PS Vita: Is It All It's Cracked Up To Be?

By Brian Arnold on March 7, 2012, 7:26PM EDT

Well, it has been about two weeks since the new PlayStation Vita was released in North America and Europe and aside from my rather poor unboxing video, we have yet to give you all our full thoughts on the how the Vita has performed so far. Allow me, as poor as it may be, to rectify this oversight by doing just that. So buckle up boys and girls; we're in for a wild ride!

Since the Vita was first announced, there has been a torrent of rumors, hearsay, and juicy gossip based around what the new handheld console would be capable of. At one point, we were all convinced that the machine would be capable of PS3 graphics and gameplay. We were told that it would revolutionize the way handheld gaming is viewed and executed. We were promised that it would poop rainbows and unicorns (ok, I may have made that last one up, but a guy can dream). Let's be honest folks; when we hear things like this, most of us brush it off as nothing more than over hyped marketing hyperbole. So let's ask a simple question: is the Vita all that it's cracked up to be?

Let's start things off with how the Vita feels when you hold it. To put it simply, it feels wonderful. When comparing it to the PSP and the 3DS, the Vita is a much bigger system in terms of its size, but it still remains remarkably light (just under 10 ounces). Now, there are those out there who feel that smaller is better. When it comes to handheld gaming systems, I couldn't disagree more which is one of the Vita's biggest strengths. The size of the console allows players to comfortably hold the system even if you have giant Sasquatch hands. I have been able to sit and play games for hours on end without my hands cramping or my wrists hurting.

After the PSP came out, players cried out as one that not having two analog sticks was a severe crime for the system. Fortunately, Sony listened and now they have given us our much-desired second stick. The layout of the analog sticks feels natural and the trigger buttons are easy and comfortable to use. However, the placement of the speakers (on either side) means that your fingers will get in the way and block the sound at times.

The same level of comfort can be said for the D-pad, which is located just above the left analog stick. One complaint that people have had is that the face buttons (cross, circle, triangle, square) are too small. They are certainly smaller than their PSP counterparts and if you have giant sausage fingers, it may be troublesome at times, but I haven't had much of a problem with it and I don't have dainty hands.

The Vita comes with two built in cameras: one on the back of the system and one on the front. As of now, this feature hasn't been fully utilized in any game that isn't gimmicky, but time will tell if developers can find a creative use for it. They're used in AR games, and Reality Fighters does allow you to take a picture, but that's about it. However, the cameras are not the new features that you care about.

No, that would be the touch screens and the motion controls. Allow me to be perfectly candid: it is my wholehearted opinion that both mechanics work exceptionally well. However, don't mistake me saying that the new features have been utilized perfectly in all games; far from it. What I am saying is that the touch screens are incredibly responsive and accurate to what you want it to do. I haven't found myself having to pound my finger on the screen to get it to register my touch. In fact, it's quite the opposite; a casual swipe or touch of my finger will trigger what I need it to. In the same manner, the six-axis motion controls are incredibly accurate and responsive to my movements. So much so that I had to go through a period of adjustment to get the feel of just how precise they are.

However, touch screens and motion controls are not innovative and have been done on other systems (most recently, the 3DS). What Sony has brought to the table this time is the addition of a rear panel touch screen in addition to the front panel touch screen. The idea is an interesting one and the sensitively of the rear touch screen is just as well done as the front panel. However, I have yet to really play a game that makes good use of the back panel without it feeling entirely gimmicky or unnecessary (however, for those Vita owners, check out Tales From Space: Mutant Blobs Attack for a good example of good touch controls can be in a game). While playing games that utilize the back panel, I consistently had trouble with accidentally brushing it with my fingers and messing up my gameplay. Obviously, this is an issue for developers to address, but I wonder if they will be able to find a way to make proper use of this new function or if it will be a superfluous addition.

A side note for any new Vita users, the power cable will only charge the system properly if you have it plugged in the correct way which means the PS symbol must be facing you. I never had trouble with this, but Darryl brought it to my attention. However, I just attribute that to him being a little too thick and me being too neurotic/anal and having to have the symbol facing me (j/k Darryl, you know I love you).

So, now that we have the hardware out of the way, let's talk about the software and the user interface. If you have owned or even used an Apple iPhone, iPad, or iPod, then you'll have very little trouble getting into flow of the Vita system. The interface uses icons for each game, application, or system settings which you select by touching the screen. It's fairly intuitive. You can organize your icons in any way you desire and can sort them on different "pages" of your home screen should you wish. If you want to see another page, you simply swipe you finger to get to it.

The software allows you to login to the PlayStation Network (SEN) and you can download games, manage your friends list, update your trophies, etc. In addition, the Vita added a new application called Near, which allows you to see other Vita players in your area. Games use the app to allow you to interact with those players who are also playing the game to perform certain tasks. It seems a little stalker-ish at times but it will be interesting to see how developers make proper use of the application.

All in all, the interface seems well put together and fairly easy to navigate. The addition of trophies for Vita games is something that I particularly enjoy. Hell, I'll be honest: being a trophy whore, I think it was a brilliant addition! However, beware of the touch keyboard; it's a bit too small and easy to miss-type especially for those with bigger fingers.

In the end, is the Vita a good system? All indicators say that it's heading in the right direction. The graphical power of the system is unmatched by any handheld on the market today. Network capabilities will open handheld gaming to true online play (provided developers actually make use of it). The touch screens and motion controls are impeccably precise. The user interface is fairly solid and will only get better with time. The price is a little steep, but look at it this way: a Wi-fi version of the Vita, a 4-8GB memory card and 2-3 physical games will cost you less than the cheapest iPad 2. I have no doubt that the price will come down at some point. Regardless, the system is moving in a direction that shows the future of handheld gaming. Want to know what that direction is? Let's put it this way: console systems, watch out, the Vita is here to give you a run for your money.

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