PlayStation 3 Online
Earlier in the year, a lot of fuss was made over the release of the PlayStation 3. The promise of a whole new world of gaming had arrived and the Microsoft Xbox 360 finally had itself a worthy adversary. In our original review of the PlayStation 3, Danny Allen took an in-depth look at the system, the games and the feature-set of a pre-launch console. Naturally, this was before the online service was available. Now, a few months on, we take another look at the PS3 and delve into our impressions of the free online service, how far it has come since the PlayStation 2 and how it stacks up against Xbox Live. Sony has promised big things for the PS3, but with the Xbox Live service maturing at a rapid rate, is it a case of too little, too late?
- Excellent online gameplay, Lag Free, Playstation Store uses actual money, The service is free
- Voice chat is not available across all games, No unified servers, Limited international multiplayer, Games must be exited in order to read messages, Sluggish online store interface
The Playstation 3 online service pales in comparison to what is being offered on the rival Xbox 360 console with a wide range of shortcomings and only a handful of saving graces.
The focus of the last generation of online consoles was centred on multiplayer gaming experiences. This time around, gaming is only one part of the bigger picture and multimedia integration, and online services are at the forefront of what makes or breaks a console. Gaming is still as important as ever, but those walking into a store to find the best all-round package will look for more than just another way to beat down an anonymous human opponent.
In its current state, the PlayStation Network (PSN) matches only some of the features of Xbox Live and, even then, doesn't do them all that well. The service offers a player the same unified identity, unified friends list and the ability to send messages to other players. But using the service is clunky. It's not supported in-game and it feels like it's been tacked-on at the last minute.
We tested the online game play aspect using various Sony first-party games (games made by Sony and not by a third-party developer) while connected at Broadband 2+ speeds over the integrated wireless networking connection. The service was outstanding, with no latency issues whatsoever. Of all the games we played, the most staggering was easily "Resistance: Fall of Man", due to its ability to handle up to 40 players at one time. We had no issues whatsoever in a full room and were mightily impressed at how smooth it ran. Remembering back to the days of Socom 2 on the PS2, it's quite a feat for Sony to have come so far in such a short time. However, there are two major problems with the multiplayer service that have nothing to do with the welcomed lack of lag - the service doesn't have unified servers and voice communication is not supported across all titles.
Microsoft's Xbox Live service is centralised, with servers that support the entire world. This means that you will be playing with people from all around the world at any given time. On the PS3, there are local servers for first party titles and, at this time, they only support gaming against local players. However, for third-party titles, the gamer is left at the mercy of the third-party developer as the local servers are only for first-party title use. The quality-of-service will then depend entirely on how well the third-party supports international multiplayer gaming and whether they can still offer lag-free online battles. This was a major problem for the Playstation 2 online service and was something that we sincerely hoped Sony wouldn't do a second time around.
In addition to playing people around the world over Xbox Live, you are also able to speak to them in-game and in every game (Even video chat in certain titles). In Xbox games like Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter, Rainbow Six Vegas or Halo 2, tactics and working as a team are paramount and essential for effective game play. Compare this to the PS3 where a team of 20 players in Resistance: Fall of Man can't communicate with each other to co-ordinate attack plans. The result is 20 people running around doing their own thing and hoping for the best. While voice chat is available for some games (including Resistance) we found that very few people had gone to the expense of purchasing a headset (the Xbox 360 comes with a free headset). This lack of voice communication is a severe detriment to the enjoyment of online team multiplayer games but it also hampers something far more important.
As stated earlier, the online space is not solely about playing games. Community is extremely important to the success of an online service and the wide range of services that Xbox Live offers to gamers outweighs the meagre offering spattered across the Playstation 3 interface.
Text chat and messaging
When you are playing a game on the PlayStation Network Platform, you choose a name for yourself and as you meet other players you can add them to your friends list. This is a massive improvement over the PlayStation 2 system, which only had friends list support in certain games which were specific to that game only. The advantage of having a friends list is that you can see what other people are playing and join their game if you so desire. You can also open a chat room and have a text conversation or send them text messages.
The Xbox Live service takes communication far beyond the features offered on the PS3. The friends list is present as well and you are able to message people just like the PS3. However, on the Xbox, you can do it all in-game. If you receive a message while playing a game on the PS3, you cannot read it or reply to it while playing the game. You're forced to finish your game then go back to the home screen in order to either reply, or start a text chat. On Xbox Live you can not only text chat with someone during game play but you can also voice chat with them as well - no matter what games you and your friend are playing. This means that you can be playing Halo 2 while your friend is playing Ghost Recon and both of you can be chatting away. Also, from the home menu, you can start a video chat using the Xbox Live Vision camera. However, in-game video chat is only supported in selected titles
It seems unfair to compare the PS3 store with the Xbox Live marketplace. For starters, Marketplace has been around for a lot longer and there is a bigger install base of Xbox 360s that have driven the content on the service to large proportions. Therefore, for the purposes of this comparison, we will harken back to the launch of the 360. At that time, there wasn't a bucket-load of content on the service just as at this time, the downloadable content is fairly sparse in the PlayStation store. That isn't to say it won't expand over time but that will depend on a great number of factors.
One thing that the PlayStation has going for it that Microsoft can't compete with is the integration of the PlayStation Portable (PSP) into the online experience. From the PlayStation store, users can download original PlayStation One games that can be copied onto a Sony Memory Stick and played on the PSP. This is a highly attractive prospect, and one that is sure to become popular with PSP owners.
However, there are more differences between the two services than just quantity of content. The Live service uses Microsoft "points" as a form of currency which can be purchased in batches of 500, 1000, 2000 or 5000 at a time. On the other hand, the PlayStation service uses actual money deducted directly from your credit card for all purchases. In this respect the PS3 service is superior. The reason for this is that with the Microsoft service you're forced to purchase points you don't need. Sure, you can use them at a later date, but the purchasable increments are such that the next time you want to buy something, you never seem to have enough remaining points to get it. Having to then buy 500 points when all you need is 100 can get annoying quickly.
There is also the Xbox Live Arcade to consider. While there are a handful of retro titles available for download on the PlayStation 3, the sheer magnitude of arcade games on the Xbox service, even at launch, is astounding. These arcade games have proven extremely popular with Xbox users and, given the opportunity, should yield similar success on the PS3. However, the layout of the PlayStation store has no structure that suggests a firm commitment to this kind of content. On the Live service, arcade titles are given their own area, which is then further organised into genres. This even extends to the main user interface as well. Perhaps Sony will release a firmware update in the future or announce further plans for their retro titles. Sony has the unparalleled support of the PSP, which Microsoft can't compete with. It would be great if the arcade games in the PlayStation store could be copied to a Memory Stick and played on the PSP (just like PSOne titles). Unfortunately, as it stands, retro gaming is another area where the PlayStation 3 is lacking.
The interface of the PlayStation store looks much like a website complete with a movable cursor. This is fine if you are using your PS3 with a mouse, but moving the cursor with the controller borders on frustration. Add to that a load time between pages is a little too sluggish, and you have a clunky online experience that is in need of refinement. Hopefully, this will occur in a future update.
Browse the Web
The PlayStation 3 uses the Opera internet browser to surf the Web. This would be great if not for the fact that the experience is slow and hard to use. The browser also doesn't support certain file formats such as flash and QuickTime video. This means that watching video on YouTube or trailers on the Apple.com site are both out of the question. Having an internet browser is commendable in theory, but future work is needed before it becomes an enjoyable experience on a console.
It's difficult to write a review of the PlayStation 3 online service without comparing it to the Microsoft Xbox Live service. We fully understand that the Xbox 360 has been on the market longer than the Playstation 3 and that Sony's plans for the future have a wider scope than it currently employs.
There are plans on the horizon that have the potential to change the way people interact in a console gaming environment. If the promotional demonstrations are to be believed, the PlayStation "Home" service could be an incredibly sophisticated and impressive way to deal with online communities. "Home" is an MMOPRG-style world where each player has their own character and home of their own design. They can converse with other players in the world and display their trophies or watch downloaded video content back at their house. At this time, this is all talk with a good dollop of rumour as no release date or confirmed features have been announced. However, it certainly has internet forums buzzing with anticipation and has a good chance of making the PS3 a unique console that is worth the exorbitant price tag.
In its current state, the PlayStation 3 online service pales in comparison to what is being offered on the rival Xbox 360 console. It needs some improvements, particularly in the area of communication, ease-of-use and community in order to rise to the challenge of toppling what Microsoft has to offer. "Home" and any future firmware and interface upgrades may well push the service to places nobody dreamed possible. Until that day, the only area in which the PS3 online service excels is gaming performance, which may well be enough to satisfy a good number of users.
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