Micro$oft’s Xbox 360:
As I’ve mentioned in other places, I recently bought an Xbox 360 as preparation for a job interview (which, incidentally, worked). I’ve now had the machine for a few weeks and can categorically say ‘meh’ about my experience of the machine. The graphics are admittedly a step up, but do not currently represent what we might describe as a generational leap and instead look like only slight advancements of the height of last-gen graphics. In terms of gameplay, the options of having hundreds of attackers are used by games such as Dead Rising (UK link US link) to good effect, but does this create anything that hasn’t really been playable before?
Dead Rising serves as a good example of the problems faced by the Xbox 360. It is regarded as one of the best titles on the system, and has many different paths of play in a way that earlier games would have struggled to have contained. It is very much Grand Theft Zombie, and not necessarily the worse for this, but it exhibits issues that should have been resolved long ago. It has early difficulty spikes, poorly thought out save points, a lack of checkpoints after tough achievements, and the combat, while fun, is marred by an inventory system that makes it easy to suddenly begin reading a magazine when you are surrounded by fifty brain-hungry zombies. The worst problem, only made so by the ease of correction, is that the majority of in-game updates are displayed in text so tiny that it is unreadable on a normal television. Did the makers of the game never play it on a system that did not support high definition visuals? On a standard CRT set the text is only readable with a lot of guesswork and familiarity with the words that are probably being written. Reading mission updates in a game should be the easiest thing in the world, but this simple over-sight damages the game experience, and it isn’t the only Xbox 360 game with this flaw.
When I bought the machine I was looking forward to the backwards compatibility and the media centre capabilities. The former aspect is software-based emulation of the Xbox, and as such Micro$oft are going through their back-catalogue and releasing patches for the games. This means that the more advanced games are harder to emulate, so some of the most interesting titles in the Xbox range, such as Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath (UK link US link) don’t currently work, and many fairly mainstream titles need an online update to work with the machine (which costs yet more money if the owner doesn’t want wires all over their house). The media centre feature, despite saying that it allows you to stream music and video content to your living room, is crippled by obscure firewall settings that take a while to overcome, then more so by Micro$oft’s insistence that files must be in certain formats for them to be streamed to your Xbox 360, regardless of whether or not they can be played on your PC.
So the Xbox 360 is powerful, expensive, slightly hobbled by Micro$oft’s decisions, frustrating, and packed with potential that a year after release still isn’t going anywhere very exciting.
Sony’s Playstation 3:
I’ve written about this before, so I’ll keep this brief. $ony have got a lot to lose here. They have made a machine that costs them $840 to manufacture, which is $241 more than the $599 price tag (source) of which the retailer would have to take a cut, doesn’t include how much the controllers, cables, and R&D cost Sony. It turns out that the 100% backwards compatibility isn’t quite 100% (source) and, because this is hardware-based, this means that those games will never work on the machine unless Sony manage some very fancy downloadable coding – again requiring another bout of internet connections and firewall fiddling.
In the box you get a Blu-Ray player, which is a very nice piece of kit for games developers who fancy putting a hell of a lot of content into their games, and it is especially good for high definition video – but again, how many people have high definition televisions, especially to the scale of 1080 pixels that Sony is forcing in as a standard beyond the more typical 720 pixels range? Given that a large part of the delay of the machine and the R&D budget has gone on the Blu-Ray, is it going to be worth it for gamers? This one only time will tell. My instinct about the HD DVD v.s Blu-Ray competition is that neither is going to be winning any time soon: too many people have only just upgraded to DVDs and won’t want to upgrade again. This isn’t VHS v.s DVDs because at least the players will still be able to play DVDs, but who is going to be rushing out to make a very costly upgrade when their system is already satisfactory? In addition to this, do the very limited numbers of the machines available at launch suggest that the difficulty of making the Blu-Ray player is still slowing production? Will the player stand up to long-term use, or will it degrade like the early PS2 DVD players?
As for software: the first few months the schedule is mostly games in very heavily populated genres, such as sports and driving, or non-exclusive titles that either already exist on the PC (usually for a far cheaper price tag) or that will be heavily multi-format. They do have a step-up on the Xbox 360 in that they have a launch title that early reports say is excellent, Resistance: Fall of Man (UK link US link) so that bodes well for the future, but it is going to need to do a lot of space filling before it becomes a must-have console, especially when weighed down by the heavy price-tag.
The opportunity is there for Sony to grab the media centre crown from the Xbox 360, but will $ony, with so many fingers in so many media-industry pies, really want to make it any easier for people to play potentially pirated material in the comfort of their living room? I doubt it…
So the Sony Playstation3 is very, very expensive, possibly with a lower build-quality than is desirable, but with at least one good launch title it does have the chance to grow… But still that price tag looms over everything. Oh, and it’s being launched four months late in Europe. Cheers Sony.
It’s cheap, it’s reliably made, but it’s completely unproven. Will the Wii be able to make games that are more than just novelties, and perhaps more importantly, does Nintendo want to make Wii games more than a novelty? Judging by The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, (UK link US link) Nintendo are determined to prove that the Wii can produce games that are more than a simple piece of novelty entertainment. Will it be any good? Most likely, but the question remains over whether other games producers are going to dedicate the resources to the machine to create deep gaming experiences… Or whether they even should do this at all.
The trouble with the Wii is not one based on the system itself, it is on the market: is there going to be a sufficient market sector to support Nintendo’s vision of family gaming? Will the games ever get beyond the simplicity of the interface and create experiences that players can become deeply involved in, or should the games even try to do this? Without knowledge of the public’s reaction to the Wii, it is near-impossible to second guess who is going to buy it, who it will appeal to, and whether support from developers will demonstrate a meaningful engagement with the motion-sensing technology of the controller. Nintendo machines have classically been best supported by games made by Nintendo. The revolutionary nature of the Wii’s controller (which senses full physical three-dimensional movement around the player’s room while also being sensitive enough to allow play with just the flick of a wrist) means that developers have the opportunity to think in completely new ways.
Nintendo are certainly thinking in new ways: they’ve made a system that is cheap, easy to develop for (because it is based mostly on old Gamecube technology), very easy to demonstrate the appeal of, and capable of giving non-gamers a level-playing ground with people who have decades of playtime behind them.
Microsoft had a year in which to establish the arena for the new generation of games, but have failed to dominate the field before Nintendo and Sony have entered it. This is a major problem for Microsoft, but Sony look to be making some similar mistakes, and may have crippled themselves with the cost of their hardware. For the first time in a decade, there is a real chance for Nintendo to take control of the gaming scene. The next year of gaming is going to be a very interesting and exciting time.