If you love playing video games, then Sony's new PlayStation Vita was designed with you in mind.
If you have owned a Super NES, or a PlayStation, an Xbox or a GameBoy over the years -- I'm sure you'll be impressed by the Vita.
If you have a smartphone loaded with more games than social networking apps, the Vita could be for you too. If you've run through Angry Birds, Cut The Rope, Minigore, Tiny Wings and Infinity Blade and you're looking to take your gaming to the next level, you'll definitely want to give the Vita a close look.
The Vita isn't just for the casual gaming set. This is a gamer's gaming console.
Is this a niche device? Yes. In the age of the do-everything smartphone, the Vita will likely appeal to fewer people than it would have in 2004, when Sony released the PlayStation Portable handheld and when a cellphone and an iPod were exclusively separate devices.
So, now that we've established that the Vita is great -- and it really is -- let's get into what's so impressive.
The Vita brings traditional controls and combines them with new technologies previously confined to smartphones and tablets. The result is a gaming experience that is found on no other single device.
The Vita has a traditional directional pad, four PlayStation face buttons, left and right bumper buttons, and two analog joysticks sitting around a 5-inch OLED touchscreen. On the back of the Vita is a built-in touch panel.
Cameras on the front and rear of the Vita can be used for augmented reality gaming, similar to what is offered on the Nintendo 3DS.
The innovative control setup on the Vita oozes potential, and hopefully developers will take advantage of the hardware Sony has built.
If you buy a Vita, at this point, you need to pick up a copy of Sony's Uncharted: Golden Abyss, an adventure game that uses the traditional controls to move the main character, Nathan Drake, through jungle terrain and shoot some bad guys.
When you run into an obstacle you need to climb over or on, such as some ancient ruins, the front and rear touch panels come into play. At certain points, you can sneak up on a bad guy, tap the screen and silently throw the villain off a ledge or into submission. Uncharted helpfully alerts you with on-screen prompts when the touch controls are an option.
FIFA Soccer, from developer Electronic Arts, uses the rear touch panel as an option to point and shoot when trying to score. The longer you hold the rear panel, the harder your player kicks. Using a rear touch panel that you can't really see when playing is a bit of a strange idea -- at first. But it won me over. I'm a FIFA fan, and I've never had more fun playing FIFA on any console than on the Vita.
The graphics in some of the Vita's launch titles -- Uncharted, Wipeout 2048, Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 -- rival what can be found on the PlayStation 3 home console, which is an astounding achievement for a portable system.
If PlayStation 3-quality graphics isn't enough for you, the Vita offers a feature called cross play, which allows users to play select games against their friends playing the same title on the PlayStation 3. Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 and Wipeout 2048 offer cross play, and they also allow you to start playing either title on the PlayStation 3 and continue playing it on the Vita, for taking your gaming on the go. You can even use the Vita as a controller for Marvel vs. Capcom 3 on the PlayStation 3.
In order to pull this all off, you have to buy the game for both the Vita and the PlayStation 3, which is a downside. But the feature feels like the future of gaming -- allowing you to play where and when you want without having to sacrifice control options or graphics.
Hopefully we'll see more developers make use of cross play -- and hopefully you won't be required to buy every game twice.
Hardware and apps
A quad-core processor and quad-core graphics processor power the impressive graphics, which show up wonderfully on the 5-inch display, which is the best looking handheld gaming display I've ever seen. Everything looks good on the Vita -- the operating system, the games, movies streamed from Netflix, or photos viewed on Facebook (the Vita has apps for that).
Flickr, Foursquare, and Twitter (through a Sony-built LiveTweet app) can be found on the Vita as well. The presence of these apps, of course, is a nod to the growing influence of smartphones on gaming. Consoles, portable or not, have to incorporate social networking options, and the best example of this on the Vita is Sony's Near app.
Tap open Near on the Vita's home screen and you're taken into an app that can map out other Vitas nearby so you can see what others are playing and saying about games. Want to find someone to race with in Wipeout 2048? Near can help.
But the Vita isn't all innovation and upside. The biggest drawback is the entry price.
The Vita itself starts at $249. Want 3G capability? The price goes to $299, and data plans, which are only available from AT&T, run $15 a month for 20 megabytes of data or $25 a month for 2 gigabytes of data. That might seem like a fair price for a brand-spanking new console that's only been in U.S. stores for a few weeks.
But that's not where the costs end. Every Vita needs a proprietary Vita Memory Card. A 4-gigabyte card sells for about $24.99; a 32-gigabyte card goes for $99.99. Many games require a Vita Memory Card to store your progress, and the card stores downloaded apps, movies and TV shows from the Vita's built-in PlayStation Store.
If you load music, photos and other media onto your Vita from a PC, that data also goes onto your Vita Memory Card. Games vary in price, from $25 to $50, depending on whether you're downloading a game or buying a title on a game card. While downloadable games are cheaper, they're stored on the Vita Memory Card.
These memory cards are going to fill up quickly -- that's a scary thought at $100 apiece.
Battery life is another low point for the Vita. In using the system over the last couple of weeks, I got between three and five hours of battery life depending on what I was playing. That's fine for me, considering on most days I don't have much more time than that to play the Vita after work. But on a flight from Los Angeles to New York, you'd have a dead Vita before you land. That's a limitation that makes the Vita a lot less portable than I would like.
And the built-in cameras, while awesome for augmented reality games such as Little Deviants, aren't good for taking photos or shooting videos. With just 0.3-megapixel resolution, every photo and video I captured was muddy, low resolution (640 x 480 pixels) and either too dark or overexposed. The Vita won't replace your smartphone camera or point-and-shoot.
Every one of the launch titles I tried -- about 15 of the 20 available -- had painfully long load times. Though there are some fantastic games available, it remains to be seen whether Sony can sell enough Vitas to keep developers making great games. If they can, I expect load times to lessen as developers learn how to take advantage of the Vita's hardware.
The best portable?
The bottom line is that terrible cameras and overpriced memory cards aren't enough to hold back the Vita's innovative controls, cross play feature and PlayStation 3-rivaling graphics. This is a device that the hardcore gamer will love and that the avid smartphone gamer should appreciate as well.
Overall, the Vita is the best portable gaming system I've ever used.