Lagging a full year behind the release of Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and lacking the immediately attention-grabbing hook of Nintendo’s 360-degree motion-sensing Wii, Sony’s long-awaited PlayStation 3 has recently been the subject of much heated debate. Despite its obvious appeal to diehard gamers and fans of the world’s most popular console brand – not to mention home theater enthusiasts, what with 1080p HDMI output and extensive online music/video download capabilities – questions have been plentiful.
For example: Is the system, available in 20GB ($499, sans WiFi and a built-in combination Memory Stick product lineup, Compact Flash and SD/MMC card reader) or $599 chrome-trimmed wireless-ready 60GB hard drive models, worth the hefty asking price, the highest since early-’90s systems like CDi and 3DO? Can Sony, who’s recently cut back North American November 17th launch date ship projections to just 400,000 units (with some analysts predicting actual distribution of half this number or fewer machines), manage to avoid aggravating a soon-to-be-device-deprived buying public while still keeping up with the competition? And, of course, with so much power and hardware combined in a single unit catered to the highest-end luxury users, is there even a point to upgrading?
The short answer to all: Yes, depending which of school of thought you fall into, your game playing habits and how much disposable income you’ve got to burn. However, let’s get one thing out of the way up-front, before you freeze your poor behind off spending all night camped out in front of the local electronics retailer hoping to score one of the severely under-stocked devices. For a host of reasons ranging from technical niggles to launch lineup shortfalls to pure common sense, it’s perfectly fine – and in most cases, even advisable – to skip buying one this holiday season and wait until the dust settles sometime early in 2007.
Right from the get-go, it’s important to consider the following fact: You’re not actually buying a videogame console here (although surely, that’s the machine’s strength and the chief function most prospective buyers intend to employ it towards) so much as a full-fledged digital media hub. As slick as everything from cutting-edge digital diversions and Blu-ray movies – video resolutions ranging all the way from 480i up to an eye-popping 1080p are supported – it’s what you personally make of the machine that gives the gizmo its true value. So for all of you who’ve been pestered since, oh, 2004 by your wide-eyed little pride and joys, remember: Dropping $599 just so kids can use the beast as an overgrown Atari may be a little much. They’ll be just as entertained by lower-resolution outings for other systems like Nintendo’s Wii or Sony’s own PlayStation 2. And, in truth, most PlayStation 3 titles right now are simply enhanced ports of existing products anyway (see offerings like Tony Hawk’s Project 8 or NHL 2K7). What’s more, unless you plan on clocking in time behind the controller yourself, investing in a library of next-generation movies, browsing the Web on your TV, purchasing extra levels/cars/characters/songs/films online or are intent on building the ultimate technophile’s living room setup, it’s the sort of holiday gift that may be little extravagant for anyone younger than 15.
Features and Design
But hey – let’s not get ahead ourselves, especially with so much to touch on right out of the box. For instance, the base unit itself: Holy mother of… well, you know… is this thing massive! Weighing in at an arm-crushing 11lbs and measuring 12.8″ (W) x 3.8″ (H) x 10.8″ (L), the gizmo proves even larger than the already brick-like Xbox 360. However, in fairness, it also sports a slick, glossy black exterior, attractive curves, features no goofy swappable faceplates and doesn’t require the use of one those giant-sized external power adapters we all know and hate. (Just insert the power cord and go.)
Although the space-age casing is prone to attracting fingerprints, hairs and dust, it frames internal electronics nicely, and serves to make this monster look like a proper home theater component, such as you might find in any respectable modern-day bachelor pad. (Although more system colors are surely coming, and one of these in mauve or hot pink might not.) Anyhow, considerable as the amount of effort required to move this thing about is, one gets the feeling they needn’t worry about fragility. Regardless, you’ll still feel much more comfortable with the unit – which runs cooler and quieter than the 360 and comes studded with vents, stabilizing pads and supports – laid out horizontally, though vertical positioning is possible. (Fun fact: There’s even a rotating “PS” logo located near the disc drive you can turn to match.)
The Playstation 3 on the left and the Nintendo Wii on the right
Assuming you’ve purchased the 60GB unit, here’s the device’s general layout. On the front you’ll find a disc loading slot that accepts CD, DVD or Blu-Ray media, so you can still enjoy favorite albums, PSOne/PS2 titles (although it’s just been discovered support for some 100-200 PlayStation 2 games like Gran Turismo 4 and Devil May Cry requires fixing via an upcoming downloadable update), home videos, major motion pictures and even SACDs. I’m a little dubious of the loading mechanism – you slide a disc in, then the machine gently grabs it and sucks it the rest of the way inside – but only time will tell how well it holds up, especially in children’s innocently less-delicate hands.
Also featured is a touch-sensitive power button (sweet!), HDD access/WLAN access indicator lights and four USB ports. Using these USB ports, it’s possible to hook up all manner of external devices from MP3 players to digital cameras, although copy-protected content’s a no-go, as I discovered upon inserting an iPod and being unable to play stored tunes. Common audio formats like MP3 and WAV are supported though, as are most digital images and MPEG1/2/4 video, which you can easily import onto the hard drive via USB device, CD-R or memory card reader.
The front panel opens to reveal a media card reader
Features and Design Cont’d
Options for theoretically jacking in a keyboard (the controller-based text input interface is a bit annoying, though you’ll get used to it in due time), USB mouse or the PSP, which can double as a rear-view mirror in racing games or accept PSOne games (purchased online, transferred over and playable via emulator) further prove quite promising. Uploading content between devices is easy enough too, and support for such features should only become more extensive as users are encouraged to download movie trailers, songs and other unexpected goodies off Sony’s PlayStation store. (An online storefront where Xbox Live Arcade-style below-the-radar games and retail software enhancements – e.g. additional maps or extra vehicles – will be sold, including exclusive outings like indie-flavored amusements flow, Go! Sudoku and Blast Factor, plus HD ports of old favorites such as Lemmings.)
Unfortunately, only Japanese PlayStation Network sign-ins are available prior to launch, so, being behind on my kanji at the moment, testing online multiplayer options – supposedly free, and allowing up to 40 players to go head-to-head simultaneously – and micro-transactions is as yet impossible. What’s more, I wasn’t able to experiment with instant messaging and voice/video chat (EyeToy USB camera required) options either. But there were no problems with Internet browsing, and frankly, it’s a real trip to visit sites like www.embassymulti.com, set a bookmark and see your own face staring back at you from the TV screen. Flash pages such as www.playstation.com also work fine with the software.
As for the back of the PlayStation 3, it contains a digital out, A/V multi out, HDMI out and LAN/Ethernet connection. The power cord connector and main system power switch are also located here. (If you’re a newcomer and wonder why the system isn’t working, trying flipping this on and then pressing the machine’s more obvious front-mounted power button…) Otherwise, there’s simply a 2.5″ serial ATA hard drive slot to be found on the side, with larger model hard drives rumored to be in the works that you’ll be able to quickly swap out. All told, finding your way about the console is fairly straightforward, and an in-depth instruction manual should help beginners greatly.
The back of the Playstation 3
Also included in the package is:
• A composite video cable (unsuitable for HD video output, sorry – grab a component cable or HDMI connector ASAP instead).
• Ethernet cable (although 802.11b/g WiFi is built-in if you’ve got the 60GB model).
• Power cord (a standard three-prong connector).
• USB cable (for connecting and playing with or charging wireless controllers).
• One SixAxis motion-tracking controller (in addition to normal D-pad/joystick-based movements and button-driven commands, tilt your hands to dodge incoming blows or steer).
• And, if you’re one of the first lucky 500,000 owners, a copy of NASCAR-spoofing, Will Ferrell-starring comedy Talladega Nights, which, living in the South, I personally find hilarious. (To be sure, it’s an acquired taste.)
Setup and Use
Actual system navigation will be instantly familiar to anyone who owns a PSP, as a similar drop-down “cross menu bar” interface is used. Employing it, one can easily play discs inserted into the machine, create striking photo slideshows, enjoy a little music, manage game saves, create user profiles and configure network settings. Even things as seemingly foreign to set-top console users – or maybe just those who don’t own an Xbox 360 yet – as system updates, customizable video settings, interactive end-user agreements and Bluetooth connectivity are made simple to deal with courtesy of on-screen prompts and explanations. The machine had no trouble finding my home wireless network either, and supports encryption so I needn’t fear unwanted intrusions by hackers or other virtual miscreants.
You’ll be manipulating most everything through the SixAxis controller, of which as many as seven can be supported at one time, capable of interacting wirelessly with the unit from distances up to 65 feet. (Wired access is available, though you’ll be sitting pretty darned close to the TV using the ultra-short prepackaged cable.) While the pads strangely lack rumble (vibration) capability, and aren’t nearly as sensitive or versatile as those found on Nintendo’s Wii, they do feel responsive and comfortable to the touch. Capable of lasting 30 hours on a single charge, PlayStation 2 owners will immediately recognize their shape and feel, given a close resemblance to said system’s own controllers.
The ability to control objects on a 3D, six-axis (left, right, back, forward, up, down) movement plane is, of course, the biggest enhancement, but a centrally-situated PS button (used to quit back to the main system menu, check battery power, shut down remotely, etc.) that operates like the giant X on the 360 pad is also a plus. The L2 and R2 buttons are also bigger, and feel more like gun triggers in your hands. Using gesture-tracking capabilities to cause samurai to twirl and tumble acrobatically or pro ballplayers to shuck and jive feels more like a cool add-on than integral system addition. But as more games such as dragon-flight combat simulator Lair – wherein you can swoop around spitting fireballs and sci-fi shooter Warhawk, which sees enthusiasts take direct control of soaring spaceships – launch, it’s a cinch we’ll soon enjoy even neater, and more meaningful, applications. Oh, and try not to choke: They’re actually asking $49.99 (the same price you could buy an entire 360 or Wii game for, and then some) for a controller.
The Playstation 3 controller
But what about the most important part – the games themselves? Well, right now, they’re sitting around a B+ level of general quality, thanks to the fact few first-run outings made the system’s launch. To be frank, of the ones which did ship – first-person blaster Resistance: Fall of Man, rubber-burner Ridge Racer 7, giant robot-homage Mobile Suit Gundam: Crossfire, arcade outing Sonic the Hedgehog, fantasy role-player Untold Legends: Dark Kingdom and sword-slashing Asian adventure Genji: Days of the Blade – none stand out as killer apps. That’s not to say you won’t be wowed. (The amount of on-screen activity in Resistance, for example, or level of painstakingly-rendered detail on Genji’s special effects is absolutely impossible to achieve with the 40X-more-powerful-than-PS2 system’s ballyhooed multi-core Cell processor and NVIDIA-built RSX graphics chip.) However, even between a slew of beefed up ports (Rainbow Six: Vegas, Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 07, etc.) and soon-to-be-launching high-profile sequels, e.g. Full Auto 2, there’s nothing here that absolutely screams “buy me” to the tune $60 per title, let alone the initial $500-$600 price of admission. Most end-users will probably find just as much eye-popping fare for cheaper on the Xbox 360.
A Couple Playstation 3 games
Setup and Use Part 2
Initial skepticism aside, though, we have previewed upcoming smashes like Assassin’s Creed and Indiana Jones 2007, and can say with certainty that things will soon change for the positive. In fact, once developers have had time to learn the console’s ins and outs and get a handle on its staggeringly future-proofed capabilities (yes, as Sony suggests, you’ll probably be keeping this gizmo around 10 years, and not just because of the hefty purchase price), all bets are off. The future of gaming involves jaw-droppingly gorgeous 3D worlds that designers build, but don’t truly control. In other words, because enemies are so intelligent, the laws of physics so realistic and scenarios so unpredictable, anything can happen each time you play, ensuring it’s never the same interactive outing twice. And as soon as Sony and friends start trotting out the big guns like Gran Turismo HD (let’s not forget the system will play home to Metal Gear Solid 4, Resident Evil 5, Tekken 6 and other record-breaking franchises), the number one console manufacturer may start creaming the competition just on depth and quality of selection alone.
As a side note, we should further pause here and mention that saved games – no matter how big or small the title in question – are stored on hard drive using virtual memory cards. Therefore you’ll be spared the cost of additional memory card units (a big plus), with PSOne/PS2 fans able to buy a $14.99 adapter that lets them rapidly transfer such data over from older platforms onto HDD.
Amusingly, all of the above ranting is just a very long-winded way of saying this is a system that’s ostensibly destined to dominate the videogame industry, but not necessarily this holiday season. Right now, it’s a premium purchase primarily aimed at high-end home theater enthusiasts or hardcore gamers with serious cash to burn. If you buy one before year-end, you’re doing so just to show friends and acquaintances that you’ve got the biggest stones (and checkbook) on the block, and don’t screw around when it comes to multimedia playback. But anyone else who goes to the trouble of picking one up now is just asking for a world of disappointment.
The revolution will indeed be televised, and, given that Blu-ray discs currently hold up to 50GB of data, with 200GB discs on the way – the kind of space needed to power games we can’t even presently envision – quite possibly be done so entirely on Sony’s terms. Be that as it may, it’s still a good ways off, making PlayStation 3 a good value only if you’re presently looking for an inexpensive Blu-ray player (of which it’s amusingly the cheapest at market), fancy-pants digital media hub or simply a way to impress pals and relatives, who truthfully probably won’t be that envious after an hour or two anyway.
We’re just looking at the beginning of something big here, though – a year or two from now, it’s wholly feasible that this will be the true player’s sole console companion of choice.
• Awesome sound/video output
• Built-in Blu-ray drive, wireless networking
• Tilt-sensing capability
• Online shopping features
• All games HD-ready
• Multimedia functionality
• Free online multiplayer
• 60 GB hard drive
• Temporarily middling game selection
• No force-feedback (rumble) features
• High purchase price
• Fingerprint-loving casing
• Component/HDMI cable sold separately
• Some backwards-compatibility issues