June 8, 2011 at 12:15 PM ET
I have to admit, I’ve been a bit skeptical about the PlayStation Vita.
Though Sony’s forthcoming handheld machine — the successor to its PlayStation Portable — comes with a whole lot of power under the hood, a 5-inch OLED touchscreen, full traditional game controls as well as touchscreens on the front and back … I’ve wondered if there is still room in our lives for a portable gadget that’s dedicated to gaming.
So many of us have smartphones in our pockets and they play games well enough, right? Do we really want to fill our pockets and our purses with yet another device? Would we really drop hundreds of dollars on this thing? It’s not like the PSP sold gangbusters here in the U.S., and even Nintendo’s 3DS sales are struggling in the age of the iPhone and iPad.
But at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles this week, I’ve finally had a chance to get my hands on the Vita and play several of the forthcoming games, and I’m happy to say my time with the machine has wooed me to the ranks of the Vita hopeful. Here are some of the reasons why I think there’s plenty of room for Vita in our lives:
Scott Rohde, Sony Worldwide Studios vice president, gave me a personal look at video playing on this baby’s 5-inch OLED screen and let me say, it looks sharp.
“What I always tell people is, I dare you to find a poor viewing angle,” he said. “You’re not going to find one.”
He's not exaggerating. I tilted that sucker to and fro like you might when you’re on the go, and it looked crisp and clear at all angles. The thing is, that 16:9 screen comes with 960-by-544 pixel resolution, which means video and game graphics look absolutely lovely and really do deliver that console-level appearance.
Looking at the photos Sony initially released showing off Vita, I had expected it to be this bulky, heavy gadget. And measuring in at 7.2 inches by 3.3 inches by 0.73 inches, it’s not a small thing. But get your hands on Vita and you’ll be absolutely shocked at how light it is. Sony has not revealed its official weight, but I can say that despite its larger dimensions, you won’t hesitate to toss it into your backpack.
The back touchpad
I admit, I was having a hard time making sense of the Vita's back touchpad. Since nothing like it has appeared on a game machine before, it was difficult to imagine how it might come into play in a game and why I should care.
But after playing Vita games like “Little Deviants” and “LittleBigPlanet Vita” I had that “Ah ha! Now I get it!” moment. In the "Little Deviants" collection of mini games, there’s a level in which you must roll a ball-shaped creature around a landscape and into a hole. To roll him around, you touch the back touchpad which makes it so you appear to push the landscape on the screen upward. Trace your finger around that back panel and the landscape rises into a hill, shoving the ball around. Check out the game’s trailer here for a look at what I’m talking about.
Similarly, play the “ModNation Racers” game that’s in the works for Vita and you'll be able to quickly create mountainous terrain for your racetracks by simply pressing on the back of the screen. Check out this below video and you’ll see what I mean.
It is a seemingly simple thing, but the more I played around with games that are implementing this back touchpad, the more I could see just what a smart, fresh idea it is and just how it really will unlock some unique new gameplay experiences. (See my hands-on look at “Uncharted: Golden Abyss” for more on this.)
The dual thumb sticks
Avid gamers have been waiting a long time for this — a handheld game machine that offers two thumb sticks. And at long last they will get them with the Vita. And after playing the gadget, I can say that Vita’s more traditional game controls — the directional buttons, action buttons, shoulder buttons, the two sticks — are tight and precise and do offer that traditional controller experience gamers have been longing for.
I think this is one of the most exciting aspects of the Vita — the way it will work in conjunction with the PlayStation 3, offering all kinds of cross-platform play.
For example, Sony revealed that Vita owners will be able to play the forthcoming “Wipeout 2048” racing title live online against people playing the game on their PlayStation 3s. As for the forthcoming action/role-playing game “Ruin,” you’ll be able to play it on your Vita, pause your game, save it to the cloud, go home and pick it up on your PS3 right where you left off. That is awesome.
Meanwhile, when Sony ships “ModNation Racers” for the Vita, you’ll immediately be able to take the racetracks you created in your PS3 version of the game, import them to Vita and play them on the new handheld device. And the next “LittleBigPlanet” will have content sharing between the home console and the handheld as well, Rohde told me.
The future of gaming is this: Having the ability to play the same game on whatever game machine you happen to have with you at the time. And Vita takes a giant step in that direction.
So far at E3 I’ve had a chance to try out “Uncharted: Golden Abyss,” “LittleBigPlanet for Vita,” “Little Deviants,” and “Gravity,” and so far I’ve been very impressed with how these games both look and play and their implementation of both traditional game controls as well as the newer tilt and touch controls. But that’s hardly all there is. Irrational Games founder Ken Levine announced that a “BioShock” game is the works for Vita. “Street Fighter X Tekken” is coming to the machine and so is a “Silent Hill” game. If you’re an avid gamer, the Vita game list is shaping up quite nicely. And there’s even more on tap with Sony promising that some 80 games are in the works.
Sony, a company that has been known to price its game machines waaay too high for consumers (the PlayStation 3 was a whopping $500 to $600 when it launched), pleased most everyone Monday when it announced that we’ll be able to buy the powerful PS Vita for as low as $249. Those with a few more bucks to spare and who want a 3G Vita, can drop $299 if they wish.
As a premium gaming gadget with a quad-core processor and one that’s aimed at a slightly older, more hardcore gaming crowd, this price point makes good sense, I think. The Vita offers a lot of impressive features and a lot of power under the hood. Meanwhile, this price point brings Vita in alongside Nintendo’s new 3DS portable game gadget which is a smart move.
So, what’s not to like?
Of course, no gadget is perfect for all people.
While at first glance there is a lot to love about the Vita, I did find at least one negative. The biggest thing I noticed was that, with its dimensions, it's a bit awkward to hold in my small hands. For example, as I shifted from using the shoulder buttons to reaching for the back touchpad or moved my fingers toward the front touchscreen, I felt as if the thing didn’t remain all that well balanced in my grip. In fact, Vita is so sleek and so light, I felt like I might just lose my hold on it as I shifted from one control scheme to the other. But again, my hands are an adult size small so perhaps not everyone will have the same problem.
Also, Sony's announcement that they have partnered exclusively with AT&T to deliver 3G to the Vita was a disappointment. Clearly, they have not learned from Apple's mistake.
Of course, once PlayStation Vita launches for good at the end of the year and I get a unit in my hands and in my home for a lengthier examination, we’ll see if it lives up to these initial moments and impressions. But what I've seen here at E3, has certainly given me a lot to look forward to with Vita.
For more E3 coverage, see: