Play It Again, Sony

Play It Again, Sony
We’re hardly in overtime, but with 106 million PS2s out on the field, all-time champ Sony shouldn’t be in the same league as Microsoft and Nintendo. Yet much like me playing Madden, Sony‘s next-gen Playstation 3 has been plagued by fumbles. Originally due last spring, the cutting-edge console was pushed to mid-November, saw launch numbers drop from two million to 500,000 for Japan and North America and delayed Europe until March. In October, Sony revealed profits were down 94 percent (compared to Nintendo’s DS-fuelled rise of 72 percent) but it wasn‘t all bad news — the aging PS2 was actually selling more than the Xbox 360. But that still-stellar success doesn’t guarantee a win for the PS3 — especially with Sony’s biggest exclusives, Final Fantasy XII and next year’s God of War II, skipping the new console altogether. Plus, there was that pre-launch bombshell about some backwards compatibility problems (though it’s still better than the 360’s limited current-gen compatibility).

"A bad news story is more interesting to people than a good news story,” dismisses Sony spokesperson Matt Levitan. "We’ve had pretty much an uncontested run for the past ten years. The original Playstation took the leadership position and we haven’t looked back.”

Of course, the first two Playstations weren’t this pricey. At $549 for the 20GB PS3 and $659 for the 60GB, it’s the most expensive of the new consoles. However, it does offer free online gaming (versus Xbox Live’s annual subscription) and is the cheapest Blu-Ray player on the market — Sony’s actually losing $300 per unit because of its expensive insides. Blu-Ray is Sony’s proprietary hi-def DVD; it offers ten times the storage and is in a format war with HD-DVD (offered as a 360 add-on drive, but for movies only). Sony’s hoping PS3 sales will help Blu-Ray avoid the failure of Betamax and spur sales of hi-def televisions.

At launch, North Americans lined up outside retailers days in advance, but shortages meant this publicity coup was marred by eBay profiteers, brawls, stampedes, robberies and even a shooting.

So what’s the big deal? The PS3’s "Cell” super-processor, 1080 progressive scan graphics, web browsing and impressive multimedia capabilities make it unquestionably a kick-ass machine, but unlike PCs, outdated by their first boot-up, consoles must plan ahead. It was months before 360 games made good on the hardware hype. The PS3 is even more technologically advanced, so it’ll be a while before developers squeeze out its extra juice for titles like Heavenly Sword, Metal Gear Solid 4, Assassin's Creed, L.A. Noire and Final Fantasy XIII.

Sony calls it "future-proofed” and while a fair assessment, that limits the PS3’s present-tense impressiveness. Without a hi-def TV and surround sound, the purchase is pointless and they launched with only one surefire system-seller, Resistance: Fall of Man, a photorealistic first-person shooter set in an alien-plagued alternate WWII. It’s graphically astounding and should be great in multiplayer mode, but doesn’t innovate. The samurai hack-and-slasher Genji: Days of the Blade also looks and fights fantastically, but its frustratingly immoveable camera could be a deal-breaker. Their sports titles — NBA 07, Madden, Tiger Woods, Tony Hawk's Project 8 — up the audio/visual ante, but only limited use of the new motion-sensitive (but rumble-free) controller doesn’t make game play much different yet.

Of course, when Sony entered the gaming arena, nobody could’ve predicted its eventual dominance. Not only is this a two-machine war — the relatively inexpensive and revolutionary Wii should be everyone’s second console — but the real battles won’t be waged for a few years yet.

"Our strategy is more long-term than short-term,” Levitan says. "The system updates allows us to increasingly add functionality. It’s an evolution of the product — what it’s doing right now versus what it’ll do in a year or five years will be very different.” In other words: game on!