Review: In-depth look at PlayStation Vita's portable gaming perfection

Special to The Globe and Mail

The PlayStation Vita is easily the most powerful handheld gaming device on the market, but are portable consoles still relevant? (Globe and Mail video)

I knew Sony’s PlayStation Vita ($250, releasing Wednesday) was the handheld game machine for me as soon as I laid eyes on its two analogue joysticks, a feature I’ve always dreamt of in a portable game platform. Its gorgeous graphics and bountiful firmware features only made me fall harder and faster. I’m downright smitten.

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But I fear my time with it will be all too short.

While the Vita is probably the best handheld game system ever made, it arrived late. Dedicated handheld game devices – especially those geared for older gamers – just don’t have much of a future in a world filled with phones and tablets that double as capable gaming machines. I worry that it will not gain the consumer traction it deserves.

But enough with my musings, let’s get geeky.

The Vita has an ARM Cortex A9 four-core processor as well as a discrete graphics chip. In terms everyone can understand, it’s lightning quick and can churn out graphics the likes of which we’ve never seen on a handheld device this size. We’re talking stunning real-time lighting and water effects, environments with exceptional detail and characters that look almost human. The visuals aren’t quite on par with those of, say, a PlayStation 3, but they look pretty fantastic viewed on the Vita’s five-inch, 960-by-544 pixel OLED display, which delivers crisp and vibrant images with super-deep blacks.

I’ll admit that I’m a little paranoid about scratching up this pretty screen, though. Past portable PlayStations have proven much too easy to scuff, and it looks like the Vita will walk a similar path. I ran a key along its one-piece plastic-y surface (not on the display itself, but to the side) and was dismayed to see it leave a thin, noticeable groove.

Indeed, without any glass or metal surfaces – it sports glossy silver and matte black plastic trim – I suspect the Vita will begin showing signs of wear sooner rather than later. Cases and screen protectors will be key for players who want to keep their machines in pristine shape. That said, most protective accessories will only be usable during transport and not while playing. So many parts and surfaces on the Vita are interactive that there’s little room to attach any sort of semi-permanent covering.

In addition to its satisfyingly responsive touch screen, users can interact with a five-inch a rear touch pad on the underside of the console that’s just as sensitive as the front display. It’s a novel form of interface, but developers seem to be coming up with good ways to make use of it. Hot Shots Golf: World Invitational, for example, allows players to determine yardage and elevation anywhere on a hole simply by touching the desired location on the back of the screen. Little Deviants, meanwhile, has a mini-game in which players make like they’re pushing through the screen from behind (imagine a finger poking up under a table cloth) to create a roaming bump that pushes a ball around a field.

Other user inputs include a pair of long and comfortable shoulder buttons rounded to fit the curvature of the player’s index fingers, standard d-pad and action buttons on either side of the screen, front and rear cameras (suitable for camera-enabled games, but too low-quality for most other purposes), and a six-axis motion sensing system which, in the games I tested, proved precise and reliable.

Then there are those long-anticipated, all-important dual analogue control sticks. They stand as the primary reason why the Vita will appeal to serious gamers. With a joystick under each thumb you can almost forget you’re playing games on a handheld system. They’re a smidge spongy – which is to say looser than the sticks on most traditional gamepads – but I got used to the extra give in just a couple of hours.

Why are they so important? Twin sticks give players the ability to move a character and freely operate a camera at the same time. This is something that hardcore gamers have long craved in a portable system. The Vita is the first to offer it without relying on a bulky accessory or awkward virtual controls on a touch screen. They open the door to all sorts of experiences that just haven’t worked well on a handheld device up until now, from first-person shooters like Call of Duty to third-person actioners like Grand Theft Auto. Uncharted: Golden Abyss, the system’s flagship launch game, does a great job demonstrating how Vita’s dual analogue sticks can make traditional action gaming on a portable system a ton of fun.

Moving on, a pair of stereo speakers beside the thumbsticks provide adequate sound, though audiophiles will be better served using headphones. Below the left speaker is a large glowing PlayStation button that pauses applications and returns users to the desktop. Below the right speaker lie Sony’s customary Start and Select buttons.

The top edge is lined with power and volume buttons, plus hatches for game cards and accessories. Unfortunately, these hatches are finicky. I needed to use a thin-bladed knife to open them the first time. It’s become easier with repetition, but I still need to claw at their tiny cracks to find purchase and pry.

The bottom of the Vita is host to a power port, headset jack, and a memory card slot that takes only Vita-branded memory sticks. Since the four-gigabyte card included in the box holds only about two full-size downloadable titles, anyone who plans on grabbing games through Sony’s online store rather than buying them in physical format can count on shelling out for more capacious cards, which are priced outrageously. The 32-gigabyte edition goes for a whopping $100. My advice: Buy games retail.

Another suggestion: Don’t stray too far from a power outlet. The Vita’s big, beautiful screen and powerful processors suck up a lot of juice. I managed a little under three hours of steady game time under extreme play conditions (brightness and volume maxed) before needing to top up. The good news is that a dead Vita battery fills quickly – less than an hour. Still, that won’t be much consolation when your machine dies midway through a cross-continent flight (perhaps much sooner if you were using it in the airport lounge pre-boarding).

But these problems are peripheral to the gaming experience. The Vita hardware wows in all of the most important ways. This won’t come as much of a shock to prospective buyers, who have studied the device’s specs since it was revealed last year. But what they might come as a bit of a surprise is the level of polish afforded the system’s firmware.

Each time you turn on the Vita you pull down a dog-eared page corner to bring it out of sleep mode. If you’re not returning to a paused game or app you’ll land on a well-designed desktop pocked with circular launch buttons that can be shuffled around to suit your preference, 10 per page.

Navigation is responsive, intuitive, and fun. Swipe up and down to surf through home screens, swipe to the right to hop through open and recently accessed apps. These screens provide multiple options beyond just jumping back into the action, including online help, user manuals, downloadable content, and social features.

The first app most folks will try is Welcome Park. It’s a collection of simple tech demos designed to acquaint users with the hardware. It serves its purpose, but doesn’t offer much replay value save to those who want to earn all of the trophies it offers to impress their PlayStation friends.

On the subject of friends, it’s easy to find and keep tabs on them using another app, Near. This location-based service lets users locate nearby Vitas (both friends’ and strangers’), connect with them, join their sessions, and swap game content. I encountered few other Vita users during my pre-launch evaluation, but Near seems like a smart little app, and a good alternative to Nintendo’s StreetPass on 3DS.

Other social apps that come pre-installed include Party – a service that facilitates voice and text chat with friends – as well as Group Messaging, which lets players communicate with groups of people and potentially organize play sessions.

One of the most curious initial apps is Remote Play, which allows users to wirelessly connect with and access content residing on a PlayStation 3. It’s simple to set up – just enter a code on your Vita – but its utility seems limited, at least for the time being. I was only able to get one game residing on my PlayStation 3 to work; a downloaded copy of Final Fantasy VIII. Still, it’s a novel way to go from playing on your couch to playing in your bed. You can even connect to your PlayStation 3 when travelling, assuming you left the console switched on and can find a hotspot (or splurged for the Vita 3G edition, which sells for $50 more). Hopefully Sony will increase content support.

Other onboard apps include music and video players, a simple web browser, and a basic navigation app powered by Google Maps. More apps are slated to be available at or shortly after launch, including Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Skype, and Netflix.

Clearly, I’m besotted. A few quibbles aside (the proprietary memory card and weak battery are particularly irksome), the Vita is pretty much the handheld game platform this hardcore gamer has always wanted.

But I’m also pretty sure that I’m a member of a dying breed: Those willing to pay for and lug around a high-end device the primary purpose of which is gaming. It seems to me that in a world in which everyone has a smartphone and/or tablet and can buy decent mobile games for a couple of loonies, the number of discerning game lovers willing to endure the cost of a portable game experience of a higher caliber is dwindling.

I want to be wrong. I hope the Vita beats the odds and goes on to live a long, fruitful life, and that together we can make many happy memories solving puzzles and perforating Nazis.

But I’m a realist. I’m going to make the most of each day I have and each game I play with my Vita, but prepare myself for the time when it comes to an end.

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