Sony’s next-gen portable arrives: our first impressions of the PS Vita

This week, Sony offered journalists the first look at the next evolution of portable gaming with the introduction of the Sony PS Vita.

The follow-up to the PlayStation Portable, Sony’s PS Vita has been talked about since its announcement last year, the new handheld console featuring a 5 inch OLED touchscreen, quad-core processor, six-axis accelerometer technology, WiFi, Bluetooth, front and rear cameras for augmented reality-based games, and a rear touchpad adding even more interactivity than just the ordinary controls.

Two models will be launched on February 22 in Australia, with a WiFi only model available for $350 and a dual-connection model with both 3G and WiFi available for $450, although we’ve seen that model go for $418 already.

We got to play with the new device yesterday and found that if you’re a gamer, there’s a lot to be excited about.

While not on par with the PlayStation 3, the graphics in Uncharted are still pretty good.

While the idea of a 5 inch screen sounds like a lot to hold, the PS Vita doesn’t appear to weigh your hands down. In fact, while the size is noticeable and you won’t be pocketing this any time soon, it’s not an uncomfortable device.

Sony’s choice of an OLED screen won’t be regretted here, with strong colours, brightness, and fantastic viewing angles.

The game quality is a noticeable step-up from where it has been in the past few years, with the graphics more in line with what we would expect on the PlayStation 3. Playing the Vita’s versions of Wipeout, FIFA, and Uncharted, we were blown away by the quality of the translations, the games featuring beautiful visuals that – while not as polished as their PS3 brothers – still managed to wow and delight.

Controls on the front of the handheld were much like they have been on the PS3 controller for some time, with two analog sticks for each hand, a directional pad for the left, and the typical PlayStation control buttons for the right. Bumper buttons are also still a part of the package, but there’s also a touchpad on the back of the Vita which adds extra controls for various games. In FIFA Football, for instance, you’ll find that tapping different parts of the touchpad will cause your players to kick the ball or block a goal attempt.

LittleBigPlanet is one title heading to the PS Vita, and touch gameplay is looking likely.

Touch control is also made possible due to the use of touch screens. We’re not sure if all games support the touchscreen, but the menu system certainly does, allowing you to browse through menu items with your fingers, sort through a list of what’s currently playing, and even peel away games to switch them off.

Our impressions of the Vita are certainly good, and the technology Sony has put into this thing certainly seem solid enough to stand its ground for the next few years, but Sony’s range of software will have to also be just as good.

At launch, Sony has promised at least 14 titles, including F1 2011, FIFA Football, ModNation Racer, Rayman Origins, Wipeout 2048, Ridge Racer, Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, and the all new adventure in the Uncharted series – Uncharted: Golden Abyss. We’ve also been promised titles from both the “Call of Duty” and “Assassin’s Creed” line of games, giving hardcore gamers something to really look forward to.

Some games will even be sharable with the PlayStation 3, with titles able to be played and synced across the PS Vita and the PS3.

The real test is going to be if gamers continue to play the PS Vita beyond the first few months. While social networking and web surfing are possible from the Vita, we’d hazard a guess that most customers will probably stick to their phones for that.

Certainly the gaming is stronger than what we’ve seen on phones and tablets, but the quality of games we’re seeing on the iPad and other tablets is making us think twice here too.

One thing is for sure: gamers certainly have a lot of choice this year.