Saturday, December 05, 2009

Rockin' The PS3

I love video games, as anyone who has seen my Wall O' Media on my stairway can attest. There I have the 400 or so classical CDs I have yet to rip, all of my DVDs (yay, another dying media standard!), and my video games. I still have quite a few PlayStation games, as well as the handful of PS2 games I got back when it seemed like that was the only way I'd ever play Guitar Hero, and my GameCube and Wii titles. The Sega DreamCast is out at Sunriver, although I suspect it's not long before it will end up going to Goodwill or some other charitable use.

To be honest, I haven't done much "twitch" gaming on a console lately at all. The GameCube had some, notably the Metroid series (which has a title on the Wii as well), but it's not quite the same without that PlayStation dual thumbstick control. After I got the PS1, my wife and I spent a lot of time playing Tomb Raider, Resident Evil, etc, with her backseat driving -

Her - "What was that thing?"
Me - "What thing?"
"That one."
"I'm going to need more information than that."
"The one you just passed."
(I back up)
"This thing?"
"No, further back."
Repeat ad nauseum

And yet we had fun, except when bad control design required me to spend six hours jumping Lara Croft around on a bunch of ropes and platforms.

After the GameCube, that more or less stopped, and to be honest it had more or less stopped when I'd gotten the Sega. I still played on occasion, but the Golden Age of consoles was definitely the PS1. We have fun on the Wii, don't get me wrong, but the good games feel much different than a twitcher game.

So it was that when Sony made the PS3 console affordable (down to a base price of $299), I had to take a serious look. Blu-Ray, can be used as a media center even with a Mac, can stream NetFlix movies, can even do some *very* limited internet stuff, I had to take a much closer look.

The two things holding me back were the lack of compatibility with the PS2 (and some PS1 games too), as well as the fact that the damned thing doesn't have an IR port - it does everything via Bluetooth, the controllers, the remote, everything. Fine, I said, I guess we'll have a remote besides the Harmony that runs everything. Mel was going on a two-week trip, and that seemed like a really good time to get the system so that everything was working when she got back. Off to Costco I went, and got the bundle with the remote, the 120Gb PS3, and Uncharted 1, which after I did the math turned out to be about $10 off the regular price.

I got home, and have gradually been learning what the system can and can't do. In general, I love this system, although it has not been without it's problems. Here are some things I've learned:

  • Gaming in HD rocks. The images are incredible, at least in most games (Dragon Age: Origins is a surprising exception, where everything looks like someone spilled the earth tone paint set in the 3rd grade classroom). Our 42" TV from a few years back (an LCD projection, they didn't do screens that large back then) can't handle 1080p, but to be honest I don't find that to be a problem, although I did have it plugged into the 32" bedroom TV for a day or two when I first got it, and *it* handles 1080p. Very immersive, and while I haven't seen it yet, I understand that the facial work in Uncharted 2 is nothing short of incredible. Lesson learned: eye candy is important to this gamer.
  • I learned that Logitech makes an IR-to-Bluetooth relayer, made specifically for the PS3. It's not cheap ($53 at Amazon), but it works great, and there's a good template for the PS3 available for the Harmony remote, which we use and love. Certainly cheaper than a combo IR/Bluetooth remote, that's for sure. I should note that the latest system update seems to cause a lot of problems for Buetooth on the PS3, both remotes and controllers, and I've seen a few fixes (boot in safe mode and delete corrupted files, pull the power cord for 30 seconds, as well as reseting the system prefs - I've tried the last and will see how long/well it works), but otherwise the remote works quite well and I'm pleased that this particular problem was solved simply by throwing money at it.
  • Bug fixes for games. What a novel idea. I mean, I understand that in the past console games went out with no chance of being fixed, and that drove a very high degree of QA work, and perhaps we've seen the end of games that come out working correctly (anything you buy that's new in the last quarter of the year is probably a v0.9 version), but I can live with that. Plus I like the idea of downloadable content, although I understand there is some controversy over whether it's just raising the price of the game over time. Being an MMORPGer, I don't mind that. 
  • Online gaming. Sure, you can do this with the Wii on some titles, notably Mario Kart and Beatles: Rock Band. It's a much stronger culture on the PS3 (and the XBox), and more of the games are built to use it. I will be able to play Borderlands with my son-in-law and his friend from Hawaii, for instance, although I'm unlikely to spend a lot of time gaming with strangers in this mode.
  • Media Center. Imagine my surprise to find that I could play music and videos from my Mac, including my iTunes library (although not the "protected" AAC files, but those are a long overnight session away from having the protection stripped out). And the software is free. It isn't pretty, but it works. This more or less obviates the need for the AppleTV I bought last year when I thought I'd be able to use Boxee to stream Lost to the TV when Dish ran into a contract dispute with our local affiliate (never did work - ABC changed their streaming format the day I got it, and Hulu pulled support for Boxee a week later). The ATV is almost certainly heading for the bedroom TV. Video quality is comparable to DVD/Blu-Ray, dependent of course upon the source, and I have noticed no hiccups on the g network the PS3 requires.
  • Netflix. We are in the middle of a test drive of this system (they are offering a two-week free trial), and I was especially interested in the streaming part. The PS3 at present requires a special disc that Netflix sends you, so it's not something you can decide you want at 4am on Sunday morning, and they won't send you a disc unless you have an account, but I have to say that the video quality is as good as from a file on the computer. The drawback is that there really isn't much new (and by "new" I mean since 2005) material out there. Mostly TV shows that are new, but forget any major film produced recently. There is quite a bit of art house and foreign stuff, which is fine with me - I'm not a Transformers kind of guy. Also, not a lot of the material is in HD for streaming, mostly SD. Like I say, it's fine. I will almost certainly use the mail service to get series like Enterprise on DVD so I can rip it and stream it when I want to, and for Blu-Ray (which I can't rip as the Mac doesn't come with a Blu-Ray drive, although I understand it can be done but I'm loathe to on a nearly two-year-old tower). We watched BStar-G: The Plan (terrible unless you're a total fan, it's just a montage of scenes from the life of the series from the POV of the Cylons and what they were doing in the background), and have something else coming in the mail Monday. Regardless, this is tech that seems to work really well, and I hope they expand the service or else I will probably run out of reasons to keep it up soon.
  • Blu-Ray. Three words. Star Trek. Watchmen. One more word. Awesome. However, I just can't quite get past the price point for discs, one of the reasons I got the Netflix service. I don't even like spending $20 for a regular DVD, my price point is more like $15 for a two-hour movie, and $40-50 for a TV show series. Downside: I now want a 60" screen. 
I should also note that buying the PS3 convinced me to upgrade my AV receiver. We had a Denon from years ago, so old that the highest level of video it supported is S-Video. Nothing I have now uses S-Video, at least not if I don't want to. The new receiver, a Pioneer VSX-919AH-K (very recently discontinued, making it only $50 more than the model below it, the 819, at Amazon) supports three HDMI sources and two component video sources, which is exactly what I currently have (plus iPhone/iPod). The video looks *better* running through this receiver than it did running directly from the Dish ViP622 receiver to the same exact TV. Not sure how that works. Also, it supports the more modern audio standards including TrueHD, which means uncompressed sound to the various channels. One problem - when switching from HD to SD programming from the Dish unit, it occasionally loses the sound. Almost certainly an HDMI handshaking problem, and perhaps why the unit is being discontinued. However, I put in a soft button on the Harmony to switch to a different source and back again to reestablish the handshake and it works great. I haven't had the problem with the PS3 yet. The receiver does upscale analog sources (of which I have none), but does not upscale 480i/p sources to HD. I'm not sure that's such a great idea anyway.

The good news is that I can run the ATV, the Dish, and the PS3 through HDMI, the Wii through component/stereo, and the PS2 through component/optical connections. Strangely, the back of the AV stack is just as cluttered with cables as before. All video is going through the receiver now. Plus, it uses a MCAAC automatic process to set up your surround system using an included microphone, and the sound is quite definitely better than it was. I've always considered AV receivers as a necessary evil for watching video content at the cost of weaker audio-only content, but this system sounds awesome. It even has a system for "restoring" compressed content, like from your iPod, although I have yet to spend much time with that. 

I'm sure those of you with PS3 systems are interested in the games I've bought. Here they are in no particular order. Of these, only four were purchased at "full" price, the rest were all $20 or so:

Dragon Age: Origins - I've discussed the color palette thing above. Far from perfect, but an engaging RPG and I like that you can give limited AI to the members of your party (and in fact *must* do so to succeed in boss battles). A full price game.

Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion - I haven't gotten very far into this, but I will say that the characters you can create are about the least attractive I've ever seen. The men look like Neanderthals. However, the game is supposed to be excellent. I couldn't find the set that included the expansions, but I'm sure it will be $20 by the time I get around to it.

Uncharted 1/2 - I've just touched 2, mostly to get the software update in place. 1 is gorgeous, and while the face animation is pretty good, it's a long way from even good cartoon work, although I hear 2 fixes that to some extent. Think Tomb Raider with more shooting and some platform stuff, and so far a pretty good story. 1 was the first game I played when I got the system. 2 was full price, 1 was part of the bundle.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 - Holy crap. I have no idea who is shooting at me, or where it's coming from, or anything. I've gotten to the first mission after you get "picked" to be part of the CIA and go to the former Soviet republics, and it's pretty hard. I hear that the single player portion is pretty short, that it's all about online play, but it does support two players on a single system (which is unusual). Full price.

Borderlands - An attempt to make an MMORPG-like experience on a console. So far it's been very entertaining, although there are complaints that it's very samey-samey after a while. Jake and I played this split-screen a couple of weeks ago, and we had a blast. Totally worth the price of the game and the second controller just for that one experience. Very interesting filled-cel animation that gives it a look similar to XIII but much more detailed. Full price.

Assassin's Creed - Man, I want to like this game. I've played it more than anything else, largely because it takes so freakin' long to get to Jerusalem, then you have to *crawl* through the city to get anywhere because of all the guards and annoying beggars (I've learned to punch the beggars to drive them off, otherwise they stand directly in front of you and impede your progress). I hear the sequel fixes many of the tempo problems with the first game, although I would like to finish this one. 

Burnout: Paradise - I thought I was getting a driving simulation, but it's really more of a driving-themed game. Mario Kart has more realistic handling and you still get to run people into obstacles. OK for what it is, and a damned shame you can't play *this* split screen with another player. I can barely *finish* any races from point to point because I don't know the streets well enough and where I need to turn if I'm in the lead (or close to it). Not recommended. 

Lost Planet - An impulse buy, mostly because of the TV ads that were out for this a year or two ago. The game is supposed to look great, but is impossible to play when there are more than a couple of enemies onscreen. I haven't even taken it out of the shrink yet. 

Dead Space - Sci-Fi/Horror shooter. Creepy as hell, and your character's costume makes you look like some sort of glowing-spined demon. Kind of a game for dummies, as it tells you exactly where you need to go to get to the next plot advancement point, but considering how large the space we're working with is, I'm grateful for it. So far very promising.

Bioshock - This was a game I was *so* excited to finally get to play when I got my Intel-powered Mac tower, only to find that the graphics requirements are insane - 512Mb video card, and mine is "only" 256Mb. The PS3 costs less than the graphics card I'd have needed! Kind of insane. However, this game is truly gorgeous on the PS3, very playable, and very highly recommended. However, it was hard to find - no local stores carried it, I got it via Amazon when I bought the receiver. 

Fallout 3 - I loved Fallout on the Mac, but Fallout 2 never worked (literally - it just wouldn't get past the title screens on my system and an effective patch was never released). I much prefer the FPS approach to the Diablo approach in the first title. I've gotten out of the Vault (funny how in FO3 you're trying to get *out* then in Borderlands you're trying to *find* the Vault!), but haven't gone any further than that for now. 

That may seem like a lot of games (11) but remember that seven of them were only $20 and cost half as much as the other four full price titles. I'm also interested in Resistance 2, Demon's Souls, Gran Turismo 5 (when it comes out), Dirt 2, Assassin's Creed 2, and a few more, but for now I've got a good starter library that should take me a while to get through. 

So far I'm very pleased with the system, bluetooth issues aside. I'm delighted to finally get into Blu-Ray and streaming Netflix videos, and if it were just me I'd ditch the Dish entirely and get a Mac Mini to act as a DVR (or some other system to record on-air programming, which is 90% of what we plan to watch - the rest is surf). I still love my Wii, and it's definitely the social gaming platform for when people come over (and I'm committed to it for Rock Band for now - I already have four, count 'em, four guitar controllers, although two are for the PS2 and Guitar Hero), but the PS3 will be what I mostly play when I'm on my own. 

It's funny - it seems that we're pretty close to a point where console systems do what we want them to do, even three years after launch. The original PS2/XBox/GameCube years seem like they were pretty short, and after three or four years we were looking at new systems coming down the pike. I'm unaware of *any* new systems in the works, just improvements to the current gen. I think that's probably a good thing, as I already have too many games for systems that include backward compatibility. Also, the system is relatively future proof when it comes to media. Blu-Ray is going to be dominant for some time, as televisions won't handle a denser format and it's unlikely we're going to see another quality bump (it took 50 years to get past NTSC). Disc-based media for video is going the way of it's audio-based brethren, and within ten years we'll all be getting it online instead of over the air or on disc. PS3 handles both formats just fine, and while it's not cheap compared to most Blu-Ray players out there now, it does do all of the things I want it to today and into the next few years at the very least. 

There will be those who say I should have gotten into XBox - better online system (if for pay), and it has a better library of games, something I confess the PS3 took a while to start generating. However, I really hate to give Microsoft money, and my understanding is that the fail rate on their devices is significant compared with the PS3. The new slim PS3s have yet to show if they'll have problems down the line, but all I have to go on is past history. 

Of course, if I move the AppleTV to the bedroom, that means I've freed up an HDMI input on the receiver, which *could* take an XBox...

1 comment:

Matthew said...

We just started up the Netflix thing on our PS3 a few weeks ago. Very nice. Seems like almost half of our queue (now close to 200 movies/shows) is on demand.

I got Borderlands last Friday and am lovin' it. Let me know if you'd like to play through it cooperatively from the beginning. I'm partial to the Soldier and the Hunter.