Playstation 3: embarrassing

In reading reviews of Resistance: Fall of Man, the flagship game (i.e. the one of the few not available on other systems that people might actually want to play) for the PlayStation 3, I sensed a lot of handicapping going on. The phrase “killer app” was too easily tossed around, and it seemed like a lot of reviewers were stretching to find a way to praise the overhyped game so the launch of the PS3 wouldn’t seem completely awful.

I finally got ahold of a PS3, and boy did I underestimate the hype. Resistance is so far from a killer app that, for a $600 system that’s supposed to save Sony and has been delayed for months, it’s pretty much an embarrassment. And don’t even get me started on Genji: Days of the Blade.

The biggest flaw is the most obvious: the graphics are not only not worth $600, but they’re worse than the last half-year’s worth of Xbox 360 games. Forget comparing Resistance to the best-graphics-ever Gears of War — it might not even be worthy of comparison to Call of Duty 2, the Xbox 360’s best launch title in November 2005.

In Gears of War and the latest generation of shooting games, there are all kinds of little details in the costumes, skin, and objects that give the graphics a level of realism and depth they’ve never had before. Call of Duty 3 is probably the second-best-looking game I’ve seen, and the upcoming Lost Planet has these kind of details too. The physics are also much better: People move like they have actual muscle and mass, not like some fluid 3-D creation but like an actual approximation of organic movement. Environments are also getting incredibly detailed and have a kaleidescopic palette that’s more like the real world’s infinite color wheel than video games’ limited palette.

But Resistance is fighting the good fight against graphical progress. The characters look decent in cut scenes, but even there move jerkily and without any sense of mass. During the actual gameplay, it’s much worse. There’s none of the detail of the latest games; skin and limbs look they’re formed by a single long polygon (it’s really thousands or millions, but looks like a single stretched and smooth one). In a few hours of playing, I’ve seen a total of three kinds of enemies. The crawly crab-spider things especially look angly and polygonal, not at all smoothly animated like the giant enemies in Gears of War or the bug-aliens in Lost Planet.

The backgrounds are similarly unimpressive. Driving through the apocalyptic Gears of War nighttime, I kept stopping to look around at the Tim Burton-meets-Terry Gilliam neighborhoods in the distance. In Call of Duty 3, the levels are so detailed that it really feels like you’re walking through bombed out World War II towns. In Resistance, the background houses are flat and uniform, the video game equivalent of old Hanna-Barbera cartoons that reused background animations to save money. Levels are much more empty and sparse than in recent games; there were a number of big rooms where there were no enemies but just a few crates or a table.

To be fair, I have been playing the game via a standard RCA connection — not fancy HDMI or even component cables. But the Wii came with the same plain A/V cables, and those games look plenty colorful and vibrant. And playing the game in high-def might make it sharper, but it’s not going to make crappy graphics look good. Anyway, the Xbox 360 ships with component cables; if component connectors make that big a difference, Sony could easily have made those standard as well.

To top it all off, Resistance just isn’t a very good shooter. The enemies’ main weapon is a rapid-fire, endless supply of orange energy bullets. So they just step out from behind a crate and fire a fussilade that’s hard to avoid. On the middle difficulty level, this makes it extremely frustrating to get anywhere, plus there are barely any health power ups to find (unlike most shooters now, you actually have a health bar rather than regenerating health). The easy setting is better, but the aliens still just stand there and shoot a torrent of energy bullets at you. Unlike Gears of War and Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter, there’s no way to stand up against a wall or object to shield yourself from the bullets. You just have to awkwardly stand or kneel behind them (you can’t lie down like in most games), and step out into full view to shoot and while opening yourself up to the barrage. When you look around or swing the gun around, it’s way too fast and jerky. There’s zero sense of realistic movement. And one small pleasure of the latest games is using really big guns, like ones on tripods or what have you: in Gears of War, you have to pull the trigger button all the way in, and the controller slowly starts to rumble and after a second the gun fires. It’s a very realistic sense of handling a giant rail gun. But there’s no rumble in the PS3 controller, so every gun feels the same to shoot (that is, they all feel like nothing).

I’ve said before that you’re not paying $600 for graphics that are $200 better than the Xbox 360’s — you’re paying $200 for Blu-ray. But I didn’t expect them to launch with games that look so much worse than the current best of the 360. Gears of War and Call of Duty 3 look way better (I haven’t played Call of Duty on PS3 so I don’t know if it’s comparable, though GameSpot and IGN say it’s not). Ghost Recon, which came out in March, and Prey (July) look better. Battlefield 2, a 360 port of a PS2/Xbox game, looks better. The only 360 shooters I can think of that Resistance might — might! — compare with are Perfect Dark Zero and King Kong, both unimpressive 360 launch titles from last November.

I’m sure there will be plenty of great looking PS3 games next year. And the 360 didn’t have great launch titles either. But Microsoft didn’t have competition. Sony has plenty. And it had an extra year to get its games in tip-top shape. Instead of spending the year readying an impressive launch, it dithered about and dealt with Blu-ray — and forgot that while a first impression isn’t always the last impression, with games this weak for such a high-priced system, maybe one impression is all you need.

— December 12, 2006

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