It’s been called everything from a badly done Sims clone to an interactive mess but does the often overlooked PlayStation Home service really deserve such criticism? Should it really be compared to Xbox Live? Pushing the complaints to one side I sat down to spend an evening exploring Home and what I found wasn’t what I expected.
My initial reaction was one of surprise. From what I had read before, Home had often been described as a lacklustre space filled with old men (dressed as women) trading insults and awkwardly animated sexual gestures before braking out in embarrassing dances. Not exactly the welcoming reputation for Sony to entice new users but while it does have more ladyboys than a Bangkok brothel (just ask for Melissa) I found a lot to like buried beneath the surface. First up was the creation of your avatar that would represent you in this universe and with it came a disturbing amount of detailed options to make it as realistic as you wanted it to be. I spent a good few minutes fine tuning my beer belly and removing my hair (eerie how much of a resemblance it is) before slipping on a simple set of clothes (more on that later) and stepping out into Home Square, one of the main hubs or “spaces” of Home. Hello World! Where is my free stuff?
This is where it all happens ladies, gentlemen and freakish mutants. Looking around Home Square I noticed advertisements (both videos and posters) for new releases on the PlayStation Network, a few mini-games ranging from the traditional chess to some new shooter and entrances to a theatre, bowling alley and shopping mall. It all looked fantastic and like a fat child in a sweet shop I didn’t know where to go next but with my personal navigator (essentially a navigation menu) I had a look on what other spaces were out there. I should point out that each space requires downloading if you haven’t visited there before but file sizes are relatively small so unless you’re tight on storage or bandwidth I doubt it would cause a problem.
So what were the options? From what I saw a lot of gamers/publishers/developers all had their own themed spaces that offered mini-games, advertisements, personal items and sometimes special events. There was a zombie ravaged apartment from Dead Nation (complete with zombie shooting mini-game and zombie statues to win), a war torn diner from Resistance 3, a space station from Ratchet and Clank, the famous Mos Eisley cantina from Star Wars, the colourful Loco Island and Irem’s most beautiful Japanese festival amongst many others. Some are time limited (the Tokyo Game Show space for example) but special mention has to go to Little Big Planet with its wallpaper creator and photo hunt mini-game and the often forgotten Forbidden Siren space set in an abandoned hospital complete with survival horror mini-game. One was bright and cheerful, the other was dark and eerie, both were excellent (and free) fun.
One other place worth mentioning is your apartment (or apartments if you wish) which is your personal space to decorate and mess up as you see fit. Featuring options that will help you to add, remove and rearrange furniture, you can fill it with all those items picked up from other spaces and if that still isn’t enough for all you Laurence Llewelyn Bowen types then a visit to the plethora of shops will have you coming back with the likes of Wampa skin rugs, arcade cabinets and poker tables to invite your friends over to play at. In fact socialising is a huge aspect of Home which is often overlooked and if my travels through the different spaces taught me anything it’s that Home is used to network on a massive scale of which I have never seen on a console until now.
To put it blunt the community is enormous and the users numerous to the point that if you ever do find yourself alone (hint: the Tekken space) it feels somehow wrong. The more popular spaces were filled with groups of people gathered in conversation, sat together in corners, sharing games and yes, making the occasional awkward sexual gesture before braking out in an embarrassing dance. You can use text of voice (but I have yet to sample it) and your personal navigator to create clubs and groups with all other users which can be used to enter disc-based games together. Being part of a vibrant community demands a need to establish some sort of personal identity and it is perhaps here where Home’s greatest strengths lie. The place is essentially a wet dream for fans of cosplay and so far I’ve encountered the Grim Reaper, some Yeti, a Transformer, and Stormtroopers mixed amongst gaming celebrities such as Isaac Clarke, Solid Snake, Agent 47, Lara Croft and a Big Daddy. Who will you be?
The better costumes of course cost money, sure you can get some items for free but Darth Vader never got where he is by relying on freebies and it is here where one of the downsides to Home becomes apparent: things cost money. Want to dress up as Indiana Jones? £1.60 please. Top Gun flight suit? £2.40. Ditto if you want to become the Katamari Prince. In all fairness the prices aren’t too bad and the costumes so far are optional but the more I see people walking around as M.Bison (£3.20) or Nathan Drake (same price) the more I see Sony finding excuses to push up the prices. Heck full sets of apartment furniture can cost as much as £6.00.
But let’s look at the bigger picture here, a free to access online community, free items on a regular basis, free spaces to enter and entertain and free previews, mini-games to play. Sure the critics will point out that Xbox Live is more robust, has the group chat and friends list functions, but Home isn’t meant for that (PSN performs that role) and I feel a lot of those same critics have missed out on PlayStation Home’s true purpose: socialising and boy does it succeed in delivering that. In the hours I’ve spent looking around and taking photographs for this piece (yes you can take in-game pictures and transfer to an external device) I’ve had friend requests aplenty. Once people see you walking around with a camera they’ll strike a pose, ask what the photographs are for then perhaps introduce you to their friends with bigger and better costumes. Taking photographs in Home is very much like taking them at a real life gaming expo.
I’m curious to see where this goes next. Sony are set to re-launch Home with some new districts later this year but apart from tighter controls and more interactivity with inanimate objects, there’s really not much I would want them to change. I urge you more jaded gamers to check it out, like you I had no interest at first but after just a few hours I’m walking away impressed, in fact, I’m going to be walking back once I’ve posted this.