PlayStation 3 shines in prelaunch test

Sony rolls out the red carpet for journalists and analysts a month before the game console's launch. Photos: PS3 in basic black

SAN FRANCISCO--I'm standing in a room full of gamers in what must certainly feel to some like heaven: Sony's PlayStation 3 prelaunch press event.

From the street, it's not clear why such an event would matter, but inside, on two floors filled almost literally to the rafters with high-definition TVs and PS3s, it's obvious that this is the center of the video game universe today. And that's borne out by the fact that nearly every important American video game journalist is on hand.

Earlier in the afternoon, the 200 to 300 reporters, analysts and video game industry professionals in attendance sat for an hour-plus press conference in which , as well as information about the next-generation console's peripherals, online and networked functions and more.

PlayStation 3

But now, everyone has moved to two levels above for hours of video game play, cocktails and light snacks. And for anyone who has wanted to try out the PS3, this is the best chance they'll get before the Nov. 11 Japanese or Nov. 17 North American launch of the much-anticipated console.

This event, by the way, is being held at Dogpatch Studios, an increasingly popular events venue. I know that, in part, because Microsoft held an invite-only reporter's showcase for the Xbox 360 here last year in advance of that console's launch. And in talking with Sony PR folks, I'm not sure they were aware of that. It doesn't seem like they would want to convey the message that they're following Microsoft.

Some details on the machinery: There are two versions of the PS3, both of which come with Bluetooth wireless functions and a Blu-Ray drive for high-definition video. The low-end version, which has a 20GB hard drive, is priced at $499, while the high-end console swaps in a 60GB hard drive and adds Wi-Fi capabilities for a price of $599.

PS3 players who don't want to do their gaming in isolation will be able to use the PlayStation Network to indulge in multiplayer games and chat with other players. They'll also be able to download games, surf the Web, view photos and video, and listen to music.

Thursday's event, meanwhile, is a chance to compare the PS3 to Nintendo's Wii, which I tried out last week and Microsoft's Xbox 360. It's a bit of a challenge, since I'm not a hard-core gamer and many of the games that Sony and its publisher partners have brought together here are aimed at those who are nearly certain to be in line to buy a PS3 at 12:01 a.m. on launch day and who will no doubt be buying as many of the well-reviewed games as they can afford.

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Still, I'm attracted by a healthy number of the games in the room, even if I can't actually get close enough to play them all. That's because there are so many people in the room--which is small, and therefore overly crowded--that there seem to be at least three people for every available console.

Finally, though, I get to a console loaded with Sony's own basketball game, "NBA 07."

I'm excited to try this because I do like sports games, and because I'm eager to give the PS3's motion-sensitive controller a road test. After all, that was the feature I liked best about the Wii: A controller that removes some of the guess work by tying on-screen movement to the way you actually move your controller. On the Wii, it's a snap to learn, and as someone who has had trouble with the complex controllers of other consoles, motion-sensation is a real gift.

I'm certain I'm not the only one, of course, since the whole reason Nintendo and Sony have included this feature in their controllers is to give gamers an easier time. Plus, it's pretty cool to be able to control things simply by moving your hands, something that is a heck of a lot easier and intuitive than thumbing a joystick.

I start to play "NBA 07" and promptly get my head kicked in by the computer's Golden State Warriors team. But it's not as bad as it seems. For the first few minutes, my Seattle Supersonics team is playing the computer close. I hit about five straight baskets and I feel like I'm getting the hang of the controller and the game itself.

Ghoulish graphics
The graphics are beautiful--as should be expected. But as I've written before, the problem with such realistic graphics is that anything unrealistic stands out. And in every next-generation sports game I've seen where the realism is so good that you can see muscles rippling, the players' ghostly, vacant eyes leave me feeling so creepy I just want to slink away.

I wish there was something that could be done about this. But this is the curse of the "uncanny valley," a theory from robotics that applies to video games as well. In essence, it describes the reaction of people to nonhuman characters--the more realistic the character, the more favorable the reaction, except for a nearly human look that's lacking in some key detail. Think corpses, zombies, prosthetics and other things that create an uneasy feeling.

Regardless, I keep playing, and though I'm getting the hang of the game, I'm falling further and further behind. At first, I don't think the game utilizes the motion-sensitive feature of the controller, but then a helpful Sony representative shows me how to use it to do spin moves and all kinds of other tricks.

That's cool, I think, as I proceed to give up something like 15 straight points.

Frustrated, I walk over to a nearby machine and pick up a controller and begin to play "Formula One Championship," a cool-looking racing game.

I get behind the wheel and begin to drive. I gear up, I go fast and I'm in the thick of things. Until I miss a turn, smash into a wall and lose any chance of competing for the lead.

Strangely, this game doesn't utilize the motion-sensation of the controller at all, and that's a real shame. If it were up to me, every PS3 racing game would use the feature, because as has been shown with Wii racing games, there is very little that's more intuitive with a motion-sensitive controller than driving a car.

But I come to grips with the lack of the feature and soldier on. I fall further behind, but I get the sense that with a few more practice rounds, I could be a contender. And it's fun. I think to myself that I might well buy this game when it hits store shelves.

I then moved over to another PS3, where a TV crew was filming Sony Online Entertainment's "Untold Legends: Dark Kingdom."

The game looks good, but I can't figure out who's playing it, because there's full action on the screen, but no obvious players.

Then I turn around and I notice that a gentleman is standing about 10 feet away slashing and smashing monsters with a wireless PS3 controller. And while it should come as no surprise that a wireless controller can be used in this way--since both the Xbox 360 and the Wii offer such a wireless feature--it is a nice example of how it works.

I then went upstairs and watched someone playing 2K Sports' "NHL 2K7." Again, I couldn't get near a machine given the number of people in the room, but I could watch.

And I was impressed by this game, despite the fact that I can barely be bothered to acknowledge hockey in the real world. But this game looks good, and since it doesn't focus on the players' faces, I don't have to get creeped out by their eyes.

Instead, I focus on the stellar graphics, the realism of the ice, and I have to remind myself that this is not a televised hockey game.

Also not being televised is the Alpine racing track I see in a game of "Gran Turismo HD." The fellow playing it is racing his way through what appears to be some Alps, and I am stunned by the realism of the graphics. As he winds his way up and down the precarious mountains, I think, "Now this is truly an uncanny valley." And I mean it in the best-possible way.

At that point, I had to leave. But I walked away thinking, the PS3 is going to be tough to compete with. Of course, the Xbox 360 has a year's head-start and many more games, but given time, I trust that Sony will find a way to stay on top.

 

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