The handheld game's market is now very different from the one that Sony launched the PSP into, back in 2005. First Nintendo pulled off an unlikely triumph by prioritising innovative gameplay over graphics performance, with the DS - pulling in a whole new audience along the way. Then along came the smartphones, dishing out fantastic nuggets of bite-sized gaming, and increasingly more sophisticated, console-style games as well. What's worse, is that tablets are in some ways making the whole idea of a handheld game's console seem pointless. They have bigger screens, ample processing power and a whole range of other functions. Why pack a PlayStation Vita, when you can pack an iPad 2?
The answer, says the PlayStation Vita, is that if you want a handheld game's machine, then there are some ways in which only a dedicated device is fit for the job. Some of Vita's advantages are only temporary, but when you put them all together, they make the most powerful and exciting mobile gaming platform that we've seen in years.
The Visual Edge
Let's start with Vita's beautiful 5 inch OLED screen. This gives you a bigger and more immersive gaming experience, than you'll get on any smartphone - and in a form you can still fit into a good-sized pocket. This is coupled with a resolution of 960 x 544, which is equipped to give you visuals that approach HD console quality, with the kind of clarity and depth of colour that only the very best smartphone screens can match. The Vita has a superb screen for playing games and is just as good for watching movies.Of course, there's no point having a great screen if you don't have anything worth showing on it.
It's quad-core ARM Cortex A processor, with matching Imagine Tech SGX543MP4+ GPU, allows the PlayStation Vita to be, currently, the most powerful handheld gaming system on the market. None of the launch titles quite match PlayStation 3 games on eye candy, but the gap is a lot narrower than you might expect. Load up Uncharted: The Golden Abyss, Rayman Origins or Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3 and you'll find yourself playing a game that looks nearly as good as its recent Xbox 360 or PS3 relations. This is something that even the 3DS, Asus Transformer Prime or iPad 2 can't boast - as impressive as Shadowgun, Real Racing 2 or Infinity Blade 2, might be.
Of course, tablets and smartphones will evolve, so PlayStation Vita won't keep this performance advantage for long. Where Vita really makes its mark is when it comes to the controls. Let's face facts: whatever you can do with a touchscreen or tilt sensors, doesn't beat analogue sticks and good, old-fashioned buttons when it comes to play action games or FPS games. The Vita boasts dual analogue sticks, face buttons and shoulder buttons, where the device can mimic the control setup of the PS3 very well indeed. To be perfectly honest, the analogue sticks don't seem quite as solid or sensitive as those on the standard PS3 controllers, but that might be as much down to their shrunken size, as anything else. They still feel miles better than the old analogue nub on the PSP, or the single stick on the 3DS for that matter. This allows you to go straight from a blockbuster action game on a PS3, to a blockbuster action game on the Vita, without making too many adjustments.
However, Sony hasn't stopped there. Vita has a responsive six-axis tilt control, an accurate and sensitive front touchscreen and a touch-sensitive panel on the rear as well - all of which open up opportunities, for less traditional types of game. We're already seeing some imaginative applications, with prodding, pinching and pulling gestures in Little Deviants, plus some interesting uses in Uncharted: The Golden Abyss. This is where you can tap areas of the scenery to make your hero, Nathan Drake, climb up them, then swipe the screen to slash away at jungle vegetation, or touch icons to pick up guns or grab an unsuspecting enemy. Judging by Wipeout 2048, we can also expect tilt controls to be a standard option for racing games, even if we prefer the analogue sticks ourselves.
Vita has two built-in cameras, one front and one back. With a 0.3 megapixel resolution, the quality is limited, to say the least, but it's clear that while you can take pictures or shoot video, you're better off doing so with something else. Instead, the cameras are more about augmented reality gaming, with titles like Reality Fighters, Little Deviants or the graffiti game, T@g, which mix real-world images and Vita graphics for amusing effect. It's fun to recreate you and your friends, as virtual fighters, and watch them scrap it out on the coffee table. This is just another example of how Sony seems to be thinking a little more outside the box with the PlayStation Vita.
With Vita, Sony has ditched its traditional XMB interface for something more touch-specific: a series of screens with round icons to open games and other applications, plus weird post-it note style windows that you can close, by peeling them from the screen. It takes a little getting used to, but soon it all makes sense.
Vita has a good range of built-in apps, including a useful one - Welcome Park - that takes you through the handheld and its new features. Movie and music playback apps work well, while a PSN Store app (or SEN Store as it will be known from now on) makes it easy to find and download new apps, games and videos. There's a full Internet browser on board, though one that won't work with Flash and can feel a bit slow. Most interestingly, Sony has some community-focused apps, designed to make it easier to hook up and play with friends, or just find out what other Vita owners are playing nearby and what they are thinking. We expect most people will opt for the cheaper WiFi only version of Vita, but those who plump for the more expensive (£259) 3G version will get even more from these features.
Some Vita software is expensive. The more we get used to paying £4.99 for a big name game on the iPad, the more paying nearly £40 for Uncharted: The Golden Abyss, seems a bit much. However, you have to remember that these are proper, full-scale console games. Sony and the third-party publishers, are releasing smaller, smartphone-style games at comparable price points, through the PSN Store. In a way, you're getting the best of both worlds.
We love Vita, but it's not quite perfect. Sony has gone for a proprietary connector, rather than a standard mini or micro USB port for charging and data transfer - and the cable won't work with most third-party USB or smartphone chargers. More annoyingly, Vita also uses a non-standard memory card format for storing downloaded games and saved games. If you purchase games from the PSN Store rather than in cartridge format, you'll get through these storage cards fairly quickly. At approximately £28 for an 8GB card or nearly £40 for 16GB, these aren't exactly cheap. We'd also like to see more video file formats supported, where the Vita will play standard MP4 files, but that's about it.
More seriously, battery life isn't great. Play Uncharted or Wipeout 2048 and you'll be lucky to reach the four hour mark before the warning message flashes, which might cause frustration if you're on a long trip or away for the weekend without a charger.
If you don't consider yourself a gamer, then the PlayStation Vita isn't going to change your world. Buy a tablet or a smartphone and you'll get ample gaming goodness and a device you can use for other things. If you are a gamer, however, the Vita is just about the best it gets. The more you get used to playing true console-quality games on a handheld device, with all the convenience of not having to find a free TV, or being able to switch on and play for a few minutes and then switch off, the harder it is to give up. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and we've found the best Vita launch titles - such as Uncharted, Wipeout 2048 and Rayman Origins. These are just as immersive and enjoyable as their PS3 counterparts. If Sony can maintain that kind of quality, and get other publishers to do the same, then Vita should have a very bright future indeed.
Pros: Excellent screen; phenomenal graphics; great mix of familiar and new controls.
Cons: Expensive memory cards; battery life.