Why are they so important? Twin sticks give players the ability to move a character and freely operate a camera at the same time. This is something that hardcore gamers have long craved in a portable system. The Vita is the first to offer it without relying on a bulky accessory or awkward virtual controls on a touch screen. They open the door to all sorts of experiences that just haven’t worked well on a handheld device up until now, from first-person shooters like Call of Duty to third-person actioners like Grand Theft Auto. Uncharted: Golden Abyss, the system’s flagship launch game, does a great job demonstrating how Vita’s dual analogue sticks can make traditional action gaming on a portable system a ton of fun.
Moving on, a pair of stereo speakers beside the thumbsticks provide adequate sound, though audiophiles will be better served using headphones. Below the left speaker is a large glowing PlayStation button that pauses applications and returns users to the desktop. Below the right speaker lie Sony’s customary Start and Select buttons.
The top edge is lined with power and volume buttons, plus hatches for game cards and accessories. Unfortunately, these hatches are finicky. I needed to use a thin-bladed knife to open them the first time. It’s become easier with repetition, but I still need to claw at their tiny cracks to find purchase and pry.
The bottom of the Vita is host to a power port, headset jack, and a memory card slot that takes only Vita-branded memory sticks. Since the four-gigabyte card included in the box holds only about two full-size downloadable titles, anyone who plans on grabbing games through Sony’s online store rather than buying them in physical format can count on shelling out for more capacious cards, which are priced outrageously. The 32-gigabyte edition goes for a whopping $100. My advice: Buy games retail.
Another suggestion: Don’t stray too far from a power outlet. The Vita’s big, beautiful screen and powerful processors suck up a lot of juice. I managed a little under three hours of steady game time under extreme play conditions (brightness and volume maxed) before needing to top up. The good news is that a dead Vita battery fills quickly – less than an hour. Still, that won’t be much consolation when your machine dies midway through a cross-continent flight (perhaps much sooner if you were using it in the airport lounge pre-boarding).
But these problems are peripheral to the gaming experience. The Vita hardware wows in all of the most important ways. This won’t come as much of a shock to prospective buyers, who have studied the device’s specs since it was revealed last year. But what they might come as a bit of a surprise is the level of polish afforded the system’s firmware.
Each time you turn on the Vita you pull down a dog-eared page corner to bring it out of sleep mode. If you’re not returning to a paused game or app you’ll land on a well-designed desktop pocked with circular launch buttons that can be shuffled around to suit your preference, 10 per page.
Navigation is responsive, intuitive, and fun. Swipe up and down to surf through home screens, swipe to the right to hop through open and recently accessed apps. These screens provide multiple options beyond just jumping back into the action, including online help, user manuals, downloadable content, and social features.
The first app most folks will try is Welcome Park. It’s a collection of simple tech demos designed to acquaint users with the hardware. It serves its purpose, but doesn’t offer much replay value save to those who want to earn all of the trophies it offers to impress their PlayStation friends.
On the subject of friends, it’s easy to find and keep tabs on them using another app, Near. This location-based service lets users locate nearby Vitas (both friends’ and strangers’), connect with them, join their sessions, and swap game content. I encountered few other Vita users during my pre-launch evaluation, but Near seems like a smart little app, and a good alternative to Nintendo’s StreetPass on 3DS.