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Handheld gaming devices have much more competition these days than they did ten years ago when Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance ruled the market. The prevalence of smart phones and the low barrier for entry for mobile developers, mean that most of us have a gaming device in our pocket all the time. Add in the ubiquity of WiFi/3G connections and chronic social integration, and odds are you’ve got tons of games right there at your fingertips. Waiting for Chinese take-out? Fire up Battleheart. Plane still hasn’t taken off? Look, it’s Words-with-Friends. So much of my gaming-on-the-go has migrated to smart phones that I don’t even use my DS anymore except for exclusive titles.

So what’s a developer to do? Well, if you’re Sony, you decide to eliminate as many of the handheld compromises as possible and try to recreate a full feature console experience on a smaller device. That means no shortcuts in terms of the controls, no reduction in graphics performance, and no arbitrary limits on the catalog of games you’re willing to publish. Then you sit back and hope the trade-offs you’ve had to make in terms of size and battery life don’t eliminate the whole point of a portable gaming system in the first place. I’ve been playing with the Vita practically non-stop since Sony sent us our review unit last week, and I think it’s by far the most attractive and robust handheld system I’ve ever seen.

The first thing I noticed about the PS Vita was how solid it was. It feels substantial and rugged, like you could beat a mugger to death with it and still count on it working while you’re waiting for the police to show up. It looks a lot like the PSP, which is great in my book; whatever that older system’s other failings, it certainly wasn’t ugly. The glossy finish attracts fingerprints like crazy, but the sleek design is definitely eye-catching and the system manages to include loads of inputs and features without feeling cramped. Along with the 5-inch OLED screen, you get a d-pad, two analog sticks, four face buttons (plus three more system buttons), two shoulder buttons, multi-touch panels on the front and back of the device, rear and front facing cameras, and a six-axis motion sensor. There are also convenient ports for charging, a combined headphone/mic jack, and easily accessed volume and power controls.

I’ve spent lots of time with most of the Vita’s launch titles and, in general, I’m very impressed. Some, like Uncharted: Golden Abyss or Rayman Origins, go a long way towards proving that console-quality experiences can exist on the handheld. Others, like Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 or Michael Jackson: The Experience, seem to be struggling against the new format and are either ignoring the limitations or groping for a gimmick to make them work.

Having the dual analog sticks makes all the difference. When games like SOCOM or Star Wars Battlefront came to the handheld market, they had to adjust to the lack of a second analog stick by making some core adjustments to the gameplay. Shooter fans had to deal with all sorts of compromises – auto-locks, fixed movement paths, and even entire changes in perspective. Sitting down to play Uncharted, I immediately felt at home. This feels like a game controller so zooming, aiming and shooting are as natural as they are on the PS3’s six-axis or the 360 gamepad. But while the buttons are all there, the overall placement doesn’t work as well for more frantic games like Marvel vs. Capcom. As precise as I tried to be, the smaller size of the device made it difficult to nail the precise stick moves and button presses required to pull off special attacks and combos.

The multi-touch panels on the front and rear of the device are often used in ways that more than make up for the lack of extra shoulder buttons. Uncharted‘s touch screen inputs are generally helpful, but being able to just draw along the paths you want Nathan to climb makes this feel less like a game and more like an exercise in laziness. The track creation tools in Mod Nation Racers Roadtrip and the intuitive ball-shaping and rolling interface in Touch My Katamari seem much more natural and offer intuitive and natural ways of interacting with the device. Other games were less impressive. The lack of any inventive touch screen support for Hot Shots Golf seems like a missed opportunity, particularly in light of FIFA‘s controls where you can actually draw your passes directly on the game screen itself. The lack of some sort of tactile interface for the golf swing is dumb.

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While Uncharted is an amazing experience overall, the game that I think currently makes the most of the Vita’s features is Bigbig’s Little Deviants. The motion control sensors and the rear facing camera come together in a neat series of alternate-reality games where the world around you becomes the game level. It’s a fun, twisted sort of experience that works beautifully in a handheld format, particularly after seeing a similar, more static approach in Happy Action Theater for the Kinect. The multi-touch screens are also used for a number of different mini-games. You might be using the rear pad to deform the land as you roll a ball towards a goal. Or you might use the front and rear pads simultaneously in a sort of whack-a-mole game where certain targets can only be hit from the front or the rear. The only real problem with this format is that the device is so big that young gamers or those with small hands might not be able to tackle some of the tougher challenges.

As inventive as some of the Vita titles are, there are some straight ports in the catalog. Rayman Origins works beautifully on the Vita, but it’s already a design that’s very handheld-friendly. The same is true of Lumines. In both cases, the challenge is less to adapt the game to the controls or format, and more to get the same exact game running on a different piece of hardware. Yes, these games make use of some of the Vita’s new features, but they don’t really change up the experience as much games like Touch My Katamari or FIFA.

There are some considerable downsides to the Vita. At $300, the 3G version is the priciest handheld ever offered and still ranks very high even if you take inflation into account. The real cost isn’t the system itself, though. It’s all the extra costs that come with it. First, there’s no internal memory on this thing. None. At all. So right away, you’re in for at least $25 on Sony’s proprietary memory cards, which is a real burn if, like me, you already have a drawer full of memory cards you’re not even using anymore. They’re also crazy small, which makes them easy to lose and frustrating to change. Also, your old UMDs are no good anymore, so you’ll be picking up games in Sony’s new format, which is also a crazy small card that’s too easy to lose. On top of all that, the 3G service, which is supported by AT&T’s lackluster service, weighs in at a hefty $30 a month with a 3GB limit. (There’s an option for less bandwidth, but if you’re going to be using this thing to download games or go online at all, you need the higher limit. Better yet, just go with the WiFi version.)

Sony’s portable is also considerably larger than most other handhelds, so it works better in your backpack or suitcase than in your pocket. It’s not a big deal if you can slip it into a large coat pocket, but it’s too bulky to fit in your pants, especially if you’re going to get some sort of case or armor. I’m a little more forgiving of this inconvenience, because for me, it’s a viable option for vacations or business trips. If you’re looking for something with more on-the-go flexibility, you’ll find the system (and the dozens of tiny game cards) are a bit cumbersome.

The same is true of the system’s battery life. Again, given everything that it’s doing, I’m not surprised that it needs to be recharged a couple of times a week with regular use, but a handheld that won’t last more than five or six hours is undeniably limiting.

Verdict: The things that work against the Vita never really overshadow all the things that work for it. Most handhelds have had to offer altogether different types of experiences than you find on the traditional consoles, but the Vita takes the opposite approach, striving to take what works on the PS3 and make it work in a smaller, portable format. On that score, it succeeds beautifully. If you’re looking for the games that make the most of what the Vita has to offer, you definitely want to check out both Uncharted and Little Deviants, which not only explore the full set of features available on the handheld, but are also just genuinely a lot of fun.

Be sure to check back for reviews of specific titles in the coming weeks.

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