Sony's a lot like your old Aunt Bessie. You love her, you respect her, but you know that whenever you see her she's going to talk about the same exact thing she always talks about. In Sony's case, it's not bunions and hip operations - it's market share and power. Year after year, the company leads the pack in just about every category there is: hardware and software sales, biggest-selling titles, software-to-console ratios, installed base, demographics, etc. The PlayStation 2 makes publishers money and makes the majority of gamers happy.
So every year, the gaming press files into the E3 briefing, fondles their PlayStation pens, sets their PlayStation folders in their laps, and looks on expectantly as the figures fly. This year, Sony Computer Entertainment America president and CEO Kaz Hirai started the event with talk of ten-year lifecycles and wrapped it up with some very dry technical information on the Cell chip set and the super-advanced digital content creation environment being jointly develped for it by Sony, IBM, and Toshiba.
Of course, there were games presented and the PSP was formally introduced, but the bar graphs and bullet points defined the show, as always. By the time you left, you felt like you were at the flashiest stockholders' meeting ever. When Hirai announced that the company would be making money on it's online operations this year after all, you might have even breathed a sigh of relief before you realized, "Hey, they're bragging about making my money!"
Head of the class
And make money Sony will. At the center of the storm, at least as far as gamers are concerned, is the PlayStation 2. Launched in North America on October 26, 2000, the console has been an incredible success, moving 25 million hardware units here and over 70 million worldwide. The PS2 owns 60% of the current-gen console pie in hardware and sits comfortably at the forefront of a burgeoning market that has been pulling in more money than the Hollywood box office for several years now and is poised to explode all over again. On the software side, the PS2's projected 750 million total software shipments worldwide by the end of 2004 include plenty of multimillion sellers, with Gran Turismo 3 and Grand Theft Auto 3 each at about 6 million sold in North America alone.
And Sony estimates that 64% of its software sales are still to come.
While initially not as aggressive as Microsoft in the online gaming arena, Sony has never had to play catch-up. Between the hardware bundles and the sale of individual units, 3 million network adaptors have been sold in North America since that peripheral's late-August 2002 release. That means about 10% of the PS2's installed base is online enabled. The two most successful online games in terms of simultaneous users, SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs and SOCOM II have seen tremendous business. The former has sold about 2.5 million copies and the latter once drew 36,285 simultaneous users during peak hours. 25% of Year 2004 games (100 titles) will have an online component.
Certainly, the PS2's past and present accomplishments are nothing to sniff at, but what's coming up on the horizon?
Gran Turismo 4 (November 2004): With the series selling 35 million copies so far, Gran Turismo 4 is potentially one of the best-selling titles this holiday season and into next year. But though the name alone would doubtless move hundreds of thousands of units, Sony and Polyphony Digital are working overtime to make the game a must-have in its own right. Sure, the usual numbers are being pumped up: this installment boasts 500 fully customizable vehicles on about 100 hyper-realistic courses. But there is much more to it than adding car models and tracks.
This time around, up to six players can compete online. And the all-new physics and all-new A.I. promise an even greater level of realism. Then there are things like the Photo Mode, which allows you to take pictures of your vehicle in different environments for on-screen slide shows and even printing. All in all, the game continues the series' tradition of appealing to car nuts everywhere - and selling like nobody's business.
God of War (Q1 2005):: Play as Kratos, a Spartan warrior possessed by the god Ares, and not too happy about it. In fact, he's on a quest to find Pandora's Box and use it to kill the god of war.
If you've seen 2002's Rygar: The Legendary Adventure, the Ancient Greek setting and extendable weaponry might strike a familiar chord. God of War takes those dynamics and adds its own brand of puzzles, traps, and intense combo-heavy and context-sensitive combat with dual blade weapons attached to chains. The combat is frenetic at times, utilizing short- and long-range attacks and mythology-based magic system, including the use of Medusa's head and Zeus' lightning bolts. There are multiple ways to interact with the environment and lots of plot twists to keep you interested on the way to one or more of the game's multiple endings.
Download the God of War trailer (MPEG, 568x432, 1:05, 11MB)
The Getaway: Black Monday (Q4 2004): You should be hearing a lot about this Team Soho sequel - Sony promises to back it with an aggressive marketing campaign. The high level of detail in both graphics and story return from the original, and this time around there are three playable characters available to explore the seedy side of London: a police officer, a thief, and a boxer with a double life. The game plays out over 25 square miles of London and even ventures into the subway as the three main storylines intertwine and gradually reveal the big picture.
The original was ambitious, but didn't set the world on fire. Still, fans of cinematic games and British crime movies might find just what they're looking for. The setting and the performances are impressively detailed and additions like the ability to ride motorcycles take the gameplay up a notch.
Killzone (November 2004):: This squad-based first-person shooter is designed by Guerilla (formerly Lost Boys Games) and set in a bleak future where an Earth colony is dangerously close to falling to a heavily armed bunch of troublemakers. The focus here is on intensity: soldiers pinned down in trenches, cities under siege, and attack from all angles by ruthless and adaptable enemies. "Memorable moments" (scripted events) will punctuate the action throughout the game, test your skills, and jack up the "wow" factor. There are four squad members from which to choose in this online title, and, of course, each has his special abilities and personality, from stealth warrior to human tank.
EyeToy: AntiGrav (October 2004): Harmonix, developer of the music-based games Frequency and Amplitude, is bringing a unique hoverboarding game to the PS2's EyeToy peripheral. In EyeToy: AntiGrav, the player twists and turns in front of the camera to pull off moves and avoid obstacles. Special armbands used with EyeToy's color recognition technology help translate your movements into incredible tricks in the game's SSX-meets-the-future world. Though only one person can play at a time, there is a ghost feature (you compete against another player's best performance by racing alongside his ghost image).
Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (November 2004):Though some of the magic seemed to die for many players who reached the end of Snake Eater's immediate predecessor, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, there's little reason to believe the public will do anything but gobble this release up its opening month. The booths were packed at E3, the movies are hot downloads all over the Net, and everything looks to be in order for another Konami blockbuster. It helps that grit and gore seem to win the day over goofiness this time.
This latest episode emphasizes camouflage, survival tactics, close-quarter combat, and slow, silent stealth. At least part of the game is set out in the jungle in the 1960's. Some of the challenge will be making sure Snake's camouflage fits the background and he hunts down enough chow (flayed tree viper, anyone?), but there will be plenty of opportunities to pick off foes with both handheld and emplaced weaponry.
Final Fantasy XII (Q1 2005): XII is set in the world of Final Fantasy Tactics and reveals touches of Vagrant Story, but that's no surprise, since Yasumi Matsuno directed all three. The venerated series is taking a more action-oriented turn, scrapping the random battles but refining almost everything else.
The story follows Vaan, a sky pirate diamond-in-the-rough (yes, I said "Vaan," not "Vyse") in his battles against the Archadians (. . . um . . .). The three members of Vaan's party usable at one time are issued orders independently, so you can have the characters good with ranged attacks hang back and do damage from afar or you can have everyone close in quickly and snuff out the enemy. The geography of the battlefield plays a role in how effective the attacks are, adding to the strategy. You can micromanage the battle, pausing the action and changing orders among the three party members or you can assign "gambits" to one or two of the party members. Gambits, which you can buy or find as the game progresses, dictate the way the character approaches the battle, the strategies she favors.
Of course, it could hardly be called a Final Fantasy game without 100+ hours of gameplay, a sweeping cinematic approach, and magic galore. More of the same, but quite different.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (October 2004): How does a new Grand Theft Auto strike you? What if we were to tell you that it was set in a world inspired by Los Angeles and Las Vegas in the 1990's? What if we told you that the game world will be four or five times the size of its predecessors, with about 16,000 unique objects and buildings and the option to run a casino? Hey, no one really needs a full-time job or a full class load, right?
The protagonist this time is Carl Johnson, who comes back to his old inner city neighborhood after his mother is brutally murdered. He gets sucked in to the life of crime he thought he escaped, thanks in part to a pair of crooked cops who frame him for murder. Now he has to avoid the police - whose helicopter blades can be used to stop your car or chop you up - and ruthless gangs.
As intense as the story can get, the technical achievements of the game demand attention in their own right. Carl can change hairstyles, get fat, form relationships, ride a bike, and swim out of a partially submerged car. Each of these affects the gameplay: get fatter and you punch harder but run more slowly; get a fool haircut and you won't be taken seriously.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas will look much better and play more realistically than you might ever have thought possible. Better get in all the overtime you can now.