Alaric’s E3 Showdown: The Consoles

written by Alex ‘Alaric’ Lemcovich on 18.6.13 PS4_11

E3 week has been and gone! A time for the games industry to do what it does best: a whole lot of back-slapping and gonad-stroking in an effort to woo investors and give those share valuation graphs a nice, firm erection.

I initially wanted to do this article after Microsoft’s announcement of the new Xbox console, but having watched that publicity stunt crash and burn with no tangible idea on how some of the Xbox One’s more troublesome features actually WORK, waiting for E3 seemed like the appropriate thing to do. That’s not to say that the PlayStation 4 reveal event was flawless, but at least while I was watching it I understood that it was a games console and not an overpriced, voice-activated set top box.

So now that the big console presentations are out of the way, here are my thoughts on where they stand as the next-gen home wreckers.

CONSOLE FUNCTIONALITY – The PlayStation 4

We’ll begin with the PlayStation 4, just because it’s the easiest console to understand.

It’s fair to say that Sony have enjoyed making their share of mistakes. The errors in the PS3′s marketing and functionality as part of our gaming experience were probably more numerous than Ghengis Khan’s grandchildren. But it’s often suggested that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and it seems like Sony has – overall – come out of this console generation with a few lessons learned at the expense of a lot of bumps and bruises.

The PS4 has been pitched rather well as a champion of games development, laying the groundwork for independent developers to get their products onto the PlayStation Network with a greater degree of ease. No more astronomical publishing fees; a fervent slashing of the red tape that has dogged Indies over the better part of the last decade, at least as far as consoles are concerned. I was especially impressed that they got Jonathon Blow, creator of one of my favourite indie games of all time, Braid, front and centre to talk about his latest endeavour, The Witness.

Sony have had some neat features added to their controllers, with touch pads and motion sensors as well, and what’s also commendable is Sony’s desire to link the PS Vita’s functionality with the PS4. It’ll be possible to stream games to the Vita via wireless remote play, which might seem hard to believe given that PS3 compatibility for Vita remote play is somewhat less compatible than sobriety on a stag weekend. The tech for the PS4′s cloud gaming has seen leaps and strides, however, and the latest news is that all titles – save for the ones that use the PS4 EYE – will be taking full advantage of Sony’s newly-acquired Gaikai streaming technology to work with the PS Vita.

How well does it work? We’ll see, but with CEO Jack Tretton declaring at the E3 conference that the PS Vita is the PlayStation 4′s “ultimate companion device” I’d be surprised if remote play was a complete failure.

Backwards compatibility this time around is a big no-no. That goes for both Microsoft’s Xbox One and Sony’s PS4, so if you’re a fan of trading in old consoles for new ones it might be prudent to hold onto those plastic lumps for good if you plan on enjoying older games.

Online requirements for the PS4 boil down to this: if you want to play multiplayer games you’ll need to pay for PSN Plus Membership. If you’re content with your life as a hermit and you have no friends who call you at four o’ clock in the morning because they’re drunkenly failing at Call of Duty, you can still watch Netflix, download games, and generally interact with PlayStation Network. So paid-for membership is by no means compulsory, you cheap, friendless, gamers out there.

The good news for PlayStation Plus members is that your membership will extend across all Sony devices. No need to stack subscription charges.

I suppose this would be a good time to talk about the Xbox One.

Console Functionality – The Xbox One

Nailing down exactly how this bloody thing works is about as tricky as nailing down a greased weasel with one hand glued to an active wasp’s nest, probably because Microsoft never actually bothered to put things into a decent amount of context, but let’s see what I can work with here.

The Xbox One demonstrates a higher level of imagination as far as technology is concerned; we’ve got ourselves an upgraded Kinect device that’ll make jumping around our living rooms like coked-up rabbits a more refined experience, with promises of better voice recognition and motion control. It’s just a pity we’ve only seen how we can use Kinect to interrupt a perfectly good film and switch from gaming to television.

Discussion surrounding the Xbox One’s online functionality has been a repeated application of blunt force trauma to gamers and independent game developers. There’s talk of having to keep your system in touch with the internet, at least once every 24 hours, just so that your games can be updated, screened, and approved as belonging to you and no other human being on the planet. At the same time, Microsoft has been emphatic on the whole ‘sharing’ aspect of the Xbox One, with players being able to send their games to their online friends for them to try out.

Yes, the future of games revolves around us being connected to our friends, our friends’ gaming experiences, and the experiences we can share together. Preferably via SmartGlass, an intriguing little tool that enables multiple devices such as Smartphones and Tablets to run parallel with the Xbox One, going so far as to change the way we engage in virtual worlds with friends even in the same room.

For all the perceived failures being heaped upon Microsoft from the lofty folds of the internet, their E3 presentation did something right with Project Spark, which actually showcased some of this newfangled tech from a gaming perspective. I was quite surprised by the level of interactivity afforded by Kinect and SmartGlass in this demonstration, so much so that I almost forgot the ten thousand clauses I’ll have to sign – presumably in blood – when I boot up my new Xbox One for the first time.

There’s no doubt that gamers will be tempted more towards the PS4 than the Xbox One as things currently stand, even though the latter has one of the strongest title line-ups we’ve seen for a new console since…Well, ever.

It doesn’t help that Microsoft has all but declared independent developers unwelcome on its new platform unless they’re already raking in millions of dollars from PC gamers, and apparently when the Xbox One launches it will do so without the Xbox Live Arcade games section attached to its dashboard. Christ knows why; I still can’t figure out who made that decision or who thought it was a good idea. Maybe it was for a bet.

Then there’s the pricing…

How much?

I’ve always stood by the idea that something is only ever worth what an idiot will pay for it and, thankfully for console manufacturers, gamers fit into the ‘idiot’ category rather well because most of them are under the age of 18 and know how to pester their parents into submission.

But let’s assume you’re not an idiot. Let’s assume you’re clever and successful…and endowed like a Grand National winner. Which console do you buy?

If you’re going for exclusive titles and heavy third party premium games support, the Xbox One is likely a good investment. It costs a hundred dollars more than the PlayStation 4, but what does that matter to a discerning customer with plenty of disposable income such as yourself? You pay for the games you like, dammit, because you’re an individual with a sense of taste who isn’t afraid to try new things. Even if they involve a soundproof room, a jar of Vaseline, and Uncle Sam’s collection of giant sex toys, and irritating background adverts for shit you will never buy nor care about.

If you want to support games and gaming culture, or you’re a young whippersnapper trying to develop your first game, the PlayStation 4 is your best friend. It’s your best friend because it’s cheaper, more visually pleasing, and it comes with the promise that the discs you buy are the discs you own. Sure, you might have to wait a month or two before you get your hands on some new DLC pack or other, but it’s not as if you’ll have nothing else to do. Independent clones of Minecraft, Slender, and zombie shooting-survival nonsense is where the real action is, after all.

One thing I’m certain of is that both consoles are supposed to be coming out later this year in time for the Christmas period and they are going to make parents’ lives a fucking misery. The question I put to you, humble readers, is, do you know who the real winners are?

THE WINNERS

PC gamers. They can refuse to buy either console on the grounds that whatever they want to play is likely coming out on PC, too. You want to record game footage, edit it, and share it with your friends? You can do that on PC. Want to switch in an instant between gaming, television shows, and the internet? You can do that on PC. You want the very best independent platforms that gaming has to offer? Guess what? They’re on the PC.

If you’re not a PC gamer, it might be a good time to decide to become one, because it’s pretty darn clear that console manufacturers are trying to make their machines more PC-like with every passing year. Prices on hard copy games can only be set to rise, making the expense of buying a high-end PC a solid investment with the passing of time.

Additionally PC gaming platforms, such as Steam, tend to be much cheaper – a consequence of using downloads, cutting out all this hard copy verification nonsense Microsoft have signed up for with the Xbox One. Sure, you’ll miss out on the exclusive titles that could hit big on the consoles, but those are very few and far between. The advantage falls in your favour when you consider how many innovative games, such as Minecraft and World of Tanks, began life and built their primary fan bases on the PC long before consoles got hold of them. That happens to include Battlefield, by the way, the PC version of which makes the console versions look positively stunted.

That, of course, is just one not-so-humble opinion. The year ahead for gaming looks to be more interesting than any other; new business models are on the rise – some will fall, others will prosper – and gaming tech has finally begun to move past the basic lump of buttoned plastic in our hands. Whatever decision you decide to make, whether it’s to buy one console or both, or neither, the savagery of the games industry is going to soar as developers and publishers struggle to adapt themselves to ever more fickle demands.

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