Monday, 20 September 2010

Feature: PlayStation Move: The Verdict

There is no doubting the Wii’s initial success; it was the right time, and the right place for motion controls to really start to take off. Promises of life-like, eventual 1:1 motion, combined with that feel-good, family fun factor when people come together to play were all jostled about like F1 cars battling for that coveted no.1 spot. However, amongst all the hype, the potential to change the face of traditional gaming forever, was the hard reality that, for all Nintendo’s promises the Wii had largely failed to deliver on them as a whole.

The lack of true 1:1 motion control led to what is known as the ‘waggle’ factor being included in games; a series of predefined moves in the game where by the data from the Wii remote and sensors would be processed and interpreted by the Wii console into these actions. The result: a mere illusion of proper motion control, in which you were simply waving your arms around (or the flick of a wrist) in order to do what seemed like a number of overly flashy button presses.

Nintendo finally brought in the Motion Plus upgrade to alleviate the problem, finally delivering on that original 1:1 promise. And although it did, by and large succeed, it was far too late, and the end results were less than impressive. There was still some form of waggle being present, and the lag in titles which actually used full 1:1 tracking was noticeably high. Suffice to say the Motion Plus was too little, too late, and by that time both Sony and Microsoft were eying up the market for them selves.

Whereas MS are clearly aiming themselves at the casual gaming market with their completely controllerless solution in Kinect, Sony, with PlayStation Move, are in fact attempting to cross over into the best of both worlds; luring gamers with the incredibly high-precision of their device, whilst also catering for the mainstream via a selection of highly accurate mii-too sports and entertainment titles.

Unlike Nintendo, who in the beginning promised accurate 1:1 motion tracking and a fast, responsive solution, Sony have actually delivered on just that. The sheer accuracy and precision of the Move is simply incredible. Not only is true 1:1 tracking fully available, along with advanced depth perception, it is also able to operate with in just 1 or 2 frames of latency (that’s between 66ms and 132ms of lag), with just an additional 22ms stemming from the Move device relaying data to the PS3 itself.

If those numbers at first seem a little high, remember that most 60fps titles operate with 66ms latency at standard, with 30fps titles hitting around the 100ms mark. Interestingly, both Halo 3 and the forthcoming NFS Hot Pursuit operate at 100ms, whilst Killzone 2 is around 150ms. Incredibly, that puts the Move right up there with standard controller response times in an average to best scenario. This completely overshadows Microsoft’s Kinect, which on average operates at around 200ms latency when using full body tracking.

Indeed, a few of the Move’s launch titles show off the device’s unflinching precision when it comes to movement tracking. Pin-point accuracy is commonplace in the best titles, whilst latency is noticeably well below levels found on all the best Wii games. What this means is that the most accomplished launch titles for the Move don’t suffer from having that bolted on, or artificial ‘waggle’ feeling to them.

Case in point: Sports Champions demonstrates uncannily realistic 1:1 motion tracking in it’s Table Tennis game, carefully replicating nearly every subtle movement of the player onscreen. Granted, the demo does seem to feature some kind of additional assist function auto-enabled, though this can be turned off in the final game for exact precision tracking.

All this is only made possible because of the unique make up of the Move hardware itself, and it’s relationship with Sony’s own PlayStation Eye camera. Whereas Nintendo went for a combination of infrared tracking, and built-in accelerometers to detect motion and positioning, Sony on the other hand have used a whole array of extra sensors, including LED marker tracking (by far the most important) in order to replicate true 1:1 mapping in a 3D space, whilst also using the PS Eye camera for a simpler form of full body tracking like seen in MS’s Kinect.

The combination of Move’s motion sensors, LED light, and PS Eye camera is just what gives its incredible accuracy. The glowing orb on the end of the controller is tracked by the PS Eye camera, which in turn uses both the data from the internal Move sensors, and the LED light on the front, to intricately track the position of the controller in full 3D. Effectively, it uses the size of the orb within its viewpoint as a guide to determining the distance of the Move, and thus tracking it accordingly.

It’s only when the Move is obscured behind various objects (people, furniture, etc) does the precise nature of the tracking go off-kilter, instead briefly, for a moment reverting back to Wii methods of determining position and movement. When this happens the precision is temporarily lost, resulting in less accurate tracking and an increase in controller latency. However, the Move quickly corrects this as the LED orb on the front of the controller comes back into view.

From a technical standpoint then, the Move offers not only the best of both worlds; precision 1:1 motion control, and full body tracking as well, but also manages to clearly be the most responsive and overly accurate of all three current motion solutions.

Onto the actual hardware itself, and you can see that both the Move and the Navigation Controller (Nav Con) have been lavished by Sony’s high-end design expertise. Both are very comfortable to hold, and benefit from their ergonomically crafted, curved and rounded shape. Compared to the blocky Wii Remote, the Move remains comfortably in your hand for far longer, weighing less, whilst providing better grip and control. The same principles apply to the Nav Con, which feels weighty, but light at the same time.

The fact that both controllers effectively almost weigh the same, and pretty much feel the same, is a big plus. Where as Nintendo went for the most iconic handheld device in the home (the TV remote control) as the base of it’s Wii motion controller design, complementing it with a more traditional feeling Nunchuck, Sony have instead unified their design in a more succinct, albeit stylish manner.

Both the Move and the Nav Con are wireless, working off bluetooth like with the Dual Shock 3 controller, and feature rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. Charging is done via the same USB cable that the Sixaxis and DS3 use to connect up to the PS3, and you can expect each full charge to last between seven and eight hours; which isn’t at all bad considering what the Move has to do, although far less than a regular Sixaxis pad.

Seeing as Sony doesn’t provide any additional USB cables with either the Move or the Nav Con, you might want to invest in one of the few double charging stations that are available. The Sony one in particular features a similar high build quality to that of the Move itself, although more expensive than the lesser third-party solutions available.

In terms of button placement and functionality, both Move and the Nav Con provide ample options as a replacement to the standard Dual Shock controller. The Nav Con features an analogue stick closely matching that of Sony’s DS3 and Sixaxis pads, whilst also having both an L2 analogue trigger and the L1 button (feeling much like the ones on a DS3) slightly beneath the front of it. The Move itself features a new custom T-Trigger on its underside (more like a trigger from a gun than the one from the DS3 pad, it has a softer resistance to it compared to the L2 trigger on the Nav Con) whilst also having the standard four face buttons situated around the brand new Move button, which serves as the units main action/start button.

Furthermore, the PS home button is featured on both the Move and the Nav Con; indented into the controllers to prevent accidental presses from occurring, and on the Move, the Start and Select buttons from the DS have also been lowered into the plastic casing for the same reason.

Annoyingly, the main face buttons feel rather small, and have a cheap, but strong resistance to them. Pushing down on these feels like it requires more effort than it should, as it also does with both Start and Select buttons, making using them slightly uncomfortable. It would have been better to not only make these buttons (the main four face ones) bigger, but also giving them a softer click when pressed.

Thankfully, the rest of the controller is a complete joy to use with no more such mishaps; a quick pull on the T-Trigger, a move using the Nav Con’s analogue stick, or a push of the Move button is quite satisfying, reiterating the high build quality of both devices.

Perhaps the only real downside is that the Nav Con is lacking any kind of motion tracking at all in its innards, making its use somewhat limited compared to the Wii’s Nunchunk. Instead, games that may well work best with two motion controllers require the user to have two Move’s, thus limiting the experience in other areas as the Move doesn’t feature either a d-pad or an analogue stick.

Another, is that the PS Eye is maybe a little too basic in its spec for advanced full body tracking without lag, and that its relatively low resolution display (640 x 480) sometimes makes tracking the LED sphere on the Move difficult in brightly lit areas. I personally found the bright morning sun shining through a window behind me, to the side, mildly affecting its overall performance.

The onscreen image produced from the camera is also very grainy. It’s not so bad in daytime conditions, but in low light situations clarity is replaced with plenty of grain and some digital noise. Having the camera’s lower resolution feed upscaled to match the output resolution of the software using it doesn’t help much either, and the difference in sharpness between the two images (game and camera feed) only provide a disconnect from the experience. Having a HD camera would have been far more beneficial, giving not only better image quality, but also more accurate bright light and body tracking as well.

Saying that, outside of these issues there’s very little, if anything to complain about, and Sony have clearly produced something that is as functional as it is stylish. The accuracy and lack of any heavy latency in accomplished games is obviously the Move’s main talking point, secondary to it treading old ground where early ideas are concerned.

However, all this is in vein if the software doesn’t accurately represent what the tech is actually capable of, and this is one area where the Move is distinctly let down. Out of the Move specific launch titles there is only maybe one of two games worthy of your attention, with some of the best ones being PSN-based download titles.

For this reason alone, I decided not to purchase any games off-hand for review purposes, instead opting to playtest the various demos available via both the Starter Disc that comes packaged with the Move and the PS Eye, and from the PSN.

Sports Champions is clearly the main draw out of all the games and demos available. It is the game which really showcases the Move’s potential over and above that of both the Wii and Microsoft’s forthcoming Kinect. On the Starter Disc two separate games from this title are available for demonstration: Table Tennis, and Disc Golf. Both are incredibly accurate in terms of the way they play, the kind of 1:1 tracking expected, and with regards to their extremely low latency.

In Table Tennis pretty much all of my movements were accurately mapped using the Move, from the angle of my shots, to the speed in which I was moving. The amount of lag that was detectable was minuscule, practically absent, and better than most normal games in framerate dropping situations. To word it better: it WAS like using your arm as an instant controller. The only downside with the demo, is that it had some kind of assist function activated so that hitting the ball was made easier, though its reactions weren’t always as realistic as they could be. Apparently this doesn’t happen in the higher difficulty modes (demo is on easy) as no assist takes place.

Disc Golf was also very accurate and responsive. I could make both drastic and subtle changes to how I wanted to throw the disc by naturally throwing it differently each time, and the Move would pick up on this. The delay was slightly higher than in Table Tennis, with you needing to let go of the T-Trigger just a tad earlier to get the desired effect. Even then adjusting to this took only moments, and the result was still far in advance of anything comparable on the Wii.

Tiger Woods was a huge let down. Although the quality of the actual motion tracking seemed pretty good, there was still a noticeable amount of lag going on – not as much as say Motion Plus Tiger on the Wii, but still more than expected.

Thankfully putting fared much better than on the Wii title. Unlike with Motion Plus Tiger 10, the delay in my movements to the actions on screens was relatively small, and I could see my character’s club moving almost as the Move controller was. On the Wii I had to swing harder than I needed to for the game to respond to my movements, but not so here with the PS3 Move version. This meant that I could accurately gauge both my position and power of my shots quite easily in comparison.

Sadly, the controls are let down by having to hold down one of the face buttons in order to put spin on the ball, and that you need to use a Dual Shock in order to start the game and navigate the menus.

Start The Party was pretty much an enhanced Eye Toy affair, with the player using a virtual fly swatter to hit various insects that appeared on the screen. Video feed of the player is projected on screen, along with the image of the swatter you are holding in place of the Move itself. Control was really poor, lag was instantly apparent, and on many occasions it felt like the game wasn’t registering all of my hits. It was also difficult for me to determine distance in a 3D space on screen when 3D graphics are laid over a video feed, leading to missed shots and bouts of frustration. Despite the novelty of seeing you hold a virtual racket on screen, Eye Toy Play’s Kung Fu was a far better game.

EyePet: Move Edition seemed a little pointless. Although it uses the Move quite well, it’s also made redundant by the fact that the game is far more fun by simply using your hands to interact with your creature. Having Move support didn’t add anything to the overall experience, not when you can already touch and play with your virtual pal without it. The new stuff is a nice diversion for a short gaming (if you can call it that) session or so , but that’s about it.

Interestingly, my favourite game out of the bunch of demos that I played, was the PSN game, Tumble. The concept is very simple: the idea is that you have a certain number of blocks that you have to stack up onscreen, each having different properties such as size, shape and weight. The starting block at the bottom has to be touching the pressure pad on the floor, and you can only build on top of this. Obsticales are also presented to the player, such as avoiding moving objects, and another challenge sees you blowing up an existing tower seeing how far away you can blast the blocks.

The control seemed to me to be pretty accurate, although the cursor speed didn’t react quite as fast a my movements. This can be remedied by upping the Move’s sensitivity in the XMB menu however, so not really an issue. You can turn and flip blocks using a quick flick of the Move in any of the four main directions (left, right, up and down), and navigate the onscreen pointer around the on screen environment by literally Moving the Move controller around the room. The best part however, was both the simplicity and fun of the whole concept; the demo had me glued for about an hour repeatedly trying out new things. It’s hardly revolutionary, but lots of fun.

Other than the Move specific game demos found on the Starter Disc and PSN, there are a few other titles with added Move functionality worth considering. Ruse looks especially suited to the device, and the new Move controls in Heavy Rain are quite well thought out, definitely bringing the player even closer to the game than before. There’s also Resident Evil 5 Gold Edition, which has Move support enabled in the latest download patch, although its implementation leaves a lot to be desired. But more on that in another report if I get the time.

Overall, the range of software for the Move is decidedly a mixed bag of sorts. On one hand, you’ve got the likes of Sports Champions clearly showcasing just what Sony’s motion controller can do, Ruse and Heavy Rain showing genuine improvements over the standard DS3 controller. On the other, there’s shovelware type rubbish as seen with Start The Party, and missed opportunities with the latest Tiger Woods, neither of which really make you feel that the Move was a worthy investment. Even the impressive Sports Champions suffers from a total lack of personality. It feels bland and completely soulless like many of the other Move-specific offerings. At least the art style doesn’t try and patronise you like say Start The Party or anything.

So software-wise the Move doesn’t quite deliver on all accounts. Despite some genuinely impressive flashes of brilliance, there’s a lot that needs serious improving. Nothing out of the current line-up of titles screams of being an essential purchase, a real reason to own the Move. Hardcore gamers are likely to enjoy downloading and trying out the various game demos that are available on PSN, especially Heavy Rain and Tumble, whilst casual gamers may well wonder just what all the fuss is about.

Going back to the hardware though, and it is apparent that Sony have absolutely succeeded in delivering something that not only works as promised, but also something manages to offer a level of precision and accuracy not found in other motion control solutions. Sure, the full body tracking capabilities of the Move + PS Eye camera may not be able to match the Kinect in this area, but the tracking of the Move itself and the upper body is easily as good, with overall accuracy being to a far higher standard with vastly lower latency.

Certainly, the experience of proper 1:1 tracking with precise depth perception is undeniably impressive, and seeing it implemented here with minimal latency – were talking about 1 to 2 frames as standard (66ms to 132ms) - is arguably Sony’s coup d'état against both Nintendo and Microsoft. But it remains to be seen if that’s really enough.

There’s no question that for a variety of experiences, from family party games, to high-end hardcore FPS’s that the Move unquestionably provides the strongest baseline to work from; you’re going to need an additional control device for some types of game to work on kinect, but not with Move. However, the issue is whether or not Sony can convince developers to spend the extra time in crafting advanced AAA Move experiences. Unlike Kinect, there doesn’t appear to be the same amount of processing overhead when using the device so I don’t see why not. But time, and consumer spending will dictate whether or not that uptake will happen.

For the time being then, PlayStation Move is definitely worth a look. The technology is clearly up to scratch, and there is a fair amount of free content to try out if the likes of Sports Champions isn’t quite your thing. It’s just a shame that some of the software fails to live up to the Move’s potential, failing to expand outside of the mii-too clone market and into something a little more polished and unique.

So, at this very moment the Move represents an impressive technological demonstration, but lacks any true must have titles to really back it up. The promise of what it was supposed to be able to do has been fulfilled. All that’s left is for more games to do the same thing.

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