Sony’s Playstation Vita is a gesture of defiance toward smartphones and iPod Touches. It has a bigger touch screen and more raw power than nearly any phone on the market. It includes dual analog thumb sticks and a full rack of buttons and triggers. And just to make things interesting, the rear panel is touch-sensitive.
Sony’s throwing everything it can into the Playstation Vita, which launches this holiday season starting at $250. It even has front- and rear-facing cameras and, for $50 extra, 3G connectivity. All of this leads me to one conclusion: If the PSVita can’t compete as a gaming device with smartphones, then all gaming handhelds face a perilous future.
My impressions of the Playstation Vita are mostly positive. It doesn’t look much different than a PSP, except that it’s bigger. But despite its size — you won’t be fitting this thing in your pants pocket — the PSVita feels surprisingly light.
It’s the first handheld device I’ve seen with two analog thumb sticks, and while they’re much smaller than those of a Playstation 3 controller, they’re perfectly adequate for running, strafing, aiming and shooting. I learned this by playing Uncharted: Golden Abyss, an upcoming portable edition of Sony’s popular adventure series. The game includes an auto-aim feature, so when you pull the left trigger, your target reticle snaps to a nearby enemy, but the controls are accurate enough that shooter veterans could easily aim on their own.
Uncharted: Golden Abyss also shows off a couple other PSVita features. To climb across ledges, players can use the traditional thumb stick and buttons, or they can simply swipe across ledges in one stroke, and protagonist Nathan Drake will climb automatically. This saves a lot of time, and reduces some of the guesswork that goes into climbing on Uncharted’s Playstation 3 versions. I also made use of the PSVita’s gyroscope and accelerometer to aim a sniper rifle, literally pointing and shooting at my targets.
To try the Vita’s rear touch panel, I switched over to ModNation Racers, a kart racing game with a track builder. To create mountains on my custom track, I dragged a finger over the rear panel. Tapping the touch screen pounded the land into valleys. The creation tool itself ran rather sluggishly, but I was told that this will improve before the game launches.
One other notable demo was Ruin, a game that lets users save their progress online and continue playing from either a PSVita or a Playstation 3. The cloud save system worked flawlessly, so I hope Ruin — a typical action RPG — isn’t the only example of cross-platform gaming that we’ll see.
I’ve talked to a bunch of other journalists, and nearly everyone seems impressed with the Playstation Vita. What’s less clear, however, is whether everyone’s planning to buy one. For as great as the PSVita looked, it still has to compete with smartphones, which are always in your pocket and offer loads of cheap software on demand. So far, Sony’s hitting all the right notes with a device that does everything, but only time will tell whether that’s enough.