Well, it’s been quite a weekend. I wasn’t hyped up at all about the PlayStation Vita’s release a week ago, but now that it’s in my hands I have to say – it’s one fine piece of kit.

Pre-orders for the Vita opened in Japan back on the 15th of October. Despite living slap-bang in the middle of Japan, I somehow never hear about pre-order dates like these in time. Having missed out on securing a pre-order at any of the local chain and independent stores that were going to stock the Vita, I had to head online. After a few weeks of searching and disappointment, one of the bigger electronics chains finally received word they’d have more stock to ship out – and they were guaranteed to arrive on the launch date no less.

Fast forward to Saturday the 17th of December. It’s 9pm, I’m sitting around in my pyjamas waiting for a pizza to arrive while playing the newly released GBA games on my 3DS thanks to my official 3DS Ambassador™ status. At this point I’ve just about lost all hope. But just as I lose my last life in WarioWare, the doorbell rings. Pizza?

Nope, Vita. Having picked up Touch My Katamari, Uncharted: Golden Abyss, and a 16GB memory card earlier that day I was keen to get started.

The Vita is both larger and heavier than all the PSP models feeling more akin to the DSi XL in terms of weight. You’d expect this though when you factor in the fact that Vita is sporting a larger screen than the PSP. Despite its weight, I haven’t got tired of holding it like I occasionally do with the XL. The D-pad, analogue sticks and buttons are all comfortably placed and where you’d expect them, although accessing the diddy start and select buttons forces you to make a thumb claw manoeuvre with your right hand. The PlayStation button on the other side of the Vita doesn’t suffer from this thanks to its much larger size. The shiny black front and touchpad on the back aren’t quite the grease magnet that the 3DS is, but if you’re wanting to keep your Vita polished you may want to invest in a cleaning cloth. I myself invested in a screen protector instead. It didn’t go so well. £6.50 down the drain.

     

When I first turned the Vita on, the first thing I noticed was just how sharp the OLED screen was. It’s just… so… pretty. The initial setup allowed me to select British English and attach my PSN account to the system. Take note though, the UK and US stores are not up yet, so it’s a bit pointless choosing them over a Japanese profile right now unless you’d rather have Trophies over demos and other downloadables. Yes, that’s right, despite their absence on the PSP, Trophies have made their way to the Vita. Also take note that PSN accounts are locked to Vita memory cards, so if you’re a fan of downloading PSone games from the American or Japanese stores, you’ll have to invest in some extra memory cards. However, the Vita is still region free, so if you want to play physical copies of Japanese or American games on a European Vita you’re still very much able to.

After mucking around with the LiveArea menus for a while I started to notice something –  I was using the touchscreen a lot more than the D-pad or left analogue stick to get around. This is quite simply because the option to use them just isn’t there for most menus. This extends to a lot of the games and demos I played too. I normally avoid using the touchscreen on my DS and 3DS, but using the Vita is much more of a hybrid experience. Somehow it just doesn’t feel forced. The touchscreen is very sensitive too, often picking up my fingertricity (technical term) before I actually touch the screen.

      

LiveArea uses pages and allows you to move your game and application icons around in a very similar fashion to iOS. Pressing the PlayStation button brings up tabs of any applications you currently have open, letting you switch between games and applications on the fly. You can also change the background to one of the animated backgrounds similar to the default PS3 and PSP ones, or use a photo or screenshot you’ve taken with the Vita. That’s right, Sony has implemented the feature to take screenshots of most Vita games. These screenshots can often be unflattering to the games as they seem to get rid of any anti-aliasing. Unfortunately one can’t take screenshots of emulated games (PSP, PC Engine, et al.) and a few others (Dungeon Hunter: Alliance for some reason).

“near” is perhaps the most exciting part of LiveArea. It’s the Vita’s answer to Nintendo’s SpotPass, although the two are quite different. The focus here appears to be meeting people playing in your area with the Out-and-About Radar, discovering Game Goods and rating games. The Radar only works if you have a Wi-Fi or 3G connection, and it’s much more accurate if you use 3G. There is a sense of glee when perusing what people in your area are playing and it’s rather nice to have folks add you to their Friends list out of the blue. There are no Mii or PlayStation Home avatars, instead your only identification is your PSN ID, avatar icon and banner. You might want to track down some premium avatars on the PlayStation Store to set yourself apart from all the riffraff. The selection of banners is more than reasonable; I picked out a nifty Badman one to complement my flOw ‘tar.

      

I was happy to find a healthy amount of Vita demos on the PlayStation Store as well as all the full retail releases at cheaper prices. Various apps like Twitter and Nico Nico Douga (Japan’s YouTube equivalent) were available from the get-go alongside PSN classic Dungeon Hunter: Alliance. PSP demos had all strangely disappeared from the Store and PSone Classics weren’t available at launch, but the library of PSP games available is certainly nothing to be sniffed at. Yes, we need to pay for them again, and yes, there’s no Crisis Core, but heck – they’re all smoothed out and upscaled. At least there is backwards compatibility in some shape. There’s no news on whether the Neo Geo games will be Vita-bound, but for now there are at least a bevy of PC Engine games to get your retro on with a Japanese account.

I had a wee dabble with the Remote Play function and it worked smoothly. I can’t say it was any more fluid than it is with a PSP, but I don’t really care if it means I can play FFVII while something else is on TV.

     

Oh dear, I forgot to mention the games. Right, well, Welcome Park comes with all Vita systems. It’s essentially a well-disguised “oh, my Vita can do that” tutorial. Several minigames will demo the touchscreen, gyro sensor, microphone and camera. It has trophies to earn though. Trophies!

Touch My Katamari will be exactly what fans of the series will be hoping for. More levels and madness with a few new flourishes.  The touchpad on the back or the touchscreen can be used to manipulate the shape of the katamari (widen it to fit under tables and pick up more or make it taller to reach high objects and squeeze into small gaps). The controls benefit from having both analogue sticks after the awkward iOS and PSP Katamari games. The quirkiness is off the scale, but the Japanese language version is impenetrable if you’re interested in it for the jokes.

      

It was a nice surprise to find that Uncharted: Golden Abyss is completely in English though. Not one hint of Japanese. The game is Sony’s showpiece for the system, and boy, does it look the part. There’s a whole lot of optional artefact finding and photography, and the touchscreen and touchpad are instrumental in examining, dusting and making pretty charcoal rubbings. The gunplay can be controlled using gyro sensor, but that does look a bit mad on the train into work. Controlling Nate using the touchscreen is a bit gimmicky if you ask me, but at least traditional controls have been retained.

If you’re psyched out about the Vita and downright jealous of folks who have procured theirs already, you have every right to be. It’s got the strongest launch line-up of any console in recent history, and the library of upscaled PSP games (and, eventually, PSone games) really show up the 3DS’ Virtual Console. The option to pay for digital versions of games at cheaper prices is appreciated, especially if you like carrying your library around on one memory card rather than a bunch of small fiddly cards. The battery life isn’t too bad – it’s pretty much on par with the 3DS, which is impressive for a system with a quad-core processor. It can get a tad warm after a long play session, but never as warm as certain iOS devices can.

Considering importing a Vita to get it before your friends? I would advise against it unless you like your cross and circle buttons reversed (that’s just how it works over here). Not because it isn’t a great system – it really is. I have been far more impressed with it than with the 3DS. No, paying a premium for a system that’s just a couple of months away is just a little silly. Especially while there is news of parcels containing them being sent back thanks to the Vita’s lithium battery.

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