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At Sony, portable games just got bigger.

SETH SCHIESEL NYT SYNDICATE SO how's your pocket budget these days? No, I'm not asking about your financial circumstances.

I'm asking, literally, how much space do you have in your pockets? Women have it easier than men in this regard, because they often carry assorted objects in bags of various sizes. Men generally make do with pockets.

The pocket budget is among the most important factors in global entertainment, media and technology right now: How many devices can we be expected to carry as we slouch toward the digital nirvana of doing everything everywhere all the time? So the trend has been to cram more and more onto the phone, making it "smart." That obviously includes games.

For decades, going back to Nintendo's original Game Boy, playing on the go meant carrying a separate device. So a great many people never played mobile games. Now that simple games are on phones that people carry anyway, almost everyone can enjoy some sort of interactive entertainment.

In this broad context, the concept that a colossus like Sony would devote itself to developing and marketing a device that is at least twice the size of a phone, blatantly endangers the pocket budget of men around the world and is pretty much built to do one thing well -- play games -- might seem anachronistic. But that is exactly what Sony has done with the new PlayStation Vita. And that is why it's brilliant.

The Vita is the finest mobile gaming system yet made for adults. It's that simple. The Vita is not trying to be a phone. It is not trying to be the onestop shop for everything your digital heart desires. It is not bloated and shackled by the weight of diffuse ambition that one might have expected from Sony.

Yes, there are traces of mission creep in the Vita's design -- unsatisfying, unpolished elements like social networking where you can see Sony bumping up against the limits of its competence -- but in general the Vita is far more focused and polished than its predecessor, the poorly named PlayStation Portable. The PSP tried to do everything and did little well. The Vita is trying to be a great game machine for core console gamers who don't mind adding to their pocket budget by carrying around a device in addition to their cell phones. At that it succeeds superbly.

Until now, playing a portable game meant accepting fundamental reductions in the experience compared with playing a major console game on a big television at home. The graphics were going to be inferior. The screen itself would not appear as attractive.

Perhaps most important for core players, the ability to control and interact with the game itself would be limited: fewer buttons, triggers and control sticks. Basically, a mobile game has meant a simplified, dumped-down experience. No longer. The Vita delivers the basic feeling of having a real game machine in your hands.

Start with the controls. When you're holding the Vita, which is about 7 inches wide, you feel like you're holding a PlayStation 3 controller, which is a bit more than 6 inches wide. If a normal game controller intimidates you and you're more comfortable playing games on, say, an iPad or a Wii, the Vita is not for you. But if "dual analog thumb sticks" sounds like something you'd like on a mobile game machine, get a Vita now.

The big difference, of course, between the Vita and the PS3 is that when you're playing the Vita, the screen is between your hands -- not up, out and away from you. And what a screen. Sony's television operation may be facing hard times in the face of South Korean competition, but the company's reputation for making perhaps the best-looking (if expensive) displays remains intact, as it should.

The Vita's screen delivers the most attractive images I've seen on a mobile device. In terms of image quality it is superior to the iPhone and the iPad, as one would hope from Sony. For the tech nerds, the technology is called OLED. It is eye-poppingly clear and bright (and touch-sensitive, which is used to excellent effect). The resolution is 960 by 544 pixels, and when you pack that much into a 5-inch screen it looks awesome.

The overall three-dimensional rendering isn't comparable with a home console, but it does deliver a legitimate 3-D, full-motion, full-colour gaming experience far beyond, say, Nintendo's DS line. (The big difference there is that the DS line, built around brands like Mario and Pokemon, is aimed at children; the Vita, which offers Teenand Mature-rated games in addition to some kids' fare, is mostly aimed at adults.) The Vita costs about $250 for a Wi- Fi-only model and about $300 for one that can connect to AT&T's 3G network.

If you connect to AT&T, you can buy a month-to-month data plan that includes a paltry 250 megabytes for $14.99 or three gigabytes for $30.

Most of the really cool online stuff -- like actually playing against other people in real time and streaming movies from Netflix onto the Vita's fabulous screen -- are available only over Wi-Fi.

On 3G, you can basically trade scores and see who's around you. The Vita's original Facebook app was barely functional and has since disappeared from the Sony online store. The Vita includes two cameras and takes great video, but you can't upload directly to YouTube.

So the networking features are a bit ragged, but the game experience is excellent, whether that means adventuring through a jungle in the new version of Uncharted: Golden Abyss, jumping and swinging in Ubisoft's charming Rayman Origins, racing in ModNation Racers or finishing the back nine in Hot Shots Golf (now becoming a personal vice). I'm not normally a huge team-sports game fan, but this version of the FIFA soccer franchise by Electronic Arts is compelling (not least because it makes great use of the back of the Vita being touch-sensitive, as well as the front screen).

Many games are available either on small cartridges or as direct downloads.

The downside of buying a game online is that you have to wait for it to actually download. (Games range up to several gigabytes in size.) The upside is that you can keep multiple games on one memory card rather than carrying separate cartridges.

About two dozen games are available now, with many more on the way.

It's too bad that Sony doesn't allow customers who buy a cartridge to load the game onto an encrypted memory card and leave the minuscule, easy-tolose cartridge at home. If Sony doesn't enable that, you can rest assured that hackers are trying to do it illegally.

But overall the Vita is a beautifully engineered portable game machine. As Kazuo Hirai, previously the head of Sony's PlayStation division, prepares to become Sony's chief executive in April, the big question is whether the relatively focused, disciplined Vita reflects his general strategy for the company that invented the Walkman.

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Publication:Qatar Tribune (Doha, Qatar)
Date:Mar 19, 2012
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