Hands on with PlayStation Home PS3 preview

We go hands-on with the beta test of the PS3's big hope, PlayStation Home...

PlayStation Home

Home is one of the great white hopes of the PlayStation 3. Announced with a huge amount of furore and hype, the prospect of a Second Life-style virtual world – only one that actually works and has the full support of Sony – has kept gamers both rapt and annoyed in equal measure.

For every new feature that emerges to excite fans, there seems to be a delay or a broken promise. Beta testing has now begun, though – with an open beta scheduled, allegedly, for the end of the year – so the time for hyperbole will soon be over. It’s time to see if there really is no place like Home – for better or worse.

First impressions are a mixture of elation and confusion. You’ll begin by designing a character, and the models deserve praise – they do look reasonably real, albeit with the Uncanny Valley, game-like sheen that was last seen in Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. While they look good, the confusion comes with customisation – as this is an early beta, there’s hardly anything to choose from. A handful of clothing choices, a couple of moustaches, two pairs of glasses.

We can take comfort from knowing that there’ll surely be more objects added as Home nears release. Commendably, almost every part of your body and face can be customised – much like Oblivion; tiny nuances can be tweaked, from the height of your eyebrows to the width of your lips. It’s reasonably easy to make a decent facsimile of yourself – or anyone else, if you’d rather.

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Having made your character, you’re dumped into a bland, almost empty apartment. Much has been made of the ability to customise your own Home and, in time, we’re sure that this will be one of the most personal and enriching aspects of the experience. For now, though, there’s little more than basic furniture and a balcony overlooking a gorgeous-looking harbour, full of expensive-looking boats that we hope you’ll be able to buy and take for a spin.

There’s little to see in your flat, so it’s worth leaving as soon as possible. The world map is divided into ‘stacks’ with several locations listed in each. At the moment, only one is available, and it contains Home Square. Choose a new location and you’ll have to download it, but once you’ve unlocked Home Square you can let more places download in the background, so it doesn’t disrupt your playing.

Home Square is, generally, a sedate and relaxing place to be. As the name suggests, it’s a square surrounding some water features and plants, and in the middle is a small group of tables. These contain games – chess, draughts and a few more – that you can play easily enough. Simply sit down and it’s more than likely someone will join you for a match. There’s no way, at the moment, to filter who plays, so you could end up with either Kasparov or Jade Goody, but it’s an interesting, and relaxing, diversion.

There are three other buildings in Home Square. The first is a movie theatre that’s merely used to watch trailers and publicise PlayStation. The Bowling Alley is a bit more exciting; as well as being able to, well, bowl, two small rooms house several arcade games, including the PlayStation Network’s Escher-like Echochrome, and several pool tables that you can rack up and have a game on.

The third building is a shopping mall. There are more chess tables inside, as well as billboards showing videos of the latest PlayStation releases, but none of the shops have any stock. Crucially, they do promise plenty; there’s a clothing store for character customisation and a shop to buy both gadgety toys and furniture and homewares.

So, at the moment, there isn’t much to PlayStation Home. An empty shopping mall, bland apartment and nothing to do aside from play chess, have a game of pool or go bowling.

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Ignore that, though. They’re merely symptoms of a beta test’s early days. PlayStation Home has a huge amount of potential. Communication, as well as controlling your character in general, is easy: hold the R1 button and there’s a list of common actions ranging from waving and bowing to body-popping and disco dancing as well as a selection of pre-fab comments that cover many common phrases. A USB keyboard will make everything far easier, as would a microphone or headset.

There’s potential elsewhere, too. Shopping sounds dull to a fair portion of the male population, but building houses was always the guilty pleasure of The Sims. Here, customising your character and your apartment should be fun and incredibly personal. The already-enjoyable chess, bowling and pool also hint at the future and the many fun and absorbing diversions that Sony could cram into Home’s expanding world, and the numerous tie-ins with some of Sony’s key franchises could enhance the much-touted PlayStation Experience in numerous ways.

At the moment, it’s all a bit sterile; the characters look similar, your apartment is empty, and there aren’t any new areas to explore. By the time the open beta emerges, Home should be a far more rewarding experience, and it could be even better by the time the full release sees the light of day, sometime in 2009. It may be a bit empty right now, but it’s hard to deny that PlayStation Home is a friendly, relaxing and welcoming place to be. If Sony plays its cards right with Home, there really could be no place like it.