8 June 2007


 


 

 


 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A SIX AND TWO THREES
The Great WoS
Full-Size Face-Off

Three months after the European release, and seven months after everyone else in the world got to play, it's still surprisingly hard to actually get a go on a PS3. This reporter's never seen a single demo pod in a game store (the setup Sony offered retailers needed a shop the size of an aircraft hangar), and sales have been so poor that anyone who doesn't know a grotesquely spoilt 15-year-old with a subnormal IQ won't have a friend with one they can sample either.

So since WoS acquired the newest in next-gen gaming equipment via a cunning scam, the WoS inbox has been deluged with a couple of emails asking - nay, DEMANDING - that their favourite decreasingly-videogames-related website presents an authoritative and definitive lowdown on the two-way tussle for the hearts and minds of the mainstream console consumer for the next five years or so. So here is a one of it.


It really does look this awful.
 

CATEGORY 1: HARDWARE DESIGN

Whoever thought the Xbox would end up being the pretty boy, eh? After the ugly, morbidly obese duckling that was the original machine, the 360 was a lovely sexy swan in comparison. Elegant in pristine white and hourglass curves, it's a tasteful asset to any sitting room. The PS3, on the other hand, looks like a tacky piece of plastic crap from a 1970s Argos catalogue. The ridiculous "futuristic" shape was instantly derided as reminiscent of a George Foreman Grill, but with the addition of overpolished surfaces that act as a dust and fingerprint magnet the second you get it out of the box. Fortunately it's less of an eyesore in the vertical orientation, where you can tuck it away into a dark corner with the shiniest edges pointing at the wall so that unwary visitors to your home aren't at risk of being suddenly blinded by a dazzling reflection, stumbling into a coffee table and breaking their legs. In fairness, it should be pointed out that the 360's elegance is in significant part achieved by having a massive external power supply of uncompromisingly industrial design, but it's a lot easier to conceal that somewhere out of sight than it is to hide the entire PS3, which would be the most satisfactory approach to dealing with its aesthetic qualities.

When it comes to hardware functionality, the PS3 fares rather better. Despite sharing the PS2's pointlessly overcomplicated double on/off system, with the main switch awkwardly located on the back of the machine, most of its connections are easily accessible from the front. It has twice as many USB ports as the 360, slots for three different kinds of memory cards (not including PS1/PS2 ones, but more on that later), and its wireless-internet adapter is built-in, removing the 360's need for an expensive dongle if you want to connect wirelessly.

With the exception of a terrible d-pad, the 360's controller is a thing of beauty and wonder. Ergonomic and comfortable, it uses a pair of normal AA batteries and powers itself down after a few minutes of disuse in order to preserve their life - I've only had to replace the supplied batteries once in the best part of a year. The PS3's Sixaxis has an internal battery charged via a USB cable from the console, doesn't switch itself off when it's not being used, and runs down within a couple of days of heavy play. When it does, your only options are to wait for it to charge back up, or play while connected by the cable, which is inconveniently short at four feet or so. The Sixaxis has sacrificed the rumble feature of both the 360 and its own PS2 predecessor in favour of a tilt-sensitive mechanism that, as utilised to date, is rather imprecise and unreliable compared to the Wii's magical remote. It's a bad trade, and without either batteries or rumble the Sixaxis feels rather light and flimsy. The only other major change from the PS2's Dual Shock is that the L2 and R2 buttons are now analogue triggers, and their shape and the angle they've been placed at makes them horribly uncomfortable as the accelerator in racing games, which is presumably their main intended use. Tch.

Infamously, the PS3 also comes with a built-in Blu-Ray high-def DVD player, and at the time of writing purchasers get a free copy of the excellent Casino Royale to play on it when they register for the Playstation Network. Mine arrived in about a week, and the picture is undeniably very lovely, though nowhere near the sort of leap in quality that I'd imagine it would take to make the average viewer upgrade. Perhaps much more interestingly to most people, the latest firmware revision also offers upscaling of ordinary DVDs to pseudo-HD, which works extremely well (it knocks my progressive-scan dedicated DVD player into a cocked hat), rendering movies with a pin-sharp clarity that's noticeably superior to standard definition, especially through the HDMI output that the 360 currently lacks. The 360 also offers DVD upscaling, but only through a supplementary VGA cable - though technically it's perfectly possible for the machine to upscale through component video leads, it doesn't do so thanks to the movie industry's ever-rampant copyright paranoia. (Actually I'm being a little unfair here, since the HDMI cable isn't included with the PS3 either. But my telly had a spare HDMI socket and doesn't have a spare VGA one, so the PS3 wins. Life is harsh.)

Overall, then, nobody's a clear winner. As a multi-purpose media device the PS3 edges it, thanks to more inputs, built-in wireless, DVD upscaling and next-gen video out of the box. (It also has a 60GB hard disk rather than the 360's 20GB one, uses a standard off-the-shelf drive, and the manual even contains helpful instructions if you want to replace it with a higher-capacity one, which is uncharacteristically user-friendly for Sony.) The 360 wins out as a pure gaming machine, though, thanks to a better joypad and the fact that you're not paying for a bunch of extra stuff you don't need for game-playing. And it's a lot less ugly.
 

SCORE:

PS3:  8

360:  8



360: relatively non-hideous.


CATEGORY 2:
USER INTERFACE

The "operating system" of the PS3 is a version of the XMB (Cross Media Bar) interface previously seen on the PSP, which is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because anyone who's used a PSP will immediately be at home here without having to learn a new system, and a curse because the XMB is a bit rubbish. Sprawling and confusing compared to the 360's big, brash and bold "blades", it's okay once you get used to it but you'll spend the first few days hunting through the over-categorised menus trying to find the thing you want. Setup is also hampered by having to use the PSP's absolutely dreadful mobile-phone-style "keypad" for text input, rather than the 360's simple onscreen keyboard.

Both consoles are happy to act as media-streaming devices, taking music, pictures and movies from your household PC and displaying them on the living-room telly. My personal experience of connecting the 360 to the network to do this was an agonising trial involving hours of fiddling around, trial-and-error guesswork and telephone calls to the support line, not to mention running a 40-foot RJ45 cable through the house because I wasn't prepared to pay the extortionate 60 Microsoft want for the wireless adapter. (Even third-party ones go for around 45, and unusually there don't seem to be any cheapo versions from Hong Kong on eBay.) The PS3, on the other hand, needed nothing more complicated than typing in my WEP key and was streaming content from the PC within five minutes. The 360 wins some points back, however, by supporting a wider variety of file formats, and for the much more spectacular visualiser it offers to enhance music playback in the form of Jeff Minter's dramatic, psychedelic Neon, compared to the PS3's extremely sedate pastel washes.

Like the 360, the PS3 can be switched on and shut down from the controller, which is a nice plus, especially as it saves you from having to go near the eye-troubling console and deal with its irritatingly vague touch-sensitive fascia buttons. Again, then, it's a swings-and-roundabouts deal. The PS3 would just nudge ahead due to its much easier network setup, if it weren't for a big stinky fly in the ointment in the shape of the machine's constant irritating firmware updates. When Sony release an update, the machine won't even let you into the Playstation Store until you've installed it, and the updates can easily take an hour each, which is totally absurd when you consider (a) how little most of them do, and (b) the fact that Microsoft manage to upgrade the 360's firmware in about two minutes tops on the rare occasions (once every few months) that they put an update out. Sony do it with enraging frequency - at the time of writing I'm downloading my second hour-long update in a WEEK - and it's a monstrously intrusive and unforgivably stupid way to run things. (Also, for some moronic reason, halfway through you have to connect the controller via the USB cable, the update process apparently making the wireless capability no longer functional.) Two marks off.
 

SCORE:

PS3:  5

360:  6



Outrun 2: not playable on your PS3, and probably never will be.
 

CATEGORY 3: BACKWARDS COMPATIBILITY

It's little short of a disgrace that while everyone in Asia or the USA gets a PS3 with full hardware compatibility for playing PS2 games, European users - who of course pay more than anyone else and get everything later - are fobbed off with a blatantly inferior product with a software "solution" that enables drastically fewer titles to run properly. Still, in the context of this comparison feature it's no worse than the 360, which takes the same cheapskate approach and supports even fewer games. What's more, the 360 has no official way of transferring your old Xbox saved games to the new machine - the Xbox Memory Unit has stupidly and inexcusably been made incompatible with the 360 - so the backwards compatibility is a bit of a waste of time anyway. (Strictly it IS possible to transfer save files, via third-party peripherals, but you have to buy THREE extra pieces of hardware at a total cost of 50 or more, and also tool around with the files on your PC before you can transfer them, which also requires physically lugging the PC to within reach of both the original Xbox and the 360 unless you're the sort of weirdo who keeps the PC in the living room.)

The PS3, however, CAN copy your saves across, though it also requires the purchase of an extra piece of hardware (the PS3 Memory Card Adapter, available for about 12 online), which is a bit rubbish given the PS3's price and the number of other memory-device inputs it has. Strangely, it can't just use the memory cards directly when they're plugged into the adapter - even though they show up in the XMB, so the machine IS recognising them. You have to transfer them instead to "virtual memory cards" on the PS3's hard drive, and the virtual cards can't be any bigger than a real one, meaning you have to muck around swapping the virtual cards when you play different games, but once transferred they work perfectly. (You can also copy files from the PS3 onto the actual cards, which provides a useful backup facility.) The process is the same for PS2 and PS1 saves, though the much smaller capacity of PS1 cards makes the whole business considerably fiddlier if you have a lot of games.

As far as the actual games go, PS2 titles fare pretty well. They can be upscaled in the same manner as DVDs, and also horizontally stretched to fill the full area of a widescreen TV if you like. Sadly there's no option to run in 60Hz if the game didn't originally offer a 60Hz option, so the crappy 50Hz bordered PAL conversions that blighted the PS2's early years are still rubbish. On the upside, the PS3 successfully displayed a number of PS2 games (including Sonic Gems and Neo Contra) which wouldn't run through my PS2's component cables at all.

PS1 games, though, come off considerably worse - far fewer of them had 60Hz options, which combined with the PS1's resolution means that 50Hz PAL games have HUGE borders at the top and bottom of the screen, in addition to the expanses of black at the sides if you've got a widescreen telly. Disappointingly there's no hardware display-adjustment, so if your TV doesn't let you shift the vertical and horizontal axes manually you'll have to put up with quite a lot of games being played distractingly off-centre. The upscaling causes a few graphical issues with textures, and several games, especially 3D ones, ran at noticeably poor frame rates compared to real PS1 hardware. (Ridge Racer Type 4, in particular, was a slideshow.) 

Also disappointing is the fact that neither machine will let you use your old controllers, even though in both cases the new joypads are just slightly-modified iterations of the old ones. The PS3 does, however, handle USB PS2 peripherals like Rez's Trance Vibrator. You pervert.

The PS3's backwards compatibility is seriously flawed, then, especially for unfortunate European customers, but it's a mark of just how much of a half-arsed, cack-handed mess Microsoft made of their effort that it still crushes the 360's to a pulp.
 

SCORE:

PS3:  6

360:  2



Xbox Live Arcade: games aplenty here.
 

CATEGORY 4: ONLINE SERVICE

Unsophisticated viewers might be expecting the 360 to score a significant victory in this category. And as it happens, they'd be right. (Hey, even stupid people aren't always wrong.) With an 18-month head start you'd expect the 360 to offer a lot more content, but the PS3 screws up in a whole bunch of other ways that have nothing to do with its later arrival.

The most obvious one is the Playstation Store. While other territories get decent amounts of content and a pretty slick interface through which to access it, the UK version of the Store is an absolute shambles. Despite having shelves as barren as an East German supermarket in 1985, the act of actually getting to what little it has on offer is still a painful and time-consuming trial. While absolutely everywhere else on the XMB the Circle button takes you back to the previous menu, in the Store it inconsistently and inexplicably takes you out altogether and dumps you back in the main menu, for example. Navigation is controlled by a pointer which leaps around illogically if you use the d-pad, bypassing several options entirely, or moves at a painful crawl if you use the analogue stick. Great clunking licence agreements also bog the pointer down, and there's no way to flag multiple free-download items and then install them all at once. For example, grabbing 25 special race events for Ridge Racer 7, each of which individually downloaded in just a few seconds, took 25 separate multi-stage "transactions" and a gruelling and hideous 20 minutes of unbearably tedious repetition, for which someone deserves to be punched in the face at least once for each event.

Pay content is handled only fractionally better. Here you CAN queue multiple items and then get them all in one go (so why the hell isn't the option also available for free content?), though buying stuff works in a manner only slightly less idiotic than Microsoft's "points" system for XBLA. Even though you've supplied your credit card details, and content is priced in pounds and pence rather than points, you can't just buy something that costs 3.49 by debiting 3.49 to your registered card. That, clearly, would be some kind of Communist madness.

Instead you have to pointlessly deposit money in your Store "wallet", which can initially only be done in multiples of 5 and is non-refundable, so that to buy a 3.49 item you have to spend a fiver and just hope there'll be something else you want later. However, on further investigation you find that there's a little more flexibility than XBLA offers - if you have that leftover 1.51 in your account and then want to buy something that costs, say, 6.99, the Store WILL let you deposit exactly the 5.48 required to make up the price, rather than having to put another 10 in. However, if you want to buy something else priced at, say, 1.99 - like the rather nice Go Puzzle Skyscrapers - you have to deposit another fiver instead of the mere 48p you actually need, because 5 is the minimum deposit. It's absurdly stupid that you can have to fork out more than ten times what you actually need to buy something, rather than simply paying the correct amount every time, but even at that it still manages to be a slight improvement over the 360's system. Overall, though, the UK Playstation Store is a colossal trainwreck which ought to be high on Sony's priorities list for fixing up ASAP.

What content there is has problems too. Bafflingly, simple little games like Blast Factor take absurd amounts of time to boot up once installed - I got the WoS stopwatch out, and from clicking the icon to shooting the first baddie took varying amounts of time between 60 and 80 seconds. It's like waiting for Spectrum games to load all over again. Not all games suffer from this failing, but it's bad enough that any do. Playstation Network games also don't feature the Achievement awards of XBLA titles, though you do get online leaderboards. (And the PS3 also offers a web browser, albeit a slow one, which gets it another point.)

The elephant in the room, of course, is the sheer quantity and breadth of content currently available on XBLA. Set against the PS3's three or four downloadable games is a veritable army of quality: original arcade blasters like Geometry Wars and Jetpac Refuelled; enhanced coin-op remakes like Centipede/Millipede and Pac-Man Championship Edition; epic adventures like Castlevania Symphony Of The Night; parlour games like Catan and Uno; and a wide range of other titles like Pinball FX, Texas Hold'Em, Boom Boom Rocket, Heavy Weapon, Marble Blast Ultra, Crystal Quest, Astropop, Lumines Live and Assault Heroes. You even get the pretty good action-puzzler Hexic for free when you buy the machine. (Would it have killed Sony to pre-install something like the Gran Turismo HD demo on the PS3's hard disk to give new purchasers something to play on their 425 machine?)

There's enough on Live Arcade to keep you entertained cheaply for months without ever having to buy a commercial 360 release. (Indeed, I'd estimate that 90% of my 360 playing time to date has been spent on downloaded games rather than shop-bought ones.) The PS3 might eventually be able to compete with Microsoft's lineup - other territories, for example, already have access through PSN to a wide library of old PS1 games - but it's a gamble, and the Soviet-era state of the Playstation Store so far doesn't give much cause for optimism.
 

SCORE:

PS3:  4

360:  9



Motorstorm: a "screenshot" from Sony's website.


CATEGORY 5: OMG IT'S TEH GAMEZ!!!

So we've covered everything the two machines do that ISN'T play normal-type console games. But how do they shape up when it comes to what (it would be nice to think) is still their primary reason for taking up space on your living-room floor? Well, the PS3's gaming carpet is still rather threadbare, but there are some comparison points available. The 360's Ridge Racer 6 and the PS3's Ridge Racer 7 are actually rather more different than you may have been led to believe, but in technical terms they're pretty hard to tell apart without a magnifying glass. (The PS3 game has more frequent visible struggles with framerate than its 360 counterpart, but fights back with more tracks and brighter colours.) Resistance: Fall Of Man stands up pretty well to Gears Of War, and Motorstorm is the closest thing the PS3 has to a killer exclusive, though it's mindbogglingly superficial and also afflicted with hefty loading times. And of course, terminally joyless dullards will enjoy Formula 1 Championship Edition, which still (for licencing reasons) has no comparable counterpart on the 360.

But the simple truth of the matter is that as far as has been demonstrated up until now, the PS3 represents no practical technical advancement over the 360 at all - indeed, the nature of porting has meant that most games which run on both platforms come off slightly better on the 360. And without any visible qualitative advantages over its older competitor, the PS3 gets simply smothered by the 360's strikingly superior software shagpile. That's not to say the Microsoft machine is reclining on a giant fluffy beanbag of must-have releases by any means, but it has good-to-very-good games across every genre, a decent handful of 360-only triple-As like Dead Rising and Crackdown, titles which are far better in their 360 incarnation (eg Test Drive Unlimited), a sprinkling of quirkier exclusives like Earth Defence Force 2017 and Viva Pinata, and let's not forget the small matter of the imminent Halo 3.

Far more importantly than what's available now, though - relatively early in the PS3's life - is what's likely to happen in the coming years. There are hardly any big-name PS3-exclusive titles on the horizon, with the exception of a very few tired old franchises like Metal Gear Solid and, um, actually that's about it. (Who knows when - or even if - Polyphony will manage to get a PS3 Gran Turismo out? How many years overdue is the PSP version now?)

Names which have long been synonymous with Sony hardware like Grand Theft Auto, Final Fantasy, Virtua Fighter and Pro Evolution Soccer are now shared with the competition. It's very hard to think of anything in the forseeable future that's going to drive sales of the PS3 in the way that, say, GTA3 did, because most of the big-name games in the pipeline are coming to the 360 too. And as its userbase continues to put distance between itself and the PS3's, the chances are that most things will be developed/optimised/released for the 360 first, too.

If you're deciding on what games are available to buy right now, the 360 wins by a country mile. And if you're banking on the future... well, the 360 wins by a country mile. 
 

SCORE:

PS3:  3

360:  7



Not enough money to buy a PS3, yesterday.
 

CATEGORY 6: THE BIG TICKET

It'd be remiss to write a comparison feature like this without at least touching on the lead albatross around the PS3's neck - that price point. WoS was fortunate enough not to have to pay for either of its machines, and is therefore able to take a fairly detached view on the subject. The truth is that in strict value-for-money terms, the PS3 stands up pretty well. It costs 140 more than the 360, but to bring the 360 up to comparable specs (by adding a wireless adapter and the HD-DVD player) would cost an extra 170 (plus another 40 a year on top of that if you want to play online multiplayer games). Of course, that assumes you want both of those things, and certainly in the latter case it seems likely that the large majority of people don't. History will probably come to judge Sony's attempt to force the issue of next-gen video by Trojan-horsing a Blu-Ray player onto unwilling consumers as the spanner in the works that upset the applecart of their attempt to hold onto the No.1 position in the console market, and only time will tell just how costly a mistake that might prove to be. 

Certainly, at the current sticker prices Sony will lose the war. The 360 had a six-million head start, and is still selling faster than the newer machine. Microsoft could afford to match any Sony price-cut, implementing one so early would be a PR disaster for Sony anyway, and both sides are also being squeezed by the runaway success of Nintendo's Wii and DS. In short, if you're holding off on a buying decision because you're hanging on for the PS3 to get cheaper relative to its rival, WoS advises you to let your breath out now before you injure yourself.
 

SCORE:

PS3:  0

360:  1

 


What WoS actually recommends that you buy.

 

THE FINAL COUNT-UP

PS3: 26

360: 33

360 WINS

Hubris often afflicts those who enjoy success over an extended period, and Sony have dropped clanger after clanger with the PS3, alienating loyal customers with a lethal mix of arrogance, overconfidence and plain stupidity. It's hard to see any way they could extract themselves from their current predicament, and therefore if you're making a decision about which console to buy, it's difficult to construct any rational argument for hitching yourself to the bullet-riddled Sony bandwagon as it careers towards the abyss.

The PS3 itself is an excellent machine, equal to the 360 in most regards and superior in a few, but the history of entertainment technology shows that it's rarely the "best" platform that comes out on top. If you really, really want a Blu-Ray player, the PS3 is a strikingly excellent way to acquire one at a bargain price with a very decent games machine and media player thrown in for free. But if what you mostly want to do is play videogames, then the 360 is, for now and the forseeable future, the only choice that makes any kind of sense. 
 

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