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Editorial: Frank’s Reactions to E3 2006

For the first time in a number of years, perhaps the entire history of the E3 expo, Sony didn't knock a homerun out of the park with their announcements or displays at E3 2006. Oh, sure, there was plenty for Sony fans to latch their anticipation onto, but it just seemed like Sony countered every positive aspect of their presence with an equally negative aspect.

That's not to say that Sony is doomed, because it isn't. In fact, the company's position at the top is all-but guaranteed for the next few years. The gap between number one and number two, however, has closed significantly, and will continue to shrink thanks to some strategic mishaps on Sony's part with regards to the PlayStation 3 roll-out.

In any event, here's a rundown of what I saw at E3 2006 that made me form the opinions that I now hold regarding Sony's future.

PlayStation 3
We finally learned when the PlayStation 3 will go on sale and how much it will cost. This coming November, gamers are going to have to shell out upwards of $500 just to get their hands on a PS3. $600 if they want the pack with the larger hard drive, WiFi, and HDMI video output. $600 is a huge wad of cash to pay for a video game console, and already people are vowing not to buy Sony's wonder-machine. Can you blame them? Many stores will force bundles on people, elevating the already mountainous price to levels nearing $1,000. Even if a person isn't saddled with a bundle, they'll still need to spend another $60 on top of the console's price and local taxes in order to bring a game home with the system. Ouch.

As I see it, the problem with the price, besides being exhorbitant, is that it opens windows of opportunity for Microsoft and Nintendo, instead of closing them. If the PlayStation 3 were to go on sale at the same price as the Xbox 360, people would overwhelmingly choose the PS3 since it bears the familiar PlayStation name and because it promises to play all of the games they already own for PSOne and PS2. There'd be no contest. The Xbox 360 would, once again, be a niche product bought by first-person shooter fanatics and jingoistic Americans. Instead, the PlayStation will cost $100 more than the equivalent Xbox model, and double what Nintendo will likely sell their Wii console for. Consider too, that, by that time, the Xbox 360 will have been on shelves for a full year, and Microsoft could attract sales away from Sony by including a pack-in game title with the system, targeting those consumers that haven't yet bought an Xbox 360 by giving them a "free" copy of Kameo or Project Gotham Racing.

Sony has left Microsoft and Nintendo too much room to maneuver.

Worse than the cost, however, at least potentally, is Sony's decision to sell the machine in two different packs. The $599 pack comes with a 60GB hard drive, WiFi networking, and an HDMI video output. The $499 pack comes with a 20GB hard drive and will be stripped of the WiFi and HDMI. 20GB isn't much space when you consider how big game demos and add-ons are. My personal Xbox 360 hard drive only has 2GB left after downloading a bunch of Microsoft's E3-related content. Most people won't need that HDMI output, but what about a few years down the road? Sony has made a big deal about the console supporting 1080-progressive output, and only systems bearing the HDMI output will be able to display that so-called "true-HD" resolution. Simply put, people who buy the cheaper pack are going to be a bit peeved if they buy a 1080p television someday.

Is the machine worth the price? Actually, it just might be. That $600 will get buyers a PSOne, a PS2, a PS3, a DVD player, and a BluRay Disc player–all in one package. Considering how new BluRay technology is, and that current players retail for upwards of $1,000, the PlayStation 3 will be especially attractive to early-adopters that want to get-in on BluRay at the ground floor, while delivering one heck of a video game system in the offing.

When you get right down to it though, it's all about the games. In that respect, the future of the PlayStation 3 is looking bright, even if the proposed line-up isn't very innovative. Due out at launch or by the end of 2006 are Warhawk, Resistance: Fall of Man, Untold Legends: Dark Kingdom, Full Auto 2: Battlelines, Sonic the Hedgehog, Heavenly Sword, MotorStorm, and Ridge Racer 7. Due out after the holiday season or by early 2007 are Tekken 6, Virtua Fighter 5, Metal Gear Solid 4, Assassin's Creed, and a whole host of other franchise titles that are sure to sell millions of systems. It also doesn't hurt that SquareSoft will likely have the North American version of Final Fantasy XIII ready to publish by the end of 2007.

Notice something about all those titles? Many of them are sequels to existing franchises or rehashes on a similar theme (for example, Heavenly Sword sure felt a lot like God of War when I played it). That's great news if you love the current trends in gaming, but not so hot news if you're looking to play the next innovator a la Katamari Damacy on your shiny new PlayStation 3.

Personally, despite the lack of originality, I greatly enjoyed the hands-on time I had with the PlayStation 3 at E3 2006. The high-definition graphics were sharp, and all of the game demos were designed to flaunt the fact that the system's multi-core Cell processor can throw thousands of objects on-screen at once. In particular, the single-mission Warhwawk demo had no trouble rendering a gigantic island, hundreds of enemy airplanes, four giant flying battle-fortresses, and the innumerable bullets and rockets that filled the screen from every angle. Meanwhile, the re-designed controller, which now assumes the traditional Dual Shock shape, felt like an old friend in my hands. I didn't mind the lack of vibration, and the Warhawk demo left me optimistic about future uses for the technology. Just imagine a next-generation iteration of Wipeout where you simply tilt and angle the controller to pilot the hovercraft.

It's still unclear how Sony's online plan is going to come together, but another E3 demo, Singstar, at least gave a few hints as to how the service will work. Basically, it seems like they're going to copy Xbox Live, right down to the ability to engage in microtransaction in order to purchase new levels and bonus content for your favorite games. With Singstar, which is a karaoke game, players will be able to spend a couple dollars to add new songs to the game, including the music videos that play in the background. One major change difference between Sony's service and Xbox Live, at least according to what Kaz Hirai revealed during the company's pre-E3 conference, is that multiplayer gaming will be free on PlayStation 3. In other words, Sony isn't going to setup a two-tiered service like Microsoft has.

Ultimately, I came away from E3 2006 feeling like the PlayStation 3 was a justifiable purchase, but not necessarily with that "OMG I must buy this!!!" feeling that Sony was hoping to cultivate.

PlayStation 2
Microsoft all but killed off the old Xbox when it released the Xbox 360. Sony fans won't have the same problem this year, or even for a couple years hence. Third-parties, and even Sony, must continue to publish games for the PlayStation 2, because the installed base of roughly 100 million users (based on consoles sold) is too big to ignore.

At E3 2006, most third-parties had at least a couple PS2 games on display. SEGA's Yakuza garnered a fair bit of attention, as did Square-Enix's Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII. In the LucasArts room, people were smiling with joy while trying out LEGO Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy. Tucked away in Kentia Hall, RedOctane's booth was crowded with people trying to play Guitar Hero II. That game is going to sell extremely well, because the ongoing buzz for the franchise, combined with the superior features being included in the sequel, will prove an irresistable combination for countless teens and parents this holiday season.

For Sony's part, their 2006 line-up includes follow-ups to two popular franchises, SOCOM U.S. Navy SEALs: Combined Assault and ATV Offroad Fury 4.

Of course, it's the company's 2007 line-up that everyone is watching. Specifically, God of War II. For sure, the PS2's big Kahuna at E3 2006 was the playable demo of God of War II. I played the demo and I can tell you right now, without hesitation, that the game is shaping up to meet or exceed the original in every possible way. The graphics are nicer, the enemies are bigger, the combat is more brutal, and Kratos has so many new abilities (riding on creatures, using his chain-swords to grapple, etc.).

If I were you, I wouldn't feel too sad if the PlayStation 3 remains out of your price range for a while. The PlayStation 2, while it won't be supported forever, still has plenty of life left in it, especially when you consider that the majority of the game titles mentioned above are exclusives that aren't coming to Xbox or Xbox 360. Does Microsoft have Guitar Hero or God of War? No.

PSP – PlayStation Portable
I have to say, I wasn't too thrilled with the PSP's overall showing at E3 2006. Perhaps Sony was too successful in convincing developers of the idea that their handheld is a PS2-on-the-go, because the majority of games I saw on the show floor were ports of PlayStation 2 games. Do gamers really want slightly-enhanced versions of 50 Cent: Bulletproof, Def Jam: Fight for NY, Juiced, and Tekken 5? With the exception of Tekken 5, my educated guess is no.

Although, I will admit, Tekken: Dark Resurrection for the PSP is definitely going to satisfy anyone that's looking to get their King of Iron Fist fix on-the-go. I have to hand it to Namco. Somehow they managed to make a portable version of Tekken 5 that sacrifices nothing compared to the PS2 game.

There were only a few original titles that caught my eye. The single island environment available in the Ratchet & Clank: Size Matters demo gave me the impression that it'll live up to the console Ratchet games. Loco Roco, Lumines 2, and Every Extend Extra will hold the attention of puzzle fanatics, at least for a few weeks. Ghosts 'N Goblins Extreme left a smile on everyone that played the three-level demo in Capcom's area. Old school games re-done with modern visuals is a concept I am wholeheartedly behind.

And then there's Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops… Konami's "real" Metal Gear game for PSP that's slated to ship in March 2007 alongside the PS3 version of Metal Gear Solid 4. Whereas MGS4 tells the final chapter in the life of Solid Snake, Portable Ops bridges the gap in the timeline between Metal Gear Solid 3 and the original Metal Gear (NES). Finally, fans of the franchise will find out how Naked Snake became Big Boss, and learn the specific origins of Solid Snake and Colonel Campbell. I foresee many thousands of PSP's being sold, bought by rabid MGS fans that absolutely can't miss a chapter of their beloved franchise.

Yet again, however, I end up with the same concern that I have with the PS3's line-up. Where's the innovation? Where's the originality? All of the PS2 ports and revamps of PS2 properties only help contribute to, and not alleviate, the perception that the PSP is the "PortStation Portable." Sales of the PSP have been decent, but nowhere near what the Nintendo DS is doing. My feeling on that discrepancy isn't that it's due to the price difference ($299 vs. $129), but because the Nintendo DS offers so many unique titles that tickle the fancy of players seeking to experience something new from their hobby.

My concerns sure weren't softened any by the software line-up Nintendo was displaying at their booth. Just counting first-party titles alone, Nintendo had 20 new DS games playable at their booth. Familiar brands, such as Mario, Zelda, and Starfox, have been made fresh by taking advantage of the system's dual-screen setup and stylus input. Those titles were joined by innovative new properties, such as Touch Generations, Mario 3-on-3 Hoops, and Elite Beat Agents (a music game). Iwata and Miyamoto over at Nintendo realize that their handheld doesn't have the same horsepower under the hood that the PSP does, so they deliver the one thing that the PSP doesn't–unique gameplay experiences. I want that for PSP!

During the company's pre-E3 conference, Sony Computer Entertainment America's CEO, Kaz Hirai, unveiled a new feature for the PSP that will allow gamers to download and play PlayStation One games on their PSPs. I'm chomping at the bit to try this feature out, and my mind is agog with the possibilities of playing classic PSOne games on-the-go, but the company neglected to have playable demos of this feature out on the show floor. D'oh! I'm shocked that Sony wasn't pushing this harder at the show, which makes me wonder just how far along development on the feature actually is. Select media got the chance to get hands-on time with Ridge Racer and a couple other titles in a closed door session. That's hardly a vote of confidence on Sony's part.

In conclusion…

For the first time in a decade, Sony is facing real competition for gamers' dollars. Microsoft's Xbox 360 provides a compelling alternative to the comparatively-expensive PlayStation 3 and the aging PS2, and Nintendo's Wii will no doubt attract value-conscious parents and teens that want unique gameplay experiences without having to outlay a rent payment. On the handheld front, the PSP's lineup of ports and remakes is under fire by Nintendo's all-out assault with AAA titles for the Nintendo DS.

Sony probably should have found a way to set a cheaper price for the PlayStation 3 and to bolster the PSP's line-up with original properties. By not doing so, they've left open windows of opportunity that Microsoft and Nintendo will no doubt take advantage of in order to gain ground.

This may be bad news for Sony as a company, but it's good news for gamers in general. The more systems you own, the more blockbuster games you'll be able to play. Furthermore, the increased competition is sure to spark Sony into pouring more money into their first-party development studios, which will result in a second wave of PlayStation 3 titles that'll make the first wave look like Pong. Having seen Warhawk and Gran Turismo HD in action, I can't wait to see the sorts of games that'll make those hotties seem "dated."

Despite the company's miscues at E3 2006, Sony will most likely continue to hold the number one spot in the game industry for years to come. People will covet and find a way to purchase the PS3, replacing their PS2s and getting a BluRay player in the bargain, while once again bypassing Microsoft's competing console. It may be pricy and we may have yet to see the new system's full potential, but the PlayStation 3 is definitely a great piece of hardware. PlayStation 2 software development will continue, on a smaller scale, for years to come, and sales will be through the roof, because a 100-million installed base is a ten-ton elephant that can't be stopped. Through it all, the PSP will keep on keepin' on. It won't unseat the Nintendo DS as the handheld of record, but it'll still deliver just enough must-have titles to warrant continued ownership.

In a nutshell, the times are changing, but not all that much.

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