Charity may begin at Home, but if you listen to certain vocal sections of the PS3 community the promise of Sony's shared virtual space is starting to sound a lot like an old collection tin with a few coins rattling around inside. Release dates shift, functions and features remain vague, and there's a persistent assumption from the conspiracy-minded that the whole enterprise may yet prove to be nothing but vapourware. Across the wild frontier of the internet, the same question rings out from doubters and wide-eyed hopefuls alike: Does PlayStation Home even exist in a workable form?
Well, yes, of course it does. For one thing, David Reeves has once again promised that you grubby lot will be able to try the open beta trial "this autumn" and your ever-loving Eurogamer can now confirm Home's existence with the cocksure certainty of first hand experience, having spent the best part of a day freely wandering around Home in its current beta state. The occasion, of course, is E3 and Sony decided to allow us lowly writers left behind in Europe, with our stale cheese sandwiches and umbrellas, to share some of the LA glitz and glamour by attending a special press event with developers from Insomniac and Sucker Punch, all inside the virtual cocoon of Home.
Things didn't quite work out that way for this humble reporter, although the fault for that lies with a flaky internet service provider and not Sony. While this means that you'll have to rely on Tom and Ellie's missives from the frontline to learn more about Resistance 2, Ratchet & Clank and Infamous, it does mean that I got to put Home through its paces under extremely testing circumstances and the result was...impressive.
The current Home client clocks in as a 200MB download, and you're prompted to download each new area the first time you visit, in chunks of around 20 to 30MB. There's then a short loading time whenever you walk, or warp, from one place to another but nothing beyond a few seconds.
The first thing you do is create your avatar, choosing from a selection of preset models or tweaking your character using the thumb-sticks to align and alter the different face and body features. As everything is still in beta testing, and changing radically with each update if the latest release notes are any indication, it's hard to pin down just how flexible these tools will end up being. At the moment it's decent, but not quite as comprehensive as the character-creation elements found in, say, Tiger Woods or The Sims. Once you're happy with your virtual appearance, you can finally move into your Home away from home.
You appear in your swanky Harbour Studio, an achingly lifestyle living space made up of one large room with a balcony overlooking a Mediterranean seafront. You can tell it's been designed to death, with the sort of sweeping lines and carefully measured spaces that would make Sarah Beeny blush. Wandering out onto the balcony to admire the view, you're assailed with a symphony of relaxing sounds - waves gently crashing, seagulls crowing high above. The effect is slightly marred by the fact that these sounds instantly stop the second you step through the open patio door back into your apartment, but there's an undeniable appeal to the place.
Pressing the Start button calls up your in-game PSP, which acts as your menu hub within Home. From here you can alter your appearance or wardrobe at any time, and decorate your Home space - or spaces plural, should you invest in additional living areas. Everything is free in the Beta, so I was able to add a rustic summer house to my property portfolio as well. Larger in size than the studio apartment, with a roaring log fire and a two-tier layout, it's another impressively attractive place to hang your virtual hat.
Decorating and arranging furniture is done in a style that calls to mind a simplified Sims. Select the item you want to place from the menu - broken down into self-explanatory sub-sections like chairs, ornaments and appliances - and then simply move it into position with the left stick, rotate it with the top shoulder buttons, and plonk it down. Items have a certain amount of physics, so if you drop a lamp on a table from a great height, chances are it'll fall over. Wallpaper can be cycled through various options with a single button press. There was even a bubble machine tucked away as a special surprise in the PSP inventory.
Not available in this beta build, sadly, were the electronic gadgets and multimedia features that most people will want to play with first. No TV, no music player, no picture frames. This means I can't offer any more illumination as to how Home will integrate with the media files on your hard drive, or how you'll be able to plaster your own photo files over your cyber-walls.
The release notes for this build suggest that the current wardrobe and furniture options will be the default when Home is released, which seems rather stingy. The clothing options are generic and limited, while furniture is restricted to a couple of chairs, a sofa, a few tables and some lamps and knick-knacks. There's a slightly larger selection available from a shop in Home's Marketplace, but it's unclear if these will still be free on release, or if new residents really all be forced to decorate their luxurious living quarters with the same small handful of items. It doesn't quite match up to the aspirational atmosphere Home promotes, and if you need to start forking out micropayments just to make your place even a little bit different to everyone else, I predict loud grumbles.
Your apartment is only part of the Home experience though, so walk over to the door and you're transported to Home Square - the central area where you can mingle with strangers and access the various entertainment options. Your PSP can be used to automatically jump to a particular area, and you can also warp to the location of people on your Friends List. Certain areas can be added to a favourites list, much like bookmarking a website, making the act of getting around even easier.
As with the apartment, the Home Square is all very lovely. Twittering birdsong soundtracks your strolls, while waterfalls and fountains continue the ambient water theme. You can see other people wandering about as well - beta testers and fellow journalists in my case - and communication is varied and simple. If you have a headset, just hold down R2 and talk and anyone within earshot will hear you. If you have a USB keyboard, just type what you want to say and it appears in a speech bubble over your head. With around twenty people clustered in one spot, these speech balloons soon became a bit of a muddle, while the on-screen chat log struggled to keep up. Move to a more secluded spot, however, and it's a fine system.
If you don't have either of those options, you can use the R1 button to open up a menu of preset animations to express everything from approval to anger. It's no way to hold a conversation, but at least you'll be able to join in as a mute commentator. There's even a generous selection of dance moves, and for those who witnessed the awesome sight of the IGN UK, Official PlayStation Magazine and Eurogamer three-way formation robot dance routine, I can only apologise for any feelings of social or sexual inadequacy caused.
There are posters dotted around Home Square, any of which can be viewed in more detail by pressing X while nearby, and large video screens automatically buffer content as you enter. Soundtracks only kick in when you approach, so ambient noise won't drown out conversations, and as with the posters you can press a button to shift the view to something approaching full-screen. Of course, it's really just a fancy way of delivering advertising, but it's hard to deny there's something cool about spotting the Killzone 2 trailer from across the square, and wandering across for a closer look.
Opening onto Home Square are the Game Space, Home Theatre and Marketplace. Game Space is a curious little area, a bowling alley that also houses pool tables and a handful of arcade machine mini-games. You can bowl or shoot pool with friends, but neither is particularly compelling. During bowling, for instance, your avatars simply sit rigid on the bench and the only way you know the other player is taking their shot is because a bowling ball mysteriously flies down the lane by itself. Given the communal nature of Home, this whole area feels curiously slim. Surely, at the very least, the rudimentary arcade games could be replaced with some retro two-player fighting games?
The Home Theatre is where you'll head to watch trailers and other specific video footage. It's a multiplex cinema, with ten screens. During our visit, five were featuring trailers for flicks like Indiana Jones, Kung Fu Panda and the painfully awesome R-rated trailer for Pineapple Express, while the other five hosted E3 trailers for upcoming Sony releases. Unlike the outdoor screens, Home Theatre videos only load as you enter each auditorium. Inside each screen there's no way of moving around or chatting, you're simply presented with a static view of a cinema, and the option to zoom in closer. Even then, the trailers play very small in the middle of the screen and obviously suffer from compression artefacts. They're obviously still finding a balance between loading speed and quality - and these may even be placeholder trailers dropped in for the sake of the beta - but once again it feels like a strangely solitary way of viewing content in such a populated space.
Finally there's the Marketplace, or the Home shopping mall. At the moment there are stores selling (or rather "giving away") new clothes, new furniture and the aforementioned summer house. There are empty shop fronts, which suggests you'll be able to purchase more than just things for inside Home.
And what of the press event? It's here that my fluctuating broadband finally crapped out - thanks BT! - leaving me hanging while downloading the final file for the Events Space. Wandering around the eerily deserted space when the internet data flow finally creaked back into life, it's easy to see how Home has the potential to play host to some pretty cool events. With private rooms, each with their own video screen, and concept art decorating the walls it's easy to see how the old web-chat formula could be livened up no end. It's game developers now, but in few years we could see stars making virtual appearances to promote new movies or TV shows, or virtual conventions to run alongside things like the San Diego Comic Con.
While my aggravating internet problems proved frustrating, they also proved rather enlightening. Running a speed test, I discovered that for a long time I'd been wandering around Home at dial-up speeds. While this obviously had an impact on media elements like the video buffering, I'd still been able to wander around and converse with a large crowd of people, all moving about in real time and doing robot dances, without any lag or stuttering. Okay, so it's not exactly Call of Duty 4, but it's a good illustration of how accessible the service can be.
I'll admit, I was far from convinced about Home. I've never felt the compulsion to have a Second Life, I routinely ignore my withering Facebook and MySpace accounts and I'm quite happy to manage my online gaming friends as names on a list. But after exploring Home for the best part of a day, I'm starting to see the appeal. Sony needs to work out exactly what features like Home Theatre and Game Space are actually going to offer in the long term, and much will depend on how much customisation you get in the initial download, but I can definitely see how this service could become incredibly addictive to those with lots of online PS3 contacts. Hanging out in a personalised room, launching multiplayer games through the PSP and then coming back for some post-match banter? Home certainly won't be for everyone, but for those who value such features, it might just be indispensable.
PlayStation Home is due to launch in open beta form on PS3 this autumn.