When Sony first announced plans for a replacement for its ageing PSP handheld gaming console, it was easy to dismiss it as a device that would struggle in the smartphone gaming age.
Then the pictures dropped, and it appeared to be nothing more than a tarted-up PSP with rounded edges and the new moniker "Vita". But after having a couple of weeks of hands-on mobile gaming fun, it's pretty clear that Sony's got its eyes on a core gamer market, rather than those content to play hours of Angry Birds or, heaven forbid, Farmville on their phones.
The Vita does appear to be a modernised PSP, but has a whole lot more to offer, and though it does cover some of the same ground that Android and iOS smartphones do when it comes to gaming, it's the "real" games that will dictate how it sells.
The fact that there are dual analog joysticks is a very solid step in the right direction - as anyone who tried playing EA's terrible attempt at porting Battlefield to the iPhone will attest. The full complement of buttons - key to playability for almost all decent games - added to the stunning five-inch OLED touchscreen, and rear-mounted touchpad tucked away at the Vita's rear, means it feels far more like something that's designed to play games on, properly.
Six-axis controls a la PlayStation 3 seem effective, shoulder-mounted L and R buttons allow for fairly complex control schemes, and a single home button kills off games and takes you, er, home, with a minimum of fuss.
Trying to use the touch screen while holding the Vita normally is significantly less successful. Smartphones, iPads and tablets are useful and all, but they're primarily used for something else and gaming is immediately compromised.
There are two versions of Vita due to hit game shop shelves on February 22 - a wi-fi only version at $449, and a wi-fi/3G version at $549. Both models sport front and rear-facing cameras that are capable of shooting HD video.
It's finished in a tasteful combination of black and silver, sitting in a surprisingly robust plasticky chassis, and though it's not exactly small, it is light enough to use for extended periods without wrists giving up the ghost.
It does beg for a carry case - between the screen, the two diminutive joysticks and the slots for SIM cards and the 16GB bundled memory cards, there's a reasonable chance of gadget injury unless you're super-careful.
Set-up was far less of a dog that it could have been, tapping in wi-fi passwords and PlayStation Network details quickly connected where expected and allowed access to where Vita goodies will live once the device hits the market.
The device tested came pre-loaded with a bunch of games, some old favourites reborn to show off the Vita's abilities, and a few new ones cracking into the augmented reality world. Graphically, games look fantastic, courtesy of the 966x544-pixel OLED display - not quite up to the superb Retina Display on iPhone 4s, but better than Nintendo's DS and 3DS.
Like the PSP before it, ad-hoc networking gaming is well catered for, and it's possible to take on your mates over either wi-fi or 3G if your network and data cap allow.
Is the PS Vita worth the entry fee? If you're dedicated to playing proper games properly, and own a PlayStation 3, it's almost a must-have. If you're happy planting virtual mungbeans in Farmville, then you'd be best served to stay there.
Uncharted: Golden Abyss:
Scaled-down adventure with hero Nathan Drake chasing centuries-old secrets. Has the same graphic and gameplay capabilities as the PS3 series. Highly recommended.
Anti-gravity racing with a cruise missile edge, Wipeout first appeared on the original PlayStation - essentially the same gameplay but faster, with better graphics and far more chance of motion sickness.
ModNation Racers: Road Trip:
A portable version of the social kart racing title that killed Nintendo's genre-defining Mario Kart. Import tracks, vehicles and characters from your PS3 or create whole new ones. Create a track in minutes using the touchscreen, and build the terrain around it with the rear touchpads, then share them with your mates. Excellent.
Use augmented reality cards to put you and your friends in this entertaining beat 'em up - literally. You can smash the hell out of each other on screen wherever you want - it's quite amusing seeing yourself and a mate in full kung fu mode in the beer fridge.
The MotorStorm series gets scaled down for this horribly addictive top- down radio-controlled racer - graphically sound, gameplay savvy and incredibly hard to put down.
WIN A VITA!
Sony PlayStation, TimeOut and nzherald.co.nz have a PS Vita - the newest gadget on the market, made for proper gamers who like proper games to give away.
To win a Vita and a pile of sweet, sweet games, go to nzherald.co.nz/vita and fill in the simple form before March 9. The winner will be announced in TimeOut on March 15.