- The Washington Times - Friday, February 24, 2012

The Frankenstein’s monster of handheld entertainment systems has arrived for the hard-core gaming freak with money to burn.

Sony’s PS (PlayStation) Vita manages to incorporate about every innovation from its competitors and PSP predecessors into one mobile device that is nothing short of brilliant as a niche tech gadget.

Imagine a dream system with these features:

  • * A generously sized design seemingly built for the older, big-handed gamer entering the reading-glasses phase of life. Measuring in at around 7 by 3 inches, the device’s crown jewel is a 5-inch-wide display screen using OLED (Organic Light-Emitting Diode) technology to deliver 16.7 million colors.
  • * An all-encompassing controller scheme offers an overwhelming number of options to enjoy a game. First, it gives players a traditional selection of two analog sticks, directional pad, quad-button pad and shoulder triggers. Next, the display is a touch screen that opens up — as iPad and DS fans know — a new level of interaction in games. Next, the back of the unit is also touch sensitive, adding a brand new layer of virtual manipulation (and the potential for arthritic fingers). Conclude with Sixaxis motion sensing for fluid tilt mechanics to incorporate into game action.
  • * Under multimedia, let’s add a front and rear camera to take photos, video and enjoy augmented gaming (test cards are included) and a microphone for chat and other interactions.
  • * Online access is available via Wi-Fi hot spots or through the 3G AT&T Network (250 megabytes per month for $14.99 or 3 gigabytes for $30).
  • * The PS Vita acts as a super controller for your PlayStation 3 system and may offer remote play (enjoy your PS3 library of games on the Vita) in the future.
  • * Additional items include online options for managing your PlayStation Network friends, a web browser, a Party application to chat (text and voice) with PS Vita buddies, movie rentals with Netflix, songs from Music Unlimited, and app-specific access to social networking and media tools such as Twitter, Facebook and Skype.

That is a pretty potent package, but let’s look at the not-so-brilliant pieces of the Vita puzzle.

  • * The pricing. It will choke a parent and collapse the wallet of a college student. It’s $249 for a Wi-Fi ready Vita and $299 for the 3G model — and that does not include games or storage. Even with a bundle — including a 4GB storage card, Little Deviants game and case ($349.99) — it’s a tough number to swallow.
  • * The Vita does not hook up to a TV. In the days of multimedia conversion, that’s a mistake.
  • * The average cost for a game is $40 — which means after buying a few of the better games, the average Vita owner is looking at $500 just to appreciate the system. (The sound you hear is iPad owners laughing in unison.)
  • * Protecting the PS Vita is very important. It’s too big to simply stick in a pocket or toss in a backpack uncovered like a cellphone or the DS with its clamshell case. The analog sticks poke out, just asking to be broken. The beautiful screen will be smudged (no surprise) or, heaven forbid, could be a scratched nightmare without care. You’ll need to add a minimum of $20 for a case.
  • * No onboard memory storage means owners must buy a proprietary PS Vita memory card for downloads. That’s right, you need a unique and pricey card ranging in price from $20 for 4GB to $100 for 32 GB. (Just to rub salt in the wound, I’ll mention that a 32GB micro SD card generally runs about $30.)

Additionally, the Vita’s release reeks of an obvious attempt by Sony to capture any remaining segment of the mobile gaming community not already gobbled up by Nintendo, Apple, Samsung and Amazon.

Let’s also remember that anyone who owns one of Apple’s devices has truly seen an evolution in gaming, at least casual gaming.

With the third iteration of the iPad hitting in March, Sony is playing chicken with one of the most innovative companies in the world. Apple definitely will keep some of the money out of Sony’s pocket as gamers decide which direction to go for their mobile, handheld requirements.

Of course, whether consumers buy into this magnificent monstrosity will depend entirely on its delivering the bread and butter — a pioneering selection of games.

With around two dozen titles ready at launch, it’s a solid lineup, but can it be substantially embellished to sustain player interest throughout the year?

Here’s what I consider the best of the current crop:

Uncharted: Golden Abyss (Sony Computer Entertainment, rated T for teen, $49.99)  Join Nathan Drake in a gorgeous adventure in Central America that really gives the PS Vita a workout.

Use a finger to draw routes on-screen for the hero to follow as he climbs up deteriorating ancient ruins, use shoulder triggers to target and shoot enemies, wipe the screen to create a rubbing of an ancient relic to use to find clues, manipulate puzzle pieces using multiple fingers, swipe the screen to deliver final blows in a fistfight, and even use the back of the Vita to zoom and tilt controls to center photos of some beautiful panoramas.

It’s a gimmicky treat starring Sony’s legendary franchise.

Touch My Katamari (Namco Bandai Games, rated E10+ for players 10 and older, $29.99)  Despite the humorously uncomfortable name, this odd, psychedelic puzzler that has a player roll a giant ball around, collecting the stuff that sticks to it is really addictive. Of course, use the Vita’s touch screens and touchy back liberally and prepare to bow before the King of All Cosmos.

Escape Plan (Sony Computer Entertainment, rated T for teen, $14.99)  The developers of Fat Princess present this dazzling black-and-white collection of single-screen, minipuzzles showcasing the harmonious interaction of the PS Vita’s touch pads. A player helps coffee-craving Lil and his girthy companion Laarg escape a gantlet of booby-trapped rooms. It mixes the vibes of Tim Burton character development and Charles Addams’ charm with an ear-bud-warranted musical score. It’s the best downloadable game for the system thus far.

Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 (Capcom, rated T for teen, $39.99)  The premier side-scrolling fight game brings an all-star cast of up to 50 characters to the PS Vita, comfortably controlled through its dual analog sticks, buttons and even the touch screen. The high-speed, explosive action shines as comic book legends including Captain America, the Incredible Hulk and Deadpool duke it out in 3-vs.-3 matches against Capcom stars including Viewtiful Joe, Devil May Cry’s Dante and Resident Evil’s Chris Redfield.

Super Stardust Delta (Sony Computer Entertainment, rated E for everyone, $9.99)  Take a nostalgia trip to the days of Amiga PC gaming with the stunning return of this classic space shooter. A player controls a starship in orbit around a planet and takes on missions to destroy celestial masses and enemy aircraft while collecting as many points as possible. It’s a beautifully addictive Asteroids homage that offers two control schemes (either the analog sticks and buttons or touch screen and motion-sensing control) and 11 modes of action.

Rayman Origins (Ubisoft, rated E10+ for players 10 and older, $39.99)  Our bizarre friend (think Pogo with no neck, arms or legs, but with hands and feet) delivers more than 60 levels of side-scrolling platforming action that would make a great Cartoon Network show. Traditional animation mixes with an energetic lunacy set in the Glade of Dreams as Rayman and his pals must quell an uprising from the Land of the Living Dead and stop the Bubble Dreamer’s nightmares.

Tales from Space: Mutant Blobs Attack (Drinkbox Studios, rated E10+ for players 10 and older, $7.99)  With action plucked from a 1950s sci-fi monster movie and a cut-out animation style, this side-scrolling puzzler stars an ever-growing, ornery gelatinous glob that seeks revenge by absorbing everything on Earth in its path to freedom. Players will see a bit of Katamari in the fun that features more than two dozen levels, some “tilt-a-Blob” mazes (using the Vita’s gyroscopic control), and locations such as a metropolis and an army base.

ModNation Racers RoadTrip (Sony Computer Entertainment, rated E for everyone, $29.99)  I mention this uber-customizable kart racing game only because it kept my 12-year-old tester entranced for days. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make up for a lack of online multiplayer action, even with a generous track builder and access to 500,000 user-generated courses.

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