Video Game Feature: Hands-On With the Sony PlayStation Vita

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CHICAGO – It feels like there’s a new must-have electronic toy every quarter. Do you have an iPad 2? iPhone 4S? Nintendo 3DS? Whatever that obnoxious SuperBowl commercial with The Darkness was shilling? It can get exhausting, especially if you don’t have the expendable income to get them all. So why should you buy a Sony PlayStation Vita?

Why get another toy if something else will simply replace it three months later? Having been lucky enough to get an exclusive, hands-on sneak preview of the Vita, I can tell you this — Sony has developed an incredibly impressive machine, one that will surprise you with its functionality and versatility. In many ways, it is the ultimate gaming toy, taking elements of handhelds that have worked before and merging them with the new socially-intertwined landscape.

PlayStation Vita
PlayStation Vita
Photo credit: Sony

First, let’s hit a few bullet points of unique functions of the Vita before detailing our hands-on experience with the games available for it:

The first thing one notices when picking up a Vita is that it is awfully familiar. The design is very similar to the Sony PSP. It’s a little bigger and features two analog sticks along with a back touch pad, but it is very clearly a relative of the Sony handheld that came before. But everything about it feels like an improvement on the PSP. It’s physically bigger but not as heavy. The screen is vibrant and large (five inches) for a handheld. The controls are well-mapped and responsive. It feels like the “right” size for a machine like this one and it was a smart decision to not stray too far from the model of what worked before for Sony.

Uncharted: Golden Abyss for the PS Vita
Uncharted: Golden Abyss for the PS Vita
Photo credit: Sony

In fact, the first major difference one will notice is in the interface. The traditional XMB is gone in favor of something that will look much more familiar to iPhone and iPad users. Icons like games, libraries, and social functions pop up on one screen and the user can swipe to move to another screen like an in-pause game. Most of the action outside of gaming (and sometimes even in, which we’ll get to) are touch screen-based. And its the integration of the touch screen, Sixaxis controls, and other bells and whistles to the basics of gaming that clearly has excited developers. All four of the games I demoed at this preview involved heavy touch screen usage. But is it a gimmick (like I would argue the Kinect and Nintendo 3D gaming turned out to be) or the next phase in gaming?

Before we get to the games, a few more interesting things to note about the Vita:

1. This is one of the coolest things I’ve heard in the history of gaming development. For some games, you’ll be able to merge your experience with your PS3 gaming world. In other words, you can play a game on your PS3, earn XP or unlock items, save your experience to the cloud, download it on your Vita, and go. The PSP was always rumored to be incredibly functional with the PS3 but it never quite lived up to that potential. The idea that a player could start a season in, for example, a sports game on the road and continue their schedule at home is truly a step forward in turning these machines into partners instead of merely parallel players.

Unit 13 for the PS Vita
Unit 13 for the PS Vita
Photo credit: Sony

2. There’s clearly a heavy emphasis on social networking and it’s more than just bragging about your high score on Facebook. There’s a feature called Near, in which you can interact with and see high scores of the people around you who have also turned on their Wi-fi or 3G capability (and, yes, you will have to pay a monthly fee to AT&T for 3G). Not only can you compete with friends in your neighborhood, some games will utilize this feature in unique ways. Let’s say I unlock a mission in a game. I can give it to someone on my Near network. The lovely Jennifer Hallett, Senior Software Specialist for Sony, who ran the presentation even ran a mind-blowing possible function by me — location-based exclusive content. Let’s say you’re in New York City and you turn on ModNation Racers. There could be an exclusive Empire State Building track for you to play. (Which makes one envision a world in which kids beg their parents to go on certain vacations just to get certain content). You’ll even be able to jack in with your BlueTooth and chat with other people on your Near network. The concept of a gaming network is clearly being conceived as a HUGE PART of the experience with a Vita, not just an Add-on.

3. The PSP was originally pitched as a do-it-all entertainment machine with buyers encouraged to buy UMD movies and listen to music on it as well. It feels like the Vita is going back to gaming as its priority. When asked if it will play movies and TV shows downloaded from the PSN library, the answer is yes, but it’s clearly more of an afterthought. You use this to game, social network, talk to your friends, and if you feel like watching an episode of “The Walking Dead” on it, you can do that too.

What about the games? Click to page two for details on what we were able to play including a rare opportunity with the upcoming Vita version of “Mortal Kombat.”

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