updated 12:20 am EDT, Thu June 9, 2011
We try PSVita for ourselves
We received a precious chance to try the PlayStation Vita for ourselves at E3 on Wednesday. While Sony wasn't allowing photos or videos inside the booth, we can relate our experiences and give an early verdict on how it'll fare. Read on for the full details, but suffice it to say we came out impressed -- and feeling that Apple may have some much stiffer competition in mobile gaming.
Sony's demo experience on the show floor was what could be considered a whirlwind tour: each person was rotated through a roughly four-minute session with about five games, each designed to give a feel for the experience. We tried LittleBigPlanet, Uncharted: Golden Abyss, Virtua Tennis, SoundShapes, and Little Deviants, many of which have been seen in Sony's official video reels but were difficult to try at E3 unless you were patient or scored a place in Sony's keynote.
All of them were fun in their own ways. SoundShapes triggers beats as you collect items and move around the world by sticking to virtually any safe surface, creating an odd synesthesia between music and a platform-like game. Little Deviants is full of mini-games that take very good advantage of the gyroscope, such as an augmented reality gallery shooter (not unlike Face Raiders on the Nintendo 3DS) or a drop game that sees you guide a deviant as he falls through a tunnel, grabbing stars on the way and smothering a bomb before it goes off. And Virtua Tennis can use touchscreen swipes for strokes instead of the analog sticks, which definitely gave some added precision over the intended shot.
The highlights were the two that were the closest to traditional console games: LittleBigPlanet and Uncharted. LBP has always been very whimsical and hands-on, but it's much more involving on the PSVita simply because of the touch inputs. Whether it was spinning a wheel on the screen to fling Sackboy around a bend, tilting to bring over a conveyor, or using the back touchpad to push out platforms to cross (conveniently spelling out "back touch"), it was engaging. We suspect MediaMolecule will dial back the sheer frequency of these in the final game since it could get a bit gimmicky, but that was really the only complaint in a game already known to be good.
Uncharted has been one of the most frequently shown PSVita games, but it's still a blast. The concept of letting the player control it however they like works well and simplifies things that normally took a lot of button presses. We most liked the ability to "paint the edges" and climb across multiple ledges in one swipe, and having a melee button on screen makes it easier both to know when melee is an option as well as to reach for the right control if a fistfight comes without warning. If anything, it felt almost too easy, although combat quickly checked that. The Naughty Dog game plays virtually as well as the PS3 version, and that's no mean feat; our only gripe was an inverted right analog stick setting.
Among all the games, the common thread was an outstanding visual presentation. You could likely spot differences, but in many ways it really is like looking at a PS3 game on a smaller screen. That screen itself is gorgeous, too. It's difficult to convey in a photo, but the five-inch, 960x544 OLED screen is very sharp and very vibrant. We could easily see some gamers using the PSVita in place of a TV console because it's comfortable enough to use from a distance.
Our chief concern is the back touchpad. Sony designed it to be a one-for-one map of the screen in front; it's more accurate, but we found ourselves unintentionally touching it to get a more secure grip. You can train yourself to grab just the handles on either edge, but that's not what it's meant for. Some details are still unknowns, too: we didn't get to try the web browser, media playback, or the Near location playback service.
We need to see a full launch game lineup and real-world battery life to make a final verdict, but we're genuinely excited. Both Nintendo and Sony have in the past tried to make claims to bringing TV console-quality gaming to mobile; the PSVita is the one that actually seems to do it. At $250 for the Wi-Fi version, it's a more interesting prospect to us than the 3DS with a much more noticeable leap in performance and more control. It's definitely competitive with the iPod touch.
Should Apple be alarmed? To at least a slight degree, yes. An iPhone or even an iPod touch will still handle multi-role jobs better through Apple's experience in interface and the smaller size. But for people who want a 'deep' gaming companion or teens who can only choose between an iPod or the PSVita, it could well be the top pick.