I knew Sony’s PlayStation Vita ($250, releasing Wednesday) was the handheld game machine for me as soon as I laid eyes on its two analogue joysticks, a feature I’ve always dreamt of in a portable game platform. Its gorgeous graphics and bountiful firmware features only made me fall harder and faster. I’m downright smitten.
But I fear my time with it will be all too short.
While the Vita is probably the best handheld game system ever made, it arrived late. Dedicated handheld game devices – especially those geared for older gamers – just don’t have much of a future in a world filled with phones and tablets that double as capable gaming machines. I worry that it will not gain the consumer traction it deserves.
But enough with my musings, let’s get geeky.
The Vita has an ARM Cortex A9 four-core processor as well as a discrete graphics chip. In terms everyone can understand, it’s lightning quick and can churn out graphics the likes of which we’ve never seen on a handheld device this size. We’re talking stunning real-time lighting and water effects, environments with exceptional detail and characters that look almost human. The visuals aren’t quite on par with those of, say, a PlayStation 3, but they look pretty fantastic viewed on the Vita’s five-inch, 960-by-544 pixel OLED display, which delivers crisp and vibrant images with super-deep blacks.
I’ll admit that I’m a little paranoid about scratching up this pretty screen, though. Past portable PlayStations have proven much too easy to scuff, and it looks like the Vita will walk a similar path. I ran a key along its one-piece plastic-y surface (not on the display itself, but to the side) and was dismayed to see it leave a thin, noticeable groove.
Indeed, without any glass or metal surfaces – it sports glossy silver and matte black plastic trim – I suspect the Vita will begin showing signs of wear sooner rather than later. Cases and screen protectors will be key for players who want to keep their machines in pristine shape. That said, most protective accessories will only be usable during transport and not while playing. So many parts and surfaces on the Vita are interactive that there’s little room to attach any sort of semi-permanent covering.
In addition to its satisfyingly responsive touch screen, users can interact with a five-inch a rear touch pad on the underside of the console that’s just as sensitive as the front display. It’s a novel form of interface, but developers seem to be coming up with good ways to make use of it. Hot Shots Golf: World Invitational, for example, allows players to determine yardage and elevation anywhere on a hole simply by touching the desired location on the back of the screen. Little Deviants, meanwhile, has a mini-game in which players make like they’re pushing through the screen from behind (imagine a finger poking up under a table cloth) to create a roaming bump that pushes a ball around a field.
Other user inputs include a pair of long and comfortable shoulder buttons rounded to fit the curvature of the player’s index fingers, standard d-pad and action buttons on either side of the screen, front and rear cameras (suitable for camera-enabled games, but too low-quality for most other purposes), and a six-axis motion sensing system which, in the games I tested, proved precise and reliable.
Then there are those long-anticipated, all-important dual analogue control sticks. They stand as the primary reason why the Vita will appeal to serious gamers. With a joystick under each thumb you can almost forget you’re playing games on a handheld system. They’re a smidge spongy – which is to say looser than the sticks on most traditional gamepads – but I got used to the extra give in just a couple of hours.