With the launch of the PlayStation 3 all but confirmed for the beginning of March, we took a look at the system and its early games to see if the wait is going to be hard to live through. Sony's next-gen console certainly didn't have a smooth landing when it arrived in Japan and North America, so has Sony done European gamers a favour by holding off on our launch until there's more plentiful stock and a larger selection of games?
If the recent Japanese and North American launches demonstrated anything, it's that the PlayStation 3 lacks killer software. During our time with the system we played Resistance: Fall of Man and MotorStorm (along with a number of lesser titles), and though both were fun in their own way there's a definite sense that there's a lot more to come. Though Resistance is visually impressive, with some great detail in the various British cities featured in the game, it certainly doesn't offer anything revolutionary in terms of gameplay and enemy AI, although you can't expect the world from a launch title.
MotorStorm, although not the same game we'll get in Europe, definitely showed some signs of being a fun and interesting take on the arcade racing genre. Regardless of the E3 2005 debacle, where 'gameplay footage' was revealed to be nothing more than a CG movie, it's still visually impressive and the variety of vehicles and undulating track design should make for some immensely fun gameplay. Moreover, with the delay of the PlayStation 3 in Europe, there's a good chance we'll see it at launch, complete with online play - something that can't be found in the recent Japanese release.
At the moment the line-up in North America isn't really compelling enough to throw a large amount of money at an import, but the two games mentioned above and the likes of F1, Virtua Fighter 5 and a barrage of other multiplatform titles should make the Euro launch a lot more exciting. If anything, however, a number of the early exclusive PlayStation 3 games (360 ports seem to be fairing less well) are more or less matching 2nd generation Xbox 360 games visually, and that bodes well for the future of the new console.
Regardless of your point of view on the media focus of the PlayStation 3, you can't deny the impressiveness of its media functions. During a presentation by Sony we were shown how the console can deal with pretty much any media device you can throw at it, whether it be an iPod, digital camera or camcorder; pretty much anything with USB, Wi-Fi or Bluetooth capabilities can be accessed using the PlayStation 3. From then on in you can choose to copy content to the hard-drive, or play it straight off the device and all with little discernible delay.
Where the PlayStation 3 certainly scores further brownie points is with the interface, which seems slick and easy to navigate - especially on a high-def display. Each media function - including photos, music and videos - has its own section, with album art for music albums and customisable preview clips for videos. It's all very impressive, and if you're into photography then the PlayStation 3 could serve you well too, with some neat slideshow options.
One of the best media aspects, however, is being able to install an off-the-shelf 2.5-inch hard drive into the hard drive bay, and with prices of 100GB drives in the same price bracket as Microsoft's 20GB 360 drive it's a good value option. While the majority of PlayStation 3's sold in Europe will likely come equipped with a 60GB hard drive, it's great to have the option to upgrade if you need it. This could prove to be important when downloading HD content such as film trailers and TV shows, and also allows you to take advantage of the PS3's impressive video playback. With support for far more formats than the Xbox 360 (which is WMV only), a large hard drive could be packed full with video content.
Then there's the small matter of the Blu-ray drive. As much as it's been criticised, if you're willing to pay the high price to own the console you'll also get a high-def movie player at a fraction of the price of a standalone player. Whether Sony was wise to force everyone into paying for the new drive is a contentious subject, but its inclusion makes the console by far the most impressive for media playback.
The PlayStation 3 Store is Sony's answer to Xbox Live Marketplace, and so far it's offered a surprising amount of quality content. Eventually there'll be music, video and all sorts of other bits and pieces, but at the moment the focus is games. The current crop of Xbox Live Arcade-like software is a mixed bag, but releases like Tekken 5 Dark Resurrection, GripShift and the GT HD demo have even proven to offer more compelling experiences than much of the full-price software. It's certainly not good enough to go spending money on an import (especially with issues buying software outside of each console's region), but the store is off to a good start, and there's more to come.
Currently the store allows for a select number of PlayStation games to be bought on the PlayStation 3 and transferred to your PSP, but eventually (hopefully by the launch in Europe) these games will be playable on the console itself. SingStar fans will also get their own store, with a multitude of tracks available to download (presumably at a premium) for the PlayStation 3 version of the game.
Web browsing is something that the Xbox 360 doesn't offer but, like the Wii, the PlayStation 3 lets users view their favourite sites from the comfort of the sofa, and in high-def - which makes all the difference when reading text on a TV. Web pages load as you would expect and it has its own take on tabbed browsing, with new windows displayed around the screen for easy navigation. Again, this worked very well on a high-def screen, though it will be interesting to see how well it works on lower resolution displays - something that makes the Wii's web browser rather disappointing.
And finally we get to online gaming. As much as Sony might be talking the talk about offering a service comparable to Microsoft's Xbox Live, the system currently can't compete in this area - although online play is offered at no extra cost to the user. Whereas Xbox Live has had years to grow into what it is today, Sony's service feels cobbled together in comparison, and the lack of standards across each title is more than a little worrying. It's safe to say that online gaming isn't a major reason to pick up a PlayStation 3 at this point, and other than MotorStorm there seems to be little on the horizon to bolster the European launch either.
The PlayStation 3 controller, or the Sixaxis to use its proper name, has been subject to a fair amount of discussion ever since it was announced that rumble was out and tilt-sensing was in. Whatever your take on it, we certainly noticed the lack of force feedback. This was especially apparent when playing MotorStorm, with the lack of feedback to compliment the varying terrains being notable in its absence, while the lack of rumble in the likes of Resistance is also something that is hard to get used to.
Other than this, the Sixaxis is a very good controller. The basic Dual Shock layout is just as good as it always has been, and the addition of analogue triggers in the R2 and L2 positions is a long overdue improvement. Some have complained of their fingers slipping off the analogue triggers, but we didn't experience any such problems when using them.
The tilt abilities, from which the Sixaxis name is derived, were something of a mixed bag. MotorStorm, which gave the choice between traditional controls and tilt control, feels rather imprecise with the tilt function activated. It would, however, be unfair to make any real judgement until the game is complete and in European stores. We've already seen how good it can be when used properly on Wii, and there's little reason this can't be the case with the SIXAXIS too, although it'll largely depend on it being implemented in the right games - Lair from Factor 5 comes to mind.
Every new console generates excitement when it's launched, but it's currently hard to see how the PlayStation 3 is appealing to anyone other than the hardcore early adopters. The fact that we Europeans weren't able to buy the system last year was and still is huge disappointment, but when you step outside the hype bubble for a moment the situation isn't nearly as bad. The games available simply aren't worth spending lots of money on, and thankfully this should be a non-issue when the console is released over here. It'll still be expensive, but with a handful of good to great games, impressive downloadable software and superb media functionality, it'll be hard to resist come March (hopefully).
A lot has been said about the PlayStation 3 in recent months, and lots of it has been either overblown or simply inaccurate. That Sony have made mistakes is perfectly true, but my time with the PlayStation 3 has left me feeling cautiously optimistic about its future. Moreover, from the point of view of the consumer, the European delay may well prove a blessing in disguise, since the excellent media functions can't make up for the lack of meaningful software releases. Hopefully, by the time PlayStation 3 finally reaches our shores, we'll be getting the best of both worlds.