Last week in Tokyo, Sony Computer Entertainment restarted the process of releasing information about PS3 - but with today's software demos during his GDC keynote, Phil Harrison showed the progress of PS3 development off for the first time.
When the head of SCE's Worldwide Studios bounded on stage in San Jose to greet the audience in the packed auditorium, it did seem for a while that his presentation might be a regurgitation of SCE boss Ken Kutaragi's statements from the Tokyo conference. His duties in San Jose did involve reiterating much of that material - the launch schedule (still early November), the development kit schedule (final hardware by E3) and the basic details of the PlayStation Network Platform remained resolutely unchanged.
However, being the guy in charge of Sony's videogames output gives Harrison a certain amount of clout when it comes to deciding when those games are seen in public and ensuring that his thunder is not stolen - so today saw more real-time footage of the new hardware in action being demonstrated than every previous PS3 event combined.
Some of those demonstrations were purely technical in nature; we saw a new demo from the team who created last E3's famous "rubber ducks" demo, this time showing thousands of detailed fish moving around in underwater shoals while sunlight dappled through a realistic water surface above, and a team from Cambridge-based Ninja Theory had helped to put together a demo where hundreds of soldiers were flung aside by massive explosions, demonstrating the power of the PS3's processing units when it comes to handling ragdoll physics on a massive scale.
Other demonstrations were more focused on real games. SCEE London created a stunning demo which showed an incredibly detailed and beautifully lit car being shot apart by a machinegun, with paint flaking realistically off around bullet holes, glass shattering accurately, parts like bumpers and headlamps falling off as their supports were shot away, and finally, the wheels falling off to drop the car onto its axles. This, we were told, is a model from an unannounced game; there could have been few people in the audience who didn't connect that model to the updated, and still incredibly detailed, real-time model of London's Piccadilly Circus which Harrison also showed off today, and wonder about the implications of those graphics and that physics model in a new Getaway-style title.
In a move bound to raise eyebrows, however, KillZone PS3 made no appearance during the keynote; but one of the other controversial pre-rendered treats from last year's E3, namely Evolution Studios' MotorStorm, did. Incredibly detailed vehicles and lots of mud were the order of the day in a demo which showed off how vehicles dig deep gouges in the soft mud as they race around, which then harden to form suspension-busting ruts in the surface - while the mud churned up by wheels deposits itself all over the racetrack and the other racers. Running entirely in real-time, the demo stuttered in a few places and the mud kicked up by tyres looked a little unrealistic, but the whole thing was nonetheless hugely impressive from a technical standpoint.
Another title that impressed was WarHawk, an aerial shoot-'em-up which saw massive squadrons of fighters assaulting giant capital ships against the backdrop of a sunset over an ocean. Although perhaps less instantly eye-catching than other titles on display, WarHawk demonstrated an impressive degree of polish for a game which is at least eight months away from launch, and details such as the accurate lighting of the capital ships and the realistic clouds - which vehicles can fly right through - certainly added to the overall effect.
Perhaps the only disappointment of the demos was Insomniac's first-person shooter, Resistance: Fall of Man, which was formerly known as I-8. Although graphically it impressed, the game world seemed largely non-interactive and the gameplay uninspired - although we did like the look of a weapon which explodes in mid-air and showers the surrounding area with foot-long spears. However, Insomniac Games boss Ted Price did point out that the team has only started using the SPU elements of the Cell processor in recent weeks, so much may change before launch - and the firm more than redeemed itself with a short, non-interactive clip of an astonishingly detailed futuristic cityscape, with colourful flying cars weaving their way around huge Baroque skyscrapers, which appeared to be an early look at the next title in the Ratchet and Clank series.
Last, but by no means least, Harrison showed off one title which despite having little going for it graphically, is unquestionably one of the most next-generation game concepts we've seen yet for the PS3. The SingStar concept needs no introduction for users in Europe, but Harrison did need to explain what exactly it is and how much of a success its been for the US audience, before going on to show the evolution of the game from being a "product" to being a "service". In a brief video reel, we saw a new SingStar where users can customise their interface, save pictures and videos of their performances and share them with friends - and perhaps most importantly, download new songs for the game directly over the network.
Although the number of demos Harrison had to show was relatively small, it demonstrated good progress for PS3 software development so far. At least some studios are clearly getting to grips with the power of the system already, and several developers hailed the power of the Cell's SPUs in terms of allowing them to do more impressive physics calculations and so on, and others - like the creators of SingStar at SCEE - are clearly thinking outside the software box in terms of what can be done with the additional functions of the new hardware.
It all sets the stage perfectly for E3, where Sony is promising to have plenty of PS3 games on the show floor in playable form. With the second wave of Microsoft's Xbox 360 roster and the first playable Revolution titles likely to be competing for attention, Sony knows it has to impress right from the outset - and while some of today's demos were a little rough around the edges, with framerates suffering occasionally and even the odd graphics or lighting glitch, it looks like the market leader is preparing to rise to that challenge. One thing we can be absolutely certain of is a heated battle in Los Angeles this May.
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