The PS Vita is the realization of the portable gaming handheld Sony wanted to build in 2004 with the original PlayStation Portable (PSP) — a true mobile system with the horsepower of a home games console.
Where the PSP fell short with its single analog "nub," lack of cameras, lack of a touchscreen, cumbersome UMD optical drive and weak console connectivity features, the PS Vita fixes on nearly every front.
Dual analogs? Check. Dual cameras for augmented reality (AR) experiences? Check. Massive 5-inch OLED touchscreen with equally large rear touchpad? Check. Speedy flash carts for game storage and rich PS3 connectivity all in a light piano black package that won't add too much weight to your bag? Check, check and check.
But no console is perfect. We got to go hands-on (without anybody rushing us like at E3) with the PS Vita and here are our first impressions.
Note: All hardware and software are extremely early builds and what was on-hand at Sony's PlayStation showcase is not indicative of the final build.
Love #1: Cross-platform Multiplayer With PlayStation 3
This is huge! PS Vita players versus PS3 players. All players involved will need to have their own respective copies of the game, of course, but we love it. No more split-screen, no more dual-console-and-TV setups and no more "I'm not home to play with you" excuses.
We demoed WipeOut 2048 on the PS Vita versus a PS3 copy and it was fantastic! There was a slight networking problem between the PS3 recognizing Vita on the network, but it was chalked up as a Wi-Fi interference issue.
Love #2: Augmented Reality
The iPhone and Nintendo 3DS really spearheaded AR games, but most software requires some kind of QR code or marker for the cameras to recognize and augment what they see.
On Vita, we toyed with Little Deviants in an AR mode that had us blasting at on-screen characters. It's cute and AR overlay was rapid and responsive — just how we like it. On the 3DS, Nintendo was first out of the gate with fun AR games like the Face Raiders and Archery minigames, but it just feels so much better on Vita.
Love #3: Cross-platform Game Resume On PS3
This is not the same as the cross-platform multiplayer we talked about above. We're talking about playing a game such as Ruin — a hack-'n'-slash dungeon crawler that'll be released on both the PS3 and PS Vita on one machine — saving it, then resuming gameplay at exactly where you left off on the other.
Ruin stores all game saves in the cloud (not on PSN or PlayStation Plus, for some reason). As long as you have an Internet connection, you can start on PS3 and finish on the PS Vita or vice versa. A feature like this could be awesome in RPGs that have side quests. Picture this: grinding on side missions during lunch while at work and slaying huge bosses in the main campaign back at home on the PS3 on the big screen. Cool?
Love #4: Gorgeous Looking Games
There's a debate whether or not games on the PS Vita are as visually breathtaking as those on the PS3.
All up in the PS Vita's 5-inch OLED screen, we can say that games such as Uncharted: Golden Abyss look every bit as detailed as their PlayStation 3 counterparts. Hell, we even think cross-platform games like the aforementioned Ruin and WipeOut 2048 look even sharper on the PS Vita than on an HDTV, but that's to be expected with a smaller, crisp screen. One of the reps showing off Little Big Planet on the Vita told us Sony played around with different screen sizes, and eventually landed on the size because it just felt the best — the Vita probably could have been made smaller, even.
Love #5: Tons of New Control Schemes
Calling the PS Vita featured-packed is an understatement. In fact, it's packed with so many controls from the traditional buttons and dual analogs to the touchscreen and rear touchpad to the gyroscope and accelerometer and AR cameras, it's almost too feature-rich. That's a lot to keep track of.
At times we weren't sure when we needed to use the touchscreen, the touchpad or just the regular buttons. In LittleBigPlanet for the PS Vita, there are little cues that tell you when to use the touchscreen and when to tilt the device, but we still felt confused at times. (Of course, we only had a short amount of time to play it.)
One thing that developers won't have a problem with on the PS Vita is a lack of programmable controls. Gamers won't be able to complain that Vita is more of the same-old gameplay we've had for the last two decades because its new input methods are begging to spawn new creative ideas.
Problem #1: New OS
Gone is the XMB (Cross Media Bar) and in its place is a UI with bubbly orbs that is supposed to make the interface more finger-friendly. We don't hate fresh breaks, especially if it makes navigating menus easier, but when the UI between the PS Vita and the PS3 now sit on opposite ends and things like networking the two together for a round in WipeOut 2048 takes several minutes instead of seconds, you know there is a UI continuity problem.
Problem #2: Fragile and Cheap Feeling
The last time we felt up Vita (at E3), it felt kind of solid, but maybe our minds were playing tricks on us after waiting two hours in line to manhandle one for 20 minutes. This time around, we witnessed the PS Vita take an accidental drop from about three feet up and its L-shoulder button easily popped clean off.
As we stated earlier, the unit was a pre-production one, so it doesn't represent the final shipping handheld, but we couldn't shake off how cheap it appeared. For sure, the PS Vita is one large (but very light) portable, but its weight also lended to that non-premium feel. For $250 (Wi-Fi model), Sony really can't be cutting these things out of glass and steel.
Problem #3: No Video-Out
The missing feature on the original PSP was video-output to an external display for movies and games on a larger screen. Sony remedied that with the second and third-gen PSPs and PSPgo (AV cable sold separately was required).
That's why it's so surprising that the PS Vita, a device with a much higher resolution display and beefy quad-core processor that can handle HD videos does not have a video-out port via some kind of HDMI. Sony's Xperia Arc smartphone has it, and that phone is skinnier than a twig, so why doesn't the fatter PS Vita have it?
Problem #4: Awkward D-Pad and Smaller Buttons
It's hard picking a bone with the size of buttons. Some people like big buttons and some people like small buttons. Side by side with the PSP, the PS Vita's buttons are noticeably smaller (not any less solid).
The D-Pad's also been revamped and its four direction buttons hang much closer than on any PlayStation controller before, which should be excellent for fighting games, but they also felt a tad too plastic-cheap for our tastes.
Problem #5: Not Pocketable
You probably already knew this, but the PS Vita is BIG. It's the Godzilla of handhelds, but not heavy, as we already told you. Its mammoth size can be attributed to the device's large screen. Peeps who love them some skinny jeans will need to carry this thing in a bag.
Folks without deep pockets will also cry at the size of the PS Vita. Sony's official stance is that Vita is not really a portable, hence why it was not named PSP 2. Apparently people are now okay with carrying bulkier gadgets like large smartphones and small tablets that thee PS Vita's gargantuan body is acceptable. This stuff is of course subjective, so it's your call.