Tech Review: Sony’s PlayStation Vita

Sony released its newest console, the Playstation Vita, into the wild today. I got my hands on the console about a week ago, and after some quality time with the system I’m ready to deliver a verdict. Whether you’re thinking about picking up the device today or sometime down the road, read on to hear all about the Vita and what this tiny portable can deliver.

Design

Physically, the device doesn’t look very different from the PSP, but it is much improved. Rounded corners and edges make the Vita fit comfortably in your hands, and the smooth, flat touchscreen on the back is comfortable to rest your hands on. The Vita has the standard controls we’re used to from Sony: left and right triggers, D-pad, circle x triangle and square buttons, and volume buttons on the top of the device.

The big addition is the two, very nice left and right analog sticks that are a huge improvement over the PSP. Another welcome addition is the inclusion of a power button, instead of the power switch on the side of the PSP that I would constantly accidentally hit and turn off the device at pivotal moments in games. The Wi-Fi switch has been removed in favor of an option to turn wireless on or off in the menu.

Sony has done away with UMD discs, in favor of very small, proprietary game cartridges.So far, it seems that purchasing the games via the Playstation Store is the better option, considering there’s a 10% discount for buying digital and by downloading the games you don’t risk losing the incredibly tiny catridges you would get by purchasing a physical copy. Storage is yet again proprietary, and we can’t say we’re surprised about that.

Instead of using Sony’s usual XMB (Xross Media Bar) user interface, the Playstation Vita uses a new kind of UI that integrates perfectly with the front touch screen. For anyone who’s used any Android, iOS device, or the HP Touchpad the interface is pretty familiar- the menu is a series of bubbles, which open when touched, open their own window, and can be swiped away. Multiple windows can be open at once, even when gaming, and at a push of the PS button you’ll have access to them.  There is now also a touch-screen keyboard, which is a welcome improvement especially for those who are familiar with the PSP keyboard which used to drive me crazy.

Functionality

I picked up the 3G version of the device, but for those who don’t want to shell out the extra cash for the higher end device and the data plan, a Wi-Fi only version is available.

One of the first things I just had to do when I got the Vita home was connect it to my PS3 using Remote Play to see what it could do. After E3 last year, there was much speculation as to how Remote Play would work, as Sony demoed the features using Killzone 3, making it seem like all PS3 games could be played on the Vita streaming over Wi-Fi or 3G connection. But when I got home and put Saints Row 3 in my PS3 and connected the Vita over Wi-Fi, it wouldn’t allow me to play it. However, Remote Play is still VERY cool. I had full control over my PS3, including old PSX games I had downloaded from the Playstation Store.

This is pretty handy, as the Playstation Store doesn’t yet sell Playstation Classic games on the Vita or allow for you to download ones you’ve purchases previously. Supposedly integration with Remote Play will be included with future PS3 games, but I just wish they would patch the system now and just let you play the entire, existing catalogue. This would make the device WAY more appealing for anyone on the fence, especially the 3G version. Access to any and all PS3 games on the go would be a real draw to anyone traveling or with a commute.

The “First Edition” bundle I purchased included Little Deviants, a game I probably wouldn’t have picked up on my own but I was still excited to play. The biggest draw to Little Deviants for me was how much the game utilized the new back touch screen on the Vita. Out of all the features demoed at E3 I think the back touchscreen was the most intriguing for everyone watching, so I was anxious to try it myself.

The back touchscreen is responsive and really makes for a unique gameplay experience, but it takes some getting used to. I think as gamers we’re just really used to physically being able to see a touchscreen as our fingers move over it, so suddenly having my fingers control something behind the console threw me for a loop.

An interesting function to the Vita is just how social the experience of using it really is. Everything you do, whether it’s playing a game, or walking down the street, is shared via a new app called Near. You can gain trophies through Near, not to mention every other game, and these trophies count towards your general Playstation Network gamer score. This gives the PS Vita a huge competitive edge- gamers love trophies and scoring higher than their friends, and Xbox and Nintendo have yet to integrate this efficiently into a portable device.

The Vita also comes with two cameras, one on the front and one in back. I rarely used the cameras on my DSi or 3DS, so I’m not sure how much I’ll use the ones on this system, especially if I’ve got a phone or a tablet in my pocket. It’s especially hard imagining pulling out a gaming device as opposed to my iPhone to take a picture, but having a camera on the device creates some interesting gameplay opportunities.

I’ve read some complaints about the battery life, but personally I experienced nothing but good things. Standby or playing, the device wasn’t draining battery nearly as fast as my 3DS does.

With the Vita’s huge, awesome OLED screen, redesigned features and functions, and graphic capabilities, gaming on it is the closest you can get to a console experience on a portable device. Everything I’ve played has looked great, and felt great. With Uncharted: The Golden Abyss, this console is poised to bridge the gap between gaming at home and gaming on the go, and also between the casual gamer and the hardcore. Its interface and social capabilities also combine what’s best about gaming on a smartphone- being able to share and compare what you’re doing with friends.

The only thing that will hold this system back is its games. If consistent, quality, exciting games don’t come out for the Vita often, people will lose interest. It’s what brought down the PSP, and it’s what threatens to bring down the Nintendo 3DS. The Vita has Uncharted, yes, but it’ll need more franchises (think Mass Effect) down the road.

And while the more casual games, like Lumines Electronic Symphony or Rayman Origins have brought a gamer like myself to the system, it still needs to continue to release equally awesome, fascinating games that show off all the system’s amazing features while still delivering the kind of experience that closes the gap between the PS3 and the Vita in order to move units and successfully surpass what they did with the PSP.

The Playstation Vita is on sale today for $249.99 for the Wi-Fi version and $299.99 for the 3G.

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