PS Vita PS Vita

Sony has taken a lot of shots to the chin lately with all of the various criticisms and speculations about the PlayStation Vita.

It’s an Angry Birds world now, some say, and portable gaming is all about cheap apps for cellphones or tablets, not bulky gaming-heavy handheld systems. Even the name of the system is a bit silly, sounding more like a tiny fuel-efficient car than video game hardware.

But the consumer electronic giant’s response has been straightforward -- just play the damn thing.

So, that’s what we did. Sony took the Vita on the road – opening pop-up stores in eight cities across the U.S. for an exclusive Vita showcase, dubbed the “Vita Hill Social Club.” They invited us out to get plenty of hands-on time with this sleek new device and some launch titles that will hit shelves February 22.

Everything but the Kitchen Sink

Considering it’s more decked out than most luxury cars --It’s hard to know where to begin when mentioning all of the features of the PS Vita.

Vita brags a five-inch OLED touchscreen capable of displaying 16 million colors and vibrant images on par with the best of anything smartphones like Apple’s iPhone 4S have to offer. There’s also a similarly sized touch panel on the back of the device that’s already been utilized in unique and creative ways in games like “Little Deviants” where one mini-game involves you creating hills with the rear touchpad in order to roll around a ball-like character around a map. There’s also front and back-mounted cameras and a built-in microphone and speakers.

Sony included a six-axis motion sensor for tilt and steering functions that we used when balancing Nathan Drake on a precarious beam of wood during “Uncharted: Golden Abyss.” There’s also built-in GPS – which Sony says will also be used in games and social functions like leaderboards that are localized based on who is physically near your location.

Vita also has a lot in common with an iPod Touch in that you can use it as a web browser, music player, and a place where you can download a bunch of apps – including Netflix, Facebook, Twitter and Skype.

Like a Mini-PS3

The Vita’s predecessor was called the PSP or PlayStation Portable – but it’s Sony’s new handheld which feels literally like a shrunken down PlayStation 3. When you hold it in your hands, it almost feels like a PlayStation controller with a screen built in. Unlike the PSP and the 3DS there are two mounted joysticks (Nintendo realized it’s mistake in only having one stick -- finally releasing its awkwardly mounted second Circle Pad accessory this month).

The Vita also syncs up with your PlayStation network account so that you can create parties and talk and play with your friends as well as check out all your trophies.

If that wasn’t enough – the Vita also claims a “cross-play” function, a service in which you can connect Vitas and PlayStation 3’s through a Wi-Fi connection. In our demo, we raced in “Wipeout 2048” on Vita against a PS3 opponent.

But Wait…How Are the Games?

The bells and whistles are nice, but what gamers probably care most about are well, duh, the games themselves.

One thing we noticed is how close the looks and graphics of the Vita are compared with its console big brother. The Vita version of “Mortal Kombat” looks nearly identical to NeverRealm’s PS3 hit down to the digitized blood and viscera that flies around the screen after finishing off your opponent with a fatality move. This version of Kombat even lets you do brand new things you can’t do on your TV like perform fatalities and X-ray moves with a few swipes of the touch screen.

There are also 150 challenge stages and many of them feel like “Mortal Kombat-meets-Warioware” mini-games where you’re required to wipe blood off the screen with your finger on the touchscreen in order to see your fight, or balance your fighter with the tilt function on top of a pole to avoid a death by flesh-eating piranha at the bottom of a pit.    

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We were also impressed from what we saw of a third-person shooter called “Unit 13” from Zipper (the makers of “SOCOM”) With the idea that portable gamers want bite-sized nuggets of game play, the 36 missions last between 5 to 25 minutes each and are mini-stories that stand on their own.

There’s also a lot of Vita-style integration like the ability to tap the touchscreen to switch between a zoom and a first-person scope view or swipe the back panel to adjust which shoulder to look over to improve your view. Players can also reload weapons and chuck grenades, and complete certain objectives by tapping the appropriate button on the touchscreen.

But of course, the best eye-candy for Vita is the aforementioned “Uncharted: Golden Abyss.” Squint your eyes and you’d swear you’re looking at “Uncharted 3” with it’s breathtaking visuals. The game also has new functionality, like the ability to slide the touch screen to make Nathan Drake traverse obstacles, or tapping a fist icon to cajole Drake into performing a melee attack.

To Buy or Not to Buy?

The verdict is still out on whether or not gamers in 2012 will want to pony up $250-$300 on a Vita when they can play decent games for pennies on their phones and iPads, but from what we’ve seen of it – Sony is making a great case for a new portable.

For more from Ryan Smith, follow him on Twitter: @RyanSmithWriter

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