PlayStation Home first impressions

“It’s still beta”, “It’s not a game, it’s a social network”, and “You don’t have to use it if you don’t like it”: these are some of the most common arguments being voiced by Home supporters in the wake of an underwhelming, long awaited launch of the PS3’s latest, erm, thingy. We doff our hats to Sony in at least one regard: Home has certainly got gamers talking. Which was main the idea behind the whole exercise, even if it’s not quite in the manner Sony first envisioned. We’ve had a few hours checking out the Home experience now – read on for our first impressions.

First things first; there are quite a few things that need serious work in Home. But we’ll come to those shortly. For the moment, we can describe your first (and possibly last) few minutes inside Sony’s virtual world.

After the software has downloaded and installed you’ll find yourself at the Avatar creation screen – the place where you’ll mock up either a virtual caricature of yourself, or just pick something with horrifically clashing skin tones and hair colour, with the eyebrows of a Neanderthal and the waistline of a 747. There’re a few presets to choose between, but peculiarly – despite offering far more ‘lifelike’ avatars than either Ninty’s Mii characters or Microsoft new NXE avatars – no matter how much tinkering you do, these all end up looking like the same twenty-something yuppies of some absurdly cosmopolitan utopia. They are so alike in shape and build that your choice of clothing is probably the only way you’re ever really going to be able to stand out from the crowd. And we say ‘probably’ because right now the choice of clothing is decidedly limited. We can say with confidence that this is one aspect that is guaranteed to change for the better.

Once you’ve assumed your new online persona, you are free to check out your virtual digs. For this stage of the beta at least, you’re issued a standard luxury pad overlooking an idyllic harbour, which provides eye-candy for all of half a second. Within your small chunk of personal space you are free to redecorate as you please, choosing from a small number of pre-set wallpapers and furniture, moving and placing it as you see fit.

The range of available furniture, much like clothing, is minimal and made up of the blandest possible combination of Ikea inspired designs. Oft-touted features like virtual TVs and radios to stream media from your console hard drive haven’t yet made it through to the beta, so you’re basically only able to move stuff around and sit on it. In desperation to derive some amusement from this practice, we decided to build a mountain of sofas which successfully blocked the whole room before Home told us we couldn’t have any more. Half a minute later we ventured out into Home Square.

Home Square does little more than provide a central hub connecting the three other main sections, with a handful of Draughts and Chess boards. There are some big bill-board advertisements, and a bit of fancy scenery which you are utterly unable to interact with. Invisible walls, and the fact that you can’t jump or sprint or do anything, except a limited selection of preset animations, conspire to make this a profoundly dry and unabsorbing social nexus, in which the only interesting thing we’ve seen happen so far is the serial harassment of female avatars.

On to the Mall then. Again, thanks to this being very early days of open testing (the closed version has been around for a good deal longer, mind), the selection of stuff to buy is limited. Very limited. And frankly, we can’t ever imagine laying down a penny for a pair of pretend trainers. The prices have been kept sensibly low. It’s 59p for any item of clothing, a bit like a virtual Matalan. It’s £0.79 for some furniture, a bit like a virtual MFI. And if you really want to splash out, it’s £3.99 for a whole new “personal space” (a house, basically). A bit like living in downtown Kosovo.

The Bowling Alley does very much as the name implies, with the addition of arcade machines and pool tables. These mild gaming distractions are largely pointless, poorly made and crippled by an obscure queuing system (read: waiting around for a free slot). Yes. You read that right. You have to queue to use your own console.

Seriously Sony. You might think us Brits love queuing, but there’s a limit.

Home’s Movie Theatre has a couple of trailers and advertisements which are novel at least, and the way the sound volume increases as you approach is a nice touch, but it hardly qualifies Home as a technical wonder.

And this is the point, when you’ve seen everything that Home has to offer, that most users are giving up completely, voicing their frustration at this dispassionate, soulless marketing delivery platform; it’s hard not to sigh and shake your head at the culmination of nearly two years of testing and God only knows how much investment money.

Now, it would be something of a disservice to write off Home completely on the back of that, tempting though it is.

The problem that Sony faces is that this is exactly how many users are seeing it and how they will probably always remember it. There’s just nothing to do in Home. What few distractions there are, are blown away by Sony’s desperation to make money by firing adverts at you. Billboards, posters, video screens and promotional spaces – it’s all there seemingly to fill in for the utter lack of inspiration behind the service. But then, as Home supporters will argue (vehemently, with the strong possibility of insults), this isn’t what Home is supposed to be for. It’s supposed to be there to let gamers meet other gamers.

Sony thus deserves some praise for making the communications tools reasonably effective – or at least as good as they’re likely to get within the limitations of a control pad. You have quick access to movements, expressions and quick chat options, but you really do need either a headset or a keyboard to make the most of it. The fact that in-Home game launching is still limited to Warhawk alone is a problem right now, but not an incurable one.

The real problem is that while there’s the opportunity to socialise, there is just no scope for actual fun. With the integrated mini-games failing to rock anyone’s boat, Home should have provided some anarchic entertainment at least.

Sony promises us that this is just the start of an ever-evolving service, but whatever the improvements it has planned, a system seller Home most certainly is not.

We really hope that it has more up its sleeve than just a handful of game spaces and virtual shops, otherwise Home may turn out to be the largest and most expensive anti-climax in gaming history.

In the meantime, our hopes turn to the ever vigilant hacking community, which has already broken through the first stage of Home’s defences and if it goes down the same path as PSP hacking, could be the best chance of seeing interesting Home developments outside of Sony’s tightly marketed grip.

Available now | £Free | PlayStation Home

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