Much to the surprise of journalists, Sony came out with a bang at their pre-E3 conference on Monday. What started off as a dull series of generic demos and videos quickly turned into a jaw-dropping demonstration of the PlayStation 3's capabilities -- completely overshadowing Microsoft's subsequent Xbox 360 press event.
Sony pulled out all stops, revealing the look of the console, specs, and launch date. Slated for release in Spring 2006, the PlayStation 3 features a PowerPC-base core running at 3.2GHz, 256MB of XDR RAM at 3.2GHz, 256MB GDDR3 VRAM at 700MHz, Bluetooth wireless controllers, built in WiFi (802.11b/g), and RSX, a state-of-the-art next-gen GPU by Nvidia with a clock speed of 550MHz. Similar to the Xbox 360, the GPU is able to freely access the 512MB of RAM, lacking the constraints seen in conventional PCs. And continuing its tradition, the console is backwards compatible -- as is the Xbox 360.
While techno-geeks can ponder forever the potential ramifications of the specs, Sony spoke most clearly through its impressive demos (both tech and also of actual games), showing the potent console at work. Make no mistake: the PlayStation 3 is utterly superior in graphics to the Xbox 360 from what has been shown.
What really set the PS3 apart from the 360 was its lighting and shadow effects. The first tech demo showed light absorption and subsurface refraction, highlighting how different surfaces react differently to lighting. For example, skin reflected a warmer glow due to the light being partially absorbed, while the eyes give off a realistically glassy reflection. The lighting model was advanced enough to even show high-intensity light glowing through the body (much as you'd see when you cover a strong light source with your fingers). Game demos such as Fight Night Round 3 implemented other graphics-hog effects such as soft shadows (where shadow edges look blurry at a distance). And like the 360, the PS3 also had bloom effects, light flooding and bump mapping.
While each effect in of itself is subtle, when all combined the added ambiance is noticeably improved from what's seen in top-end PC graphics. The PS3 also seemed to have significantly more complex polygonal models than the Xbox 360. While the 360's rather disappointing Ghost Recon 3 looked like a minor facelift from Ghost Recon 2, Killzone 2 on the PlayStation 3 was an eyeopener -- undoubtedly the most beautiful looking FPS game to date (Quake 3 and Half-Life 2 pale in comparison). When comparing the graphics between the 360 and the PS3, the latter has graphics that are true to the phrase "next-generation" while the 360 seems more like a respectable upgrade (say, the jump from PS One to PS2) from the original Xbox.
The main concern with the PlayStation 3, however, is the controller design. Onlookers quickly adopted the description of "boomerang" as the controller featured exaggerated curves and arcs. Disconcertingly, the buttons and d-pads are slightly tilted, recalling the sour experiences with Microsoft's ergonomically disastrous Sidewinder. Analog thumbsticks look largely unchanged from the PlayStation 2, another point of concern. From a surface assessment, the Xbox 360 looks to have the better controller.
On the brighter side, the design of the PS3 console itself is minimalistic and sleek in an industrial, Bose sort of way. The console is convex as opposed to concave, interestingly enough -- whether or not Sony deliberately made an opposite design decision to Microsoft is unknown. While Sony and Microsoft seem to want to elicit different emotions from their console designs (Sony's cold, brushed aluminum cool versus Microsoft's soft and fun), Sony yet again wins out with a more aesthetically alluring console.
Although the 360 looks inferior to the PS3 in terms of sheer hardware capabilities, Microsoft's console stands out from Sony's with its mass market appeal. Serving as a game console, Tivo, one-stop source for on-demand media (MP3s, movies, music), video chat service, the Xbox 360 seems far more versatile than the PS3 -- potentially drawing in a much more diverse audience. Slides even showed the console to be potentially compatible with rival electronics such as the iPod and PSP. Sony by contrast didn't focus much on the media functionality of the console; it did show its compatibility with a whole slew of CD and DVD formats, but the PS3 doesn't seem to have DVD burning functionality.
Microsoft's big investment for the Xbox 360 is online with Xbox Live, and Microsoft showed itself to be better prepared for out-of-the-box network features. While a lot of the presentation rehashed what had previously been announced, J Allard also expanded on the marketplace functionality, saying that gamers can potentially sell their goods to other gamers online (custom T-shirts, car parts). Sony's explanation of its online functionality was relatively brief, the only revelation being the use of an Eyetoy-like device for HD IP camera. While Sony may come out with more concrete information about online, for now Microsoft has shown to be more forward-thinking with respect to online gaming.
Still, in the end Sony stole the attention for the day. Microsoft's spark was clearly fizzling when it made its surprise announcement toward the end of its press event about working together with Square Enix to bring Final Fantasy XI (of all games, one that's already been released on PC and PS2) on the 360. Comparing that to the announcement of Final Fantasy XII being released on the PlayStation 3 (not to mention Metal Gear Solid 4 and Devil May Cry 4), it seems Japanese developers are still holding their cards closer to Sony.