Consoul's Blog Consoul Games: November 2006

Thursday, November 30, 2006

PlayStation3: consoul on console.

So I've been putting the Japanese 60GB PS3 I picked up on day one through it's paces for about five weeks now. I finally feel like I've seen enough to share some detailed hands-on impressions. As usual, I'm not going to spin this either way or try to convince you to buy one or not - I'm just going to call it as I see it.

The Design

The first thing that strikes you when you take the PS3 out of the box is the sheer size of it. It's big. Bigger than you expect. (325mm x 98mm x 274mm) The depth of the unit is the most surprising part. However, like a woman in a black dress, the PS3's dark translucent curved design works wonders in minimizing it's apparent size. When you've actually got your PS3 set up, either horizontally or vertically, you likely won't notice it's depth anymore, as your eyes are drawn to it's uncluttered tapered front. The name "PLAYSTATION3" is emblazoned across the hood in the same font Sony Pictures have been using for the Spiderman movies.

Unlike the all black 20GB unit, the 60GB unit features a silver strip along the base and a silver panel on the front where the optical drive is. The drive has a self-loading disc slot with the trademark Playstation logo below it, which can rotate 90 degrees to match the orientation of your console. On the ledge beneath it are the power and eject buttons. I call them buttons, but they're really just touch sensitive areas, completely flush and with no discernable edges. The power lights are reminiscent of the PS2 - one red light indicates the system is in standby, and a pair of blue and green lights illuminate when the system is on. The blue light flashes when loading or ejecting a disc. Four USB ports are tucked under the overhang on the front, along with indicator lights for HDD and Wi-fi activity.

Like the original PSP, the PS3's shiny black surface is an absolute fingerprint magnet. It also shows dust like you wouldn't believe, so for this reason alone, you're best standing the PS3 vertically if your loungeroom setup can accomodate it. Overall, the PS3's physical design is slick and appealing, while being quite understated. Rather than standing out like a 360, the PS3 can blend in with other home theatre components very well.

The Ins and Outs

One of PS3's much heralded points of differentiation from XBox360 is it's ability to natively render and output graphics at HD resolutions up to 1080p (1920x1080 progressive). That's effectively twice as many lines per frame as the 1080i (interlaced) HDTV broadcast standard. Sony brashly claimed that "the HD era doesn't begin until we say it does".

When first shown at E3 2005, the PS3 proudly sported dual HDMI outputs. By E3 2006, the 60GB PS3 had only one HDMI port and the 20GB had none. Shortly before launch, the word was that the 20GB would get one HDMI port and the 60GB would have two as originally intended. In the end, both models ended up with only one HDMI output.

The display settings selectable in the PS3's menu are dictated by what kind of cable you're using for output. If you want to see every pixel of the PS3's 1080p graphics at the best possible quality, HDMI output is your best option. Of course, you'll also want an HDMI cable and a compatible display that's capable of actually resolving 1080p. Got an extra $3000-$5000? You're all set then. If your TV doesn't accept HDMI, but is capable of resolutions above standard defintion, then component is for you. Like HDMI, the component cables can output resolutions up to 1080p (including 480i, 480p, 720p, and 1080i). Unlike HDMI, component output is analogue rather than pure digital, but it's picture quality is still very good.

The trouble is that Playstation3, the 1080p console that apparently ushers in the true HD era, doesn't come with cables that support HD resolutions at all. It comes packed with the same composite AV-multi cable (with the traditional yellow, red and white plugs) that shipped with the original Playstation ten years ago. Using the included cable, you can only display in 480i (standard def). Admittedly, many people, okay most people, don't have a TV that accepts component or HDMI input. The majority of people still have standard definition TV sets. You have to wonder though, how many of those people are dropping a big wad of cash on a high-end device that renders games and plays back movies at 1080p? I understand that Sony felt it necessary to include cables to support standard definition TV, but why not include component or HDMI cable as well?

Memo to Sony: Your "HD era" hasn't begun if your console doesn't support HD out of the box. Microsoft got it right. The Premium 360 pack included a single cable that had both component and composite plugs. The lack of HD cables in the PS3 box is disappointing (and downright cheap). On the upside, if you already own a PS2 and a TV that supports component, then you may already have a set of component cables for your PS2 (as I did). You can just use those.

I know many people intend to buy a PS3 first and get an HDTV later. Fair enough. PS3 still looks okay at 480i, but you should definitely be aware that you're missing out on the big picture. Technically, you're seeing less than a quarter of the detail you'd see in 1080p. If your TV doesn't support at least 480p (EDTV), you're robbing yourself. That said, I should mention that most of the launch games don't actually render at full 1080p. True 1080p games will become more common as software developers get better acquainted with the hardware.

The back of the PS3 also features digital optical output and an ethernet port for taking the console online. The 60GB model also offers wireless connectivity via wi-fi, with optional WEP or WPA-PSK security. Also exclusive to the 60GB model are card reader slots for Compact Flash, SD/Mini-SD and Memory Stick Pro, all neatly concealed behind a flap on the front. Like the rest of the casing, the flap is translucent, so the access indicator lights for each of the slots can still be seen flashing when the flap is closed. The left side of the unit (or the bottom if you're standing it upright) is where the hatch concealing the hard drive caddy is. Should you feel the need, replacing the stock internal drive with a higher capacity 2.5" inch SATA notebook drive is a simple process, and is fully explained in the PS3 manual.

The four USBs are perhaps the most versatile ports, allowing all kinds of devices to be connected. You can charge your Sixaxis controllers with the cable provided, or plug in an Eyetoy, flash drives, cameras, keyboards, external hard drives, or your PSP or iPod. Whatever. If you'd rather go cordless, up to seven Bluetooth devices are supported simultaneously, including the Sixaxis controllers and headsets.

Note for PS3 importers:
The sticker on the bottom of the PS3 indicating that it requires 100V power is somewhat misleading. Despite what you may have read elsewhere, you don't need to go out and spend a couple of hundred bucks on a 500 Watt sine-wave down converter. Inside the PS3, the AC adaptor is actually clearly marked as being designed to accept 100V-240V at 50-60Hz. In other words, it's universal. You can in fact plug your PS3 directly into 240V without frying it. I'm running my PS3 straight off Australian mains power right now.

Boot Up

You can power up the PS3 by touching the power or eject icons on the PS3 itself, or by holding down the Playstation logo button on any Sixaxis controller. The system emits a beep and only takes a few seconds to boot up into the menu. The words "Sony Computer Entertainment" briefly appear and there's a short sound like an orchestra tuning up, which sets a rather classy tone.

The loud beep is kind of annoying and unnecessary in my view. The system also beeps if you use the power icon to switch it off. (Shutting down the system using the controller does not produce a beep.) As someone who often dons a pair of cordless headphones and plays late at night while my family sleeps, I really appreciate that the PS3 runs virtually silently. Considering the system's processing power and it's internal PSU, the fact that it runs so quietly is quite an achievement. By comparison, my XBox360 sounds like a hair dryer. I can only assume Sony included the beep because the touch sensitive power and eject icons can easily be activated accidentally. Regardless of their rationale, the inclusion of the beep irks me.

The Interface

If you're familiar with the PSP's user interface, you'll feel right at home here. PS3 employs a variation of Sony's Cross Media Bar (XMB) interface, as seen on the PSP. Behind the menu, a fluid ribbon waves slowly and like the PSP, the background colour changes throughout the year. If like me, you play mostly late at night, you won't see too much of the background colour, as each day it gradually changes from being brightest at midday to being pitch black at midnight. From left to right, the menu has eight top-level categories: Users, Settings, Photo, Music, Video, Game, Network and Friends. Let's take a look at these individually.


PS3 is Sony's first console to feature integrated user accounts. You'll need to create an account whether you're going online or not. You can create and store up to sixteen user accounts on your PS3. Each of those user accounts can have an associated PlayStation Network (PSN) account for online play and transactions (see Network section). The PSN name and local account names need not be the same. When logged on as one user, you will not be able to see, load or delete other users saved data.

If you have created more than one account on your PS3, the first thing you'll be prompted to do each time you power on, is choose which account you wish to use. I'd recommend creating at least two accounts, as this prevents the PS3 from auto-booting games when switched on. If you have to choose an account, you'll be sent to the XMB menu afterwards. If there's only one user account, it'll automatically be signed in and any game disc present will boot immediately.


There's a whole lot of settings you can tweak in here. Display, Audio, Networking, Formatting, etc. Perhaps the most interesting option in Settings is the "Install Other OS" option, which allows you to install Linux on your PS3 and use it as a fully fledged computer. You can install whichever flavour of Linux you like, but Yellow Dog Linux 5 is the best option, as it has been specifically written for PS3 hardware. Be aware that to install Linux, you'll first need to re-partition the hard drive, so be sure to back-up any saved data you want to keep to removable media first. Reformatting (or replacing) the hard drive will not delete your user accounts or any system updates. Obviously, Linux on PS3 is best used with a high resolution display.


The Photo section allows you to view images stored on the internal hard drive, inserted cards, sticks, or any connected media. Jpegs, Tiffs, Gifs, BMPs and PNGs are supported. Like the PSP, the PS3 will not automatically detect Images, Music or Video files that are buried several directories deep on your removable media. However, the PS3 does provide an option to display the entire directory structure so you can dig out any files that don't immediately show up.

One of the more useful features of the PSP's photo viewer was the zoom tool. On PS3, zoom is conspicuously absent. Small images are scaled up to the screen size, but you cannot manually zoom into photographs at all. It's a glaring omission that should be rectified in a future system update.

There are four slideshow styles: Normal, Slide, Portrait and Photo Album. Each can be run at three speeds. The Photo Album slideshow mode has attracted a lot of attention. It renders the images as prints, polaroids and negatives, and casually tosses them onto a virtual tabletop, grouping them together with times and dates seemingly handwritten in pencil. It's a strikingly realistic effect. You can control the position and zoom of the camera above the table with the analog sticks. Impressive as it is, the Photo Album mode is ultimately just a great looking gimmick that falls short of being useful, because you can't actually zoom into any one photo so that it fills the screen.

Normal mode is exactly that: static images are shown with a quick dissolve between them. Slide mode adds animated transitions replicating a traditional slide projector, where one image is whisked off the side of the screen momentarily and replaced with the next. The timing and realistic motion blur really nails this effect.

Portrait mode is, in my opinion, the most interesting option. It cycles through the images with dissolves in between, but also pans across the images and zooms in and out. The Xbox360's slideshow option does the same...well, almost. The crucial difference is that the PS3 is not choosing the zooms and pans randomly. It's actually interpreting your photos. It's looking for faces and points of interest. While it's not 100% accurate, it's usually able to pick out the important parts of the picture to zoom in or out from, or pan across. It took me a while to even notice this particular subtlety, but it's now my favourite undocumented feature of the PS3.


From here you can play music off the HDD, or any other media, including CDs or even SACDs. Congratulations if you're the one person who actually has an SACD. You can rip songs or whole albums to the hard drive, and choose from a wide range of codecs and bitrates. ATRAC, AAC, MP3 and WAV are supported, though protected MP3s (like from iTunes) won't play. When you put in a CD, the PS3 will sneakily begin retrieving album information from the internet, so you'll get full artist, album and track information without having to type anything in.

A couple of different visualizer options are available, which adapt to the music quite well and are quite soft and pleasing to the eye. Holding the PS button during music playback pulls up the XMB again, so it's possible to play music and watch a slideshow at the same time. Unfortunately, there seems to be no support in the operating system for custom soundtracks in game. Hopefully this will be addressed as the system software is updated.


Again, you can access files on the hard drive, or any other connected media. DVD and Blu-ray movies will also show up here. While it doesn't support as many video formats as I'd like, the MPEG1, 2 and 4 (including H.264) codecs are a good start. Videos stored on the hard drive can have animated thumbnails, which look fantastic. Contrary to what you may have expected, none of the videos will have an animated thumbnail until you give them one. You need to start playing the video and then choose a point at which the 15 second loop should start, then manually select the thumbnail icon from the OSD. It would have been nice if these videos defaulted to using the first 15 seconds as their thumbnail. By default, they actually don't have a thumbnail at all; not even a still image.

If a DVD or Blu-ray disc has been inserted, the XMB gives no indication of what is on it; only showing that a disc is present. While that's essentially a limitation of the DVD and Blu-ray formats, after becoming accustomed to the animated menu icons for UMD movies in the PSP's XMB, the generic disc icons for DVDs/BDs are a disappointment. A feature like the one used for retrieving CD information could perhaps be implemented to allow the PS3 to recognize specific DVD and Blu-ray movies.

Anyway, the playback quality is excellent. 1080p movies play off the HDD or BD without a hitch, and look sensational. As other sites have reported, the PS3's image quality trumps that of some dedicated (and far more expensive) Blu-ray players. Strangely though, PS3 only supports Blu-ray movie output at 480 or 1080 (interlaced or progressive). 720p Blu-ray output is not available, even though most PS3 games currently natively render at that resolution. This is another oddity that will hopefully be resolved by a system update. It's possible however, that the PS3 is incapable of supporting 720p Blu-ray without a hardware scaler. Time will tell.

Putting in the memory stick from my PSP, I found all the videos I'd encoded on it immediately showed up in the PS3's menu with their original thumbnails. They scaled up pretty well when played too. Taking the memory stick out of my Sony Cybershot camera and putting it in the PS3 didn't yield such good results. No videos showed up at all. I had to switch on the 'show all directories' option and then dig down through Sony's arbitrarily named folders to find the movies, which displayed without thumbnails. Admittedly my camera is a few years old now, and other newer cameras may be better supported, but a bit more comprehensive support for Sony's own product lines surely isn't too much to ask for.


What?! You mean it plays games too?
Yes, we've reached the "Play" part of the Playstation 3 at last. Well, sorry, I'm not going to bother going into much detail about PS3's games here. There are plenty of detailed reviews of individual titles elsewhere. Instead, I'm going to take this opportunity to reveal one specific and little-known aspect of the PS3's game functionality, before discussing backward compatibility.

Region free. Those two words are being used a lot in relation to PS3. So is it really region free? Well, yes. And no. Mostly no actually. It's not region free for DVDs or Blu-ray movies. It's not region free for PSone or PS2 games. You can only play DVD and Blu-ray movies or PSone and PS2 games that match whichever region your PS3 console comes from. Those of you who have been following the PS3 news no doubt knew this already.

You'd also know that PS3 is officially region free for PS3 games. Hmm. I suppose that depends on how broad your definition of region free is. You can buy a game from one region and play it on a PS3 from another region. That much is true. That being the case, you'd be forgiven for thinking that it doesn't matter where your games come from, or where your PS3 came from. As far as playing PS3 games is concerned, the experience should be the same no matter what, right? Wrong.

This raises an interesting 'feature' of PS3's region coding that seems to have been kept quiet. I bought a Japanese copy of the critically acclaimed Resistance: Fall of Man at launch, with my Japanese PS3. Packaging aside, the Japanese Resistance and the US Resistance are feature identical. The discs both contain all languages and all game content. So I was somewhat surprised when I read impressions from US gamers discussing the game's "hero moments" and the way the blood splatters on environmental objects. Blood? I completed the game and never saw a drop. Hero moments? These are sequences where you have the opportunity to save handy allies from a grisly death, not that I'd encountered any such sequences in the game. Something tricky was going on.

My experience of Resistance had been censored, completely unbeknownst to me. The once liberal Japanese have apparently become conservative regarding graphic depictions of violence recently. Resident Evil 4 (on GC and PS2) is a good example of this. It featured chainsaw decapitations and other explicit death scenes that were cut from the Japanese release, but remained elsewhere in the world. Resistance has apparently been adjusted to appease the censors too, but the method has changed.

No content has been cut from the Japanese release. If you take my Japanese copy of Resistance and start playing it on a US PS3, you'll find it plays completely uncut, with all blood splattering and hero moments intact. Conversely, start playing a US copy of Resistance on a Japanese PS3 and the blood and hero moments are gone. The games have not been cut. The PS3 console itself is determining what gets cut.

A Japanese PS3 will censor games to meet the Japanese rating. It makes no difference if you're signed on under a US profile, or playing a game you bought in the US or anywhere else. No doubt the US and forthcoming Euro/PAL PS3s will work the same way. Game content will be altered/cut on-the-fly to meet the ratings requirements of the region that machine was intended for. It certainly will be interesting to see how different PS3s handle a game like Grand Theft Auto 4.

This revelation probably comes as a bit of a kick in the teeth to people who've imported a Japanese PS3. The prospect of playing a needlessly censored version of Resident Evil 5 is somewhat depressing. Fear not! You shall go to the ball! I'm going to tell you how to get around this awful bit of region coding. The trick is all in the save file. When you boot up a game for the first time, your PS3 creates a save file in a folder on the hard drive for whichever user account is logged on. It's then that the PS3 checks the hardware region coding and decides whether it will be censoring the game or not. It never performs this check again. So the key to getting around the censoring is getting your hands on another save file that was created on a PS3 from an uncensored region.

Here's the catch - you can't just get a save file created using the US release of a game on a US PS3 and expect it to work with a Japanese game. The disc IDs are different, so the game will refuse to load the save data. What you'll need to do is have someone with a US (or other region) PS3 boot up the Japanese game disc. They don't even have to start a new game. Just booting up the disc will create a save file that indicates the game is being used on US hardware. Take a copy of that save file and import it into your Japanese PS3. Bingo. You can now start a new game with all features uncensored. I'm playing Resistance again, on hard, with all blood and hero moments unlocked.

Backward Compatibility

I expected that backward compatibility would just work on PS3, without a hitch. The PS3 actually contains the same (EE/GS) chipset used in the slim PS2, so hardware compatibility shouldn't have been a major factor. It's interesting then that many games do exhibit issues. Usually it's nothing that will make a game unplayable, but it's surprising that a machine as advanced as a PS3 can't necessarily do a PSone game justice.

While individual titles seem to exhibit different issues, there's one broad problem that seems to plague all the PSone and PS2 games when played on PS3: it's the horizontal resolution. The vertical resolution of the backward compatible games seems to match the original (480 in the case of most NTSC games), but the PS3's horizontal resolution seems to be higher than that of the original games. That's not to say the backward compatible games are being rendered at a higher resolution - as far as I can tell they're not, but rather they're being stretched to fit. The result is ugly. As PAL gamers, you've probably noticed the awful line doubling evident in many game FMVs that were shoddily converted from NTSC to PAL. The effect seen in backward compatible games on PS3 is very similar, only the lines being doubled are vertical instead of horizontal. It's not always obvious, but the overall effect is that games look worse on PS3 than they did on their original platforms. The PS3 does not upscale (apart from showing 480i games at 480p) old games and has no texture filtering options like PS2 did. Disappointing. I can only hope that future system updates improve backward compatibility and give us options like upscaling and texture smoothing.

The PS3 has no PSone/Ps2 memory card slots, so save files for PSone/PS2 games are saved to the internal hard drive on virtual memory cards. You have to create these cards from the XMB in advance and they hold only as much as the original cards did (example: virtual PS2 memory cards can only store eight megabits of save data). You can create as many cards as you like, but only two can be assigned to the virtual memory card slots at any time. Unfortunately that limitation applies across the virtual slots regardless of whether you're playing PSone or PS2 games. This means if you have PSone memory cards assigned to slot one and two, when you start playing a PS2 game, those PSone cards are still assigned to both virtual slots. It would have made more sense to be able to assign slots one and two for PSone and PS2 games independently. How often do you need to access a PSone memory card when playing a PS2 game? Never.

One of the (many) great failings of XBox360's backwards compatibility was the inability to bring save files across from the old XBox. Sony addressed this issue on PS3 by creating a legacy memory card adapter (sold separately) that plugs into the PS3 via a USB port. This means you can plug in your old PSone/PS2 memory cards and import your existing save data. This is a great feature to have, but the implementation of it is extremely inflexible. When you plug any memory card into the adaptor, the PS3 gives you only one option: to import the entire contents of that card onto the harddrive. You can't choose to import specific save files, or even view the contents of the card to see what's on it first. (You probably don't have a dozen different memory cards, but I do, so not being able to simply check what's on them is annoying.)

You cannot access cards plugged into the adaptor from within PSone or PS2 games, and copying the contents of the memory card to the hard drive is a one-way operation. Ideally, you should have been able to just use the cards plugged in via the adaptor as if they were plugged into a slot on the original machine. Not being able to copy save files back to the memory card makes the situation worse. Consider this scenario: You copy your PS2 memory card containing your Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence save data. You play MGS3:S on the PS3 for several hours before deciding you'd rather continue playing it on your old PS2 (which isn't plagued by any backward compatibility issues). Unfortunately, you've now lost all progress and anything you unlocked while playing it on the PS3, because the PS3 does not allow you to copy save files back to the memory card. The restrictive way in which legacy memory cards are handled is immensely frustrating.


Three topics to talk about in here: The Internet Browser, the PlayStation Store and Remote Play. The PS3's Internet Browser is actually pretty decent, but it's no match for a traditional computer-based browser. It's a vast improvement on the PSP browser, but that ain't saying much. It handles many complex sites very well, including Youtube, forums, and even e-commerce and banking sites that use SSL. You can have multiple windows open simultaneously and it decodes and displays pages quite rapidly. I've heard many people complain about how slow the browser is, but in my experience that mostly comes down to network conditions. In Tokyo, I found browsing on the PS3 very fast. Here in Sydney, it's much much slower. I blame Telstra.

The biggest problem for the PS3 browser is the interface. Using a Sixaxis instead of a mouse and keyboard is a chore. An on-screen button-based mobile phone-style text entry window pops up whenever you click in a text field. It's predictive text works well, and it learns and improves the more you use it. Of course you can plug in a USB keyboard, but you'll still find the on-screen text-entry window appears. You can never type directly into the page. Worse still, the text-entry window is character limited, so if you try to reply to a particularly long email, you may find you can only enter a few words, as the previous email has nearly filled all the available space. Other missing features like the ability to select, cut, copy and paste really restrict the browser's usefulness. In any case, if you really want to browse the web on your PS3, you can install Linux on it and run Firefox. Alternatively, just use your PC to surf the web.

The PlayStation Store is Sony's answer to the XBox Live Marketplace (XBLM). From here, you can download game and movie trailers, playable demos, full games, and additional content for retail titles. Rather than being integrated into the OS, like the XBLM, the PlayStation Store is essentially an external website. As such, it feels a bit clunky and unresponsive at times. Consequently, just navigating it's content can be a bit painful. The Store is best displayed at 720p or higher. At lower resolutions, you'll get a cut-back version of the store that's much less attractive. There's no background downloading, or download queueing (yet). If you want to download something, the PS3 will leave you looking at a progress bar until it's complete.

On the upside, the Store uses real currency amounts for transactions. Microsoft and Nintendo's download services utilize "points" which deliberately create a layer of abstraction between the listed 'price' and how much real-world money that really is. In the PlayStation Store, you know exactly what any transaction will cost you because it's there in dollars and cents. Better yet, you aren't forced into buying five or ten thousand points when you only want a three thousand point item. You can just pay the exact amount. This is an often overlooked feature of the PlayStation Store. If you opt to add credit to your account in advance, you'll only be given set options for $20, $50, etc., which is much the same as buying point packages. If instead, you go straight to the checkout without any credit, you can charge the exact total to your credit card (provided it's more than $5). As an aside, contrary to what you may have heard, you can use foreign credit cards in the US Store. Game pricing seems quite reasonable too. As an example, the new 3D HD Lemmings game is available for download for an introductory price of USD$2.99. A whole range of PSone games are available to download, transfer and play on PSP for just six bucks a piece. It's hard to say how it will all turn out long term, but right now, compared to it's competitors, the PlayStation Store's transparent pricing scheme and bang-for-buck seem much less geared toward ripping you off.

Building on Sony's Location Free Player technology, PS3's Remote Play function allows you to control your PS3 wirelessly from your PSP. You don't need a wireless router for this to work, the PSP and PS3 connect directly to each other via wi-fi. There's a quick one-time set-up required on both machines, but once they're configured you just choose Remote Play from the menu on the PS3, do the same on your PSP and then you're looking at the PS3's XMB on your PSP. At present you can do just about everything but play games and watch DVDs or Blu-ray movies. I'm not surprised that games are off limits, as there is a slight lag when using the PSP's controls in Remote Play that would hurt gameplay badly, but it's hardly noticeable when just selecting options in the XMB. You can access whatever is on your PS3's hard drive, be it music, photos or movies (even 1080p video content streams smoothly), and you can also use the PS3's superior web browser. Very impressive - it will definitely wow your friends...but is it really useful? It seems a clever if not hugely practical gimmick at this stage. It's potential may be better explored in future.


PS3's friends list is a bit light on detail compared to XBox Live on 360. There's a basic list of your friends, with avatars, indicating whether they're online or not and what game they're playing (if any). That's about it. You can't check when they were last online or what games they've been playing. You can send and receive messages and initiate chat. There's a section called "Friends Met" which I expected would show players I'd recently played against online, but after many multiplayer sessions of Resistance and Ridge Racer 7 it remains empty. Right now, PS3 games maintain their own friends lists. I expect the Friends Met section exists in anticipation of a time when PS3 games begin using the one unified list. So far the only way I've been able to access the main Friends list in-game has been to send people an invitation to join. Similarly, rankings and achievements are tracked only within individual games, so there is no Gamerscore equivalent.

Final thoughts

Reading back over this, I've certainly listed a fair few gripes and flaws that I see in the PlayStation 3. That's not to say I don't like it. On the contrary, I think it's a great piece of hardware with a lot of potential. I just wanted to give a "warts and all" overview of the system. Many of PS3's current shortcomings could (and should) be overcome with software updates. Sony have issued four PS3 software updates in as many weeks since it's release, so I'm sure there will be many improvements to come. Even as it stands, the PS3 packs in a lot of great features and the hardware seems well equipped to weather the years ahead as consumer uptake of HD expands. Having official support for Linux installation and user-upgradable hard drives in a console almost defies belief.

As much as Sony and Microsoft want you to see their new consoles as much more than just game machines, in my opinion, the real measure of a console is still the games it brings us across it's lifetime. It's way too early to judge how Playstation 3 will perform on that front. There are only a few games worth playing on the system so far. The hardware certainly has the potential to deliver deep, engrossing HD games. Let's hope the developers make the most of it.

PlayStation 3 is still scheduled to launch in Australia and Europe in March 2007.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Yodobashi Shinjuku PS3 Launch Massacre

A view from the queue.

Sure was a hell of a way to start a holiday. I had flown out of Sydney on Thursday night, arrived in Tokyo on Friday morning, got a bus through the gridlock from Narita to Shinjuku, dropped my luggage off at the hotel and started making my way to the nearby Yodobashi Camera as the sun began to set. With only 80,000 Playstation3s available for launch, getting one was not going to be easy. Most japanese retailers don't take pre-orders, particularly when there are so few units to go round. A lottery system was being implemented at most stores, meaning that getting the chance to buy one came down to sheer luck. I didn't like my chances. With many retailers being allocated less than ten units, even camping out overnight at one of the few non-lottery retailers was no guarantee of securing one.

I had heard that Yodobashi weren't going with the lottery system, and were likely to have a decent amount of stock - rumour had it they were getting 100 units. I had decided early on that the queue at Yodobashi Akihabara would be a nightmare, so I figured the Shinjuku outlet would be a safer bet. Given that people in the US had started camping outside the Best Buy in Burbank several days earlier (even though the US launch was still a week away), I wondered how large the queue would be at Yodobashi Shinjuku when I got there on the eve of the launch.

Arriving at the Yodobashi games store in the narrow street behind the main Yodobashi Camera building just after 5pm, I could see there was no queue at all. The front of the store was dominated by a large Playstation 3 display with three demo units connected to gorgeous new 1080p Bravias. Only the middle PS3 was actually playable; the other two were running long demo loops and had no controllers attached. There were less than thirty people standing around, and most of them appeared to be just passers-by who had stopped to take a look at the display. No-one was even playing the PS3. I was pleasantly surprised by the apparent lack of interest. I spotted another couple of gaijin checking out the displays, who turned out to be an American exchange student and an English, but now Kyoto-based, writer for Joystiq, GameSpy and *cough* Spong. He told me that there wouldn't be a queue until the Yodobashi staff announced where the queue would actually start, and that probably wouldn't occur until closing time - 10pm.

I considered wandering off to find some dinner and returning closer to ten, but with every passing minute, more people were arriving. The beginnings of unofficial queues were forming, and being quickly broken up by a few police who were making sure that traffic could still get down the lane. With five hours to kill, I decided I'd pass the time while holding my position right at the front of the store by getting hands on with the four playable demos and watching all twenty rolling demos.

Devil May Cry 4 was a joy to play and looked fantastic - very reminscent of DMC1. It's framerate occasionally dipped, but only during cutscenes. Gran Turismo HD's alpine course ran smoothly and looked good, but much to my surprise, the conspicuous lack of rumble in the new Sixaxis controller actually did detract from the experience. When you drive across a bridge or slip off the edge of the road, you expect to feel it. The screen was shaking, but the controller was dead in my hands. I hadn't expected I would miss rumble at all, but I did. There are certain games where it adds to the immersion, and Gran Turismo is one of them.

Ridge Racer 7 was, well Ridge Racer...again. You know what you're getting with Ridge. At 60fps in full 1080p it was truly gorgeous, and the drift gameplay is as satisfying as ever. Slipstreaming seems to be the one significant new addition to the game. Sega's tennis game Power Smash 3 was the fourth playable demo, which looked good but didn't really grab me. Of the rolling demos, the standouts were Motorstorm, Final Fantasy XII, Lair, Heavenly Sword, Ninja Gaiden Sigma, Virtua Fighter 5, Eye Of Judgement, and of course, Metal Gear Solid 4.

By 8:30pm, the street was full of people waiting to queue; a few hundred at least. Unfortunately, the main loading dock for Yodobashi is directly across the road from it's games store, so every so often a large truck would squeeze down the street and perform a tight reverse turn into the dock. No-one wanted to lose their position, so with the help of the police, each truck ended up slowly navigating the sea of people, crushing them against the storefronts and hitting them in the head with their side mirrors. It was going to be a long night. My feet were killing me already from just standing in the jam-packed crowd for a few hours. Several other gaijin had arrived, one of them being a friendly Welsh bloke who, with his Japanese wife, had attended several previous console launches here. With a little help, he'd bought 22 PSPs at launch and made a small fortune selling them on to international buyers. The guy was a pro. He had no interest in the games. It was strictly business. He had convinced several of his non-gamer mates to come along and queue up for him this time too.

A quick poll of the gaijin in the area revealed that I was the only one who intended to keep the PS3. All the others were going to sell theirs immediately, even if they were gamers. Many of them weren't even buying any games. I found this state of affairs a little disappointing, but as a Tasmanian ex-pat explained to me, he was going to sell his in order to make some money so he could buy an HDTV. That way he'd be ready for the PS3 when the software catalogue improved. With only five titles available for the Japanese launch (and only a few being any good), I couldn't really argue with his rationale. Due to the ludicrous prices the PS3 was fetching on the international market, there was a good number of gaijin present, including quite a few Chinese and Thai, but the vast majority were actually Japanese, and judging by the number of DS's and PSPs in the crowd, they were indeed gamers.

Not long before nine, the playable demo unit crashed, leaving only a few scattered white pixels across the bottom of the screen. Not a great omen for the reliability of the first-gen PS3 hardware. About twenty minutes later, one of the Yodobashi clerks pushed his way through the crowd to the kiosks. I figured he was just going to reset the crashed one. Well, he did turn it off, but he turned off the other two as well. A moment later all hell broke loose.

Somewhere down the street, someone yelled out something and everyone ran. I didn't know where they were running, but I ran the same way. The flood of people came careering down the street, running in a blind panic, like Godzilla was after us. The wave of people I was in ran broadside into a bicycle, tipping it over, and leaving many people stumbling. I richocheted around it and using my height advantage over the crowd, I pushed and weaved my way forward through gaps I could see in the haphazard stampede. As I got near the front of this impromptu running-of-the-bulls I could see there were many innocent bystanders being caught in it's wake. Women were screaming and brave men were pulling them out of the way into nearby shopfronts. As I dodged another pile-up and rounded the corner of the block, I saw it. A queue growing as fast as I was running. A human serpant, four or five people thick, materializing down the street. I threw myself to it and was instantly crushed into a human terrine.

As the rush to join the queue continued down the block behind me, I took stock of my surroundings. The queue ahead was sizable. I couldn't see quite how long, as it seemed to have begun somewhere just around the corner near Club Sega. It appeared that there were easily more than a hundred people in the queue ahead of me. My heart sank. This was not an ideal outcome. I couldn't see any of my gaijin comrades. God knows where they (and their useful translation skills) had ended up. To make matters worse, I was stuck directly under a scorchingly hot floodlight mounted on a shopfront awning, just inches away from my head. It was only a few minutes before the sweat began running down my face and dripping from my eyebrows. Had I been able to move my arms, I would have wiped it away, and taken my jacket off too. The queue was so densely packed I could not move at all.

I wasn't feeling real good about the situation at this point. It appeared I would be trapped under this sunlamp for the next eight or nine hours, unable to move, unable to disappate any body heat (as I was in direct physical contact with all the people around me) and unlikely to get a PS3 for enduring this torture anyway.

It was only another five agonizing minutes before the police came along and started pushing the queue back, creating small breaks in it to allow people to get in and out of the other Yodobashi outlets we had queued in front of. That got me out from under the burning floodlight and gave me the opportunity to elbow myself a little more breathing space. The looping Yodobashi jingle that had been driving me mad for the last few hours stopped. To my bemusement, in it's place, the PA began playing Auld Lang Syne over and over instead. This was apparently a signal that the shops would soon be closing.

After 10pm, when the shops had closed, the two Japanese girls next to me took the opportunity to sit down with their backs against the rollerdoors. I opened up the small pouch I had brought with me and pulled out the tiny Jackeroo folding camp seat that I'd bought at K-Mart shortly before heading to the airport on Thursday evening. I found just enough room to unfold it and set it down beneath me. It was small and uncomfortable, but as I finally took the weight off my feet, I decided it was the best six bucks I'd ever spent. Had I continued to stand, I would have seen it coming, but half an hour later, myself and the two girls were suddenly swamped as the wall of people began moving quickly backward. I scrambled to my feet but my pouch (with PSP inside) was lost in the incoming swell. Somehow it was returned to me by a chain of kind hands as the tide subsided and the wave of people compacted back into a dense immovable mass. While I wasn't happy about being packed like a sardine again, it became apparent the reason the queue was being moved back again was to give everyone enough room to sit. It only took another fifteen minutes before R2 shut down the Death Star trash compactor and we were all able to sit in relative comfort.

A couple of Yodobashi clerks were issuing the people sitting about fifty feet ahead with tickets. This was a reasonably good sign. On one hand, it meant that anyone getting a ticket was guaranteed a PS3. On the other hand, there were about 70 people between them and me. If the rumours of this store getting a hundred PS3s were true, then I was certainly too far back. As the clerks slowly approached, I could see they had plenty of tickets left in their hands. I breathed a deep sigh of relief as I accepted my ticket for a 60GB PS3: ticket #220. Looks like I'd chosen the right store - Yodobashi Shinjuku had evidently been allocated a whole lot of units.

My Welsh scalper friend came casually strolling down the street smoking a cigarette. "What happened to you?" he asked. Thinking back on the chaotic queue formation, I honestly didn't know. He had been tipped off about the queue announcement by some seasoned Japanese scalpers just before it happened and had scored ticket #54. His wife was holding his spot near the front of the queue. "So," I asked, "what news from the front?". Word from the front was that this Yodobashi had been allocated a thousand units, with an even split of 60GB and 20GB SKUs. He took a walk down past the twenty rows seated behind me to the corner and confirmed that the queue streched back at least another two blocks before it left his line of sight. Some of the other gaijin were ahead of me, others behind. At least none of us would be leaving empty handed. I got him to buy me a much needed drink from a vending machine before he headed back.

The reality set in that the excitement was over. I was in the queue, I was guaranteed a 60GB PS3, and now I had to sit here for another seven or eight hours. Sales would not begin until 6 or 7am. I hadn't had more than an hour's sleep since I woke up on Thursday morning and it was now almost Saturday. This Suntory Boss Black coffee in a can was really hitting the spot. Several blocks away and thirty-three stories up, my wife and baby boy were sleeping soundly. Lucky buggers. Out of nowhere, a fully outfitted stormtrooper patrolled past the line, keeping a watchful eye on us rebel scum.

It wasn't until midnight that I actually wondered why there wasn't a midnight launch anywhere in Tokyo. Midnight launches are de rigeur everywhere else in the world, so why not here? By 1am one reason became clear. The streets had been busy with young party people and drunken businessmen until then, but by 1am the streets were deserted. Most people in Tokyo don't have a car and the whole city relies on its ruthlessly efficient train system. The trains stop at 1am. If sales began at midnight, most people wouldn't be able to get home afterward.

2am. It was getting cold...and I felt what I hoped weren't the first signs of rain. A man in a suit and tie keeled over asleep in front of me. Apart from him, there seemed to be no-one sleeping. Well, there was another drunk businessman in an expensive suit who had clearly missed his train and was passed out in the gutter across the road, but the queue itself was awake. There was a whole lot of wireless Monster Hunter going on with the PSP owners, and the DS's were on fire. I've never seen Pictochat moving so fast. There was a surprisingly high number of girls in the queue, about one in five, though I wondered how many were actually buying one for themselves.

Not much happened as the early morning hours passed by extremely slowly. I watched episodes of Consolevania, On The Spot, and Good Game on my PSP to pass some time. I was pleased to hear I'd won a Good Game t-shirt for a review I'd written. I stepped out of the line to stretch my legs and chat with the other gaijin I'd met earlier. We had all made it into the first third of the queue apparently. Over a thousand people had turned up here, but only a thousand tickets were issued. We talked about everything we could think of, but time just seemed to drag on forever. By 5:30am there was nothing left to say. We all just stood around nodding knowingly at each other and looking at our watches.

At 6am the queue began standing up, so we all rushed back to our places. The lights in the Yodobashi storefronts came on. Stand up everyone! It is wait. Nothing happened, and everyone returned to their delirium. At 6:30am, I looked up momentarily while watching the 1UP Show and saw Phil Harrison (head of Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide Studios) walk right past me. No-one else seemed to recognise him at all. I was a bit slow pulling out my camera, but that's his bald head walking away in the photo. You'll just have to trust me.

At ten to seven, the Yodobashi clerks returned and began dividing the queue up into managable groups. By 7am, my group had moved toward the corner and some press photographers had arrived. I heard a countdown and applause from the store. Sales had begun. Five minutes later I saw the first guy walk away with a big Yodobashi bag.

It was then that the rain that had been threatening us all night decided to fall. Fortunately about one in four people had brought an umbrella, which was just enough to keep us all from being soaked. Having just bought his PS3, the Welsh scalper ran up to me and handed me his wife's Yodobashi points card. Yodobashi's generous loyalty program nets members ten percent of the value of their purchase, so chalking my sale up on their card would get them a free Sixaxis at least. I was happy to oblige. As I finally returned to the store entrance, a man wearing a sandwich board showed us the five games and accessories that we could choose from: Ridge Racer 7, Resistance: Fall of Man, Genji, Gundam, Sega Golf Club and extra Sixaxis controllers. The legacy memory card adaptor was also pictured but had already sold out (though I later picked one up elsewhere).

Just as I was entering the store, I heard someone call out my name. Turning around I saw my wife and son waiting across the road having braved the rain to come down and meet me. Better yet, they had brought food and coffee. Awesome. The queue weaved through the back of the store before reaching the cashiers, and with only three registers operating, it seemed to take forever to get there. I shudder to think how long the folks at the back of the queue must have waited before they got their PS3s. I finally got served and chose Ridge, Resistance and an extra Sixaxis. The 60GB PS3 was only 62,000 yen (roughly AU$680) and the games were about ¥4,500 (AU$50) each. Much cheaper than they'll be when they become available in Australia four months from now. I tried to put them on Mastercard, but despite having informed my credit card company in advance that I'd be in Japan for two weeks, the transaction was declined. As luck would have it, I had just enough cash to cover it. I wouldn't even have been able to afford the ¥1,200 memory card adaptor had it been available.

The rain eased slightly as I triumphantly stepped out onto the street and was greeted by the smiling faces of my wife and son. Fresh hot black coffee made the victory even sweeter. I gave the Welsh scalper his points card back, and he also gave me a coffee. Gah! It had milk in it. I told him it was okay as I already had another one, but he insisted on running off and buying me another black coffee anyway. I noticed a small man in a brown suit walk past me into the store. It was none other than "the father of Playstation", Ken Kutaragi, who had come to see how things were going.

With my day one PS3 in the bag and my family beside me, I headed back toward our hotel, basking in the glow of a mission successfully accomplished. You might think I'd have been keen to get back there and try out the PS3. You'd be wrong. All I really wanted to do was take a piss, have a shower and go to sleep. With the fifty hour ordeal behind me, that's exactly what I did.