Smooth, black and smaller than I expected, Sony's PlayStation2 is sexy. I got my hands on the new gaming console this week and it rocked. (It was introduced in Japan on Saturday, though it won't hit U.S. stores until the fall.) Graphics were crisp and sharply detailed; reflections on the car windows of the immensely popular Ridge Racer V were so realistic it was kind of surreal -- watching the replay was like viewing real racing on a state of the art TV with exceptionally good reception. I even found games created for the original PlayStation, like Metal Gear Solid, showed subtle signs of graphic improvement when loaded up into the new backward-compatible machine.
The first titles released on the new console demonstrate the power of the "emotion" engine, as Sony has dubbed the guts of its PlayStation2. As the heart of the console, the emotion engine provides the processing power for the lifelike graphics: Strands of hair blow sensuously and realistically across the face of Ai Fukami in Ridge Racer V. Horses bob and sway gracefully in a sumptuous scene, as warriors ride into battle in strategy-simulation game Kessen. Kessen's gameplay, of course, is a complete mystery to me -- it speaks Japanese and I don't. Still, I'm impressed by the smooth mobility of the general's facial expressions as he speaks to his troops. And as developers learn to harness the power of the new engine, the gaming industry expects truly astounding second- and third-generation PlayStation2 games to emerge.
Sony sold 720,000 PlayStation2 units in its first three days on the Japanese market; gamers have pre-ordered another 200,000 online. Lotteries determined which lucky Japanese gamers would be able to purchase the PlayStation2 at retailers on the first day; American gamers either have to import the machine -- prices currently range between $700 and $800 -- or wait till Sony officially brings it to U.S. shores, with an expected price of $300 to $400.
The PlayStation2 games are beautiful, but so are titles like Soul Calibur that run on the Sega Dreamcast. The battle for dominance in the multibillion-dollar gaming industry is far from over. Sega got a head start by releasing the Dreamcast
console more than a year ago in Japan, and following up with a $100 million marketing campaign for its September 1999 U.S. launch. But this week Sony got an incredible start in Japan with the best console launch sales to date; it will no doubt put serious muscle into the PlayStaion2's U.S. launch. But the battle will likely be fought and won with the next generation games, the titles that will release in the coming years once developers get a grip on the new consoles' engines. No matter which company comes out ahead, gamers seem
to be winning thanks to the speed and beauty of the latest machines.