I spent a few moments with PlayStation Vita, Sony's upcoming handheld console, at E3 a little over a month ago. In that brief time I quickly came to the conclusion that it had strong potential to be the greatest handheld gaming device yet made. The graphics were gorgeous, the physical controls copied those of a standard gamepad, it featured a few non-traditional interfaces (including a rear touch pad), and launch games like Uncharted: Golden Abyss looked to deliver console quality experiences. Plus, Sony announced that the WiFi edition will sell for just $250--surprisingly affordable for a high-end gaming device from a company that has a history of notoriously prohibitive launch prices.
Put plainly, it was among the brightest highlights of E3. I left wishing I could have spent more time with it.
That wish was fulfilled this past Wednesday when I attended a seasonal PlayStation preview event in New York that featured playable versions of about ten PlayStation Vita games currently in development. (Oddly, my hosts in Manhattan denied me permission to take pictures of the device, even though I was allowed to photograph it at E3. You can see a couple of these shots in the sidebar gallery.)
My first thoughts upon reacquainting myself with the hardware were that the 5-inch OLED touch screen was just as beautiful as I'd remembered (though I'm still keen to see how well it performs in sunlight-it is, after all, meant to be used while out and about), and that it felt surprisingly light given its not inconsiderable dimensions, which measure 182-by-83.55-by-18.6 millimetres. It feels like it could slide into a pant pocket, but I doubt whether sitting would be comfortable while it was in there.
I was also happy to lay my hands once more on its instantly familiar controls-especially the second analogue joystick, which ought to make the Vita the mobile platform of choice for first- and third-person action games. I've harped on this in the past, but I can't stress how important a second joystick is for most modern action games, and the Vita will be the first and only on-the-go platform to have one.
The first game I tried was a demo level for LittleBigPlanet made specifically to show off how British developer Media Molecule is taking advantage of the new hardware. Of all the Vita games I tried I thought that it did the best job of making use of the Vita's non-traditional controls.
I quickly grabbed and moved blocks by touching the screen with my finger. I created a staircase out of tetraminos by tapping on the rear touchpad to pop them out of a wall. I tilted the Vita left and right to make a cart on a pulley move back and forth. Every movement was completely natural, and, thanks to the game's easy pacing, I felt no stress at all about briefly removing my hand from the physical controls to interact with the screen.
The fellow hosting the demonstration wasn't able to show me any of the franchise's renowned level design tools, but he did say that creating levels by interacting with the touch screen was far simpler than using joysticks and buttons. A developer working on the Vita edition of customizable kart racer ModNation Racers, which was also on display, concurred that the touch screen and rear touch panel make user-generated content much easier to create. What's more, he mentioned that Sony's partner studios were working together to ensure a kind of universal language of gestures across games that allow users to create their own content, which should help keep learning curves low when moving from one game to another.
Next, I worked through nearly a complete level of Uncharted: Golden Abyss that showed off not just the game's stellar art and visual design-which, impressively, shares many of the same qualities of the series' PlayStation 3 entries-but also the alternative ways in which players can interact with the game. Sony stressed to me that these Vita-only controls are optional, and that players still have the option of controlling the action the way they always have in previous Uncharted games.
Of all the alternative controls I tried, the simplest and most likely to catch on is "ledge painting." Just run your finger along a series of handholds while climbing and your character will automatically move across them. It's quick, easy, and makes for a pleasantly cinematic viewing experience.
Other Vita-specific controls will be a matter of taste. I didn't mind using my finger to tap the landing location for tossed grenades and to select weapons by touching icons near the edges of the screen, but I didn't much like tapping the display to execute melee attacks. Similarly, I was okay with physically moving the Vita to adjust the camera and precisely target enemies in sniping mode, but I didn't really enjoy zooming in and out using two fingers on the rear touch pad. And tilting the device to swing on ropes? Turns out that's not my cup of tea at all. But, again, all of these controls are optional.
The only worry I was left with after my second go at Golden Abyss in as many months is that moving around with the analogue sticks felt a little loose. That made navigation less precise than what I'm accustomed to in Uncharted games. Luckily, developer SCE Bend has at least a few more months to work out any control kinks.
While Golden Abyss will steal the show when the system eventually hits stores, two other titles to keep an eye on in the launch window are Sound Shapes and Gravity.
Developed by Toronto's own Queasy Games (home of acclaimed gamesmith Jonathan Mak, who made the cult hit PlayStation Network game Everyday Shooter), Sound Shapes is a vector graphics-driven musical platformer that sees players moving a sticky ball through simple environments composed of the game's titular "sound shapes."
In place of a traditional musical score, the game's soundtrack is dynamically created by noises emanating from whichever shapes happen to be onscreen at any given moment, as well as actions performed by the player. In other words, players help create music as they jump and roll across obstacles in each level. I found it highly engaging. I actually began timing certain actions with the soundscape as I started to feel the beat, which served to immerse me even further in the game.
While the simple (but challenging) platforming action appears to make little use of Vita's innovative technology (I moved around with an analogue stick and jumped with a button), Sound Shapes makes terrific use of the touch screen in its level editor. Players can create their own shareable levels-complete with the game's hallmark dynamic music experience-in just a minute or two by tapping to select and place objects. I was shocked by how simple it was to create a catchy little looping composition by just randomly dropping items into the environment.
SCE Japan's Gravity has an unusual twist as well, though it revolves around Newton's Law rather than music. This anime-inspired action/adventure gives players the ability to alter their character's gravitational orientation. Press the right shoulder button to float up off the ground, use the Vita's accelerometer to centre the camera on a wall or ceiling, then press another button to fall towards the new location, which will become your new "ground."
It's an undeniably neat little concept that carries with it some potentially discombobulating possibilities. Chasing enemies across roofs and walls makes for a challenging task. Also satisfying is taking advantage of shifts in gravity to add power to your attacks-like, say, jumping off the side of three storey wall and then reorienting gravity with the ground so you can perform a falling kick on enemies below. It sounds complicated, but I was comfortable with the controls inside 10 minutes.
With its mighty hardware and a healthy selection of promising launch games in the queue, the Vita is shaping up to make a pretty big splash when it eventually hits shelves. I wasn't able to get a launch date from Sony, but the hardware maker said at E3 that Vita would launch in the global market by the end of 2011. Whether that means Canada is up for speculation.