Saturday, August 28, 2010

Wave of the Future (Part I)* : A Look At Sony's PlayStation Move

Alright, I'll confess: I'll admit to initially not liking the Move's final design when I saw it as Sony's E3 press conference. Fortunately, that petty bit of nonsense on my part lasted less than two whole minutes. System bias is indeed a bad thing, but controller bias can really make one a bit too irrational. In the end, it was all about the games and how well the peripheral works with them. At Sony's Holiday 2010 event, I had the chance to play a number of Move games and ended up more than happy with the new controller.

As soon as you see and the pick up the Move, there are subtle to very noticeable differences that make it more intuitive to use and much more responsive than the Wii Remote. Additionally, unlike Microsoft's Kinect, the fact that you have a controller in your hand really makes a difference in certain games.

For those not yet sold on the idea of motion control or assume Sony is trying to replace that Dual Shock 3 in every future PS3 game, one: you're more than a bit wrong on the latter point. Standard controllers aren't going anywhere in the near future. The Move is wisely designed to be a dual purpose unit. It works both as a specific controller for the games programmed for the peripheral as well as an OPTION you can use in certain current and future PS3 releases. As to the former point, no matter how skeptical you are, you simply need to pick up a Move controller and see for yourself that it is indeed fun to use. Trust me on this: there's going to be that great "aha!" moment when you flick your wrist and something onscreen responds as it should and then you're sold on the technology.

To those of you who still think Sony is simply following or copying Nintendo's footsteps, you haven't been paying much attention now, have you? The Wii was actually the second console this century to implement motion control as a primary means for controlling games. It's the third if you add in Sony's nifty little EyeToy (which hit retail in 2003) and its small library of over 20 games worldwide (not counting the 50 or so others that supported EyeToy-enabled camera options). While the EyeToy was seen as a gimmick by some games journalists and hardcore gamers who didn't see the device's true potential, it certainly made for a great party-starter. Once set up properly, it was easy to see how enjoyable gesture-based games could be, no matter how "basic" and particularly with friends or family to share the fun with.

With the launch of the PS3, the USB camera was redesigned and reintroduced as the PlayStation Eye. Launched with Eye of Judgment, a card battle game that showed more could be done with the technology than just having gamers jump up and down in front of their televisions. Upon their initial releases both the EyeToy and Eye of Judgment could in a way be seen as the first steps in Sony getting into motion control gaming in a bigger way at some point in the future. That future came a bit early when the Wii hit retail in 2006, breaking all sorts of sales records worldwide and putting both Microsoft and Sony on notice that there was an under-tapped market of casual gamers that might want more games like this on their respective platforms.

Of course, looking at those wild sales figures coming out of Redmond no doubt helped speed up development somewhat on the Move and its games. On the other hand, it's clear by some of the games shown that Sony also looked at the Wii's negatives and critical response to the console and controller from the beginning of the Move's design phase. The Move has a 6 axis sensor built in and can register X, Y and Z-Axis movements thanks to the camera (provided the Eye is correctly set up, naturally). Without the Motion Plus add-on, the Wii Remote is less accurate, but even with the attachment, older games won't automatically play better because Motion Plus is incompatible with them.

As with any new product, some of the Move launch and launch window titles won't be 100 percent flawless in terms of being purely "innovative." In fact, it's safe to say that a few will be seen by some skeptical analysts and consumers as direct responses to certain popular selling Wii games. Nevertheless, a few of the launch window games offers up real surprises when it comes to how much better they are than their Wii "counterparts". A number of upcoming titles also take tried and true gaming formulas, add a nice coat of high-resolution graphics, which along with the more intuitive Move controller should go a long way in quieting even the loudest of critics.

As for the naysayers, I'm sure Sony isn't too worried about anything other than constructive criticism along with accurate consumer feedback. While one can foolishly criticize Sony for trying to expand its audience to more "casual" users, the company has in fact been doing this with every PlayStation console since the original launched in Japan in1994. That and the fact that EVERY gamer has to start somewhere, no matter his or her age means that Sony is merely doing their job at bringing it's games and hardware to even more users. Merely targeting an increasingly jaded hardcore market that sometimes bites the hand that feeds it games can be brutal, but that's business for you. Casting a wider net into the consumer ocean while throwing the barking core hounds some fresh meat brings in plenty of new fish while keeping the dogs at bay.

All one needs to do is watch some of the commercials made for the Japanese market to understand for the past 16 years, Sony has wanted casual to hardcore gamers worldwide to embrace the PlayStation brand just as they did Nintendo (and Sega when they were in the console market for that matter). I have a stack of Japanese PlayStation demo discs, some which contain pretty remarkable TV ads on them that show how well SCEI reached out to as wide an audience as possible. Watching these ads again while writing reminded me how behind the curve so many US game commercials have been in the past when it came to reaching beyond the stereotypical young mostly male gamer crowd.

That too many of today's "core" gamers (or at least those in the demographic the majority of testosterone-soaked game ads target) still refuse to accept that anyone who can pick up a controller is a gamer, no matter what they play and that this hobby isn't one that's exclusive is more sheer ignorance of fact than anything else. You may not want your parents or anyone else you don't consider as "cool" as you to be a gamer, but game companies know that in the US, this untapped market can sure make for a prosperous holiday season and beyond. Of course, I'm not at all against freedom of speech and indeed everyone is entitled to an opinion here. However, if you're wrong, it's time to sit down, listen and learn a thing or two or else fade into ignorant obscurity. But I digress...

Of the games I played at the Holiday event, here's what I liked and what I think needs work along with thoughts on what I'm looking forward to on titles that weren't shown:

(Note: Other impressions of non-Move enabled PS3 titles shown at the event are going up shortly, in case you're curious):

Move Exclusives:

Sports Champions: In case you're wondering WHY it's a sports game in that PS3 Move bundle you've been ogling on Amazon or GameStop, well it's simple. As a pack-in, every game company absolutely needs a safe bet in the form of a family-friendly title that's as inoffensive and accessible to as many consumers as possible.

SC manages to score a few more points by showing off the PS3's graphics capabilities while not being so cute it drives away the "core" audience. That said, SC aims to be far from a mere Wii Sports clone in terms of its superior visuals and overall game variety. Since it's bundled with the PS3 Slim or boxed with the Move controller, it should do extremely well as a system seller or Move mover as long as the rest of the games on the disc (and the multiplayer experience) are solid.

Kung Fu Rider: Simple yet tricky and pretty darn funny overall, this Move exclusive takes the niche game genre to a wacky new level. Hop on and race assorted office chairs (and other wheeled furniture or appliances) through assorted Japanese streets or roadways and pull of crazy tricks while you hang on for dear life. There's a slapstick element to the game that brings instant laughs from the second you get rolling. It took a few attempts to get the hang of the game, but that's partly because some were used to the more exaggerated movements required with some Wii titles. Once you get the timing down, KFR is a lot of fun.

echochrome ii: Shadow play puzzles and platforming using the Move was a bit tricky, but the tutorial really does a good job of getting your brain wrapped around the concept. Finding a way through each stage requires using the Move controller as a flashlight you shine from different angles so the reflected image takes on a shape your mannequin can move safely across. In addition to a ton of levels, PLAY. CREATE. SHARE. functionality is here so you can craft your own devious puzzles and post them over PSN.

EyePet: Definitely one for the kids and family, but has superb potential as a killer app for virtual pet fans of any age. Between the crazy amount of pet customization (one kid at the event made a hot dog shaped and colored creature complete with mustard colored striping) and the fact that once your pet is up and about the illusion is flawless, I can see this being a bit of a sensation in a Nintendogs meets Tamagotchi way. granted, you're petting, feeding and playing many mini-games with pure air in your living room, but as long as you embrace the "reality" of this super cute virtual pet, well... it's just pretty incredible to see how well people respond to it.

The Fight: Lights Out: I'm torn on this one, but as this was the brief E3 demo build, there were a lot of elements missing. The game looks great, but animation was a bit on the slow, stiff side. Then again, the demo was set up as a workout simulation where knocking out your opponent quickly while burning calories was the goal. I'd love to see a quicker, more responsive game at launch with a few more modes, deep character customization, the possibility of DLC and perhaps even some sort of story mode. I say throw in a few characters from the underrated PSP game THE CON and make it some sort of sequel! Hell, I'd prefer to see the game delayed and polished to a gritty genre classic than something that's going to be forgotten after a few days of playtime.

Start the Party!: Simple yet ridiculous, all-out all-ages fun, StP feels like an extension of the EyeToy Play series of games (a good thing). Next to EyePet, it's the most family-friendly of the holiday titles, so I can see it becoming a staple among the casual crowd. It would have been nice to see a mascot character or two pop up, but then again, I'm thinking Sony is going for a more stratghtforward "gateway" type of party experience than a game centered around franchise characters (that particular title is on the way at some point, if I'm not mistaken).

Beat Sketchers: Simple to pick up and play music and art mash-up that might be limited fun at parties but really needs a bit more oomph in order for it to really take off. Then again, this is one that needs a bit more time to dive into to see if has more depth. My suggestion: make this program an inexpensive PSN download, drop it on a demo disc as a pack-in game or build it into the Move somehow in the future. Either that, or tweak it to be a more interactive version of Baby Universe, the super cool "3D Kaleidoscope" renamed Sound Scope and added to certain models of the original PlayStation.

The Shoot: Given that today's motion-based gaming is very much based on yesterday's arcade games, this point and shoot game will be an instant hit as older gamers get a case of the grins as they gun down cowboys and aliens in different Hollywood movie set locations. Again, other than the fantastic high-resolution visuals (which are great) there's not much in the way of innovation here. Still, controls are excellent and heck, everyone loves shooting stuff once you get right down to it. the demo was indeed a compete and utter blast to play. I can see this as a staple, particularly if DLC supported through new stages, enemies and perhaps gameplay modes.

SingStar Dance: Although I'm not a fan of these types of music games (my singing can kill cats from five blocks away and I have two bad knees), watching a few kids and adults jump in and immediately get their groove on showed that Sony has got it down when it comes to the genre. Since the Move looks like a futuristic version of Mr. Microphone (sorry, I just HAD to get that out!), it was easy for me to see almost anyone gravitating to this game in a party situation. Maybe if they make a SingStar Sinatra I could get my mom to buy herself a PS3 one of these days. She more than likely would do so just for the chance to sing "Fly Me To The Moon" until NASA came and took her away...

Move-Enabled PS3 Titles

Heavy Rain: Replaying Quantic Dream's modern adventure classic with all-new Move commands was absolutely exhilarating. It's almost a different experience as the Move controller almost feels like a natural extension when gesturing, opening doors, giving or taking items and so forth and so on. The Sony rep watching me told me that I was the only person that completed the demo without my character getting beat down and considering it was my first experience with the controller in a more interactive game than Time Crisis: Razing Storm, it made me see how intuitive the controller was to use for more than just a light gun game.

Time Crisis: Razing Storm: Bang bang brilliant and near-perfect non-stop shooting action from Namco Bandai, Razing Storm ups the levels of action and interactivity in the long running series to the nth degree. In other words, stuff blows up good and blows up a lot as the bullets and such fly. The Move controls work perfectly here, so much so that you'll forget you're not holding a Guncon 3 (which is also supported) in your hand. The game is packed with content from story to arcade modes, two complete bonus shooters (Time Crisis 4 and Deadstorm Pirates) and co-op play that should have you kicking friends out of your house so you can get some sleep.

LittleBigPlanet 2: Everything about the first game rocked and the sequel is so much better that fans will wonder what's in the water over at Media molecule. The whole PLAY. CREATE. SHARE deal gets an even bigger boost thanks to the ability to create any type of game genre you can think of. The game was so big that it was overwhelming to try and tackle too much more than running about and playing with a few of the creation functions. This is one of those great games where each person who picks it up will want to spend a lot of quality time alone with playing through the single player as they cook up what they're going to create for the online masses. A guaranteed smash? You betcha.

Resident Evil 5: Gold Edition: Move functionality adds a lot more precision to Capcom's action/horror hit and it's even easier to deal with your AI partner(s) thanks to a movement tweak to the left analog stick. Although I completed the original game twice, I wasn't a terribly huge fan of the original version of RE5 for a few reasons. Oh, alright - since you asked: the dated controls, character movement and sometimes iffy partner AI kept me from fully enjoying an otherwise well-made game.

Of course, the RE hardcore ate it up by the bucket load as from a purely objective viewpoint, what's here is still scary when it counts and there's plenty of outstanding action sequences and boss battles. Upon playing the demo, I did have to wonder if Capcom plans to make future PS3 games in the franchise Move enabled right out of the gate and if so, would they be even more dynamic (and far more frightening) experiences?

Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11: The swing is the thing here and no scandal-related jokes here, kids! Move controls make this year's Tiger a whole new ball game (and comparable, if not superior to to the latest Motion Plus enabled Woods game). I only took a few swings and putts, but the difference between using the Dual Shock 3 and the Move is like night and day. The one looks like a fine effort by EA but it'll be quite interesting to see how this one stacks up against the other Move-enabled greens game (John Daly's ProStroke Golf) in terms of realism. The original ProStroke was a solid game with an innovative control scheme, so it looks like the battle just might be on as to what's the better-playing game.

As for Move and Move-enabled games not shown at the event, Sorcery is insanely HIGH on my want list simply because that E3 demo showed that motion control action games could be fluid, look spectacular and have the potential to convert some of the more hard-headed "core" gamers to trying out the new peripheral. I was hoping to see From Software do a new King's Field game for the Move to take advantage of the more fluid 1:1 movement, but since that's not looking like a possibility, Sorcery will have to do in terms of my "RPG" fix. April 2011 can't come soon enough for me.

EA says that PS3 owners of Visceral Games' upcoming sci-fi horror game, Dead Space 2 are getting a special edition of the game with a reworked Dead Space Extraction as a bonus. According to the rep at the event, this version of the Wii game will feature reworked high-resolution visuals and is being tailored to take advantage of the Move controller. DSE was one of the best Wii games last year, so seeing it with even better graphics and replaying it once more will be a treat (a scary as hell treat, but a treat nonetheless).

There were also few Move-enabled games at the event where only the 3D elements were being shown off (Killzone 3, The Sly Collection and TRON: Evolution), but I'll cover Sony's 3D games in another feature shortly. For those of you who can afford that new technology, they're on the right track so far. As for the Move, Sony has you covered whether you're a PS3 die-hard or a new consumer coming into the light for the first time. At launch on September 17, 2010 you'll see Move PS3 bundles, Move/Sports Champions bundles as well as the controller and optional Move Navigation Controller as standalone units. There are also a (recommended) recharging station number of Move controller attachments that transform the wand into a gun, bow, or other implement for an added sense of immersion.

Poking around with questions at a few GameStop locations and other game retailers in my area showed that interest is fairly high in the Move with plenty of the eternal "Which is better?" queries regarding all three companies' motion control systems. I'm also thinking the new peripheral will do extremely well via word or mouth testimonials form user after user who discovers how cool the controller is to use.

At the end of the day, Sony seems more than ready to take its consumers into this current wave of motion control and knowing the company and its long-term plans, gamers from casual to core will see the Move as not just another gimmick but a new way to enjoy all sorts of gaming experiences.

*and yes, the title of the article is indeed a pun. I like puns.

Amazon says - get your Move on with these:

Playstation Move Starter Bundle PlayStation Move Controller PlayStation Move Navigation Controller PlayStation 3 320GB System with PlayStation Move Bundle PlayStation Move Charging Station MOVE Precision Shot 3 MOVE Champions Pack PlayStation Move Shooting Attachment PlayStation Eye

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