I'm not really the biggest champion of Sony's systems in general. I had a PSP once, but hardly played it, and generally only use my PS3 for exclusives. So it's fair to say I wasn't expecting to be impressed by Sony's new handheld system at E3. It didn't help that with all the tech packed in the system it would surely be ridiculously expensive, looking at the system it is clearly too big for any pocket.
Then Sony's press conference happened. The price, $250 for the wifi model, definitely caught many gamers' attention, and announcements like a new Bioshock title pretty much sealed the deal. But how does the thing actually play? Thankfully, immediately after the press conference Sony had a number of systems on hand ready to show off what the Vita can do. And it can do quite a lot.
As soon as I got into the roped off Vita demo area, I made a b-line for the only open kiosk I could see. As it turns out, that kiosk was for BlazBlue. While I love BlazBlue, this clearly wasn't the best game to show off the PlayStation Vita. Character movement was slow, animations were incomplete, and it just generally seemed like a demo thrown together at the last minute for the press conference. But I just wanted to get a feel for the system, and for that BlazBlue was more than adequate.
The PlayStation Vita is surprisingly light to hold. Not light in a flimsy breakable way, but for such a large handheld I was expecting it to weight me down a lot more. It's also quite comfortable to hold, thanks to the system's more curved design compared to its predecessor and concave grips on the back. Probably most shocking were the analog sticks, which are actually proper analog sticks this time around rather than the PSP's flat analog nub. The sticks worked great, though I do worry about the fact that they stick out from the system and could easily be prone to breaking if the Vita is bumping around inside backpack.
The next game I got to try was Wipeout 2048. This is a brand new Wipeout game for the PS Vita, and the only game I demoed where the developers would commit to saying it was a launch title instead of "launch window." Thought it is its own game with a whole new set of tracks, Wipeout 2048 will also be compatible with Wipeout HD on PS3, allowing for cross-platform races between PS3 and Vita. I tried one of these races using the Vita, and it felt great using the Vita analog stick to steer through the course. In fact, it might just be because of the smaller screen, but I thought the Wipeout HD track looked better on the Vita than on the PS3 running right next to it.
I next got to try one of the new Wipeout 2048 tracks using the Vita's tilt and touch screen controls. Touching the left side of the screen accelerated while the right side fired weapons. I can't say this worked nearly as well as the traditional button layout, but the developers assured me that there would be a lot of customization available in terms of tilt sensitivity for the final game. The track itself was fun to play though, with more shortcuts and alternate routes than are normally found in a Wipeout game.
I next moved on to Little Deviants. Little Deviants is split up into a series of minigames, each designed to showcase one of the Vita's features. I first tried an augmented reality game using the Vita's cameras where I had to physically move the system around to find and shoot alien invaders all around me. Think Face Raiders on the 3DS. While it seemed like it could be a fun game, the Vita was tethered to its demo kiosk by a short cord, making it very difficult to play.
I had a much better experience with a whack-a-mole minigame where I tapped on monsters using the touch screen as they popped out of various doors. Depending on which direction the monster was facing, I had to tap on the front touch screen or the back touch panel, and found the back panel surprisingly easy to use. I actually found myself preferring to use the back panel to touch, since then my finger wasn't obscuring part of the screen. Finally I tried a Marble Madness-type stage where I had to guide an adorable spherical creature to each level's exit by using the back touch panel. Touching on the back panel caused a hill to form on the level, almost as if I were reaching through the Vita and pushing up the level with my finger. It was a neat effect, but more difficult to control than I had hoped, especially if the creature got caught in a corner where there wasn't much ground around to create hills with.
Finally, my last demo was with Sound Shapes, created by Everyday Shooter developer Jonathan Mak. This was by far the best Vita game that I played. At first glance it looks like just a standard platformer. In addition to jumping, the blob I controlled automatically stuck to walls, or by holding the square button it would lose its stickiness but roll much faster along the ground. What made the game really stand out though was its music. Each level began in total silence. Then gradually, as blue icons scattered throughout the level were collected, new instruments and notes were added to the soundtrack. If I missed an icon, then I would never hear that note in the background music. When my blob took damage then the last note I collected would be removed. It was a fantastic effect, and made it so that each level's reward wasn't just making it safely to the exit, but surviving with the full soundtrack intact.
Sound Shapes also has a level editor mode that intuitively uses many of the Vita's features. Placing platforms and musical notes is as simple as tapping on the touch screen. You can choose which instruments you want notes to play, such as various drums, strings, woodwinds, and brass. Once platforms are placed, you can change their size by performing the familiar pinch-to-zoom action on the Vita's back panel, showing off the system's multitouch capability. In fact, you can just plop four or five fingers down on the front touch screen to place that many platforms at once if you so desire. At any time you can jump into your created level to test it, or return to the editing screen, which was an instant transition without any noticeable loading. Custom levels can be shared with friends, though it wasn't clear if level sharing will be through wirelessly connecting systems or by uploading levels to a memory stick and sharing online through a PC. It was clear from my short time with the game that Sound Shapes will likely have the same essential place in every PS Vita owner's collection that Lumines had on the PSP.
Unfortunately, I didn't get to play some of the bigger Vita names at the show like Little Big Planet and Uncharted, but I wanted to get a feel for what was new on the system. I also, to be quite honest, don't want a mini PS3 in my pocket. I've always loved handheld systems because developers seem more prone to take risks in handheld games when there isn't an inflated development budget to worry about. With the Vita's unique set of features, surprisingly accurate back touch panel, and courting unique games like Little Deviants and Sound Shapes, I have hope that the PS Vita will be able to offer that authentic handheld experience that I never fully felt from the PSP. The hardware is there to make the PS Vita a Swiss army knife of a handheld with every control method you could ask for. I'm excited for the hardware, now it's just a matter of waiting to see what new ideas developers can create with it.