By CHONG JINN XIUNGbytz@thestar.com.my
Sony is aiming to breathe new life into the portable gaming world and it looks like it has a strong contender on its hands.
THE PlayStation Vita (or PS Vita) is Sony's latest portable game device, which was all the buzz at last year's Electronic Entertainment Expo convention in Los Angeles.
Nine months after that first preview, we have finally gotten our grubby hands on a WiFi PS Vita model for review.
The mobile gaming world has radically changed over the past few years, with smartphones and Tablets challenging traditional portable game systems like the PlayStation Portable and the Nintendo DS. The Vita is, in many ways, Sony's big push to reclaim the portable gaming space, but has the age of dedicated portable game systems come to an end?
There are two versions of the Vita available: WiFi only while the other has 3G. Aesthetically, the two versions are identical, though the 3G version is slightly heavier than the WiFi version.
The first thing you will notice about the Vita is its sheer size - at 7.2in wide, it dwarfs most portable systems and is almost the same size as the Nintendo DSi XL.
Despite its large and unwieldy shape, the Vita feels very comfortable in the hand and is lightweight enough that it you don't feel tired when you hold it over an extended period of time.
We loved how the Vita's 5in OLED screen displayed incredibly sharp images with rich colours. It also has great viewing angles from side to side. The screen is quite glossy so expect to see some glare when using it under direct sunlight but it was perfectly viewable indoors.
It is worth mentioning that the Vita's capacitive touchscreen was very responsive and worked smoothly in navigation and during gameplay.
In terms of audio performance, the Vita's stereo speakers offer average quality sound and they can easily be drowned out in noisy surroundings.
The Vita features a built-in GPS and a digital compass that works with a pre-loaded map application. While it is very basic in both design and use, it gets the job done when you need to look up a destination.
The GPS also works with another application called Near, which lets you connect and interact to other nearby Vita players as well as discover what games they are playing.
The Vita however makes a few missteps in terms of its design: One, it does not possess any internal storage space and it needs a proprietary PS Vita memory card, that ranges from 4GB to 32GB, to store downloaded games and other data.
We did not like the fact that an external memory card is a pre-requisite to play certain games like Uncharted: Golden Abyss. It also doesn't help that these Vita memory cards cost more than regular microSD cards.
Secondly, the Vita sports a measly 0.3-megapixel camera on the front and back. Sadly, the grainy pictures aren't even worthy of posting to Facebook or Twitter.
Granted, the Vita doesn't really need a high-end camera for playing AR (augmented reality) games or when you want to speak with your friends over video chat.
Another drawback of the Vita is its battery life. While we could get at least three to four hours of dedicated game time on the Vita, you're likely to need a recharge in the middle of a long session.
The Vita does however fare better if you intend to use it for video and music playback, lasting almost five to six hours.
The Vita's control scheme is similar to that of the PSP, with a D-Pad and four face buttons.
The inclusion of a second analogue stick makes the Vita's controls precise enough for shooting games and gives you better camera control in certain games. The analogue knobs are quite small though, so gamers with large fingers may find it slightly uncomfortable using them.
Apart from the physical buttons and touchscreen, the Vita also offers a six axis motion sensor control for games that require players to physically tilt the device to control something on screen. This works great for games like Wipeout 2048.
There's also a rear touch panel that gives users the benefit of touch controls without your fingers getting in the way of the screen. Admittedly, the controls feel awkward and unnatural since you can't see your fingers, but once you get the hang of it you can play games like Touch My Katamari.
The Vita sports a swanky new touchscreen interface that is nicely laid out with several homescreens stacked on top one another. It feels very much like a modern mobile OS. It has circular icons for apps and you can shift them around by long-pressing on them.
Much of the software bundled with the Vita such as the Music, Photo, Video and Web Browser are very basic. The interface isn't ideal for managing content and the Vita's web browser isn't very useful unless you are doing very casual surfing on non-Flash and HTML5 sites.
At any time you can press the PlayStation button to return to the home menu. This will cause the current game or app to pause and if you want to close, just "peel" the app off the screen from the top right corner.
This, however, does not mean the Vita is capable of multitasking between apps as certain apps require you to close the current game you are playing in order to launch the next.
Additional Vita and even old PSP games can be downloaded through the PS Store app. However as the store is not yet available in this region, we weren't able to test out any downloadable Vita games.
Still, we are excited about the prospects of being able to download full retail Vita games directly to the device once the store launches officially.
There's a cool feature called Remote Play that allows you to control your PS3 with the Vita over a WiFi network. In practice, this allows you to access your PS3 content and select games on your Vita when you are away from home - as long as you are connected to a stable Internet line that is.
The image quality on Remote Play is noticeably softer and is nowhere as sharp as a native Vita game, but it is commendable just how responsive the experience is.
While we were able to access our pictures and videos with the Vita via Remote Play, most PS3 and downloaded PlayStation Network (PSN) games are still not supported with the exception of classic PlayStation One games.
For the time being, Remote Play is still very much a work in progress and we hope to see the feature support more games in the future so that it can potentially be a standout feature on the Vita.
When it comes to consoles, it's not all just about the hardware as it ultimately falls upon the quality of the games to sell a system.
Fortunately the Vita delivers on a diverse range of launch titles that includes casual games and the more hardcore, epic 40-hour adventure types.
There are a number of high quality first-party games such as Wipeout 2048, Uncharted: Golden Abyss and ModNation Racers: Road Trip.
Golden Abyss is without a doubt, one of our favourite games on the system (read more in our review here). Even though Golden Abyss isn't produced by Naughty Dog, the game accurately captures the look, feel and sense of adventure of an Uncharted game right down to the story.
Another highly acclaimed game for the Vita is Gravity Rush, which is about a girl who has the ability to alter gravity and it takes full advantage of the Vita's back panel and motion sensor controls.
The PlayStation Vita may be late to the portable game party, but it is a strong contender with solid hardware and a solid lineup of launch games.
The Vita is also easily one of the most ad-vanced portable gaming system in recent memory with its gorgeous 5in OLED, dual analogue stick controls plus front and rear touch controls.
It is quite a remarkable piece of hardware that is powerful enough to deliver near console quality graphics and smooth gameplay while you are on the go.
However, it has its share of misses - chief of which is the lack of internal memory that forces users to buy expensive proprietary memory cards. It is also handicapped by a mediocre camera and rather short battery life.
In summary, the Vita is designed for the hardcore gamer in mind, but is it a good buy? It is, if you can live with the system's shortcomings and love the great games it brings to the table.
Pros: Beautiful 5in OLED screens; nice controls; great graphics; ability to connect to PS3.
Cons: No internal storage; expensive proprietary memory card; weak pre-installed software; short battery life.
Handheld game console
Processor: ARM Cortex A9 processor (4 core)
Graphics Chip: SGX543MP4+
Memory: 512MB RAM, 128MB VRAM
Display: 5in OLED multi touch screen (960 x 544-pixels)
Camera: 0.3-megapixels (both front and rear cameras)
Connectivity: WiFi, Bluetooth 2.1, mobile network connectivity (on 3G version only)
Expansion slot: PS Vita memory card (4, 8, 16 or 32GB)
Other features: Six-axis motion sensing system, three-axis electronic compass, built-in stereo speakers and microphone, group messaging, PS Store (not enabled yet), web browser, Remote Play
Dimensions (W x D x H): 182 x 83.5 x 18.6mm
Rating: 4 stars
Review unit courtesy of Sony Computer Entertainment Hong Kong, asia.playstation.com.