Digital Experience! impressions: Sony PS Vita

One of the biggest press events held in the days immediately preceding the official CES kickoff is PEPCOM’s Digital Experience!. Before heading over to the event, I had heard that the long-awaited sequel to Sony’s previous mobile gaming platform, the PlayStation Portable, would be in attendance. Eagerly, I searched out Sony’s table in the maze of booths in hopes to get some hands-on time with the PS Vita. Thankfully there was an opening with the demo units they had available by the time I had sniffed out the table. I cracked my knuckles and dove right in.

The very first thing I noticed upon holding the Vita was its ergonomics. It felt completely natural to hold and all of the controls felt very much in reach. A common complaint with the PSP was the awful feel of its thumb stick, prompting many to default to its directional pad. Having tried it myself, I felt inclined to act the same. The Vita has certainly learned from this mistake: its thumb sticks feel incredibly responsive and are a general joy to use. The shoulder and face buttons feel much the same as it predecessor: very responsive and very well made. The biggest hardware change was its addition of touchscreens. That’s right, plural. The Vita sports a touch interface on its five inch OLED screen, as well as touch pad directly behind the screen. An odd choice to be sure; I was skeptical of its implementation myself. It wasn’t until I got into a game that incorporated it that I could appreciate its use.

The game I got to run through on the floor was called Escape Plan, made by the developer Fun Bits. The quirky puzzle/platformer made use of the touch screens almost exclusively. Rather than use the directional pad or the thumb sticks for movement, the protagonist is control by swiping a direction on the front facing touch screen. Interaction with the background is done via the rear touch pad, which directly corresponds to the area on the screen. My main concern was being able to accurately use the rear touch pad in conjunction with the elements on the screen. I turns out that I took to it much quicker than I thought; tapping away boxes and moving platforms from the rear touch pad ended up being pretty seamless.

The system’s OLED screen did not disappoint either. All the content in and out of the game appeared crisp and vibrant. Escape Plan monochrome art style showcased just how dark the blacks could get; a big plus given that mobile screens can easily slip into murky greys. The hub screen can be accessed by hitting the PS button found under the left thumb stick, which suspends whatever application you’re in, be it a game or otherwise. From the home screen a browser shortcut, a settings shortcut, and a few other games that were on the hard drive were selectable. I was told plenty more could be stored on it, as memory cards ranging from 4 to 32 GB are available to hold a score of games and other applications.

Overall I was rather impressed by the skinny little piece put at Sony’s booth. The company remained strong in its dedication to a game-centric mobile device despite the advent of bargain priced apps gearing the mobile gaming world towards smartphones and tablets. It’ll hit stores on February 22nd, retailing for $249 USD for the WiFi only unit and $299 USD for WiFi and 3G capabilities, provided by AT&T in the US and Vodafone in Europe. The 3G model also comes with applications that take advantage of the “always on” state of the machine, with additional apps to support it down the road.

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