Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment America
Developer: Sony & IBM
Release Date: Spring 2006
I can hear the system fanboys out there sharpening their knives after reading that teaser, but trust me, fannishness doesn't motivate this assessment of the situation. I don't really believe in system loyalty, since ultimately a console is just a computer and only as good as the software that gets made for it. I loved Nintendo's booth this year, but unless the Revolution actually shoots holograms out of your TV and, I don't know, can fit on the head of a pin as promised, then we're about to look at another round of dirty trench warfare between Sony and Microsoft for control of the American market. I played games on the 360 at E3 – a lot of games, actually – and they were extremely impressive even on the pre-alpha hardware that most of the demos were using. However, if the Cell chip can actually do even half of what Sony's E3 footage claims it can, then the PS3 will debut with top-notch hardware and the momentum of the PS2's immense popularity behind it.
The footage was presented to us in a darkened, quiet theater, with surround sound and a gigantic screen. Certain elements of the footage left me with the distinct impression that it was probably a Japanese promotional video that had been dubbed with an English voiceover. It started with some incoherent futuristic rambling about the power of data merged with reality, but then got to the good part: the game footage. The Sony rep who took us through the PS3 demo assured us that everything we saw were real-time renders, but that just seems too good to be true. Some of the footage we saw is easily comparable to Pixar and Dreamworks' earlier efforts.
No titles for games were announced in the trailer, but some were fairly easy to recognize just from context. We saw a bit of a fighting game that appeared to be Tekken, footage from a Devil May Cry game, and some FPS footage from a Ubisoft title (the footage was watermarked). What distinguished this group of footage was amazing levels of detail in the backgrounds and particularly the facial features of the characters we saw. You could make out individual strands of Dante's hair and the lashes rimming the eyes of the Tekken protagonist.
Other footage emphasized the sheer amount of objects that could be moved around at once in PS3 titles. Some sample footage from Koei showed a gigantic army, reminiscent of the ones that appear in their Romance of the Three Kingdoms games, with each figure rendered in fantastic detail and presumably in real-time. On top of this, the field was peppered with fires, completely believable lighting effects, and the requisite cheesy cherry blossoms drifting across on the breeze. A snippet from the PS3 Gran Turismo featured a pan-over of a pit road, as crowded and lively as that of a real race, as the car glided in to have its tires changed. The level of detail in the sweep, with each member of each team's pit crew moving in authentic ways, is not like anything I have ever seen in a video game before. We also saw a fighting game, developer and title unknown, where a single fighter laid into a horde of enemies while an eye-popping array of visual effects swirled around her every move.
I think what really drove the power inherent in the Cell chip home, at least for me, was actually a snippet from Bandai's contribution to the proceedings. It was a selection from an upcoming game in the red hot (in Japan, anyway) Gundam franchise, depicting the gunmetal green Zaku robots in urban combat against a bright white Gundam robot that was kept teasingly off-camera. One of the major problems Gundam games on the PS2 have had is that, even in comparison to the Gundam cartoons, the robots don't move with any sense of weight or power. The limits of the last generation's technology were such that the robots moved more like animated plastic toys, not like the forty-foot engines of destruction fans know they should be. But the robots in the PS3 footage simply felt real in a way that no Gundam game on any platform has been able to achieve before. Debris and dust flew about with every heavy, powerful movement the giant robots made, and the textures and details on the robot's bodies completely conveyed the idea of an enormous fighting machine. Particularly convincing was a sequence where one of the Zaku robots toppled to the ground after getting hit by a burst of fire, with the camera swinging by to show every scratch and particle of dust that marred its finish.
After the Sony video ended, the press crew was ushered outside to look at display case mock-ups of the actual PS3. Probably the biggest surprise was that, instead of the rumored seven controller slots, the PS3 housed slots for 4 standard USB controllers. This is a direct blow at the Xbox 360's attempt to introduce a standard controller for both PC and the Xbox, as it means that any PS3 controller will probably also be usable for the PC as well. The PS3 unit itself was quite attractive, shown in black, white, and silver models, each shaped much like the slim line PS2. The unit was much thicker, about two inches tall, with a domed top. The back of the unit was difficult to make out between the crowd and the rotating display, but featured an ethernet port and a variety of other connection ports.
As we left the PS3 exhibit, I asked a friend who went through the demo with me what she thought. She was quick to point out that there was no guarantee what we were looking at wasn't just "cut-scene" footage, and that Sony's presentation had only emphasized amazing graphics at a show where you couldn't turn around without being beaten over the head with astronomical polygon counts and "lifelike" renders. The Xbox 360, by comparison, had been fully playable in ways that showed a concrete advance in gameplay thanks to the new hardware. I think she definitely has a point, especially since many gamers still remember the absurd "Emotion Engine" campaign Sony used to hype up the hardware specs of previous PlayStation iterations. In the end, only time – and game selection – will tell when it comes to the true potential of the PS3.