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11/17/2006 12:32:00 PM
Hands On: PlayStation3
By Paul Ulane
First there was the wheel. Then sliced bread. Now there's the Playstation3.
Judging by the amount of hype the PS3 has generated in the weeks leading up to its release, you'd think the newest next-generation gaming system from Sony could do everything from play games and movies to rub your feet and make you dinner. (And judging by the machine's Foreman grill-like design, maybe that's coming next Christmas.)
Yet beneath the landslide of mind-boggling side features (built-in Wi-Fi connectivity, Blue-ray Disc player, Bluetooth wireless controllers) lies the worry that Sony forgot about the most important element of its trademark system -- namely, the games. Is this the most revolutionary development in gaming since aliens first invaded space or just a good looking computer? The answer: let's wait and see.
The machine itself is sleek, small, and expensive-looking. (Hello, ladies!) The traditional on/off switch is in the back of the unit, but once you've powered on, the on/off and eject buttons are controlled by sensors up front -- not entirely necessary, but definitely kind of cool. The machine's most important hook-ups -- CompactFlash slot and Secure Digital Memory Card -- are both covered up by a front flip panel, below which sit the four USB ports. The attention to physical appearance is amazing, if not at times bizarre, including a Playstation logo that can be rotated to match the vertical or horizontal positioning of the system.
But looks can only take you so far and the real test drive comes when you fire this puppy up. (And "fire" might be the most appropriate word here, judging by the heat emanating from the back panel after a couple hours of playtime.)
The first drastic change is noticeable from the second you pick up the new controller, which is so light, it feels like a prototype. But this is no toy, and the new features instantly come into play. The new shape on the L2 and R2 buttons offers more surface area, in turn allowing for more "depth of stroke" (the press release's words, not ours), which is really just another way of making the buttons feel more like triggers.
More importantly, the new controller is wireless, and it seems up for a challenge from the most lonely of gamers. After charging it up for around an hour -- don't worry, if you're lucky enough to get your paws on one of these, you can play while charging -- the wireless functionality doesn't let up any time soon. We easily cruised through four hours of game play without any hiccups and found the range to be more than adequate. (Then again, living in a cramped New York apartment doesn't exactly allow for the best test of wireless reach.)
The new unit also throws in new motion sensor technology. (Take that, Wii!) The movement comes into play in war games -- shake off an enemy in a hand-to-hand scuffle -- as well as sports games -- break your opponents ankles without pressing a button -- delivering a very noticeable, and enjoyable, upgrade. If we have to sacrifice the "rumble" feature for all of that, so be it. Quit your whining, purists.
But the real test for whether or not the PS3 skips straight to the next generation lies in the graphics. And, well, they look good. Real good in HD. It's just, while we can be realistic here and accept the fact that there's just not that much room left for improvement in graphics, we'd also like this machine to deliver on the hype. After all, LeBron unloaded a triple-double in his first playoff game, why can't a $600 gaming system blow our minds right out of the box?
The lone sports title we had to test out the new features magnifies the problems that will face the PS3 in its infancy. NBA 07 is a serviceable enough hoops game, but the leap from the PS2 to the PS3 is hardly a trip into a new era of gaming. Don't get us wrong, at 1080p for NBA 07 (each game's display varies) the same features you notice in HDTV sports jump out at you in the game: individual fans, shiny hardwood courts, Scot Pollard's awful hair. There is certainly an upgrade in looks, it's just not as dramatic as the PS3 commercials with the melting baby would have you believe.
Yet maybe the revolution is still to come. The non-sports title, Resistance: Fall of Man, better shows off the machine's features. The gory first-person shooter adds rabid zombie killing machines (are there any other kind?) into a 1950's war simulation. A signature first person shooter has been a staple of each next-gen console, and Fall of Man is no different. If game developers can apply the best features of games like these (full utilization of the controller's features and painstakingly detailed graphics) to future PS3 titles, sports and non-sports alike, the next generation might arrive sooner than we all thought.
As for the non-gaming features, their importance varies. HDMI cord capability allows for the best and easiest HD connection to your TV for both movies and games... too bad you have to buy that one yourself. Online network capabilities are improved over the XBox 360 on a couple of levels. If you pick up the $600, 60 GB model -- and we don't know why you wouldn't, cheapskate -- Wi-Fi connectivity comes built into the machine. You should also jump on the PS3 bandwagon as fast as possible if you're looking to enjoy the free PS network -- who knows how long before they yank the plug on that offer. (We'd go into more detail, but only the Japanese online capabilities were functioning before the system's official release, and we'd already lent out our Japanese-to-English dictionary.)
The Blue-ray disc player provides the same quality upgrade for your DVDs that you experience going from regular TV to HDTV. (We tested it out with Talladega Nights, and, sure enough, Will Ferrell's trademark overacting was crystal clear.) You can also load up your movies, music, and photos to the 60 GB HDD and track your respective libraries on your PS3. The list of extra functions goes on and on, but you can check Sony's official site for the exhaustive list. We still can't shake the feeling that all of the effort that went into these add-ons could've been better spent on game development.
For the near future, the PS3 will find itself battling uphill against high expectations while game developers scramble to catch up to the system's capabilities. (Which means all of those schmoes who've been sleeping on the street the last three days might want to take back their resignation letters.) Don't get us wrong, this is still an awesome machine that's easy to hook up and play, but the jury will remain out on the PS3's true value for another six months to a year, when the souped-up games start hitting stores and we can really ride into the next generation.
You won't find a lacrosse video, but you can play Hackey Sack.
Photo by EA Sports
Why on God's green earth is there no lacrosse video game?
For years I've been trying to wrap my head around this. Take a look at some of the dubious titles that have wormed their way into the sports-sim pantheon over the years: pool, rugby, archery, track and field, bobsledding. But we need to look no further than Nintendo's 1987 California Games, which featured frisbee-throwing, hackey-sack, roller-skating, BMX -- everything short of devil-sticks and bong-hits. At this rate, I won't be surprised if lawn bocce has its day in the sun before my beloved lacrosse.
Can't we glean anything from Sports Illustrated's 2005 feature ("Get on the Stick," April 25), which declared lacrosse the fastest growing sport in America? The NFHS (high school) and NCAA reported that lacrosse grew 206 percent and 51.3 percent, respectively, in the past year. So it's popular, right?
Well, not according David Tinson, Senior P.R. Manager for EA Sports. "EA does not currently have a lacrosse game in the works," Tinson told me over the phone from his office in Vancouver, Canada. "There isn't a large enough market for it." He wouldn't let me talk to his marketing team but I told him it was hard to believe that Arena Football, Cricket, and Rugby -- all recent EA titles -- are setting the world on fire. "I suppose," Tinson responded, "it all depends on your definition of 'selling well.'"
In response to the "no market" argument, it's worth mentioning that ESPN does comprehensive coverage of both the men's and women's NCAA championships; OLN does a MLL game of the week. Last July, Canada won its first lacrosse title in 28-years, defeating the U.S. in the 2006 World Lacrosse Championships (www.2006worldlacrosse.com) on four goals by the venerable Gary Gait, a former Syracuse All-American.
Twenty-one countries participated in the tournament, which featured teams from lacrosse hot-beds like Latvia, Bermuda, and Hong Kong. And EA says there's no market! Lacrosse has arrived everywhere, it seems; everywhere except my poor little PS2.
For the uninitiated, lacrosse is a dynamite game -- sort of a hybrid of basketball and hockey -- replete with bone-breaking hits, 90-mph crank shots, fast-breaks, goals aplenty, and classic rivalries, played outdoors at break-neck speeds across a soccer pitch.
Developers who blanch at the thought of developing a lax sim need to realize, for better or worse, that lacrosse plays exactly like hockey with more scoring. There are already a glut of hockey video games that would require only minor tweaking -- make the shiny ice green, change the sticks, raise the goals, for example. Leave the one-timers and the fat-guy cherry-picking in the crease, and leave the quick-pace, power-plays, and savage checks.
Assuming that hockey sims aren't exactly raking in the dough (Tinson, however, claims Hockey is a Top-25 game. "It's huge in Canada!" he says.), what's the real risk of developing a lacrosse game? Think of lacrosse as a speculator's dream, California during the Gold Rush.
Meanwhile, hockey isn't growing. The players become less recognizable and the tickets easier to come by. It's fair to say that a sport that reached its zenith, console-wise, with Blades Of Steel, isn't exactly the fertile crescent of video games.
The first lacrosse game is coming; it's only a matter of time. Frankly, I can't believe I've had to wait this long. Lacrosse is just too great a sport to be ignored forever by the consoles. Sure, it will never be one of the Big Four (which is really three) and it won't pretend to be. The major obstacle preventing a game from getting off the ground is the lack of recognizable players. Even without the surnames, everybody knows that the No. 5 tailback for USC in NCAA 06 is Reggie Bush. A precious few can actually name a star lacrosse player. A major obstacle, yes, but people won't care who the starting left midfielder for Johns Hopkins is. The success of a lacrosse game rests on outstanding rivalries and taking advantage of lacrosse's BCS-like top-25 rankings.
How fun would it be to take a small program, develop them over the course of a season, and topple the heavyweights come tournament-time, like UMass did last year against Maryland? Build your own player. Give him bad facial hair and bright red cleats, run a top-flight college program, scout high school talent, play the all-star game. Or take those feisty Latvians to the finals of the World Championship.
It's all there; lacrosse is the perfect amalgamation of basketball, football, and hockey. By combining the best elements of extant sports video games, you could easily wind up with a quality game. I'll give it another year of waiting patiently; then I'm marching over to Tinson's office at EA Sports and demanding justice.
We're not going to kid anyone here: Soccer in America still has a long way to go. The MLS Cup was played Sunday, and while it was shown on national TV and, egads!, even rated a highlight package on SportsCenter, I'm pretty sure 9 out of 10 people -- maybe even 9.9 out of 10 -- couldn't tell you who won the match (that would be Houston), or even name one player on Houston.
MLS is growing, and soccer in the States is burgeoning, but something needs to push it along and over the edge into the mass consciousness. Some people believed Freddy Adu would be that "thing," a marketing shove in the right direction. Three seasons after his MLS debut, Adu hasn't been the long-term answer.
I remain hopeful that "thing" will be a soccer video game, maybe next year, maybe 10 years down the road. How often do we hear about how incredibly popularity the NFL has developed over the last decade? Now why doesn't anyone mention that the Madden series of games has made its rise to prominence over the same time span? Perhaps it's just a coincidence, but it's a heckuva coincidence if it is.
This brings us to EA's new FIFA 07 for the Xbox 360, which probably won't cause a run on MLS stock anytime soon. But if you enjoy The Beautiful Game, this game is beautiful. Well, in some ways. Its beauty lies almost completely in the look of it: shadows dance dramatically across fields, rain splashes down and pools up, players clatter into one another and stumble backwards. Visually, the game is Pamela Anderson.
Intellectually, unfortunately, it's closer to CJ Parker; While the game looks terrific, it doesn't always make a lot of sense. For some reason, players who are off the ball mostly stand around like statues, watching the action as if they'd bought a ticket. Kick a slow pass to a player, and he stands there waiting for the ball to arrive, even if the ball nearly rolls to a stop a few feet in front of him. And don't get me started about the runs some of my midfielders were making. I'm not sure why the game's AI isn't up to par, but it isn't and there's no way around this.
But after playing it for a while, you learn how to accept what the game can and can't do. If you're able to adjust, it's still a fun game to play. For instance, in older versions of FIFA, one of the best ways to score was by working the ball down a sideline and then curling in a centering kick to set up a header, much like in real soccer. In FIFA 07, this almost never works. Instead, for some reason, your best bet seems to be making a series of short passes directly up the center of the field and then passing it to a forward, even one who's marked closely by a defender, who can then generally spin and shoot before the defense can close on him. In general, there seems to be less offense in FIFA 07 than in any other version of the game. And in some ways, I guess that's a good thing, as in many real soccer games, a team may have only five or six genuine scoring chances over the course of a game.
EA has made a big deal out of the new ball physics in the game, saying they've completely reworked the way the ball bounces. Honestly, I couldn't tell a huge difference, other than it seemed that I couldn't make any long lead passes to my guys, particularly through the air.
The best part of FIFA 07 is the manager mode, which has always been a strong point of FIFA. Like in other years, you pick a franchise and then go about acquiring players, cutting players, loaning guys out and negotiating deals with talented young players from other leagues. The trick is to find a sponsor that pays you a high enough weekly sum that you can turn a small profit each week, allowing you to accumulate cash and invest in your coaching staff and your stadium. You also receive e-mails through the season, asking you to attend to various issues (from disgruntled fans to a team bus that's fallen into disrepair). These might seem rote, and many of the questions are recycled from previous games, but I love this aspect of the game, pretending that I'm getting to put my stamp on a club.
The online aspect worked great when I gave it a shot, and the action was flawless. There's also a game mode where you and a friend can go online and take on other groups of two, although if you're sitting on your couch playing games with a buddy, I'm not sure why you wouldn't just play against each other.
Ratings System (1 to 10)
Game Play: 7
The decision you have to face is whether or not you're able to sublimate your view of what soccer should be and subscribe to the way FIFA 07 presents the game. If you can, you'll probably like the game just fine. Otherwise -- maybe not.
The high point of the game. Once the AI catches up to the graphics, this will be a game to reckon with.
I found the manager mode addictive, even if there are about 300 fewer teams on the 360 version than on the PS2 and regular Xbox versions. There's also a vast series of challenges that can be fun to try and beat.