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Wait's Over for Playstation 2--or Is It?

October 19, 2000|AARON CURTISS | aaron.curtiss@latimes.com

Unless a cousin who owes you a favor happens to manage a Toys R Us, odds are you won't get your hands on Sony's long-awaited PlayStation 2 until sometime next spring. Production glitches and--big surprise--media hype have collided to make Sony's successor to its popular video game console the most coveted gadget of 2000.

So ...?

PlayStation 2 is definitely a solid piece of hardware. But most people can wait for it. PlayStation 2 is not so much a revolution in home entertainment as it is a logical and evolutionary step toward the often-predicted, never-realized convergence of many forms of electronic media in a single, set-top box.

The sleek, black $300 machine--technically available to the public next Thursday 10/26 --combines a 128-bit game console with a DVD/CD player and the ability to access the Internet through a broadband connection. Far more than just a beefier PlayStation, PlayStation 2 establishes a new standard for set-top consoles.

Whether PlayStation 2 is right for you depends a lot on who you are. If you're a gamer who desperately wants to play top-drawer titles from Electronic Arts, Sony Computer Entertainment or Namco--key publishers absent from Sega Dreamcast--then PlayStation 2 is probably worth the cash. If you're a family looking for a single box that combines multiple functions, then it's worth waiting until next year--when you can compare Sony's wares with machines from Microsoft and Nintendo. If you're a techno-freak, odds are you've already got machines doing all the things PlayStation 2 promises.

In theory PlayStation 2 is a console for the entire family, not just the ones with a Y chromosome. To be sure, the folks scrambling over one another next week to claim their pre-orders will be mostly male. But because PlayStation 2 offers more than just raging-fast video games, it has the potential to become second only to the television as the most democratic gadget in the house.

For the time being, though, games are the big draw. Here's why: Parts shortages forced Sony to slash its initial shipment from 1 million to 500,000 units, meaning the only customers likely to get a PlayStation 2 before Christmas are those who reserved them through retail stores as early as last spring. For the most part, those devoted enough to pre-order are hard-core gamers.

With 26 titles set for release next week with the system, PlayStation 2 will be the largest launch of a home video-game machine in the industry's 20-year history. As any gamer can attest, even the most technologically advanced system will falter if it doesn't have the games to support it. Given the strength of Sony's initial lineup, the challenge will be to keep a steady flow of quality titles in the pipe through 2001--when both Microsoft and Nintendo debut powerful new consoles of their own.

As a game machine, PlayStation 2 has it where it counts. Engineered from scratch to be wicked fast, PlayStation 2 is powered by a proprietary 128-bit chip developed jointly by Sony and Toshiba. By utilizing memory that's faster than traditional PCs, PlayStation 2 can kick out graphics that would tax even the most advanced home computer. For example, its graphics synthesizer can handle 20 times the simultaneous data of some PC graphics accelerators and can draw 75 million polygons--the building blocks of realistic graphics--per second.

That means fast, great-looking games on PlayStation 2. Launch games such as Tecmo's "Dead or Alive 2: Hardcore," Namco's "Ridge Racer V" and Electronic Arts' "Kessen" look perfect and play tightly--which, of course, has as much to do with software development as it does with the platform.

But it's tough to deny some of the swift features built into PlayStation 2. For instance, the controller looks identical to PlayStation's Dual Shock controller. But this one is completely analog so it can tell how hard players press different buttons. On a driving game, for example, pressing the X button harder makes the car go faster, just like pressing harder on the gas pedal makes a real car zoom.

The drawback is that PlayStation 2 includes only two controller ports--making multiplayer games impossible without buying adapters that allow up to eight players at once. One would think that Sony would follow the lead of Nintendo and Sega, both of which included four ports in their current machines.

PlayStation 2 comes with one controller. That's fine for solo players, but who wants to play by themselves all the time? Players who don't want to shell out $35 for a second controller can just plug in their Dual Shock controller from the original PlayStation. Although it won't allow the refinement of the newer controllers, it does the trick in a pinch. And when was the last time anything from an old system worked on a new one?

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