Well, it’s long overdue and by not-at-all popular demand, I thought I would update my views on the console wars circa 2009.
You may remember that nearly two years ago, I posted that Microsoft hit the ground running with some great exclusives, a great online facility and a real drive to corner the hardcore gamer market with their Xbox 360. On the flip side, Sony seemed to be too pre-occupied with the HD wars, weren’t really focused on a particular demographic, and the price point of PS3 was putting people off in droves.
So what’s new? The Wii seems to have had its five minutes of fame and been slightly exposed for the underpowered gimmick that it is. Conversely, both Microsoft and Sony have recently unveiled motion senor-based controlling mechanisms. There are far fewer console exclusives out there these days, even Metal Gear Solid has gone multi-format. HD-DVD is dead and gone. And Gran Turismo 5 STILL isn’t out.
Personally I continue to buy games across both console formats, but mainly on 360 for the still-better-than-Sony’s controller, especially for First Person Shooters, the online service they offer via Xbox Live, and the strangely competitive nature of the achievements system.
But, my patience with Microsoft has been stretched to breaking point at times. I, like many others got the dreaded Red Ring Of Death on my 360, originally after only having had it for about 18 months. To be fair though, MS managed to pick it up, repair it and admit that the faults were more widespread than first thought, having their hand forced into offering everyone an extended warranty on their console “just in case.” It wasn’t the first time I had to send a console off to get fixed either, my old PS2 once gave up the ghost and I had to send it off to Sony for repair, which ended up costing about £60 (from memory). Not the best customer experience when it was me that was the one out of pocket.
Unfortunately, despite updated chip-sets and increased storage capacity, the newer 360s on the market still sound like aircraft taking off, making them unusable for movie watching. The ability to install games to the hard drive quietens things down a bit, but this relies on you having available disk space, and actually wanting to wait for the thing to install rather than just plugging in and playing away. It was never a possibility on my Xbox 360 Premium edition as the 20GB harddrive soon got full with game saves and downloadable extra content for various games. So much so that I couldn’t even download demos anymore, so I was kind of relieved when I got my second Red Ring (!) and found myself with a good reason to upgrade to the black Xbox 360 Elite, complete with 120GB harddrive. This beast is a bit quieter than its predecessor, but compared to the PS3 it’s still a roaring lion next to a little squeaky mouse. Having said that, it is easy to set up, the new £199 price point is more than agreeable, and the free data transfer kit made getting all my old stuff off the Premium a doddle.
Microsoft’s relatively recent NXE (New Xbox Experience) has also made the menu system even simpler to use, although the use of avatars which the player can dress up and buy additional clothes/jewellery etc for seemed shoe-horned in for the younger market. Nevertheless, it’s mildly amusing playing around with the look of these little on-screen personas and they are being used in a more mainstream way now in games such as Guitar Hero 5 where your avatar will appear on stage as you play.
And what have Sony been up to? Well, they initially chucked a slew of differently memory-ed consoles at the consumer (sneakily removing PS2 backwards compatability without telling anyone at the same time). They then managed to release PlayStation Home for free, tart up their menu system and online store and introduce their trophies (their version of Microsoft’s achievements). Then, recently, they released the PS3 Slim, shaving some size off their behemoth of a machine.
The larger disk space consoles didn’t really do much to increase sales for Sony, but gradually, as the ridiculous £425 launch price came down, and rumble-enhanced controllers began to be included as standard, a few gamers started to take a punt. Helped hugely by Blu-ray winning the war over HD-DVD, tech-savvy consumers then saw the opportunity to pick up a relatively inexpensive media hub in the shape of a PS3 and sales grew.
Trophies seem to have made it easier for developers to use the same reward systems on both 360 and PS3 versions of all new releases, giving gamers something to compete over which in turn encourages people to replay games.
What continues to be an oddity though is the PlayStation Home game/facility/whatever the hell it is. Again, it features an avatar for you to dress up and you can trek around various zones which only seem to serve the purpose of advertising recent or upcoming games. There are a few very simple free games in there that you can have a crack at, but why buy a top of the range console and proceed to play oddities that you’d usually only consider if you had five minutes to kill and fancied an uninvolving flash-based game? It also seems that whenever you are bored enough to go and peek into Home, it forces you to download and install new areas or updates so frequently that you don’t end up spending much time actually DOING anything. And why is it that downloads from both Home and the PlayStation Store itself still take so long compared to the speed of Xbox Live content?
The base PS3 XMB (Cross Media Bar) menu system has benefitted from numerous updates however. There’s VidZone for those who fancy catching up on recent music videos. Even BBC iPlayer is there in all its glory. The Internet browser isn’t great but it’s functional. 360 has yet to even have one, the nearest they’ve come being the forthcoming Facebook and Twitter functionality. And let’s not forget that the PS3 online service is still free so gamers are more likely to accept that it isn’t as advanced yet as the 360’s flashy £40 a year interface.
In spite of its faults, the PS3 also remains more reliable, quieter, and the controller is still slightly more familiar for sports games. Having the weight of Sony behind it, who have been in the game far longer than Microsoft also helps, and the lure of Gran Turismo, Uncharted, Ratchet & Clank, InFamous, Resistance and Motorstorm exclusivity means that realistically I’m happy to still have both consoles nestled under my TV. Although I must say that I’m more than happy to have an older PS3 that looks far sleeker with touch-sensitive buttons and a glossy finish rather than the recent matt-look slim PS3, but presumably Sony had to cut costs somewhere in order to sell it at the new £250 price so making it LOOK cheaper must have seemed to be the easiest option.
And what of other videogamers and their behaviours? Of the 14 people (all of whom I still know personally) on my Xbox Live friends list, pretty much all of them have had to return their machines to Microsoft for repair at least once. Two of them don’t even have Xboxes anymore, the reason for one – they bought a PS3 instead. Of the other 12, not all of them play all that often at all, and when they do return to their machines, they may well find that their £40 a year Live subscription has expired anyway.
Funnily enough, my PS3 friends list has grown. Again, these are all people I know, not 13 year olds from New Jersey, but I now have a collection of people, some of whom, like me have both Xbox 360 and PS3. Some are converts to the PS3 phenomenon, others are old PS2 fans who have been waiting for the dust and the prices to settle before jumping into the next gen console wars.
One thing’s for sure – both Sony and Microsoft seem happy to co-exist for now, testing out bits and pieces of functionality, software, hardware and add-ons before even thinking about their next gambit. For once, it looks like the big boys are taking a considered approach to new console development, rather than continually rushing out new hardware before we truly need it, and that can only be good news for us consumers.