Smartphones have indisputably made significant inroads into the once uncontested gaming-portable market. Nevertheless, Sony Computer Entertainment’s made a bold move in producing the core gamer’s portable: the PlayStation Vita. It’s a handheld gaming machine that makes few compromises, and in the words of Sony Computer Entertainment New Zealand’s sales and marketing manager Dave Hine, “It’s almost like taking a PlayStation 3 around with you in your pocket.”
Based on the limited hands-on time the team at Social Media NZ managed with the prototype device mere hours after it landed in the country, it’s hard to argue with the man. On display was an early build of Uncharted: Golden Abyss, the Vita’s stab at what has become arguably the flagship franchise of the powerhouse PlayStation 3. And on the Vita’s 5-inch OLED display, with the power of a 4-core ARM Cortex-A9 MPCore processor behind it, this portable Uncharted title is every bit as visually striking as its PS3 counterparts. In fact, there was also a preview build of the upcoming PS3 title Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception on hand at this showcase event, and you’d be hard pressed to say that Golden Abyss looks inferior in any way. Of course, the smaller, lower-resolution display is more forgiving than a high-def television, but the important thing to the user is that the experience is the same. And from what I’ve seen and experienced so far, it certainly is.
And it’s not just in the visuals department that the Vita keeps pace with current-gen gaming consoles. For the first time, the Vita brings the completely comprehensive control afforded by a dual-analogue-stick configuration to a portable gaming device. There are still one or two trade-offs in the overall control scheme; the analogue sticks (based on this prototype version of the Vita, anyway) don’t appear to be “clickable” like their PS3 SixAxis controller counterparts, and one set of shoulder buttons is missing in action. But in most every other aspect, the Vita appears to offer the performance and the versatility of a fully fledged living-room console. Impressively, it’s all crammed into a rather lightweight and very portable package. In the hands, the Vita is absolutely comfortable, with a slightly more slate-like look and feel than the PlayStation Portables before it. Subsequently, it appears to sidestep the claw-grip cramp that’s dogged most other handheld gaming platforms (including Sony’s previous effort, the PSPgo). Your fingers fit snugly into contours on the device’s rear, enabling convenient access to the rear touchpad. And while the display also doubles as a touchscreen, there’s also a rear touchpad for gaming purposes, nullifying the chief problem of touchscreen smartphone games: obscuring your view with your own fingers.
Despite the vaguely familiar aesthetic, the PlayStation Vita is a new and fundamentally different platform than Sony’s previous PlayStation Portable brand. Central to the Vita’s feature set is its much-touted 3G support, providing always-on connectivity for the first time in a gaming handheld. According to Hine, this core feature will manifest itself in a number of key areas that will add another layer to the portable-gaming experience. Unfortunately, it was an aspect of the Vita’s features set that couldn’t be demonstrated on this prototype model at this time. But Hine lauded the possibilities of location-based gaming that the Vita presents. Sure, a 3G-network infrastructure may not support the adversarial first-person shooter deathmatch modes that are the bread and butter of home-console online gaming (you’ll be limited to Wi-Fi networks for that). But with 3G, the Vita will make clever use of online leaderboards while also incorporating elements of mobile, location-based social-networking platforms such as FourSquare. Hine offered the example of a racing game like, say, something from the MotorStorm franchise; players can set the fastest time for a track in a particular location or neighbourhood. Hypothetically, you could hold the fastest lap times at your school or workplace, much like you can be the “mayor” of these locations on FourSquare. The early signs are that the Vita is very much about taking the popular aspects of mobile social networking and applying it to gaming.
We must stress that this prototype version had very little of the interface and features implemented. In fact, all we got to see was the preview build of Uncharted: Golden Abyss. But it’s fair to say that, at this early stage, the look and feel of the device is very promising indeed. What’s more difficult to predict, however, is how the market will take to the device. By gunning for the core gamers first and foremost (and with a price tag to match), its intended market is now rather niche by default. Hine rightly contends that the gaming experience offered by current smartphones isn’t in the same league as the Vita. In the PlayStation Portable’s heyday, however, consumers had few options for gaming on the go. Now, many consumers are already more than adequately served by the phones already in their pockets for their gaming fix. But for the gaming road warrior that won’t accept compromise, it’ll be hard to look past the Vita.
The PlayStation Vita launches in New Zealand on February 23rd 2012 with an RRP of $449.95 for the Wi-Fi model and $549.95 for the 3G/Wi-Fi model.