Hands-on with Sony's PlayStation Vita

Sony's new portable PlayStation Vita game system offers unique and new features for a mobile game console that will take some getting used to. But once you get acquainted with the PlayStation Vita unique hardware and play games optimized for the console the game play is awesome.

Announced at Sony's E3 press conference on Tuesday, the successor to the PlayStation Portable looked promising -- a lush display, potent hardware, and a $250 price tag cemented its place as serious potential competition in the portable gaming space.

During our tour of Sony's booth on Wednesday we made a beeline for the new console. It's an impressive piece of hardware, but better still was getting some time to sample software optimized for Vita's advanced features.

Game Specs

The PlayStation Vita is a bit larger than expected -- which is great for our large, oafish hands. Taller than the PlayStation Portable it's replacing, the Vita is packing a 5-inch OLED screen, serving up bright, gorgeous color. That said, we were standing in the well lit Sony booth, so there's no telling how well it'd stand up to sunlight. The Vita is surprisingly light, in spite of its size. But it still feels solid, and sturdy -- a drop test was out of the question but this thing feels like it could take a beating.

On to the features: there's a gyroscope, a microphone, an accelerometer, a pair of cameras, two analog thumbsticks, a touchscreen, and a touch pad on the rear. The games we sampled took advantage of pretty much everything the Vita has to offer, with great results.

Game Play

The LittleBigPlanet demo showcased all that the Vita has to offer. In one scene, we climbed a tower of blocks by poking them in and out of the background, using the pair of touch surfaces. It was a bit disorienting at first -- holding the device, and tapping its rear end to interact with objects on the screen. But the rear touchpad is a novel idea -- handy for playing touch-enabled games, as you don't have to deal with your hands blocking all of the action.

Whether it works or not will largely be up to the developers. In LittleBigPlanet, only one finger could be placed on the touchpad at a time. Tap the rear touchpad, and a fingerprint shows up on the screen to help with hand eye coordination. This turned out to be a little problematic when we were first working out how to hold the machine -- our fingers would slip onto the rear touchpad and rest there, essentially locking up that portion until we remembered to move it.

Cool Features

But that issue was exclusive to LittleBigPlanet -- the rear touchpad offers full multi-touch support, and playing the futuristic racer Wipeout 2048 with touch controls worked smoothly, regardless of where our fingers ended up, or how many hit the pad at a time.

The hardware is also really responsive: we wouldn't recommend ever playing Wipeout with motion controls (on the Vita or the PS3), but the accelerometer captured slight nudges and frantic flailing flawlessly, and both touch surfaces registered our taps immediately -- very important in a game this fast-paced.

Multi-Player Mode

We were also given a taste of the Vita's Crossplay functionality. As one of us played WipeOut 2048 on a pair of Vita units we weren't racing alone. Also competing was one of the game's developers, who was playing with us on a PlayStation 3 console on the same wireless network. Being in the controlled booth environment meant being blessed with a strong wireless connection, but as it stands the experience was fun, and flawless. There's no word just yet on other titles that will offer Crossplay functionality, but WipeOut 2048 races will support up to 8 people, whether they're online with their PS3s, gathered around the couch on with their Vitas, or some mix of the two.

All told, we liked what we saw. But it's hard to get an objective look at the device amidst the neon strobes and blood-thumping bass lines that saturate the E3 show floor. For the same reason we didn't even bother trying to objectively evaluate the audio quality of the Vita; further analysis of the PlayStation Vita device will have to wait until we get a review unit back to the (relative) peace and quiet of the office.

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