Impressions of the PlayStation Vita

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Fifa 12 Vita, looking good in Santa Monica.

The PlayStation Vita certainly gives a good first impression.

Sony’s newest handheld, set for a Feb. 22 release here in the States, is capable of producing crisp and vibrant graphics. The portable is also comfortable to the touch, and playing a shooter with its dual thumb sticks has essentially the same feel as using a PlayStation console’s Dual Shock controller.

The Vita also boasts a touchscreen, because that’s pretty much a requirement for any new handheld device.

Based on my first impression, I like the Vita. Does that mean consumers should buy the Vita.

I don’t know.

As impressive as the Vita’s capabilities are, I don’t know yet if it’s worth $250 or $300 for the average gamer who likely already has a PlayStation 3 or XBox 360 at home. While attending a Sony open house in Santa Monica, I had a chance to sample Fifa 12 Vita, the Vita version of Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 and Resistance: Burning Skies, a forthcoming sequel to the PlayStation 3 FPS series.

More thoughts follow the jump:

  • PlayStation Vita hardware

Lovely. The Vita’s display and ergonomics are terrific. I didn’t get to play with the handheld enough to get a read on its battery life or online capabilities, but the Vita is attractive enough to awaken any gamer’s lust for a new toy.

That out of the way, I share some of the widespread skepticism that the era of the video game handheld is fading. The Nintendo 3DS, of course, survived a slow start and price drop from $250 to $170 to sell 4 million copies by year’s end. It took a while for the 3DS to come into its own, but it seems to be doing OK.

The Vita is more powerful than the 3DS, so it should do better, right? This is where I’m confused. Some gamers consider the 3DS’ stereoscopic 3D visuals to be little more than a gimmick, and the Vita is better built to deliver an experience that is closer to the home gaming experience. This leads me to believe that a franchise like Resistance, Uncharted or Call of Duty can be developed for the Vita without having to compromise core gameplay, but I also wonder how many fans of those series want to buy a new handheld to play those games.

The Vita is set to enter the market with a $250 MSRP for the Wi-Fi version and $300 MSRP for the 3G version. My primary assignment is to cover business in the Inland Empire region of Southern California, and I have to admit that I have a hard time seeing masses of people buying the Vita at those prices until the economy gets much, much stronger.

Industry Gamers has reported that Sony can manufacture the Vita for about $160, so the company can make a profit on hardware sales alone. My guess is that come Feb. 22, a lot of gamers will want the Vita, but will decide to save their money until Sony follows Nintendo’s example and drops the price, or the economy starts to stabilize.

On the other hand, the Vita has a strong launch lineup that should prove tempting to those with money to spend. But as several media outlets have reported, the Vita’s sales in Japan have been rather slow. A lot of people say smartphone games will put an end to handheld gaming, but I don’t entirely agree. I don’t think 99 cent games like Angry Birds will squelch demand for big handheld games like Uncharted: Golden Abyss, but I do think consumers will increasingly shy away from handhelds that play games but are unable to make phone calls.

My guess? The Vita and 3DS will be the last pure handhelds. If Sony or Nintendo develop a successor, it will be a machine that can play serious games while also doubling as a phone. Why should consumers pay for two devices?

  • Fifa 12 Vita

I only had a short time to play this one, but it’s very nice. EA Sports’ handheld version of its popular soccer franchise is fluid and intuitive. I can’t say how well it holds up over time, but it looks good on a first impression.

  • Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3

The game’s visuals are just about as sharp as the console version’s, although load times are a little slower. The game also has an option that allows players to use the touchscreen instead of traditional controls, but in my opinion, this mode is too simple to be fun. Basically, all a player needs to do is tap the screen and win. I’m no expert at fighting games, but a game needs an element of challenge to be fun. Just use the buttons and thumb sticks if you buy this one.

  • Resistance: Burning Skies

I didn’t get to play a full version of this game, but the build I got to see at Santa Monica plays like a traditional FPS. The game’s developers also incorporated the Vita’s touchscreen into the controls, which allows players to point where they want to throw a grenade instead of using the controls to set a trajectory. The feature is not transformative, but it works. The Resistance franchise also has a new development house. This one comes from Nihilistic, who are taking over from series originators Insomniac. Unlike the previous two games, this is not a launch title.

These are just my opinions. Readers who find themselves in Santa Monica can form their own at Sony’s “Vita Hill Social Club” at 2803 Main Street. Sony is showing the Vita off at that location through Feb. 27.