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Playstation Vita Hands-On Preview | Livin' La Vita Loca

Matt Gardner
E3 2011, Games consoles, NGP, Playstation Vita, Portable gaming, PS Vita, Sony

Playstation Vita Hands-On Preview | Livin' La Vita Loca

Standing in the labyrinthine line, standing in amongst fellow sweaty journalists, hopping from one foot to the other to avoid conference cramp, I allowed myself a brief glance across to the massive stage where Kaz Hirai had last bid us a farewell thank you and goodnight, to see Jane's Addiction rocking out the Los Angeles Memorial Center. I almost sighed.

But then half an hour later I had the freshly named PS Vita in my hands, and all was right with the world. This after all was what we were really all here to see...

...and what we saw, brief though it was, excited me.

Hirai had spoken earlier of Sony's commitment to the concept of the Playstation Portable - a home console experience in the palm of your hand, allowing for a powerfully engaging gaming feast wherever the player so chose. We'd seen pictures of the Device-Formerly-Known-As-The-NGP, we'd pored over tech breakdowns, amazed at the thought that something boasting so much could be so diminuitive, we'd wondered if Sony could even pull it off.

Playstation Vita Hands-On Preview | Livin' La Vita Loca

Stood there with the portable console in my hands, one thing went through my mind: I'd better start budgeting.

The device itself is lighter than you might expect, considering all of the tech that is stuffed inside. But light doesn't mean poor build quality. It felt solid in my rather oafish hands and, dare I say it, robust. Whereas my 3DS frankly feels a little like the lid is going to just fall off at times, in sharp contrast to the fabulous DSi, and the original PSP's analogue nub left much to be desired, everything about the Vita shrieks quality. That said, these were clearly all test models, possibly without the battery, which will no doubt add a bit of extra weight. We did enquire about battery life, but no one would look us in the eye long enough to give us a straight answer.

The 5 inch OLED screen is a joy to behold, the colours sharp, the resolution very satisfying, and the graphics a nice step up from the best the PSP has to offer and what we've seen of the 3DS. Uncharted looked pretty good, it has to be said, the Vita given a good opportunity to show off a triple-A title, which it took well. Drake's animations were smooth and fluid, his face peppered with detailed stubble, and the jungle backdrops looked lush and inviting. But it was really LittleBigPlanet that properly showcased the Vita's step up, providing a direct comparison to the PSP version and trouncing it soundly. Far smoother than its predecessor, LBP might well have found itself a new home - something Jon will expand upon in his preview later.

Playstation Vita Hands-On Preview | Livin' La Vita Loca

I must admit, I didn't find myself wowed too much by the Vita's graphics in terms of the games on offer, although it's early days, at least not in the same way that I was when the PSP first showed its head. Part of that is no doubt Apple's fault. The OLED screen is nice, but Retina-nice? The answer is no. The Vita has some ground to make up on the mobile front and, with word coming out of WWDC that over 60% of iPad sales are now reportedly driven primarily by gaming, it's important to note that Nintendo is not Sony's only competitor in the field.

Of course, the Vita can boast something the iPad can't: dual analogue sticks. Feeling far more like mini-Dual Shock sticks rather than the woeful PSP's little nub, and even better than the 3DS' lovely circle pad, they'll be an instant hit with gamers. They just feel right, and the ergonomics sit well. With fingers prepped against the triggers, thumbs hovering over the analogue sticks, the Vita nestles into the hands very nicely indeed – even I did sometimes get a little confused and mistook the right analogue stick for the X-button on occasion.

One thing worthy of note, and it was somewhat offputting, the face buttons have been scaled down. Whereas the PSP had full-szed buttons, the slightly sleeker Vita has had to shrink them a bit of allow for the second analogue stick. It wasn't too much of an issue, too be honest, and none of the games on show really required rapid, precise inputting that might exacerbate the issue, but it could be a little jarring for some at first. The 'Start' and 'Select' buttons are tiny and tucked away right down in the bottom right, and I actually had to stop what I was doing and hunt for them, which wasn't ideal.

Playstation Vita Hands-On Preview | Livin' La Vita Loca

Not to be outdone by Nintendo or Apple, the Vita boasts touch input on the front screen as well as a rear track pad. The former works much as you might expect, offering all sorts of possibilities for pressing and tapping and gliding and swiping as Jon will note in his later preview for Little Deviants, operating as it does as a showcase for the Vita's technical gimmickry. The touchscreen can be used to vary shots in Virtua Tennis, move Nathan Drake up, down and around perilous cliff faces, but by far its best uses on display were to be found incorporated smoothly into core mechanics found at the heart of LittleBigPlanet's whimsical levels – whether it be launching rubber band catapults by drawing back and letting go or spinning cogs and gears with one finger as you guide Sackboy across with the left stick.

The rear trackpad, however, I found to be a little odd at first, and it'll certainly take a little bit of getting used to, particularly with unseen aiming. Deforming terrain from the rear in Little Deviants was a little strange, particularly when it seemed to make much more sense to be using the front touchscreen for that. The tech itself worked fine, but the difficulty of knowing exactly where your finger is on the back – although those games that did incorporate it tries to make things easier with an aiming reticule – makes the reverse input a little awkward. Add to that a tendency to rest the hands a little further across the back of the console than maybe I should and there are soon little accidental double-tap issues when you don't realise you're slightly touching the back.

We didn't get to see much use made of the two cameras – aside from Hirai saying he was excited about them the most, and Little Deviants offering up a robot-slaying take on augmented reality that looked somewhat like Face Raiders – and nor were we able to see how Playstation Suite will play out on the new platform, but we'll be doing some digging to uncover more facts and you'll here about them when we know more.

Playstation Vita Hands-On Preview | Livin' La Vita Loca

Back trackpad: innovative or superfluous?

A little note on the software, although we'll be touching on them individually, it was interesting to see Sony adopt an attitude completely at odds with Nintendo's for the 3DS. Whereas the 3DS launched without Nintendo's first party staples, Sony are clearly looking to hit the ground running with a launch line-up that's stuffed with in-house talent.

Finally, pricing. Sony have said that there'll be two Vita options – one with just Wifi, and one with additional 3G capabilities. The former will launch at $249, with the latter costing $299 in the States but, and here's a bit of a kick in the teeth for us Europeans, it'll cost 299 Euros this side of the pond. It's a pretty good price for the tech involved, but at least some acknowledgement of the exchange rate might have been a little nice. Satoru Iwata previously noted that Nintendo drove the price of the 3DS up after the overwhelmingly positive response it got at E3 before release...so let's keep it quiet on the Vita-front. Unless you want Kaz Hirai making you hand over half a grand come Christmas.

That said, if things keep shaping up this promisingly, I probably would.

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