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Kiran Earwaker finds out whether Sony's next handheld will be worth your Christmas money...
Despite being twice the size of your average smartphone, the PlayStation Vita somehow manages to feel much, much lighter than you’d expect. It’s an astounding achievement considering that Sony has crammed in two cameras, two touch surfaces, two analogue sticks, two motion sensors, two location sensors, two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree alongside a full set of buttons and that lovely five-inch OLED screen. And although it’s unbelievably light, it doesn’t feel in the least bit flimsy; the hard black plastic case fits snugly in hand, the buttons are solid and well placed, and the analogue sticks are precise and comfortable to use.
Boot up the Vita and you’re presented with a simple touch-screen menu featuring 6 large bubbles. From here you can access your stored music and videos, tinker with system settings, and launch whichever game is currently lodged in the NVG card slot (NVG is Sony’s replacement for the much maligned UMD, and is based on a proprietary flash card technology). Swipe upwards and you’ll find a second screen of bubble icons which house your browser, friends list, messages, Trophies and camera functions. There’s also an icon for the PlayStation Store and space on both screens to hoard any additional apps or games you might download. Launch a game and you’re greeted with its LiveArea start page. From here you can see your friends’ current progress, browse for DLC, or simply jump straight in and play. Swiping left or right takes you back to the system menus or through to your other currently open apps, which are all laid out along a logical horizontal track. Cross-game party chat (a-la Xbox Live) is available as standard, and a range of connectivity options are available, including Wifi, Bluetooth and (for fifty quid more) 3G. The PS Vita also has a SpotPass-like function called ‘Near’. Players can leave ‘gifts’ - in-game items or challenges - that nearby users have a certain chance of collecting as they pass. ‘Near’ also let’s you see what those around you are currently playing.
Sony has packed a formidable array of technology into the Vita. The console has double the RAM of the PS3, and a GPU that easily stands up to anything currently on the mobile market. Its launch line-up is formidable, and with big-hitters like Uncharted and LittleBigPlanet alongside curios such as Escape Plan and Frobisher Says, Sony has secured a much stronger set of titles than Nintendo managed with the 3DS. We were certainly impressed by the hardware: the 5-inch OLED screen is crisp and clear, with brilliant colours and some of the finest visuals yet seen on a handheld. However, we did find ourselves missing haptic feedback on touch-based games, and we’d need a little longer with the system to definitively evaluate the latency of the touch-controls. There were also a few occasions where resting our fingers on the rear touchpad interfered with games that used it (but this is possibly something that you would naturally learn to avoid).
Overall the Playstation Vita makes a strong first impression – Sony seems to have nailed the hardware and software line-up, and most of the launch titles make good use of its broad array of input sensors (look out for our round-up of the best launch games next week). But the question that remains to be answered is: will it sell? It’s hard to see where the PS Vita fits into the increasingly crowded portable gaming market: it’s not a phone, and it’s too bulky to fit easily in a pocket; it’s perhaps a little too small to be considered a tablet (although it’s lighter, cheaper and more powerful than most on the market); it’s more expensive than any current home console (£229-£279) and its battery life is too short for extended trips away without charge (3-5 hours for game play). Crucially, despite its extensive and impressive feature set, it doesn’t do anything particularly new; the augmented reality features are delightful, and the inclusion of front and rear touchpads is inspired, but there’s no single element that really jumps out as groundbreaking; there’s also a nagging feeling - borne out by those lacklustre 3DS figures - that the era of full-price handheld gaming might simply be drawing to a close.
Nevertheless, as a hardcore gaming device and media player, the Vita is bound to find its share of fans, and with its impressive array of input sensors it could well prove to be even more than the sum of its already formidable parts. There is the potential for truly unique gameplay experiences to be created for the Vita, and at the very least, it should drive the quality of smartphone games up by several notches.
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