PS3 launches in Europe

And Sony hands out free TVs.

Let's be honest: it was hard to know what to expect from the UK launch of PlayStation 3. It's been a hard road for Sony - why, it was only last week that the police were raining on their planned midnight parade, worried about those pesky muggers seeing PS3 launch events as an ideal opportunity to further their careers.

HMV and GAME went for early morning 'breakfast launches' instead, inviting gamers to swap their usual fried eggs and bacon butties for, well, a copy of Virtua Tennis 3 and bacon butties.

But Virgin Megastore, Sony's official retail partner, was determined to stick with the midnight timing - even if that meant turning their Oxford Street branch into a sort of mini Glastonbury. With better toilets and a lot more DVDs.

As it turned out, only a handful of people actually took the opportunity to sleep over in the shop. And if you were one of those who walked into the shop at 11pm last night, you might well have thought that Sony and Virgin had gotten it wrong. There were just over 100 people in the queue - a far cry from the long line which snaked around the block at last December's Wii launch.

But there are different circumstances at work here. To begin with, there's the high price point for PlayStation 3 - more than double that of the Wii (unless you're buying it on eBay, possibly).

Then there's the issue of stock. At launch it was clear that the Wii was in high demand and short supply, while Sony promised 1 million PS3 units for Europe on day one in a bid to ensure the less organised or still unsure would be able to pick up a console without pre-ordering.

And, of course, there's the console itself. Nintendo banged on about the fact that the Wii was designed to be a games machine, pure and simple. Sony has been waffling about PS3 as an all-round entertainment device, offering not just good games and a motion-sensing controller but a Blu-ray player, high definition visuals, a unique online service, multimedia functionality and, when combined with PSP, the option to have a wing mirror in a racing game.

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Happy campers.

The fact is, PlayStation 3 is a machine that's unique in terms of price point, stock supplies and capabilities, all of which have reached levels never seen before. That's not just compared to Wii, but also Xbox 360, PlayStation 2 and even PlayStation 1. So perhaps it should come as no surprise that the launch of PlayStation 3 was also unique, in more ways than one.

It's true to say that Virgin Megastore felt strangely empty when you first walked in last night. It's a huge store, and despite the 100-strong queue and entertainment in the form of large screen TVs, a DJ and "B-boys", there was a definite sense of space. But there was no denying it - at least not after you'd been there for half an hour or so - you could also sense the excitement.

No, there weren't any groups of teenagers chanting the platform holder's name. No, there weren't any celebrities expressing their newfound love for gaming. And no, there weren't queues around the block. But there were gamers who had waited a long time for the arrival of PS3 - not necessarily for 36 hours inside the shop, but for months after the console hit the US and Japan.

Sony played the hour before midnight carefully, with a little something to keep the crowd going at regular intervals. First, a laminate number was picked at random, and the owner was told he'd be getting his PlayStation 3 for free. Later, it was confirmed that the first 150 people to buy a console would also get a free copy of Resistance: Fall of Man. But it wasn't until that 11.40pm Sony UK boss Ray Maguire came forward to address the crowd, and Sony brought out the really big guns.

Standing in front of a large flatscreen television, Maguire said, "This is a 46-inch Bravia W series. It's an award-winning flat panel. And do you know what the good news is guys? I'm going to give you one free."

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Ritatsu Thomas, 17, gets a guard of honour. And more guards. And a Hummer-ride home.

The immediate response from the crowd was a mixture of cheers and confusion - a sort of collective, "Whooo... Ooo... Er, What?" But yes, Maguire said, Sony was giving away 125 top-of-the-range televisions worth around GBP 2000 each, adding, "Every single one of you in this queue is going to get one." Then came the proper cheers, followed by big old whoops and applause. This wasn't a free game, a free controller, a free HDMI cable; this was a real reward for sticking with Sony. Worth two thousand pounds.

The buzz continued to grow as the news sunk in further and midnight drew nearer. By 11.55pm the crowd was in position by the tills, while a large group of photographers competed for the best spot (Pat had the biggest camera though, obviously). Then came the ten-second countdown, more inevitable cheers, and the moment when Europe's next-gen console battle officially began. And 125 people decided they might get Sky HD after all.

The first person in the queue was 17 year-old Ritatsu Thomas, who arrived at the store at 5am on Wednesday. He said he'd only had around five hours sleep the previous night, and was tired of answering questions from the media for nearly two days. So was it worth the wait?

"It's been a very strange experience but there have been a lot of highlights, like being interviewed by the BBC, and making new friends... So it's been a good experience." Not all good, though: "I don't know if I'd do this again if it wasn't outside. Because inside the shop, it's a hot spot for the press to harass me with constant questions."

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