In retrospect, the rollout told us everything we needed to know.
In last year’s lead-up to the release of the PlayStation 3, Sony unexpectedly announced, with typically troublesome arrogance, that their new console’s SixAxis controller would feature motion-sensor capability, just like Nintendo’s wacky Wiimote. Vistas opened, the angels sang … and gamers yawned suspiciously.
But while the Nintendo’s magic motion-sensing wand has already been deployed to do everything under the gaming sun, from shooting arrows in Zelda: Legend of Twilight Princess to blasting aliens in Metroid Prime 3: Corruption and picking nose hairs in WarioWare, the SixAxis controller has remained an optional attraction, sorta like the skeezy reptile house on the carnival midway, something you could look into if you had nothing better to do with your dollars — or in this case, your opposable thumbs.
That changed earlier this month with the release of Lair, the first PS3 game to actually force the motion-sensor issue. Instead of using the analog sticks to control ginormous dragons as they sailed across the skies, you’d be tilting the SixAxis to soar and dive, bank, and 180.
In theory — and accompanied by beautiful screenshots of scaled beasties throwing down in the skies — it all sounded so innovative, so capital-A awesome. In practice, you’re more likely to hurl your controller aside in disgust than tilt it. Oh, flying in open air works fine, to be sure, but every basic airborne task, from fire-bombing enemy catapults to clawing multi-headed boss monsters, feels like you’re controlling a Wright Brothers biplane instead of a sentient killing machine. Thus does one of the PS3’s potential A-list games become a forgettable pile of steaming dragon doo, and thus does the SixAxis take another credibility hit.
Fast-forward a week to Heavenly Sword (yet another would-be contender for the elusive title of PS3 system-seller) and things are looking a little brighter. In addition to a bunch of combat moves copped straight from God of War‘s Kratos, Nariko — the game’s red-tressed, ass-kicking heroine — has something her ghost-skinned compatriot doesn’t: Aftertouch. Throughout the game’s all-too-brief epic journey, it’s possible to use the SixAxis to guide the trajectory of objects after Nariko has tossed them or blasted them from a cannon. This takes what would be an otherwise routine activity — throwing objects at attacking enemies — and turns it into a hilarious and strategic activity. The thrill of curveballing a corpse into a crowd of attacking warriors zings like nailing a 7-10 split at the smoke-filled local lanes, and frankly, it’s the most fun I’ve had using an inanimate object in a game since giving zombies a soccer-ball facial in Dead Rising and messing with the gravity gun in Half-Life 2.
So one developer gets it, and one totally misses the mark. You could argue that this sort of SixAxis sense is really no more momentous than noting that Doug Liman knows how to gracefully incorporate a car chase into an action-thriller while Brett Ratner, well, doesn’t, right? The difference is that car chases don’t make or break movies, while the PlayStation 3, still lacking a gotta-have-it game nearly a full year into its existence, can honestly use all the help it can get, even if that help has to come from its much-maligned controller. Heavenly Sword proves that there’s potential there, if more developers can find ways to make use of it. It’s tough to say if any of the remaining games of 2007 can make us care about the sad SixAxis the way we’ve effortlessly embraced the Wiimote (EA’s Skate, perhaps?) If not, it won’t be the controller shaking, but the Sony execs who’ll be cursing their botched opportunity.