Last week, Sony's next-generation portable gaming console, the PlayStation Vita, finally launched in Australia. (See all the photos from the launch party here.)
It's been a long wait for western gamers, who've had to re-mark their calenders following a series of unfortunate manufacturing delays in Japan. Well, the good news is that the wait has been worth it - provided your chief interest is PS3-style gameplay and power.
We're still in the process of testing the PlayStation Vita (look out for the full review in the next issue of PC & Tech Authority), but first impressions are solid. Here's a list of what we love about the new console, along with a few things we don't.
Graphics: a PS3 in your pocket
"PlayStation 3-quality graphics" has been the unofficial catchphrase of the Vita, and after playing through a brace of launch titles we can confirm that the boast is genuine.
Graphically, the system is a portable powerhouse that trounces every other handheld gaming systems on the market, including the Nintendo 3DS. Its only serious contender is Razer's Core i7-powered Project Fiona, but this is currently in the prototype stage and may never see the light of day.
When it comes to graphics, the Vita's hype is justified.
The PlayStation Vita is powered by a quad-core ARM Cortex-A9 processor, PowerVR Series 5XT GPU and half a gigabyte of RAM. These are pretty impressive specs for a sub-$500 machine. (By contrast, the original Sony PSP came with a R4000-based CPU and just 32MB of RAM.)
The current crop of AAA launch titles such as Uncharted: Golden Abyss rival almost anything you'll find on the PlayStation 3; especially when viewed on the 5in OLED screen. Needless to say, if graphical capabilities are of paramount importance to you, the PS Vita will not disappoint.
Design & handling
Sony are industry leaders when it comes to console design: its products consistently look great and are usually a joy to handle (we even liked the original 'fat' PS3). Thankfully, the PlayStation Vita doesn't buck this trend. We'd go as far as to say it's one of the best Sony products we've used.
Measuring 84x182x19mm and weighing around 280g, the Vita is large enough to do justice to the games on screen, yet still reasonably slim and lightweight. (This is in stark contrast to the aforementioned Project Fiona: during a hands-on demo at CES 2012 our arms became uncomfortable after around ten minutes of playtime.)
The portable PlayStation: back in black.
The PS Vita also looks great in our opinion: we particularly like the matrix of PlayStation 'face button' icons that adorn the back of the device (pictured above).
The user interface, meanwhile, eschews Sony's familar media cross bar for a simpler, Android-esque solution (indeed, Sony is rumoured to be working on a smartphone version of the same OS).
However, the real star when it comes to handling is the Vita's second analogue stick. Over the past decade, the vast majority of games on home consoles have required two analogue sticks to control the action on screen. (Typically, these are used to move the game's character and camera perspective, with one stick controlling each.)
The extra analogue stick puts the Vita on an even playing field with home consoles.
Despite several major hardware revisions, the Sony PSP never received that coveted second stick, which proved to be a serious thorn in the console's side. Most games were forced to forgo camera control completely, while others implemented shoddy work-arounds, such as the D-pad or face buttons. All in all, it was one of the main stumbling blocks that held the PSP's gaming credentials back.
The Vita's controls are a significant step up from the Sony PSP. Whether this translates into a better gaming experience, we'll reserve our judgement for our forthcoming full review.
'AR' gaming: a gimmick worth checking out?
If you're suffering from video game sequelitis, the Vita's 'Augmented Reality' games are a refreshingly quirky departure from the norm. These games use the Vita's rear-facing camera to incorporate your real-life surroundings into the game world, often with eye-opening results.
Reality Fighters uses the Vita's AR function to impressive effect.
For example. a desk can be used to field a football match, while a doormat can be transformed into a boxing ring - it all depends on the game you're playing and what objects you choose to point the camera at.
It's a neat trick, and we're keen to see whether developers can extend it beyond the visual gimmick. When it comes to 'extra bells and whistles', this is the one we're most excited about.
Best launch game: Uncharted: Golden Abyss
One of Sony's flagship launch titles, Uncharted: Golden Abyss is arguably the first 'must own' Vita game to hit the shelves. SCE Bend Studio has done a great job of transferring Naughty Dog’s cinematic franchise to the small screen. The game controls brilliantly on the handheld device, with the Vita's motion-sensing and gyroscopic capabilities adding a new element to gameplay.
If you like games that resemble action-packed movies, Uncharted: Golden Abyss is definitely worth snapping up.
So far, our major gripes with the PlayStation Vita have to do with Sony's decision to use proprietary media/cabling and the price of AAA games ($70+). Battery life is also a bit on the short side, but that's to be expected.
The PlayStation Vita uses propriety cables - even for USB.
There's also the nature of the device itself. Whether handheld gaming actually needs all this power is questionable - the last few years has seen an explosion in mobile phone games, and it has been argued that dedicated handheld consoles have no place in the modern era. But that's a debate for another time.
The PlayStation Vita can be likened to a Dreadnought warship in an era of affordable tug boats. Core gamers are bound to appreciate the raw power and sophisticated controls: it really does blow all other handheld gaming systems out of the water.
That said, if you get your primary gaming fix from mobile phones, the Vita is unlikely to sway you over to the 'hardcore' fold. The games are simply too expensive and battery life is fleeting compared to the Androids and iPhones of the world.
Nonetheless, we think the Vita is a significant step forwards in the evolution of portable gaming - if you want a fully-fledged console that you can carry around in your hands, you won't be disappointed. Stay tuned for our full review.