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Sony's PlayStation Vita: (Pricey) gaming nirvana

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PLAYSTATION VITA
Sony Computer Entertainment Inc.

I’ve never been much of a handheld gamer. The only handheld system I ever owned was the ill-fated Sega Nomad, and heck if I know the whereabouts of that Christmas present now. So it was with my arms crossed that I approached the PlayStation Vita, Sony’s new high-def gaming device that was released on Wednesday. I was suspicious about whether a handheld gaming system even made sense these days: Would the PS Vita be able to scratch an itch that wasn’t already covered by my iPhone on the go and my PlayStation 3 at home? Turns out, to my surprise, that the answer was yes.

I’ve been playing with the Vita for the past week, and I admit that no definitive opinion of a gaming system should be based on only one week’s worth of use. That’s especially true for the Vita, which resembles a college freshman who’s yet to declare a major. The Vita isn’t quite sure what it wants to be. Is it a serious gaming machine for only the most hardcore of gamers? Is it an Internet-connected multimedia device that’s meant to distract you from your smartphone? Should you use it to play games, or listen to music, or watch movies, or browse the web, or take photos? It does all of these things, but it currently excels at just one of them, and that’s games.

Games look incredible on the Vita. That’s a compliment to the system’s processing prowess and to its gorgeous 5-inch OLED touchscreen. Unlike the Nintendo 3DS and many smartphones, the Vita’s screen boasts excellent viewing angles. And the colors simply pop off the display. The two games I’ve been playing the most frequently are Uncharted: Golden Abyss and Rayman Origins, and on a number of occasions, I’ve stopped my character from moving around simply so I could take a moment to absorb the stunning visuals. For instance, early in Uncharted you’ll come across a vista of a Central American valley with a glistening river, the sun setting behind some mountains, and birds flapping away in the distance. I dare you not to take out your in-game camera and snap a few photos.

In addition to its near-PS3-quality visuals, the Vita is also attractive to serious gamers because of its controls. The system includes two (two!) analog sticks. While the sticks are smaller than those for the PS3 and can be a little imprecise at times, they’re a godsend for anyone who wants to play a first-person shooter — or any action title, really. There’s also a D-pad for fighting and puzzle games, the four standard PlayStation buttons, two shoulder buttons, and the touchscreen itself, which is responsive and a pleasure to use despite the fact that it collects more fingerprints than a police station. The only misstep is the rear touchpad — its implementation in games like Uncharted and Little Deviants is awkward and gimmicky. Some developer may discover an ingenious application for the touchpad, but that hasn’t happened yet.

Of course, all this impressive hardware would be a moot point without quality software, and the Vita’s slate of 26 launch-day games is, for the most part, very commendable. There’s no flat-out masterpiece (at least not that I’ve come across yet), but Uncharted, Rayman Origins, and WipEout 2048 all deserve your attention, and Super Stardust Delta is a steal at $10. The Vita’s longevity will ultimately rest on whether Sony and third-party publishers can deliver a compelling (and consistent) stream of games, especially Vita-exclusive titles.

Yes, I know, the Vita does more than just gaming, but I wouldn’t recommend it for much else. Movies look slick, as expected, but transferring your digital content is more cumbersome than it should be. The Vita uses proprietary memory cards, so you can’t just insert an existing SD card. Instead, the device connects to your computer via a USB cable, and you must use Sony’s Content Manager software. Then there’s the web browser, which doesn’t support Flash at the moment and annoyingly becomes a blank screen every time you scroll up or down. And the front and rear cameras suffice for augmented-reality purposes, but the photos they take aren’t even clear enough for Facebook.

However, the biggest thing the Vita has going against it as a mobile multimedia device is that you already own one of those — your smartphone. You’re still going to take your phone everywhere you go, which is not the case with the barely pocketable Vita. So while it would be nice if the Vita had an efficient Web browser or sharper cameras, those features were never something we really required from the Vita anyway.

Instead, I wish Sony went in the opposite direction, paring the Vita down to a dedicated gaming handheld and nothing more. The system costs $249 for the Wi-fi model and $299 for the 3G/Wi-fi version, and it requires a memory card, which ranges from $20 for 4 GB to $100 for 32 GB. Furthermore, Vita games sell for as much as $50. There’s no reason why the Vita edition of Rayman Origins should cost $40 when you can buy it for the Xbox 360 or PS3 for only $30.

In short, the Vita costs a lot of dough for a device that gives you around four hours of gaming time on a single charge. By comparison, the Nintendo 3DS currently goes for $169. I wish Sony had found a way to push the Vita down to $199. If that meant getting rid of the rear touchpad and dual cameras, I’d be okay with that. Sure, the cost will eventually come down, but as it stands right now, the Vita is priced just slightly out of reach for what should be its target audience: casual gamers.

Hardcore gamers will have no issue with paying upward of $300 for the latest and greatest handheld system. And the non-gamers — the ones who are content with Angry Birds and Temple Run — were never going to embrace the Vita anyway. But casual gamers, like myself, are on the fence. We’d appreciate having the equivalent of a console-gaming experience while flying across the country, or commuting on the subway, or lying in bed. But are we so starved for that experience that we’d pay more than the price of a PlayStation 3 for it?

I guess we’ll find out. For now, all I can tell you is that on my next flight, my iPhone is going to get crazy jealous.

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