Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Santa got me a PS3

Usually this time of the year I dedicate some posts to express my disgust with the consumerism festivities taking place under the banner of Christmas shopping. This year, for a couple of reasons, it looks like I won’t.
First there’s the global financial crisis. Walking through Melbourne’s major shopping precincts, as I do twice a day through my commute to work, the relative lack of congestion is easily felt: whereas yesteryears required some heavy NFL derived tactics just to be able to cross the street this year is all about peace and quiet. Hooray for financial crises! I hope they would help people figure what the real deal is with the holidays anyway.
Second, there is the undeniable fact that I have been spending money like the double faced consumerist I am. The epitome of this season’s spendings so far, as you might have guessed through careful reading of my blogs, has been the purchase of a Sony Playstation 3.
The purpose of this post is to communicate key aspects of the PS3 experience.

1: Plug and Play
One of the key advantages a games console holds over the PC as a gaming platform is its plug and play capability. You connect it to the TV, you stick the game disc in, and you sit and play. But is that the case with the PS3?
The short answer is no. The lengthy answer follows.
The PS3 uses Bluetooth controllers (a sophisticated word for “joystick”). Given the Bluetooth nature of said joystick, it needs to be paired to the console so that both console and joystick will be able to talk to one another. Given the need for the cordless controller to be charged, it needs to be connected to one of the console’s USB outputs for charging. Add one to one, and the first thing you need to do with your PS3 after you put it in its shelf and connect it to the power socket is to connect it with a USB cable to your controller: this will charge the controller and also pair it (a process required every time you introduce your controller to a new console).
Next you need to connect the console to your TV. In my case, I have connected the console to my receiver via an HDMI cable; the receiver was already connected to the TV via HDMI. As you turn the console on, it will automatically handshake with your TV (through the receiver, in my case) to determine the optimal screen setting. In my case it determined 1080i as the console’s output (the PS3 is capable of 1080p output but my TV won’t accept it); I had to manually ask my PS3 to use 720p instead. To do that you have to navigate through the PS3 menus, which use a very smart interface that will still take you a while to digest when you use it for the first time. Do not rely on the supplied joke of an instruction book to help you much there.
Next on the setup agenda was the sound. As I have discussed before, the PS3 will not output the advanced sound formats (Dolby TrueHD or DTS HD) out its HDMI outputs; it outputs the resulting PCM code instead (that is, it processes these sound formats for you already, theoretically relieving you of the need for an expensive receiver/processor). When setting the sound up, the PS3 handshakes with your receiver through the HDMI interface to determine which of its long list of supported sound formats it would accept and presents the results for you to approve in a few seconds. It worked like a charm.
Next thing on the agenda was to try and play a game, just to see that the console works. So I stuck FIFA 09 down my PS3’s mouth, only to be greeted by a message telling me that in order to be able to play this game I need to have my PS3's system updated. Great! In plain English the message meant I had to connect the PS3 to the internet; note this was not an option, I had to do it in order to play games, the console’s main role in life.
Luckily, the PS3 has built in wireless, but it was still a pain to register it on my wireless network given that all the info has to be entered using the joystick and not with a keyboard (Sony says a USB keyboard should do the job, but I don’t have one).
With the internet connection sorted I moved on to do the system update. Now, there’s a system update and there’s a system update; this one is a System Update in capital letters because it took about half an hour just to download on my ADSL2+ connection and then some ten more minutes to install itself. Plug and play, right?
Well, no. With the system update behind me I put FIFA 09 in again, and this time I got another message telling me I need to download the latest software updates for the game itself, 32mb worth. So there go a few more minutes. And then the game tells you that in order to enjoy it the most you need to set an internet account with the Playstation network and a separate account with EA Sports (FIFA 09’s publisher). As before, given the need to enter all the info using the joystick, and you do need a lot of info to register with Playstation, this is tedious and takes quite a while.
Experience thus far with three games indicates you need to download the latest patch with every new game you try to play on your PS3. Curb your enthusiasm when bringing the newest, meanest and hottest game copy home, because it will take a while before you’d be able to actually play it!
There is no doubt the PS3 is the most technically advanced games console out there at the moment, but a plug and play console it is not. I guess that is one reason why the Wii is beating it in the sales department.

2: Blu-ray and video playback
You can argue whether getting a Blu-ray player is worthwhile in the first place but you cannot argue with the PS3 being an excellent Blu-ray player, at least when compared to the alternatives.
The most noticeable feature of the PS3 playing Blu-ray titles is that it is unnoticeable: Unlike other players, you do not get lengthy delays when playing a new disc or when pausing/restarting. Instead, you get an experience that is very similar to the DVD playback experience we are all used to. To date I am still to encounter a Blu-ray title offering internet contents (aka BD Live), but the PS3 is meant to be able to deal with those, too; till then, the only difference between Blu-ray and DVD watching, as far as I am concerned, is the quality and me needing to use the PS3’s controller as a remote control.
Surprisingly, using the joystick as the remote is not bad at all. Sure, I would have preferred to use my universal remote instead (which you cannot do unless you have a device converting infra red to Bluetooth), but I really don’t see a need to buy Sony’s dedicated PS3 Blu-ray remote control. The joystick’s utilization of the buttons and commands just makes sense!
It’s also interesting to note the PS3 managed to play any DivX contents I threw its way (through a USB stick; it also has the capability of detecting media on your network, assuming you have the right setup). It deals with high definition and standard definition with zero complaints and quite quickly. In this regard, it is better than any DVD player with a USB input I have encountered thus far, thus providing an excellent way to watch internet downloads in your home theater.

3: Antisocial gaming
I cannot say I am familiar with that many PS3 game titles, but there seems to be a repeating pattern with those I have bumped into thus far: conventional multi player gaming options are cast aside, with emphasis put on single player campaigns and multi player facilities over the internet.
Take the games we got bundled with our consoles as an example. With my previous console, the Xbox, we've received a copy of Halo. Indeed, the most fun we've had with the Xbox was when we played through the game's entire campaign in cooperative mode, an alien blasting partnership. With the PS3 the story is different: the bundled game, Resistance 2, a shooter not unlike Halo albeit significantly more spectacular, only offers internet multi playing options. Sure, I can use it to play cooperatively with others over the web, but I can't play it sitting next to my partner.
Things get worse, though. The PS3 comes bundled with a single controller. Wanna buy a second one, in case you do put your hands on a multi player game? Open your wallet wide and fork out $94 for the pleasure. That's daylight robbery for you. Cheaper alternatives exist on eBay, but they're all compromised: they're either wired or they lack the Wii like motion sensing features (that are hardly utilized by PS3 games, but then again maybe that would change).
That's anti social in my book. Compare it with the Wii, a console that specializes in social gaming and suffers tremendously in the technical capabilities department, and you can see why the Wii is outselling the PS3.

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