SAN FRANCISCO — For two days last week, the PlayStation was no chimerical system of the future. It was alive in black plastic, laid out dozens strong for the press to play at events run by game publisher Electronic Arts and Sony. With some of the world's top developers staffing both events, the question to ask was whether this gaming future would really be worth buying into. What, of all the dazzling games, is truly next-gen about the next generation of games?
Ask this question to an executive or press agent at Sony or Microsoft and the answer will come back as a chart or, at best, a quote seemingly formed from the diligent study of a chart. They talk of high-capacity Blu-Ray Discs or 1080p hi-def graphics. They talk of broadband Internet connections and toss figures for processor speed and RAM. If they see eyes glazing, they don't appear to be discouraged. They just throw out more stats.
Developers do this too, and they did in San Francisco. That made it tempting to pat these games down firsthand for any evidence of a cutting edge. And surely the detailed, massive robots in Namco Bandai's "Mobile Suit Gundam: Crossfire" were making a case, as was the garish detail of boxer Roy Jones Jr.'s beat-up face in EA's PS3 iteration of "Fight Night: Round 3." There was more, but the developers weren't going to get off the hook. Surely they could explain — and in laymen's terms, please.
"Our job going forward is to beat the movies," creator Alex Ward offered as an answer at the EA event. Ward's company, Criterion, has made the hardware-pushing, crash-centric "Burnout" racing series since 2001, and he flew in from England to speak of how the series' fifth game — not actually shown by EA — would use the power of the PS3.
"We really want you to feel something in the pit of your heart," he said. "It's more than just a game now." Ward wasn't ticking off statistics, but he wasn't really helping. He tried again, focusing on the signature car wrecks in "Burnout": "We're going to rip the car in two. It's going to be like nothing you've ever seen before and better than any car crash in the movies." Closer. Once more?
"It's all about how many bones are in the car," he began. "In the last games we made, we were able to have 12 or 15 pieces of metal come out of the car [when it crashed]. This time we're looking at 90 to 100 pieces coming out of the car at any time, all physically simulated."
Much better. And that means each piece will bounce and ricochet with its own physics, instead of shooting out in a canned animation that has no real effect on neighboring objects. Ward also promised that next-gen would enable his team to render car interiors, air bags and chassis.
At the Sony event, Factor 5's Julian Eggebrecht initially trotted out some of the same generalities as Ward when discussing the wonders of the PS3's tech. Factor 5 is a veteran company of several graphically impressive "Star Wars" games on the Nintendo 64 and GameCube, and when pushed, he explained the difference between what his team could do with the force of old systems versus the potency of the PS3 that runs their 2007 dragon-combat game "Lair."
On the old hardware, he said, "you could do speeder bikes in the Endor forest." A high-speed first-person bike chase through lush vegetation was indeed a point of pride for Factor 5 on GameCube. "You could do flight with an X-wing in the air," he continued. "What you couldn't do was go from space all the way down to the ground, hop off seamlessly and actually have a battle raging with a couple thousand soldiers."
In the version of the game available in San Francisco, the dragons in "Lair" were under the control of both an armored rider and a PS3 player yanking Sony's motion-sensitive controller with two hands, as if pulling reins. The beasts steered through aerial combat against other dragons into highly detailed close-up combat against individual, gargantuan fire-breathers, and even, at times, into ground combat amid hundreds of clashing warriors.
Other creators were game to make their next-gen pitches. Insomniac's Ted Price had been called onstage during the presentation that opened the Sony event to show his company's PS3 launch title "Resistance: Fall of Man." He showcased a weapon consisting of an exploding ball of spikes called the hedgehog that was also demonstrated to GameFile in August (see " GameFile: 'Resistance' Pushes PS3 To The Edge, 'Dead Rising' Redefines Death & More").
Then and now, the hedgehog was highlighted because its 50 spikes each eject with their own artificial intelligence, a reasonably sophisticated-sounding use of next-gen power, even if such demonstrations don't reveal whether the resulting mass-impaling of the environment makes for cutting-edge gameplay or, simply, cutting-edge eye candy.
The search for the promise of the gaming future occasionally leads to false treasure. Athletes in PS3 games, like athletes in Xbox 360 games, drip sweat. Last year it was a big deal. Now no one really brags about it. Gesture-sensitive controls are another debatable breakthrough.
Developers for PS3 and Nintendo's Wii are bullish on them, but games that don't execute them confidently undercut the message that they're an essential part of gaming's future.
At the Sony event, for example, a motion-sensitive mode for free throws was shown in the PS3 basketball game "NBA 2K7." In this mode, the PS3 controller, which essentially looks like a wireless PS2 controller, needed to be gripped with one hand around its middle and held level. If a gamer went through the arm-motion of shooting a free throw, the in-game player did the real — albeit virtual — thing. It's a novel use of motion control, but one undermined by the developers' decision to also let players shoot free throws the old-school way, using the sticks and buttons on the controller.
It used to be so simple to spot the next big thing in games. Lara Croft and Mario romped in three dimensions, and that was a sign of a new gaming era. "GTA III" let players play the game without a fixed routine, and that was a breakthrough for the ages. Now gamers face the promise of cars that explode in more parts, dragons that can scorch air and land without missing a breath and a bunch of other early ambitions in these early days of the console future. These could be giant leaps or baby steps. Time will tell.
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