Gamers are supposed to be ecstatic about the trio of next-generation consoles: last year's Xbox 360 and this month's Sony PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii (wheeee!). But I find the prospect of a new crop a little dispiriting. The main sticking point is cost. The $400 to $600 purchase price for a fully equipped 360 or a PS3, the two high-definition consoles, is only the starting point. That's the cover charge compared with the $3,000 HDTV I'd need—OK, want—to properly appreciate the hi-def systems. (The non-HD Wii will cost a relatively paltry $250.) I love games, but I don't have the bank to drop close to five grand (when you factor in a new satellite dish and receivers, a new digital video recorder, and so on) just to upgrade from my trusty old-generation Xbox Classic, which still gets new titles like Madden '07 and Lego Star Wars II. I doubt that you need to see Lego Princess Leia in 1080p to truly enjoy her.
During the buzz over the three new consoles, it's been forgotten that waves of previous game systems failed to leave a mark. In most homes, the Atari 2600 was displaced not by the Intellivision, ColecoVision, or Atari 5200, despite their massively superior (at least in the case of Intellivision and ColecoVision) graphics, but by the much-later Nintendo Entertainment System. And the outdated-but-fun NES was displaced not by the slightly improved Super NES but by the original PlayStation and the Nintendo 64. Unless you're a hard-core gamer, not every generation has a must-buy console. Sometimes, they're all losers.
So, when Sony invited me to play half an hour of PlayStation 3, I showed up prepared to be disappointed. Until last week, I hadn't seen anything that made me think Sony and Microsoft could get casual fans to part with their graying-but-still-useful PS2s and Xboxes. But by the time my half-hour appointment had extended into two hours, my skepticism began to dissipate. I'm still not ready to shell out $5,000 just to own a PS3, but I do think Sony has come up with a console that's worth dumping your old standby for, if you've got the wallet for it.
Sony set up about 20 HDTVs, and nearly as many consoles, in New York City and invited the gaming press to give the PS3 a whirl. Caveats to keep in mind: This room didn't approximate anyone's home gaming space, except if you're set to appear on Cribs. (You can check out photos here.) Along with top-of-the-line Sony televisions, most of the setupscame with womblike, egg-shaped Mork from Ork gaming chairs. On top of that, half an hour, or even two hours, is barely enough time to figure out which buttons to press, especially for a graybeard who hasn't spent much time with a PlayStation since the PS1.
Things didn't start out promisingly. I first sat down with Resistance: Fall of Man, a Halo-style shooter. The Sony representative told me it was going to be a big game for online play, with up to 40 players going at it simultaneously. Maybe, but after about five minutes of getting repeatedly killed by something that resembled the Balrog from The Fellowship of the Ring, I was ready for something a little more familiar. I tried to check out Fight Night Round 3, with its impressively sweaty-and-tattooed boxers, but I couldn't even get it to start. (This was probably user error.) I then spent around 15 minutes waiting to get past the cut scenes and tutorials in Need for Speed: Carbon. I was impressed with the human characters in the cinematics, which were impressively devoid of the Uncanny Valley effect, and one tutorial race seemed to be filled with gorgeous animations of historic San Juan, Puerto Rico (although it was hard to tell because I had to keep my eyes on the road). Even though I haven't really liked a racing game since R.C. Pro-Am, I enjoyed my brief spin with Need for Speed.
I didn't enjoy it $5,000's worth, though. Maybe I'm too infected with an Ecclesiastes temperament, but I needed to see something new to be impressed. I glanced at a TV showing NHL 2K7 and shrugged. It looked like pretty much the same game that's been coming out since NHL '94 for the old Sega Genesis. I played one half of NBA '07, in which a ridiculously massive Kirk Hinrich led his CPU-controlled Chicago Bulls to a 55-19 lead over my Washington Wizards. The floor glistened, and I could make out individual fans and yellow-shirted staff members inside the absurdly detailed Verizon Center. Still, other than a few bells and whistles, NBA '07 was just a prettier version of the kind of basketball video games I've played for more than a decade. Old isn't always bad, mind you. But Parker Bros. doesn't ask me for five grand for its latest Monopoly spinoff.
There was one new element to NBA '07. The PS3's motion-sensitive controller was supposed to enable me to make Gilbert Arenas juke, spin, and crossover dribble. But neither I nor the Sony representative could get it to work very well. The last game I played, on the other hand, made me realize how motion sensitivity—the big selling point of the Nintendo Wii—will change gaming. It's the biggest development in video game controllers since Nintendo, with the NES, unveiled the basic thumb-pad-and-buttons setup that consoles still use today.
My motion-sensitivity epiphany occurred while I was playing Lair, which isn't a PS3 launch title. (The official Lair Web site, such as it is, doesn't include a release date.) You play a dragon rider, and you handle the reins of your dragon without tapping a single button. Tilt the controller down, and your dragon dives. Tilt it back toward you, and you climb into the sky. Tilting left and right makes the dragon bank, well, left and right. The game play is simple, intuitive, and elegant. I felt almost graceful as I led my dragon through a series of training hoops floating in the air. To make him fly faster, I tapped the X button, which felt slightly cruder, just as slapping him with a riding crop would feel. Battle was understandably more intense, involving some button-mashing and quicker snaps of the wrists to make the dragon attack other riders and their dragons nearby.
Playing Lair was transfixing, and best of all, it felt entirely new. It made me think a PS3 might be worth buying after all, even if my TV can't display its pretty pictures. For Sony, there's only one downside: Lair made me even more excited to get my hands on a Nintendo Wii.