Back in 2000, the PlayStation 2's big selling point (apart from upgraded graphics) was its ability to play DVDs. Since then, Sony has taken that idea of the multi-purpose gaming machine and run wild. The pricey, powerful PlayStation 3 is the consumer-electronics equivalent of a Swiss Army knife. There's barely a modern digital job that the device isn't equipped to tackle. It plays high-definition movies, cranks out digital tunes, and displays digital photos. Connected to the Internet, it provides web browsing and delivers downloads of games and video.
A good part of the PlayStation 3's steep price tag is due to its embedded Blu-ray technology. And unless you've got a big, high-end TV, being forced into Sony's format war isn't going to seem worth it. The catalog of Blu-ray movies available is anemic, and many are mastered so poorly that they don't look much better than DVD. Luckily, games shine when played on a run-of-the mill HD-ready television with the proper cabling. The upgrade from the PlayStation 2 is substantial, with the jagged edges and chunky look of the old console tamed. Just don't expect the PlayStation 3 to outperform the Xbox 360 yet. None of the system's initial offerings stand up to Gears Of War, the current gold standard in console graphics. Give developers a year to get the hang of the machine's intricacies.
Genji: Days Of The Blade, a dull samurai hack-n-slash, may be the prettiest of the system's launch titles. Resistance: Fall Of Man is the PlayStation 3 exclusive that every early adopter should cop. At first glance, the shooter looks like a Call Of Duty retread merged with Halo. But what it lacks in originality, it makes up in execution. The game's imaginative array of space-age guns and grenades are superbly crafted, and most importantly, a blast to brandish. With a compelling single-player story and exceptional online multiplayer, Resistance: Fall Of Man is the no-brainer purchase of the bunch.
The most exciting gaming experience on the PlayStation 3 is a freebie—the Motorstorm demo from the online PlayStation store. The destructive desert racer makes good on the promise of next-generation gaming. Rusty stone formations and powdery desert sky seem nearly photo-real. But the kind of physics-driven chaos that only computational muscle can deliver is what makes this brief demo a hoot. Motorbikes and Mad Max-style off-roaders explode into pieces when they clip outcroppings. Drivers flail in post-crash slow motion, sometimes catching fire if they're too near ground zero. The ability to render this degree of delicious, detailed, unpredictable mayhem will likely be the super-charged PlayStation 3's best selling-point in the years to come.
The system suffers on gaming turf, where Sony is less experienced. Its online offering, though free, is undercooked. Meeting, chatting, and playing with friends just isn't as streamlined as it is on Xbox Live. And since there's no headset and microphone bundled with the console, almost nobody chats in-game. Like the Wii, Sony's new Sixaxis controller senses motion, but not many games fully commit to tilt play. They either relegate the movements to a few in-game actions, like the jukes and crossovers in NBA 07, or offer it as an invariably more difficult steering option. And though the new controller is wireless, it still needs to be plugged into the console to be recharged. The Sixaxis also doesn't rumble—a tiny but significant feedback detail that will be missed.
The machine is sexy, though. Its polished black casing echoes the sinister curve of Darth Vader's helmet. It's also nearly silent, a refreshing change next to the ruckus that the Xbox 360 makes every time it spins a disc. Besides gaming prowess, the PlayStation 3's best feature is that it plays nice with most other technology. Four USB slots accommodate nearly any keyboard or controller thrown at it. MP3s can be streamed from an iPod, and the same Bluetooth earpiece that goes with a mobile can double as a gaming headset. Sony's laissez faire attitude toward add-ons makes the hard-drive size of the system's two models nearly moot. An easy-to-access hatch and standard laptop-drive size seem to encourage future upgrades. That leaves the main difference between the two systems two models down to just how much more functionality you want out of a gaming console. The pricier model has built-in wi-fi, and sports flash ports for dumping photos, music, and video to the machine. Who knows? In a couple years, those options might seem as mandatory as the DVD player.