Thoughts about the new-gen consoles

Before I get started, if you’ve got a Xbox 360 then you really should buy Crackdown (UK link US link). It’s a remarkably good game.

For those new to this stuff: The Playstation3 (also known as ‘PS3’) is Sony’s new games console, released 11/06 in the US and Japan and next month (03/07) in Europe. The Xbox 360 (a.k.a. ‘360’) is MicroSoft’s (a.k.a. ‘Micro$oft’ and ‘M$’) sequel to the Xbox games console and has been out for about 14 months. The Nintendo Wii games console was launched globally in 11/06. Until recently these were all referred to as ‘next-generation’, or ‘next-gen’ machines, but now they’re here they must be ‘new-gen’.

The PS3 is a very cool machine, but it’s had a troubled start and people are putting the boot in over it’s backward compatibility issues. Backwards compatibility (b/c for short) is the ability to play games from earlier machines by the same manufacturer. It’s not surprising that they are receiving criticism about this because b/c was one of the key features that Sony was boasting about a year ago when insulting the Xbox 360. I get the impression that Sony would, in an ideal world, have waited until March 2007 to release the PS3 globally, but they needed to prevent Micro$oft getting another Christmas season ahead of them in the key markets of America and Japan.

Part of the reason that I think this is the case is that there’s going to be a big update in March that should be fixing a lot of the issues that people have with the PS3. The NTSC backwards compatibility is around 98% after the January firmware update, so the PAL b/c should get to that level eventually too. It’s quite an important thing for me, because I love some of my PS1 and PS2 games. The b/c on the 360 still isn’t particularly good: I was really looking forward to having access to some of the great games for the Xbox that I missed out on, but the ones I want haven’t been certified yet and consequentially won’t work. Updates to the 360 b/c list are few and far between, so I guess I’ll just keep on waiting until I can play Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath

Also mooted for the March update is ‘extending the media functionality in ways that our consumers really want’, which I’m taking to mean will enable the PS3 to stream media from a PC. Currently, despite the built-in wireless, the PS3 won’t actually do much with other devices on your home network. It’s rather annoying – the Xbox 360 can stream from a PC but is hobbled by Micro$oft insisting that users can only stream .wmv format movies (and who, seriously, uses .wmv as their preferred format?). The PS3 supports the .avi format for video, but currently won’t stream anything from your PC. Aargh!

For the really geeky, there’s already a Sony built-in capability to install the Linux operating system onto your PS3, so there are big possibilities for wireless networking about the house there, as well as the chances of people making their own games. The PS3 currently seems to have a wider range of possibilities than the 360 because it has been opened up by Sony for people who want to hack around in it – this is completely counter to MicroSoft’s controlling approach – but whether it is a wise or foolhardy approach is something that only time will tell.

To me, it doesn’t bode well for the 360’s software support that after a year it’s only just got a title that is truly exceptional game (Crackdown). Everything else has been a bit bland, or is multi-format already. Then again, does the PS3 line-up look more exciting? Maybe… But it’s too early to say for sure. Resistance: Fall of Man is a good first-person shooter, but there are so many unknowns: Heavenly Sword, Metal Gear Solid 4, Tekken 6, Killzone 2, and the European release of Motorstorm. Any of these could prove to be astonishing but they all could simply be more of the same kind of play that we’ve already seen, and how many will be exclusives? Then again, it’s a more exciting schedule than the 360 has managed in the last year. Yes, that’s because the manufacturers have decided to bet on the PS3 branding winning consumers… And they may be right yet. The PS3 is slightly harder to work on than the 360, but if it gets the better games then the hardware becomes irrelevant.

It looks like M$ had the chance to run the field and get a massive head start, but I just don’t think they’ve managed it. Even Nintendo, who have a very cool little machine in the Wii, still only have two games that are worth getting – Wii Sports (which comes free with the machine) and Zelda: The Twilight Princess (which is only good if you like Zelda games… Which I don’t particularly). The Wii still has a chance to make a huge difference to the market, but the new-gen Eyetoy from Sony has buckets of potential and may yet become the family toy that the Wii wants to be.

Despite my doubts of a few months ago, I am really beginning to think that Sony might dominate this generation of consoles once again. Their machine is expensive, looks like a George Foreman grill, tricky to develop games for, and uses the Spiderman 2 font for its logo, but in the end it’s always only about the games, and on this basis I currently think that Sony are going to win again.

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