There has never been a gaming system release that wasn’t accompanied by over-the-top fanfare hailing launch day as a quantum leap, a mind-blowing, paradigm-shifting event that will change games forever. Skepticism serves a gamer well in such times, acting as a protective shield against failures quickly abandoned by developers, and leaving you pleasantly surprised when new technology delivers on even half of its promises.
The PlayStation Vita arrived last week under some unique circumstances. Sony has, of course, said that launch day for the Vita will be one forever remembered in gaming history, an end to games as we know them. They’ve even promoted the launch of the Vita under the hash tag #gamechanger. At the same time, there’s confusion outside of the hardcore gaming realm—a curiosity somewhat dimmed by the absence of an all-out media assault on the topic and a release that arrives a few months late for the holiday season, when the general public does most of its game-buying. Ask casual gamers about the Vita, and many have dismissed it as a “thin” update to the PSP.
I can confidently tell you after spending some serious quality time with the Vita that it really is a game changer. An hour commute each way on the New York subway has melted into what feels like a few minutes. The Vita is so immersive, and the experience it delivers so much more complete than any handheld that’s come before it, that it is downright difficult to look away from.
Aside from offering a major upgrade over the PSP in terms of graphics and clarity, the Vita heralds in a new era of functionality with a fully responsive touch screen, rear touchpad, and six-axis motion sensoring. Certain games respond to all of these inputs, not to mention the dual analog sticks, and standard d-pad and button set, turning every inch of the unit into part of the controller. Uncharted Golden Abyss is essentially a commercial for everything the Vita is capable of. You can climb a rock face using the touch screen, ropes using the rear touchpad and lean into a jump or balance yourself on a log with the built-in motion sensors. It can all seem overwhelming at first, but after just a few hours with the unit, you’ll be looking at your old Dualshock controller like it belongs in a museum.
But the enhanced control is just one layer of what makes the Vita so unique. How this thing interacts with your PS3 via remote play is what really makes the game changer hash tag so appropriate. Want to start a game of MLB The Show on one system and finish on another? You can do that. Hate split screens but want to race a buddy in Wipeout from the comfort of your own private screen? You can do that, too. Want to remotely play a game saved on your PS3 hard drive? No problemo. How many gamers will actually take advantage of remote play remains to be seen, however; if you’re not on top of a Wi-Fi hotspot, then you’ll need the 3G version of the system, which runs for $300—50 bucks more than the standard Wi-Fi version. Access to 3G also requires a data plan through AT&T, which will cost an extra $15-$30 a month—a hefty price to pay considering it still won’t take the place of your cell phone. Even so, the enthusiastic thumbs I’m giving the Vita in spite of this drawback is well-founded. The Vita is still the single-best handheld system ever made, and well-worth the price of admission even if you did all your gaming in a cave, completely shut off from the Internet.
All that said, the Vita is a big investment and you should see it in action for yourself before deciding to buy. Try to get some hands-on time with it at a local retailer. You’ll likely be drooling and reaching for your wallet in minutes, happy to trade in your skepticism to become a Kool-Aid drinking fanboy. And man, oh man, does this Kool-Aid taste sweet.