Let the Games Begin
How do the next-gen consoles match up?
With Nintendo Wii and Sony PlayStation 3 now on the shelves of North American retailers (at least in theory), Tom Bramwell - deputy editor of our sister site, Eurogamer.net - decided to take a long hard look at how the next-gen consoles compare.
Part one of his feature, published below, focuses on the PS3 and what consumers prepared to shell out for the most expensive of the new machines are getting for their money.
Visit GamesIndustry.biz tomorrow to read Tom's take on the Wii and Xbox 360, and find out why he believes that early successes and failures will mean very little in the long run.
Speaking in Los Angeles at Sony's ill-fated Culver City press conference this May, new SCE president Kaz Hirai (then president of SCEA, prior to his recent move to Tokyo) declared that the next generation only starts when Sony says it does. Well, I haven't seen him cutting any futuristic ribbons in the last fortnight (perhaps there's a shortage of silk diodes), but I'm guessing that he'd say that we're off and running now.
The thing is, we're really not.
Sony may have launched its PlayStation 3 in Japan and North America, and Nintendo may be well on the way to launching the Nintendo Wii all over the world, but anybody who tells you that now is the time to pass judgement on anything - on Nintendo's attempts to broaden the market, on Sony's attempts to justify two years of hype, on Microsoft's attempts to cut both of their heads off with a chainsaw bayonet - is sadly mistaken.
The most we can do is talk about the present state of the new consoles - what the hardware's like and what the software's like - and infer some clue as to what the next 12 months will bring. So let's get to it. And if you're very lucky, I might even do some Observer-esque cod psychology about politics as a fashion statement (you know - badge-wearing progressives sitting on the Internet preaching about the Wii-mote versus hardened conservatives clutching Blu-ray to their chests). Do you feel lucky?
I feel lucky, because I've managed to get both of the new consoles. Not a lot of people have. I'd love to say it was down to my brilliant contacts and the admirable rapport I've developed with both companies in between giving all their games 5/10, but actually it's because I've crippled one of my credit cards to help give a Chinese man a month off work.
What I've discovered since I've had both consoles, though, is quite interesting. In a nutshell, Sony's new PlayStation isn't finished, and Nintendo's Wii isn't just a fascinating prospect - it's already impressive.
PlayStation 3: The Fourth Estate Versus The Fourth Place
Ripping the PS3 out of the box, the first thing that strikes you is how big and glossy it is. Larger and heavier than the Xbox 360 and the Wii put together - mainly because it has all the power supply stuff built in, unlike either of the others - it looks every bit the expensive piece of consumer electronics it is. Switch it on and the comparison continues to stand up - inasmuch as it's a stilted wreck of unfinished operating software.
First there's the patching process. You need to hook it up to the Internet (fairly easy) and then download some software. You need to do this with the Xbox 360 too, but the size of Sony's "firmware update" is bigger, and certainly enough to kill off the first 30 minutes of play.
When it's installed the situation's still a bit bleak. The menu system - appropriated from the PSP - is easy to navigate, and the range of configuration options is satisfyingly vast, but scratch the surface and it's depressingly incomplete.
Plug in an iPod and you're met with a range of bizarrely named folders with all your songs out of order and hard to navigate. This is because the PS3 hasn't yet been told how to navigate an iPod - something the 360 has no trouble with, and something that proves rather microcosmic.
Scoot off to find some MP3s or movie files stored on your network and you realise you can't - you have to copy them onto a Memory Stick or some other form of recordable media. Even then they need to be in a particular format. Ripping CDs is alright, but copy some MP3s onto a Memory Stick and it's a bit of a lottery as to whether it'll put them in the right order, however well maintained your filenames and ID3 identification tags might be.
Going online is another pain. PS Network accounts are limited to US and Japanese residents at the moment, obviously, but even they have a hard time of it. I was disconnected several times during the process, and had to re-input my data multiple times to get to the end. Xbox 360's sign-up was never this painful.
Oh well, at least you can plug in a USB keyboard to get away from the awkward on-screen typing system (a sort of bastard union of text-messaging and programming a VCR).
With that done, you can access the PS3 Store, which is awkward and outmoded. It's a website, basically. It takes ages to load, and it's hard to navigate between pages. Supposing they sort this out, you're still forced to sit and watch a progress bar tick along glacially while you wait for a demo to download, rather than being able to go off and do other things like play games, as you can on Xbox 360.
But sod all that - what about the games and the Blu-ray films? The film front is well maintained, with a plethora of pre-configurable options (subtitles, aspect ratios, etc.) that put PS3 on an even footing with all but the most prescient of commercial movie players, but with a region lock in place all I was able to do was giggle ignorantly along to a Japanese horror film that cost Â£20. The difference in resolution is striking, and I might very well use the European PS3 to play back films one day.
This being a Sony console launch there aren't many games to comment on, and they're not doing much we haven't seen before. First-person shooter Resistance is fairly enjoyable, and likely to do well with early adopters thanks to its (largely flawless) online battles and rollicking single-player adventure, but it can't match the maturity of Gears of War on Xbox 360, which is far more atmospheric and visually oppressive.
Elsewhere, Ridge Racer 7 is no better than its Xbox 360 predecessor. Without going into the sorts of tedious semantic (some would say obsessive) details you'll find if you read my review on Eurogamer, it looks sharper in the higher resolution - 1080p, which all but the most financially irresponsible gamer has no access to - but it plays more or less the same.
Online gaming, meanwhile, is inconsistent - with Ridge Racer, for example, making a complete dog's dinner of its online leaderboards thanks to lengthy load times that negate the benefit.
Downloadable games are fewer and weaker in quality than Xbox 360's, too. Classic arcade titles will come soon, apparently, but for now there's mainly Blast Factor, a fairly enjoyable but overly easy shoot-'em-up that pales in comparison to Xbox Live Arcade's Geometry Wars.
There are quite a few downloadable demos though, helpfully, with MotorStorm's the most promising - the full game is due out in Japan on December 14, and should be around for the European launch.
That bodes well, because the demo level is brilliant. I've played every flavour of racing game, and its carefully measured track design, combative AI and useful controls speak to a quality typically absent at the launch of a console. (Although I suppose, since it technically is absent from the launch, that makes sense.)
Backwards compatibility is one of the better things the PS3 currently does. Much has been made of the fact that Sony suffers the same problems as Microsoft getting everything to work, but the distance between the two is still vast - after all, as one Eurogamer reader insightfully noted, Sony is counting the games that don't work, and Microsoft is counting the ones that do.
Sony also has a range of PSone games to release through its online store, although at the moment you can only play them on the PSP, and the whole process of buying and downloading and installing ties up the console for ages. You can't play them in multiplayer either. The pricing's reasonable, but until you can play them on PS3 itself it's unlikely to receive much interest.
But what, you might be wondering, of the vaunted motion sensing Sixaxis controller? Well, that specific part of it isn't getting much use yet. Ridge Racer 7 ignores it completely, and in Resistance it's more of a novelty (used for shaking off Alien-style face huggers), although the MotorStorm demo allows you to use it for steering, where it's twitchy but potentially interesting. It's a bit of a footnote at the moment though.
The pad itself, however, has been unfairly derided. Solid, comfortable and surprisingly light, it holds a decent charge (with a lengthy USB cable for those times it runs out of juice), and minor adjustments to the analogue sticks and trigger buttons give it a bit more depth than its predecessor the Dual Shock. No complaints here.
For now though, the story of the PS3 launch is typical of console launches in general: few games, few of which are excellent, and a console far from complete.
The thing that sticks with me most, though, is Sony's annoying failure to get all the onboard software ready. Instead, we have the same mentality as the PSP - a mentality that's seen 23 whole months elapse before the handheld received a menu option to not automatically load up games when it's turned on, something rather handy to anyone who prefers to use handhelds to watch films and listen to music.
This element of the PS3 strikes the biggest contrast with Microsoft's Xbox 360. I've always felt the 360 could be a lot simpler to use - Xbox Live Marketplace is a warren of weirdly named menus, and a lot of the important functionality is buried in sub-menus.
Having spent a few weeks with the PS3, I'm inclined to say sorry to Microsoft. At least they've done it. What have Sony's software programmers been doing with their extra 12 months?
Tom Bramwell is deputy editor of Eurogamer.net. Visit GamesIndustry.biz tomorrow for his take on the Nintendo Wii, the Xbox 360 and the unfolding console battle.