corrects this problem right out of the gate.
While small, the twin joysticks work great and are a godsend for gamers who spend most of their time using an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 controller. Pulling off headshots in Uncharted: Golden Abyss and maneuvering a cart in Modnation Racers: Road Trip feels natural, and it's not a stretch to say the Vita offers the most genuine gaming experience for those used to playing on a console.
The Vita's multi-touch display measures 5 inches, up from 4.3 on the PSP, and abandons LCD technology in favor of OLED. The switch to OLED allows for better contrast, but more importantly, it eliminates the blur and ghosting issues that plague many handheld game systems. The colors pop and tiny details are extremely clear. In short, it's the finest display ever to grace a portable gaming device.
The touchscreen is very responsive and gave us no issues over many hours of play time. The only stumbling block thus far in terms of touch controls appears on the game developers' end, as some games either largely ignore the option or utilize it for things that can be done better with a button press. Some interesting touchscreen swipe controls have been added to a few games thus far — Uncharted uses the feature better than any other title at this point — but we imagine as developers spend more time with the feature, we'll see more creative uses for it.
The Vita's default on-screen keyboard works well, too, and anyone who has sent more than a few texts from their touchscreen smartphone should feel right at home. The included web browser uses HTML5 — sorry, no Flash support here — and being able to use the touchscreen to pinch and zoom as you would on a smartphone makes it much more usable than past attempts by the PSP and DS.
The rear touch panel — essentially a multi-touch display without the screen — works as intended, though only a few games we tried make use of it. The panel works well as an extra input device, but not being able to see what your fingers are doing makes precise input somewhat difficult. Thankfully, we've yet to run across a game that actually requires using the rear touch surface for longer than a few seconds.
A portable system for console gamers
As solid as the Vita hardware is, it really means nothing without an adequate operating system to back it up. Thankfully, the new handheld boasts a litany of features that challenges even the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in ease of use.
When you first turn on the Vita, you're greeted with bubbles that represent various features, games, and settings. Tapping an icon brings up a more detailed view of the item you chose, and from there, you can launch the game or app. Tiny icons on the top of the screen keep track of everything you have open, and double-clicking the PS button on the left-hand side of the device produces a cascade showing all the software currently running. It's a perfect system for keeping track of multitasking and allows you to quickly switch between a game and apps without having to restart each one.
The Vita has full access to everything you'd expect from the PlayStation Network, including trophy lists, cross-game messaging, chat, and the PlayStation Store. Unlike attempts to shoehorn these features onto the PSP, the Vita feels right at home on the network, and you may find yourself carrying on conversations with your PSN buddies — or keeping a close eye on any new trophies they score — much more often now that you're not tied to your PS3. And for the first time ever, you may actually consider buying the portable version of a multi-platform title, as the Vita includes all the must-have features like trophies and party grouping.
The PlayStation Store currently features a modest selection of PS Vita games you can download, as well as a robust list of backward-compatible PSP titles. We gave God of War: Chains of Olympus a spin to test out the PSP emulation, and it appeared to work flawlessly. Booting up a last-generation game isn't nearly as impressive as playing the Vita-exclusive titles, but they're easy on the eyes nonetheless.
The Vita comes equipped with front- and rear-facing VGA-resolution cameras. They're not of much use right now, and they certainly won't replace your smartphone or point-and-shoot for mobile photography, but when Twitter, Facebook, Skype, and the rest of the planned social networking apps arrive in the coming weeks, taking snapshots and short videos become key to the experience.
Viva la Vita
The PlayStation Vita is everything you'd want out of a portable game system in 2012. It doesn't water down the experience if you normally play on a home console — something that's never quite been nailed before.
However, this remarkable accomplishment comes at the expense of battery life. Depending on what additional software you have running and the brightness level of your display, you can expect anywhere from three to five hours of constant play time from a full charge. Video playback clocks in at about five hours, and music can be stretched to nine hours if that's all you're using the system for. Those aren't super-impressive figures, and while it'll be enough to get you through a bus ride or flight, you'll want to keep the USB charger handy for when you arrive at your destination.
Still, this shouldn't be enough to dissuade you from making the purchase, especially given the remarkable launch day lineup that Sony and its third-party publishers have planned. The Vita is indeed the most powerful and capable dedicated portable video game device on the market, and if you think that your smartphone offers the best of on-the-go gaming, you should think again.
Two versions of the PlayStation Vita hardware will be available on the February 22 launch day. The wifi-only version is priced at $249.99, while the 3G and wifi edition — a must for those planning on doing on-the-go multiplayer gaming — will cost $299.99. Check out the full list of accessory pricing on our Vita launch guide.
This review was based on a PlayStation Vita and game software provided by Sony.
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