It’s a well known fact among most of the regular Random Digital Musings visitors that I’m a big PlayStation fan. In general, Sony has provided an entertainment experience that has supported my infatuation with technology. My first TV was a 13″ Trinitron (and it’s still great for 480i/last gen gaming). In the opinion of many, the original PlayStation had a tremendous influence on the current console market — probably as much as any other machine excluding the Atari 2600 and the Nintendo Entertainment System. (OK – maybe the GameBoy is more influential, but you get the point.)
With that said, amidst all of the arrogance that has come from Sony lately (“We’ll sell PS3s regardless of the price”, “Rumble is not important to gamers”, “The next generation doesn’t begin until we say it does”, etc.) I’ve been happy to stand up and come to Sony’s defense. All of the PS3 bashing seems a bit ignorant — making comments about a gaming system that hasn’t even been released yet. And if the PS3 is as overhyped as the haters say it is, I’m as open to the possibility of saying that the Wii or the Xbox 360 provides a more compelling experience as anyone else — provided I have the opportunity to play and experience the PS3 for myself. And yesterday I had that opportunity.
On Tuesday November 7 (as I geekily waited outside the mall until the Gears of War shipment came in) I ducked into a Target to waste some time. To my surprise, standing there in the middle America electronic department stood a working, playable PS3 kiosk. A few guys were playing NBA 07 (the Sony developed basketball game). I walked over to check things out for myself. Once I had the controller in my hand, I did some inspecting. Here are some of my observations:
Impression of Physical Console – I’m not sure what I expected, but the system looks a bit smaller than I thought. (Perhaps I’ve been staring at that Engadget doctored image where Kutaragi is holding an oversized PS3 too much??) It’s certainly not small. But it’s also not this gargantuan VCR that weighs 20 lbs, either. It’s tough to see from my horrible image on the left, but I think it will fit in nicely in any entertainment center alongside a receiver and other electronic equipment. I couldn’t touch it, but from what I gather, it picks up fingerprints like it’s younger sibling (PSP). In short, it looks pretty impressive.
XMB (Cross Media Bar) Interface – The Cross Media Bar (XMB) is what Sony is labeling their menu system. Straight away, I’m not a fan of the XMB. It was fine for the PSP, where you have a smaller screen and less room to provide a complete experience. For a machine this complex, the XMB is way too minimalist in it’s approach. The biggest thing that strikes me when using it is that it’s just not intuitive. Below is a video that the folks at Game Trailers posted of Sony VP Phil Harrison walking folks at a Sony show through the design.
The basic format of the XMB is a colored background and eight icons horizontally lined up across the center — User Management, System Settings, Photos, Music, Movies, Games, Web/Network, and Friends, in that order. What strikes me most about the interface is that “Games” is all the way at the right end of the bar. I don’t think that the Xbox 360 interface is perfect, but certainly in terms of prioritization, it seems to prioritize gaming a bit more. (It also bears mentioning that I think the 360 interface is to be a bit too intrusive in the other direction. Lots of colors and online-aware ads and images, but when you put in a DVD or a game, you don’t even get any images related to the inserted disc? Seems that if you can have GraceNote find all of your CD tracks and iTunes can look up all of your album art, the least that we can expect from a next generation gaming system should be that a DVD upon insert has some sort of image or running video to let you know that it’s there? But enough about the 360 menus.)
So what would be a better way to set up the PS3’s menu system? I have some ideas, but definitively, I’m not exactly sure. What I am sure about is that this design seems to wreak of “Gee, we launch in eight months and we don’t have a menu system — let’s use the one we use for the PSP. We can sell it as a ‘consistent user interface experience’.” It’s like quality: You can’t always define it, but you know it when you see it. And in the case of the menu system, I just think there had to have been a better way to make the interface more reflective of this legendary “next-generation experience.”
Movies and Pictures – Movies and pictures were, well….movies and pictures. There were a few demo movies and images that looked great on the Sony High Def monitor. But, as I had to explain to the folks oohing and ahhing, these are professionally shot images from some of the best folks Sony could find. Our own images might look nice, but let’s look that these with the right expectations.
As shown in the Phil Harrison video, there’s a nice way that the PS3 photo viewer can render your photos for a slideshow, such that they are laid on the screen like real physical photos. Watch the above video to see what I’m referring to.
The SIXAXIS Controller – What I wanted to find out about the controller I couldn’t. People have said that the Sixaxis is very light — in some cases, too light. Because it was tethered to the kiosk, I wouldn’t be able to test that today. I also wanted to test the “motion sensing.” In MotorStorm, the motion sensing option was selectable and the kiosk didn’t allow for some lateral movement. I was able to control the car a bit, but not enough to make any conclusions. Like the weight issue, the motion sensing has to be tested in an environment where I can actually hold the controller.
I had to kinda chuckle at the PS3’s “Guide Button”. (“PS” labeled button in the center of the controller.) The 360 controller is so revolutionary that I find it hilarious that Sony just ripped off the Guide Button. While it doesn’t work as seamlessly as the 360’s, it does steal some functionality. I wasn’t able to use the PS3 button to check my friends’ availability, check my online status, look to see what achievements I’ve already acquired (and all those other things that the Guide Button does so well) — but it does let you turn the console on and off and return to the menu. As a matter of fact, it works almost exactly like the Guide in some cases. When I held the button in for a few seconds, the screen went dark and I had the options to “shut off controller”, “Exit game” (which means go back to the XMB — they really should say that more clearly), or “Cancel”. Almost exactly the same behavior as would happen if you held in the 360’s Guide Button. I think it’s kinda funny. And kinda sad.
While the absence of rumble in the controller is expected to be a sore spot for many (including myself), I welcome the fact that the controller is going to have a 30-hour life on one charge. I know that I can probably get that on the 360 controller if I turned off the rumble, but when I use the 360 I feel like I’m charging batteries after 5 hours of gameplay. It gets annoying. Also, the PS3 lets you charge the controller with a standard USB mini cable. So, basically the PS3 gives you the equivalent of the Xbox 360’s “Play and Charge” and “Quick Charge” kit, only free of charge. (Well, not exactly free — the system is $600.)
System Settings – To me, this is just a convoluted mess. This section of the XMB is akin to the junk drawer that you look at with shame and that you don’t want anyone to see. This is the metaphorical equivalent to the poorly designed remote control with buttons that are all shaped the same and spaced evenly apart. As a matter of fact, I’d give the XMB a bit of slack if gamers were treated to a more visually and graphically appealing experience — one that made the process of selecting options an easier and more intuitive task. I know I’m going to catch some flack here, but come on, now. You’re selling a next generation entertainment system. Can’t you put a little dedicated memory inside the box and show images next to each option? I don’t know, perhaps put a little “question mark” icon next to each option and, when selected, plays a corresponding movie that explains the functionality of the option?? This system is supposed to usher in the next generation of gaming. Be creative! If you want to be treated like a thought leader, act like one.
(Small note: Most of the options in the XMB menus were disabled. Virtually all of the options in the System Settings section were disabled.)
Loading…..?? – One thing I noticed when loading up a few of the movies was that the load times were surprisingly long. Perhaps it was just the kiosk or perhaps the demo disk was acting up, but more than a few times, me and the crowd that were observing the unit were running out of stuff to say while the loads approached 20 and sometimes 30 seconds. We noticed this in particular when loading MotorStorm. (Or perhaps it was just my child-like excitement at the surprise that there was a working playable version of MotorStorm on the demo disk.)
The Game Movies – Just a lot of marketing fluff. The usual suspects. EA had Madden, Tiger Woods and Need For Speed. Sony had Genji and Untold Legends (but surprisingly not Resistance: Fall of Man. Hmmm?) And then there was a Justice League game video. But nothing really notable here. I can’t remember if the video thumbnails played while you highlighted them. I think they did — but don’t hold me to that.
The Game Demos – The moment of truth. This is where I would find the answer to my $600 question. And find it I would. There were two demos that I played. NBA 07 and MotorStorm. First NBA 07. It looked…..shiny. (NOTE: the kiosk display settings were set to run at 720p for some reason.) You could tell that since this is one of the games that was designed to run in true 1080p, they wanted you to know it. So the players have a very shiny glare to them with the ever popular sweat and moving uniforms. The game looks nice, but it’s lacking some of the grit that shows up in the NBA 2K series. It was like looking at an LCD TV from the wrong angle. It was lit too brightly. It’s too polished. But let’s remember that 989 Sports is a shell of what it once was and Sony doesn’t make as many sports games as it once did. This is probably more of a tech demo than anything else. It played like your standard fare basketball game, but this wasn’t going to be at the top of most gamer’s holiday lists anyway.
However….MotorStorm is a game that many were waiting for eagerly — including myself. And after playing the demo, I was sorely disappointed. This is the footage that was played during E3 2005:
Yet, what I played was considerably different. Not even close to this video. (Perhaps these are the same folks that did the Killzone target video?) Whatever the case, it was a very sluggish, slow, off road racer. The sense of speed that racing games are supposed to generate was totally absent from this demo. Hopefully this is a big part of the reason why Motorstorm is not part of the PS3 launch lineup. They probably need time to work on it. But even knowing that the game looks this different from the above video and they were still willing to show it as a playable demo gave me second thoughts about why I was trying to sell a kidney to buy this console.
Okay, so I just played with the kiosk for a few hours. It’s not as if I played even the best of what the system will offer this holiday season. But my overall excitement heading into the launch was severely deflated. I’m certain that I’ll pick up the PS3 — at some point. But, as mentioned in my other post, where are the compelling gaming experiences this holiday season? If you ask me, the truly compelling experiences lie on other gaming platforms. I’m not sure what this says about the future of the PS3 to have someone as pro-Sony as myself feeling very underwhelmed after playing the system on a kick-ass TV, but it can’t be good.
Ironically, only hours later, I would go home and play one of the most incredible games that I’ve played……well, ever. Gears of War is about as complete an action gaming experience as you’ll find on any console. As good as Resistance: Fall of Man might be, sadly it has an even higher benchmark to surpass. While Resistance is a true first-person shooter and Gears is a 3rd person over-the-shoulder shooter, the comparisons will be drawn immediately. Both have you holding machine guns and fighting off alien-like creatures who threaten to take over the world. But that’s where the comparisons probably stop. Gears has that extra special quality that, IMO, puts it up there with Halo and, (dare I say) surpasses it in many areas.
On 1up.com’s 1up Yours Podcast, respected writer Luke Smith talked about the fact that Microsoft and Epic Games were silly to put Gears out so close to a console launch. And for awhile, I was thinking that he might be right. After spending millions and millions on a game with this kind of scale, why would you not release the game much earlier and capitalize by stealing all of the attention during the slow pre-holiday season? Why run the risk of being drowned in the media blitz over the PS3 and Nintendo Wii console launches? But looking at the situation in retrospect, the stars and the moon might have lined up perfectly for Microsoft and for Epic Games. This is perhaps the perfect time to release Gears. There’s nothing that I’ve seen in any game footage videos (including Epic’s own Unreal Tournament 2007 videos) that have the character, the polish, the charisma and the style that Gears has. And that’s on any console.
Gears of War may just be for the Xbox 360 what Sonic the Hedgehog was for the Sega Genesis. (For the young ones reading, it turned the tide in the 16-Bit console era in favor of Sega.)