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First living room impressions: PlayStation Move

2:01 AM on 09.01.2010 // Nick Chester

When Sony announced that it would be releasing a motion controller for the PlayStation 3, no one was shocked. The success of the Wii had virtually guaranteed that Nintendo's competitors would start scrambling to enter the motion-controlled space in due time.

Sony had been internally working with motion controls for quite some time (even releasing titles that, paired with the EyeToy, contained rudimentary functionality), but it wasn't until the Game Developers Conference earlier this year that it gave it a name: PlayStation Move. Following the reveal, Sony ushered attending press and developers into a massive room to get their hands on early software.

My first impressions? Underwhelming. The controller's performance was somewhat iffy, likely skewed a bit by poor lighting and 50-plus Bluetooth controllers all vying for air time. And the software? I already had a Wii, thanks. Yes, I was that guy.

But after spending some time with the controller and a batch of software in the comfort of my own living room for the past week or so, my tune has changed. Simply put, I'm impressed by what Sony has to offer; it may have a winner on its hand with PlayStation Move.

Warning! Warning! Warning!

Get used to this image -- it's the screen you'll see immediately upon booting up any game that utilizes PlayStation Move. Remember, knocking over a lamp and then smacking a dude in the face is bad.

Setting up the controllers

As I had only been handed Move controllers already set up for demonstration purposes, I was particularly curious to find out what the setup process would be like in my home. As it turns out, it’s an absolute breeze.

It’s a three-step affair to get your controllers paired with the console, and you’re probably already familiar with it -- you simply connect the device to the PS3 console using a USB cable, and then press the “PS” button on the controller. The device is instantly paired with the system (by default, the first Move controller you connect is “Controller 7”), and then you’re free to remove the cable.

Because Move requires the use of a PlayStation Eye camera, you’ll want to plug that in if you haven’t already. It plugs right into a USB port on the PlayStation 3; you’d have to be dense to not be able to figure this out. Of course, there’s an odd little issue I have here, and it’s that all of the PS3’s USB ports are located on the front of the console. This means you’ll have to wrap the wire around to the front, leaving an unsightly cord always visible. Given that the slim PS3 was introduced last year (likely well after Sony’s internal R&D had finalized how Move would ultimately work), it’s mind-boggling that there isn’t a single USB port on the back of the console. A bit nit-picky? For sure, but considering how stylish Sony’s products tend to be, it’s likely most gamers will want to keep these cords hidden.

Once the controllers are linked to the console and the PS Eye camera is connected, you’re ready to start playing games and navigating the XrossMediaBar. The latter is actually surprisingly intuitive, and one of the “features” of Move I surprised myself by liking so much. To navigate menus, you simply pull and hold the T button (the trigger on the underside of the wand), and slightly move your wrist side to side or up and down. On paper, it doesn’t sound noteworthy, but it actually feels really great to use; I'm finding that I prefer this style of navigation over using an analog stick. You'll find that many games utilize this style of navigation for menus, too.

The calibration dance

Most software that supports Move will recognize your controller setup, and won’t let you proceed if the game requires the motion controller or the camera and they aren’t detected. You will have to calibrate the controller, and the oddest thing is that how you do this is slightly different for every game. Most titles begin by having you point the bulb on the Move controller directly at the PS Eye while holding down the “Move” button (it’s a squiggly line you’ll become familiar with in time) on the face of the controller. The bulb cycles through colors before settling on one and completing the calibration.

But beyond this, many games require other types of calibration, or handle this setup differently. Sports Champions (Sony’s flagship answer to Wii Sports that you can purchase bundled with a Move controller) is of note. Before playing any of the games (and each and every time you begin one), you'll have to hold the controller in three places -- at your side, at your shoulder, and near where a belt buckle would sit -- and then press the Move button. The first time I had to do this, I let out a sigh of exasperation. Was I really expected to do this every single time? The answer, I found, was yes. But after a few games, it became second nature; I’ve mastered the "Sports Champions Calibration Dance," and you will, too. It should be noted that my mastery of the skill may only come in handy with Sports Champions -- that's the only game I played that required this.

While it’s not a major concern, I do hope that how the controller is calibrated becomes standardized. Some games ask you to point at the Eye and hold the Move button; others ask you to pull the T trigger. Others, like Sports Champions, wanted me to hold both at once. Another even wanted me to press and hold select, which sits on the side of the controller. The issue isn’t so much that it’s difficult to do any of these things (admittedly, getting to that select button was a bit tricky); it’s that I found myself second-guessing what I was supposed to be doing each time. Just when I got comfortable pressing the Move button to calibrate, I was asked to pull the trigger. Fortunately, it’s likely that as more and more software is designed, developers will settle on a standard.

How do the controllers feel?

No sense in pretending otherwise -- it’s easiest to compare to the Move and Navigation controllers to the Wii Remote and Nunchuk. It’s an easy point of reference, as most of you have some experience with Nintendo’s controller, the success of which is likely why Move exists.

It's a wand, it's a remote, it's... thing with a bulb on it

To that end, the Move controller itself is slightly longer than the Wii Remote, mostly because of that big rubbery ball that sits on top of it. But unlike the Wii Remote -- which appears to be designed to mimic the look and feel of a television remote control -- Sony has gone with what I feel is a sleeker, more elegant design. The black controller has curves; it's bigger at the top and bottom, thinner in the middle. In your hand, this actually does feel better than holding a Wii Remote; it provides a better, more comfortable grip. For a person with average-sized hands, the forefinger and the thumb will sit perfectly on the trigger and Move buttons, respectively. Considering all of the games I played mostly required only those buttons, that’s exactly where you’ll want them.

The other buttons, however, don’t fare so well. The iconic square, triangle, X, and circle buttons that surround the Move button feel a bit too small. And because they’re not placed in the classic diamond shape I’ve become accustomed to, when I did need to push them -- infrequently, mind you -- I had to look down before making my choice. With time, it’s likely I’ll become more confident in my choices, but it should be mentioned that it’s hardly an issue, as the buttons aren’t often used.

The start and select buttons on the controller are probably its biggest issue. They’re off on the sides of the device, just above the set of buttons on the controller’s face. They’re also flush with the plastic housing, which means you can’t really feel them with your thumb when trying to push them. It also requires a bit of a stretch with your finger -- holding it right-handed, it’s nearly impossible to get to the select button (on the left side of the controller) without some serious finger gymnastics (and vice versa for lefties). Fortunately, it seems most developers realized this, as most games will allow you to select menus and such using the Move and trigger buttons. Pausing games, however, can be a bit tricky...

"See you later, Navigator!"

The Navigation controller features a single analog stick, as well as a D-pad, two triggers, and two face buttons, circle and X. It’s not curved like the Wii Nunchuk, and therefore didn’t feel quite as comfortable in my hand. The lack of curvature isn’t a deal breaker; the controller still feels nice in your palm, and the buttons that count (the two triggers on the back) sit in the right places.

It has to be mentioned that not all games require you to use the Navigation controller; the bulk of the games I tested only required one Move controller to play. You also don’t need to buy one if you already have a DualShock 3, which you can hold and use in its place. The pricey $29.99 controller is, however, way easier to use and grip than holding a DualShock with a single hand. Whether that comfort is worth thirty dollars to you will become clear after you try to play few hours of Heavy Rain (which is being updated for Move support) with a DualShock in one hand.

OMG! Is it better than the Wii!?!?

This is the big question for many gamers: how does it compare to the Wii’s motion controls? Because, let’s face it, the Move plus a Navigation controller looks a hell of a like the Remote and Nunchuk configuration. But is it “better”? The answer to that comes down to two things -- the technology and the software.

It works, it works well, and it does some fancy tricks

The first -- the technology -- is easy to answer. Without question, Sony’s Move is head and shoulders above what Nintendo is currently offering, including Wii MotionPlus, in terms of both functionality and accuracy. If you want the details, the Move Wikipedia entry gets down and dirty with what’s inside this thing; I won’t bother boring you with that. But here’s what you should know -- it works, and it works well.

When calibrated properly (which is a snap, as mentioned above), the one-to-one motion really works as advertised. Move can also detect slight wrist motions, including minor twists. In addition, Move can detect motion in 3D space, which means it will be able to tell how close you are to the screen. This comes in handy in games like Tumble, where you’re required to reach in (or pull out) to gently place blocks on a platform.

While most of the Move software suggests you stand anywhere between six to eight feet from the PS Eye, I found that I had no problems if I stood or sat even closer. Move also seems to work just as well with lights on or lights off, probably because of the blindingly bright (and admittedly distracting) bulb.

Pairing Move with Eye also allows for some pretty cool augmented reality scenarios. These play out particularly well in games like EyePet and the multiplayer-centric Start the Party. By sitting in front of the camera and holding the Move controller, the game will map an object onto the on-screen Move controller. Seeing yourself on television holding a sword or a paintbrush is both surreal and, embarrassingly, a bit exhilarating. What it can ultimately add to the gaming experience remains to be seem. EyePet, which has an adorably furry virtual creature prancing around on your living room's carpet, is an interesting example. Whether these kinds of experiences can be extended beyond casual games for something meatier, only time will tell.

Dems gator teeth gonna get brushed!

Some of how well Move worked came down to the software. I had few problems with games like Tumble, and even Sports Champions (across all sports) functioned as advertised. Kung Fu Rider, however, didn’t seem quite as accurate. In this quirky game, players race down a hill on an office chair (and later, other ridiculous items with wheels) by pointing the Move controller at the screen. A quick shake will give you some speed, and tilting the remote left and right will steer you. Flicking the controller up to jump seemed to be the issue; oftentimes the on-screen character would hop at the slightest upward movement, including the aforementioned shaking to get speed. In a game that required split-second accuracy, I found this to be a bit frustrating.

It's all about the games

The software question is a difficult one to answer. Sony had only provided me with about ten titles, most of which will be available at launch. They ranged from the quirky (the aforementioned Kung Fu Rider) to the expected (Sports Champions, Ubisoft’s Racquet Sports) to the novel (EyePet). I also spent a good amount of time with existing games like EA Sports’ Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11 and Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain, both of which are being patched and updated to work with Move.

Of the handful of games I played, none of them were “bad,” per se. It helped that the Move controller, in almost all instances, simply worked like you'd expect. With a few exceptions, there’s not much I’ve played so far that makes it stand apart from many of Nintendo’s third-party offerings. That is to say, there weren’t many games that took the motion controls in truly original directions. Start the Party, for instance, is a collection of typical motion-controlled party games, albeit with some neat fancy augmented-reality stuff. Tiger Woods 11 also works nicely with the updated Move support, but didn’t feel drastically different from EA’s Tiger Woods offering on the Wii that uses MotionPlus.

That’s not to say there isn’t stuff here that doesn’t show promise and potential for innovation. Sports Champions does some very cool stuff using two Move controllers, like giving you one-to-one controls of both a sword and a shield in the game’s “Gladiator” mode. And Tumble, while also being an amazingly fun single and multiplayer block-stacking game, does an amazing job of showing off how well the Move tech works when moving in a 3D space.

It should also go without saying that all of the games I played simply looked better from a technical standpoint than anything on the Wii. There’s no arguing that Sony’s console trumps Nintendo’s in the visual department, with all of the games running in crisp, sharp high definition. While for many, this high-definition visual bump won’t matter, it definitely could be an advantage for folks frustrated with the Wii’s visual fidelity (or lack thereof).

Madison attempts to teach her grandfather the "Thriller" dance

The bottom line is that it’s too early to tell what the library of games that will support Move will ultimately look like. For a launch, Sony has a solid (but not mind-blowing) lineup of games, with a number of big-name third-parties throwing support behind the controller. For those looking for “hardcore” experiences the Wii may be lacking, Move updates for Resident Evil 5 and Heavy Rain may give us a glimpse at a motion-controlled future. But topping the current Wii library -- with its massive back catalog, hefty third-party support, and high-quality first-party titles -- is a colossal summit that Sony is going to have a hell of a time climbing.

Bottom line

Out of the gate, Sony is pairing its powerhouse console with some of the most impressive motion-control technology the market has seen. It's got a decent lineup of software that ranges from casual-centric titles to impressive tech demos, along with some updates to already established games, so it should appeal to a wide audience. It's clear that Sony -- with this outstanding technology -- has the bones to be a fighter that can hold its own in the motion-control space. Whether it has the brains is mostly up to developers; whether it has the stamina is up to consumers.

PlayStation Move is hits North American retail shelves on September 19. Closer to release, we'll have a full launch guide, along with a more detailed look at the games that will be available.

Nick Chester, Former Editor-in-Chief (2011)
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