|Sony Premium 60 GB Playstation 3|
|Home Theater Video Players Blu-ray Players|
|Written by Bryan Dailey|
|Wednesday, 01 November 2006|
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Having purchased Madden NFL 2007 (Electronic Arts) for Xbox 360, I was quite eager to find out if the PS3 version would bring something new to the table. The Xbox 360 is DVD-based, and the games discs can fit about 4.7 gigs of information on single layer disc. The Blu-ray-based discs, if made dual-layer, can potentially be as large as 50 GB in size. This means there could be PS3 games that are dramatically larger than anything available for the Xbox 360. Sliding the Madden 2007 disc into the drive with the 360 version fresh in my mind, I was a little surprised to see it was almost an exact duplicate. The word on gaming sites among hardcore users is that the first batch of 27 titles for the PS3 doesn’t do anything to push the envelope of this new platform, but the potential benefits of all of this added storage capacity is going to be tapped into with the next wave of games.
As the title screen of Madden 2007 comes up and the famous “E A Sports… It’s in the game” narration sounds, my competitive juices begin flowing. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is hard-hitting and the native 16x9 aspect ratio picture displayed at 720p on my JVC HD-ILA is nothing short of spectacular. This game, as most modern sports games today, has become so realistic that it can be extremely complicated to learn. Long gone are the days of the long bomb a-la-Tecmo Bowl with only the A/B buttons on a Nintendo keypad to worry about. Spin moves, dives, jukes, stiff arms and pump fakes are just some of the moves players have at their fingertips. Where the PS3 version differs from the Xbox release is with the Sixaxis controller. The controller itself can be quickly moved to throw different types of blocks to create open lanes for running backs to follow through. Running was the weakest point of Madden 2004; it has become increasingly improved over the years. Madden 2006 for the Xbox 360 was a big disappointment, but with the new level of control in the PS3, the 2007 version has brought the franchise back to the front of the pack in video football games. Just be careful, when using the new controller motion techniques, not to accidentally punch your friend in the face if he is sitting too close to you.
War is hell and ever since the opening sequence of “Saving Private Ryan,” a host of World War II-based video games has sprung up using this intense war scene as the inspiration for their game play. The Call of Duty series (Activision) began with storming the beach at Normandy, and this third installment of the series takes us further into World War II. Call of Duty 3 has improved graphics and again takes advantage of the Sixaxis controller. When both your character and a Nazi enemy are out of bullets and attempt to engage in hand to hand combat, quickly rotating the entire controller back and forth makes your soldier on screen struggle. If you are quick enough you can smack the enemy in the head with the butt of your rifle and knock him out. The explosions and the gritty action in this game are so realistic that I don’t recommend it for any war veterans. It may trigger flashbacks that have you diving behind the couch and sleeping with a gun under your bed.
Gran Turismo 2 was one the best-selling video games for the PS2, so I wanted to see what the first car racing offer for the PS3 was. Ridge Racer 7 (Namco Bandai Games) is a pretty run-of-the-mill car racing game as far as game play is concerned, but visually it’s a stunner. The action is fast and you make your way around turns more by “drifting” than actually turning, making the game feel quite unrealistic, however, it is an impressive demo for its graphics and the ability to resolve detail that flies by the screen at warp speed. The game that race fans are looking forward to most on the PS3 is Gran Turismo HD that will feature full 1080p support.
Sports games are always favorites of mine and 2S Sports’ new release of NHL 2K7 features game play that is pretty much exactly like the 2006 version for the Xbox 360, but where the PS3 version shines is in the backgrounds, details in the crowd and the stadiums. Having recently seen the LA Kings in Los Angeles at the impressive Staples Center, it was mind-blowing to see how accurately the 2K sports developers have rendered this modern arena.
Sony Computer Entertainment’s NBA 07 has home games for both the Lakers and Clippers, also in the Staples Center, and these developers have done just as amazing a job creating the stadium as for basketball games. The sound of the basketball bouncing on the court, the shots hitting the rim and the music that plays during the player introductions are so incredibly realistic now that nothing surprises me anymore in games. The only problem with this game is that it's so graphics intensive that the players will "merge" with each other sometimes as the arms and legs of the players onscreen will sometimes pass through each other in a ghostlike fashion.
Playstation 2 Games on the PS3
With one hundred million PS2 systems on the street, chances are most savvy gamers have a few titles on their shelves. Fans cheered at the fact that Sony promised full backwards compatibility out of the box with the PS3 for all older games. This came in the form of a small system software update that automatically ran when I was first setting up the system, and since running this I have had no problem playing any of my Playstation 2 games. The problem is, going back and revisiting these 480i games in 4x3 aspect ratio after playing games in glorious 720p on my TV and the new Pioneer 1080p plasma of a friend, is the biggest buzz kill known to man. You really don’t know how far you have come until you look at where you were before. Virtua Fighter 4: Evolution (Sega) on the PS2 was once my favorite console game (until being replaced by the boxing game Fight Night 3 for Xbox 360) and now looks downright boxy and pixilated. The sound is scratchy and low-fi. As much as I’m glad to see there is backwards support for the older games, I don’t foresee a day when I’ll be going back to ancient history to play these low-res games. It will be only a matter of days until they are up on eBay to raise more money for native PS3 games and Blu-ray movies.
Last month I picked up “X-Men: The Last Stand” (Universal DVD) and was amazed at the quality of the transfer. It was one of the best DVD releases I have seen in quite some time; as I watched this film through my reference DVD player, the Integra DPS-10.5 via the HDMI output, I thought to myself, I wonder how this will look on HD DVD or Blu-ray? I was stoked to see this film was just released on Blu-ray. I thought that there couldn’t be a better test for the first Blu-ray movie on the PS3. The first batch of Blu-ray movies like “The Fifth Element” had some transfers that were stinkers, and I wanted to put the best fuel possible in the PS3.
As a Blu-ray player, the PS3 is so much faster from power up to the time the picture comes on the screen compared to the Samsung Blu-ray player, it is scary. No Windows 3.0-looking hourglass icon. You boot the PS3 up and within about six seconds the Sony logo/system menu comes up with a little classical music fanfare. You scroll over to the Blu-ray drive icon and launch the disc. The picture glitches a time or two as the HDCP copy protection and HDMI cable do their thing and within less than 10 seconds, the “X-Men” Blu-ray menu was up on the screen. For a generation who doesn’t like to wait for anything and lives for instant gratification – this is a welcomed improvement over the first generation Blu-ray players. It also thankfully never gave me the dreaded HDMI error message that is so common on first generation HD DVD players when switching between inputs while a movie is playing. While watching any Blu-ray movie, I could switch to my satellite receiver, check the USC football game score and then go back to my Blu-ray movie without the disc starting over from the beginning. Try that on a first generation Toshiba HD DVD player.
Selecting the scene towards the end when Ian McKellen’s character Magneto, who has the power to move metal, lifts the entire Golden Gate Bridge and drags it to Alcatraz, my jaw about hit the floor. Having just watched the exact same scene from the DVD a few minutes prior on my Integra DPS-10.5 DVD player, the best way to compare the video improvement from DVD to Blu-ray is to say that it was no less subtle than if your doctor corrected your prescription in your glasses. The level of detail in the opening panoramic shot of the Golden Gate Bridge from the San Francisco peninsula is nothing short of visually spectacular on Blu-ray when played on the PS3. If you want to nitpick, looking for dot crawl, you have to stick your head unnaturally close to the screen (five feet or closer). From a normal seating distance the picture was not just impressive to the videophile, it is so noticeably better than DVD grandma will start dropping hints that she wants a Blu-ray player for Christmas. There is no question Blu-ray from a PS3 via HDMI at 1080p into a 1080p HDTV is absolutely better than even the best scaling DVD players.
As Magneto raises his hand and rips the bridge supports out like a super-powered Yoda using The Force and some steroids he got at a shady gym near the San Francisco Giants’ practice facility, the long expanse of the red bridge against the blue sky in the background was the only time when a curved line showed any signs of “jaggies.” This very long but slightly curved line is a very tough challenge to accurately resolve. When sitting 12 to 13 feet away on my couch in the prime viewing position, these step-like lines that created the curve of the bridge were not visible. If you want to scour the format and the transfers for faults, you will find them, since, much like the game developers, excited like a kid who just got that Crayola box upgrade from 16 to 48 crayons, the movie studios are still trying to figure out how to best get information from film to 1080p video. Much like music engineers eventually figured out how to make CDs sound more musical than they did at the launch of that format, Hollywood studios have quite a few tricks up their sleeves to get home video looking its best for you on the HD formats. For an early peek at what is possible, buy or rent the Adam Sandler film “Click” on Blu-ray. It was shot using the Sony-Panavision digital camera and has more of the look of native HD for a movie.
Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock saved a bus full of innocent Los Angeles commuters in the mid nineties and it’s all documented in beautiful 1080p on Blu-ray disc format in the movie “Speed” (20th Century Fox). It’s not the best transfer, but is better than average, and for those with HDMI 1.2, the disc features DTS HD 5.1 with lossless audio. In my system the audio is carried from the PS3 via a Tos-link cable to my Integra receiver and is decoded as standard DTS 5.1, but still packs a powerful punch. As Keanu Reeves’ character climbs under the moving bus as it cruises around the runways at LAX airport, the added resolution of Blu-ray draws you into the action. I’ve seen this film a time or two in standard def and was mildly entertained. With the lights dimmed in my theater and this Blu-ray disc spun up, I found myself on the edge of my seat. Mission accomplished. The point of these new formats is to bring you deeper into the action, and this Blu-ray release of “Speed” does just that. When I was eight years old and was playing Atari games on my trusty 2600 console, I’d never have dreamed of the day when video game systems would have a picture that rivals the local Cineplex. It only took 22 years for it to finally happen.
DVD Movies on the Playstation 3
Now that I had the third X-Men movie on Blu-ray fresh in my mind, it was time to take it back to standard def. The PS3 automatically recognized the format change, the Blu-ray icon on the menu changed to a gold DVD icon and I launched this movie. Again going to the Golden Gate Bridge scene, my jaw dropped once more, this time in disappointment. Surely something must have been wrong. The picture looked dull, flat and lifeless. Was the PS3 trying to upscale the 720p? Checking the settings, it had automatically adjusted to 480p, so it wasn’t a scaling issue. Sony had to skimp somewhere to save space and money; it seems as if the DVD playback capability is one of the areas that suffered. Testing several more discs from “Cars” (Pixar/Disney) to my black and white favorite “Sin City” (Dimension), I couldn’t find a DVD that looked really good on the PS3. I even bypassed my HDMI switching receiver temporarily to see if it was the internal scaler in the Integra that was causing the poor picture, but had no such luck with direct HDMI or composite outputs. I was hoping to free up some space in my theater, but like every DVD player built into a video game system I have tried before, they just couldn’t cut the mustard against the Integra DPS-10.5. For average users this might be a significant problem, but I suggest that if they are going to spend the big money for the bad-ass Playstation 3 system, they invest at least $2,500 in a true 1080p HDTV to get the most from it and in doing that use a good scaling 1080p DVD player and/or buy one or both of the HD formats.
SACD on the Playstation 3
SACD was Sony’s attempt at trying to recreate the audio excitement of the CD all over again but this time with higher resolution audio for stereo and surround sound. The format was a flop with everyone but the audiophiles who whom it was marketed, mainly because of a format war with a competing format DVD-Audio, a lack of major label support and not very much music created in surround sound.
The Playstation 3 can play these discs and can play them very nicely. For stereo music, you can actually hear the difference between CD stereo versions of records like the epic ‘Thriller” (Epic) from Michael Jackson. On “P.Y.T.” on SACD, played back from the Playstation 3, you can hear significantly better bass definition, but more important for me was the impressively improved layering of the wonderfully produced track. “Thriller” is a stereo SACD, but can be a wonderful way to impress your buddies when showing them what your PS3 can do. People still love music and this classic album brings back many a fond memory from days when Intellivision and Atari game systems ruled the world.
One of the fatal flaws of SACD was its lack of digital multi-channel audio outs. To suggest that consumers needed to use anywhere from six to nine audio outputs as well as get a new AV preamp or receiver with a six channel analog input, was a big part of the format’s failure. The powers behind SACD needed to be more worried about creating a format that people wanted to steal, than how people would go about stealing it. This brings me to surround sound audio on SACD from the PS3, which requires you to have an AV preamp that can take an HDMI 1.2 (or even better, the soon-to-be-released HDMI 1.3) input which will take all sorts of high resolution audio from the likes of DTS and Dolby in a digital format on one cable. My system has HDMI switching for video but I wasn’t able to eke surround sound SACD from the PS3 without a preamp upgrade, and considering what the company paid for the PS3 I was playing – asking for a new $4,000 AV preamp might get me fired. Fear not audio fans, HDMI switching is the buzz word in receivers and it won’t be more than a few months before receivers have HDMI inputs that solve the age-old analog audio problem, manage 1080p video without the amazingly annoying HDCP “handshake.” issues and more.