PlayStation Vita Review

Thanks to Sony, this February has another V-day to celebrate: the release of their PlayStation Portable (PSP) successor, the PS Vita. For console gamers, this is a big deal. The hardware powering the new portable is easily the best we’ve seen, offering nearly PS3-quality gaming potential, and the long-sought inclusion of a second analog stick is reason alone for many gamers to pick up the sleek new unit.

The heart of the Vita is the ARM Cortex quad-core CPU, which makes it the most powerful portable hardware on the market next to NVidia’s Tegra 3. CPU aside, the five-inch OLED multi-touch screen is gorgeous. Bright, colorful arcade games like Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3 look amazingly sharp and detailed, and videos look great, all running at a resolution of 960×544.

The Vita is, in a lot of ways, a cauldron of interesting tech, as if Sony just threw in all the bells and whistles they could into a pot to see what bubbled up. The unit sports a rear touch panel, which is perplexing before you’ve used it, but a terrific feature that will surely be adapted into an array of portable devices in the future. Games are cleverly using it for zooming, morphing rolling terrain, and taking on actions previously linked to button presses.

There are a lot of features standard to the iPhone built in as well. GPS, Wi-Fi, and AT&T-based 3G (if you choose to buy the $300 3G version), in addition to front and rear-facing cameras, a built-in mic, Bluetooth, stereo speakers, and Sixaxis motion sensors for motion control and augmented reality games. Much like the PSP before it, the Vita also includes some really interesting PS3 connectivity.

If you have both, you can take over control of the PS3 with the Vita, allowing you to view it on the smaller screen, control it remotely, stream videos, and even play supported games. It’s a feature that wasn’t well-utilized on the PSP, but with the Vita’s greater potential, we should see a lot more options now. Case in point is the cross-platform multiplayer abilities of WipeOut 2048, which allows players to compete against PS3 players of WipeOut HD.

WipeOut 2048

Another cool upcoming trick is the ability to play the Vita version of a PS3 game, and actually continue playing right where you left off on the PS3. The Vita is utilizing cloud technology in ways previously unseen and, no matter what platform you prefer, it’s an exciting prospect.

Finally, since the Vita has dual analog sticks, a traditional D-pad, shoulder buttons, and the familiar four face buttons, it can handle any kind of console game seamlessly. This means no more fudging around trying to make face-buttons act like a second analog stick or using a virtual d-pad. The Vita has the power and controls to provide a true console gaming experience on the go with virtually no compromises.

Just the same, it’s not without flaws. The battery lasts about four hours, which isn’t great. The interface isn’t as smooth and seamless as it could be either. While we certainly love the ability to pause a game at any time and go back to the home screen, use other functions, or just take a break, the overall interface is cluttered and somewhat unintuitive. Patching a game, for instance, can’t simply be done within a game, but requires exiting the game and then going to the message bar area (which tracks achievements, news, messages, and other relevant information).

The touchscreen also feels occasionally unresponsive on both the home screen and in games. The main cameras are definitely not up to par with the quality of the iPhone’s, which is disappointing. The Vita is also rather bulky– especially next to an iPhone, but even in comparison to the PSP, so you’ll need a big pocket to keep it in.

Probably the biggest complaint is Sony’s insistence on using a new and completely proprietary memory card format. The 16 GB card is about $60 and the 32 GB is $100, and unlike the standard Micro SD card that virtually every other device uses, these tiny cards are only for the Vita. And you’ll need one too, especially for downloading games and other content. While major games can be bought in stores on cartridge-like memory cards, the system is very focused on online commerce thanks to Sony’s beefy online store. The store is integrated into the main interface and allows Vita owners to instantly buy and download Vita and PSP games, in addition to music and videos.

The Vita contains a lot of the same type of technology as the iPhone and iPad, but with a razor focus on gaming. Casual gamers likely won’t see a point in spending another $250 on a gaming system when they have a perfectly good thing in their phones– especially given the price difference between iPhone apps and $10-$50 Vita games. Core console gamers, however, will find a portable experience here unavailable anywhere else. Having all the bells and whistles of a high-end tablet or smartphone with responsive console controls is a great thing, and the Vita’s true ace in the hole.

Tomorrow: Reviews of the PS Vita’s launch games.

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