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E3 2011 Hands on: Sony PlayStation Vita

I should start by framing this article with the understanding that I am not a big handheld gaming guy. I like and respect the devices, but in general I tend to enjoy spending my non-console gaming time doing other things–eading and listening to music for example–I just prefer the console experience. So while I was intrigued by the PlayStation Vita, it really didn’t get all that excited. After spending a bit of time with it, I am now firmly a believer, and I cannot wait to get my hands on the Vita full time.

The Vita’s release date is still unknown, but the hardware is ready to go for the most part. There may still be a few tweaks in the coming months, mostly with the software, but the Vita on display at E3 is almost certainly the same handheld unit that will soon be flying off of shelves later this year.

The Vita is ridiculously powerful for a handheld. In terms of processing power, the Nintendo 3DS is not even in the same discussion—but then again, the 3DS isn’t trying to be. Still, the Vita can play games that are nearly PS3 quality, which is slightly insane for a device that is slim and lightweight.

The design was well thought out, and the OLED screen—which is beautiful to look at—is large enough to display graphically intense games without losing much, but it isn’t so big that is awkward to hold. The Vita is too big to throw in a pocket, but it is small enough that taking with you shouldn’t be a problem. In fact the device is remarkable light and slim for the hardware it is packing. The rounded edges and the top buttons are well designed for the shape of a hand (or hands), and the back pad is easy to use—although the size of the pad takes some getting used to, and most gamers will hit it on accident before acclimating themselves with the plastic grips flanking the pad.

There will be a bit of a curve for people that owned a PSP or have a 3DS/DSi.  It is natural to rest your fingers on the back where the pad is. There are grooves on the sides to rest your fingers, which will make it easier, but it will take some time to get used to. It will also be interesting to see if that pad can withstand the average wear and tear that it will face when you put it in your bag, or in a big pocket, or wherever.

The analog sticks are responsive, but the location of the right stick may cause a few problems at first. It is just a matter of getting used to it though. Once you do, it moves well.

But that is all just a cosmetic assessment of the device. The real highlight comes with the games. There are only a handful at the moment, and although more than 80 games are said to be in development, right now the selection to test is limited. The potential is obvious though. The Vita is a six-axis controller with gyroscopic controls, which means that there is a new level to what a handheld device can be. Sure, it isn’t really anything we haven’t seen before with smartphones, but the Vita is far more responsive to physical movements than you might expect. In a golf game, moving the Vita around in a circle will give you a 360 degree angle of the fairway. In an action game, tilting the Vita up or down will change the view to give you more of an angle. It is hard not to be impressed.

The tourchscreen is responsive and offers a lot of gameplay potential, but that will come down to the ingenuity of the developers. The options are there though, and games like Uncharted: Golden Abyss have already begun to take advantage of the screen. In Uncharted, certain areas can be reached by touching them on the screen. It isn’t a groundbreaking addition, but it is new, and if a title at the launch of a new gaming system can create something new, you can bet that more games will find new ways to use that technology in the future.

But the thing that makes the Vita awesome, the thing that will convince people that the $249 price tag ($299 for the 3G version) is not only worth it, but is kind of a steal, is the games. To put it simply, they look amazing.

All of the Vita titles are still in development, but the worst looking games are still comparable with some of the best PS2 games, while the best look like early PS3 games. For those that follow gaming hardware, that is insane. The PS3 has always been considered to be an extremely powerful console, and to recreate that power in a slim, sleek handheld device boggles the mind.

There are still some giant questions to be answered though. The first is that with all that power, what kind of battery will the Vita have? The Nintendo 3DS can maybe last 5 hours on a good day, and the Vita blows the 3DS away in processing power. Would the Vita be worth it if the battery were just 3 hours? Then again, maybe it will use the best available technology and last 6 hours or more. That will have to be tested.

The wi-fi signal is also something that needs to be experimented with. The range could be incredible, but more likely, it could be very limited. The 3G strength also remains a question, and so does the durability of the back pad. There are still some big questions that the Vita needs to answer, and they will be addressed when the device is closer to market.

But no matter what the results–even if the Vita has some serious flaws–what there is, is enough to make it worth the money. Sony must be taking a loss on each unit sold, just as it did when the PS3 was released—there is simply no way to manufacture such a powerful handheld and sell it for $249 at launch and make a profit. That seems to signify that Sony has a lot of faith in the Vita. And it has every reason to.

The Vita has made me a believer, for the most part. There are still questions to answer and tests to complete, but there is no doubt that Sony’s new handheld is an incredible machine and one that could redefine handheld gaming.

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