First Look: Sony's PlayStation 2

SAN FRANCISCO (03/15/2000) - Details. Unbelievable wow, that looks like video, how do they do that? visual details. That's what I noticed in my first minutes of quality time with Sony Corp.'s new PlayStation 2.

Sparks fly when a car's undercarriage scrapes the concrete. Strands of a character's hair blow in the wind. Sun reflects off glass. Water ripples.

Shadows fall. A train passes over the bridge ahead. And a picture of Mr. T hangs in a hallway (really).

There's plenty of talk, but very few details, about what the PlayStation 2 could become: an Internet appliance, a broadband entertainment center, maybe even a hot plate if the processor runs as warm as rumored (our unit seemed to stay relatively cool).

But with the Japanese release just over a week old, and the United States debut still months away, PC replacement talk (for a machine that lacks a basic modem) is premature.

Here's what the PlayStation 2 is today: an incredible game console that also plays DVD-Video discs and audio CDs.

Breaking the Seal

We get pretty blasé about computers here at PC World, but the PlayStation 2 drew onlookers like free food. We spent about $800 (U.S.) to have an associate in Japan pick up, via auction, the main system (which includes one Dual Shock 2 controller and one 8MB memory card), an additional Dual Shock 2 controller, two games (Ridge Racer V and Street Fighter EX3), and a Japanese DVD version of the movie Armageddon.

We grabbed a television and proceeded quickly with the setup, plugging in the power cord and running a cable from the unit to the television's video/audio inputs--that was it. The unit is smaller than I imagined: It's about the size of a two-slice toaster flipped on its side, and it fit nicely in my in-box. It looks pretty sleek. It sits horizontally or vertically, although the vertical position might not be stable enough for homes with small children or overexcited gamers. A ridge along the bottom of the drive drawer accommodates vertical loading of discs.

Cool hardware details include two USB ports and an I.Link (IEEE 1394) port up front, along with the memory card slots and the reset and eject buttons. In back is a PC Card slot (for a future hard drive, and maybe more), a power switch, and a big, quiet fan to keep that high-revving Emotion Engine CPU cool.

The Dual Shock 2 controllers offer pressure-sensitive control, force-feedback, and nice long cords.

Unfortunately, the PlayStation 2 has only two controller ports; to add more you'll need to buy an accessory or sacrifice USB ports. If Sony's plan to link the PlayStation 2 to the Internet comes to pass, a keyboard and mouse may occupy those USB ports. USB lets you daisy-chain devices, but why make playing a four-player game so complicated?

Revving Up PlayStation 2: We're Game

Once we fired up the games, our hardware quibbles quieted. Yep, both Ridge Racer V and Street Fighter EX3 look that good. (We picked them because they'll likely ship in the United States, too.) A single-player race on Ridge Racer V yields better overall results, with a wealth of details on the car and in the background (the two-player version drops too much detail). In Street Fighter EX3, the characters move realistically, and the multilevel backgrounds look impressive.

PC World's Sega Dreamcast aficionados note that neither title looks much better than top games available for that console. Fair enough.

But I doubt this is the best the PlayStation 2 can do, since these are just the launch games designers cranked out to hit the stores in time. With more time and experience, developers will push the machine harder.

Actual game play is unexceptional. Aside from the pressure-sensitive buttons that bring new meaning to "pedal to the metal" in Ridge Racer V, it's not much different from previous racing games. And Street Fighter EX3 resembles earlier fighting games.

That's the funny thing about both games: They look better than the old versions, but they offer essentially the same play. If Sony and game developers can harness the PlayStation 2's power to create more interesting, thought-provoking games, then they'll really be on to something.

I also ran the DVD-Video player, viewing the Japanese copy of Armageddon. It looks good, although picking DVD selections via the controller feels a bit odd.

I have the same problem with listening to an audio CD, but the music sounds fine, aside from being piped through lousy TV speakers.

So this puppy plays great-looking games, DVDs, and music. But is it worth the $360 Sony charges in Japan? Not to me. I like games, but not that much, and I already have DVD and CD players.

Drop the price, and it gets more interesting. Some predict Sony will launch at $299 in the United States. That makes it a maybe, for me; it will be more inviting if any new games strike my fancy. Still others expect the price to drop to $199 (same as the Dreamcast) in a relatively short time, probably after the holidays. If that happens, it's a no-brainer.

But serious game players will scoff at my hesitation. Hard-core console gamers I talked with will gladly pay the $360 to get their hands on the machine. Some might pay even more to get one sooner. (Sorry, ours isn't for sale.) Memory ProblemsWith all the talk of Sony's attention to details, it's a bit amusing that the company apparently missed at least one. The company recently acknowledged a problem with the PlayStation 2 memory cards: Apparently, if you save information from Ridge Racer V onto the included memory card, you might wipe out the DVD-Video drivers. Sony has not said how it will correct the problem.

Down the road, Sony faces a different problem: the Microsoft X-Box. Bill Gates last week announced his plans to ship a game console that he claims will outperform any existing system.

Bold statement, Bill, because I think we've seen only a glimmer of what the PlayStation 2 can do.

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