PlayStation 3: The Review

PlayStation 3: The Review

Next-Gen has spent this week with a final U.S. production model of PS3. Here are our impressions of the experience and our view on whether the machine represents good value…

First Impressions

This system is noticeably larger than the Xbox 360, but does a very good job of looking sleek, all the same. It’s a monster, and while it runs very quietly, it’s hot. The fan kicks up after extended play, but it’s still quieter than the 360.

The sexy touch-only buttons for power and eject, alongside the slot-loading Blu-ray drive, help emphasize its fine lines. So does the so-damn-shiny black exterior. If electronics investments were measured by heft and sheen alone, the PS3 would scream value.

Powering it on, we were prompted to download a firmware upgrade if we wanted to try to get online. That’s the nature of things these days, though: the Wii wants one before it will hit the web, too. We also had to download one onto the 360 to get the HD DVD drive running. Still, Sony fans have waited a long time for this console, and downloading firmware is a poor way to spend your first moments with a new console.

Interface

The Cross Media Bar (XMB) interface, inherited from the PSP (and spinning out across more of Sony’s devices as we speak) has a simple elegance that the 360′s dashboard, can’t match. There are a bunch more options than the PSP, of course, but they’re grouped in much the same way: by category.

What we found trickiest is the need to enable HDMI output before that port actually works (we had to briefly futz around in 480i via the included composite cable).  Annoyingly, when you play games, pushing the PlayStation button doesn’t overlay the XMB – you just get a simple quit or config menu, with no access to your friends’ list or anything. Not a great move, Sony, when Microsoft makes it all so easy.

The controller and games

One good place to judge the PS3 is its controller. A lot of nonsense has flown about the Siaxis motion sensing (accusing Sony of ripping off Nintendo) and the lack of rumble (accusing Sony of not wanting to pay Immersion money). The controller, thanks to the lack of motors, is light, which is surprisingly good feeling. It’s almost identical to its PS2 predecessor, and is comfortable and familiar. Using the PS3′s controller is like coming home.

The PS3 comes complete with a host of decent software as is its launch lineup; lots of it recycled from the 360, true, but that won’t matter to any but those who already have one. What we have from Sony is a one-two punch of core gaming: Resistance: Fall of Man, which should warm the hearts of everyone but the most rabid Halo fans, and Genji: Days of the Blade, which at least looks very pretty.

In fact, it’s almost more interesting to talk about Genji than Resistance: everyone knew Resistance, coming from Insomniac, the guys behind Ratchet & Clank, would be good. There was no mystery there. What’s so encouraging about Genji is how good it looks. This is a launch game that handily slices through any suggestions the PS3 isn’t capable: it looks better than the majority of the spruced-up current-gen games still shipping a year into the 360 – though its gameplay somewhat stale.

The characters look fantastic. The levels pack subtle detail. Even if the game itself doesn’t deliver, it makes us dream of Onimusha, or Final Fantasy. It whispers potential. What else are launch games for? The lone first-party offering that supports 1080p is NBA 07 , but it won’t really impress on any level beyond resolution.

PlayStation Network

The PlayStation Network isn’t available to US PS3 gamers just yet, unfortunately. On the other hand, I can just about read Japanese, so I signed up for a PlayStation Network account anyway. The setup is simple and similar to any online store, and you can skip the credit card entry if you don’t intend to buy anything online – a nice touch.

We headed straight to the PlayStation Store and downloaded a Ridge Racer 7 demo – interesting that Sony doesn’t mind if you jump the international gap, as long as you’re faintly convincing. Of course, we’ll delete this account as soon as the US ones are available.

The PlayStation store is fairly barren; a demo of Blast Factor, the Geometry Wars clone, is also available. If you have money to spend, Mainichi Issho and the full version of Blast Factor are all you get: no PSone games just yet (they wouldn’t work on the PS3 anyway.) There’s a free Genji download (character costumes) and some movies (Afrika, Casino Royale, a Blu-ray commercial, etc.) The RR7 demo, by the way, automatically runs in English, presumably because that’s what the system’s language is set to.

The PlayStation Network is basic but functional: it gets its own slot on the XMB, and you’ll see the obvious options. Messaging is first, and the rest are player options: adding them, blocking them, or just finding them from a list of opponents you’ve recently met (a nice touch.) Unfortunately, since we don’t have any online games right now, that’s as far as we go. At least the basics are present and correct.

Out of the box the system also supports a web browser – and at the 1080p resolution we’re running, it’s a very nice thing. The loading seems a little slow compared to Firefox on a Windows XP machine, using the very same broadband connection, and flash-heavy pages seem to confuse it a bit.

Blu-Ray

Of course, the system also plays Blu-ray movies, something Sony would suggest is an integral part of the next-gen experience. Well, there are plenty of critiques of the format online from people who fret over these things much more than I ever will. Having spent the weekend mucking about with the Xbox 360 HD DVD drive and the PS3, I’ll tell you I’m now completely sold on high definition video: the leap in clarity is amazing. Is either one better? They look the same to me. Talladega Nights isn’t a great movie for showing off the format, though: an action movie with expensive special effects (MS tucked in King Kong) would have been a better choice. This movie just looks cheap and stupid in 1080p. But the detail is still fantastic, and, even stuck with the Sixaxis as the only way to control the player, Blu-ray is damn nice.

Conclusion

So what are we left with? In 2006, PlayStation 3 isn’t about what the system can do. It’s about what the system will do. Yes, if you spend $600 you deserve to get $600 worth of entertainment. But it’s a (minimum) six-year promise that Sony’s making, and it’ll take a while for the games to ramp up, as it always does. Is it worth it right now? No. Even the Blu-ray movie selection kind of sucks.

But will the PS3 be worth it in the end? There can’t be a doubt. At a base level, Sony has achieved every function essential for this system to compete with the 360. You can argue the finer points, but if you suggest that the PS3 isn’t exactly what it needs to be, you’re simply wrong. It’s the inheritor of the PlayStation legacy, and it’s also a system that is a technical powerhouse and an attractive one, too. The PS3 is a must-buy – eventually. But is it worth $600 and a night in a parking lot? Not a chance.

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