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Review of Sony PlayStation 2 and Comparison to the Dreamcast

Before going too deep into the review of the PS2, we may want to take a moment and review a few terms that some of you may be unfamiliar with. First, there is aliasing (or the opposite - anti-aliasing). If you were to draw a line on a piece of graph paper by filling in the blocks, you would notice that the lines are jagged. A computer monitor is like a sheet of graph paper. There are discrete blocks (albeit small) that have to be filled in to draw lines. Because they are discrete, you have the same effect. Your standard television is similar in that it has a limited resolution. So whenever you draw a line, it appears jagged. In fact, some call the presence of jagged lines in a game the "jaggies." To minimize the jagged look of the lines, anti-aliasing techniques are used. The anti-aliasing tends to smooth the jagged lines along the borders of objects by illuminating pixels in the vicinity of the lines. By using a blend of nearby colors, the lines are washed out and have a more natural look to them. You can almost do this yourself by sketching a jagged line on a piece of paper with rectangular blocks. Surround the blocks with additional blocks with ever-decreasing shades of gray. Eventually the original line will appear to get lost in the entirety of the shades of gray. So anti-aliasing is nothing more than a way to smooth out the edges. You'll find aliasing issues in every console out there - there is no way to fully cure yourself of the jaggies.

In addition to aliasing problems, games are typically plagued by pop-up and draw-in. Unfortunately many games can not draw from an infinite horizon. When you drive down the road, there are items that eventually come into your field of vision. As hardware progresses, programmers will in time provide the same effect. And the issue really comes into play with driving games. If you look at a game like Need for Speed Porsche Unleashed for the PlayStation, what you have is pop-up to the extreme. Buildings literally appear out of nowhere along the course. This is akin to driving with your eyes closed and suddenly opening them. At this point you may think you're George of the Jungle - look out for that tree! The NASCAR series on the PlayStation is also snakebitten - large portions of the racing surface are missing but magically appear. Draw-in is a little different. Rather than instantly appearing, items are quickly blended into the game. So if you cover a picture and peel away the cover, that is draw-in. Because the action is slower than pop-up, draw-in looks more natural. The Nintendo 64 has a way of reducing both nasties. Unfortunately the solution has led to a bad reputation for Nintendo 64 (it really is a good machine - honest), and that is fogging. By utilizing some Scooby fog, programmers can hide pop-up and draw-in. As you travel down the horizon, images come into focus naturally.

Finally, we should touch on dropping frames and slowdown. The standard television broadcasts at 30 frames per second. Movies are shown at 24 frames per second. The N64, PSX, DC, and PS2 are all capable of producing images at 60 frames per second. While some Quake jocks out there may believe they can nail the frame rate to the frame, the human eye and mind can't really pinpoint the true rate. However, we can tell when the rate drops from 60 FPS to something lower (say 30). A game like Sega Rally 2 on the Dreamcast runs at 60 FPS most of the time. However, in some corners the frame rate drops and your eyes pick up on the reduced frames. In essence you experience a strobed effect. With slowdown, the frame rate remains constant but the action slows down. If you play Monaco Grand Prix 2 for the Dreamcast, the Monaco course gives an excellent example of this. At the Mirabeau hairpin (the first hairpin on the course), the frame rate is smooth as silk, but the entire action slows down if there are too many cars at the turn. The CPU simply can't keep up with all the action and it looks like you are driving in slow motion.

For the last month I have found myself like George Costanza. I read about the PS2 and say, "I'm bustin' Jerry." I just couldn't take it any longer. Even though the impressive launch list dwindled like watermelon at a picnic and my must buy title Gran Turismo 2000 was delayed ad infinitum, I found myself yearning for the little black box. "Come to me" it said in its digital voice. Oh me of little will. I broke down. I bought a PS2.

My package arrived from an online retailer and I busted it open. With it came the only available title I was remotely interested in, Ridge Racer 5. Sorry guys, but I just ain't a fighting fan, save boxing. Right off the bat I had a problem. It's partly Sony's fault and partly the retailer's fault. I was promised the sacred and valuable v1.0 drivers but the v1.01 came instead. I was fuming. The next morning I called and am awaiting resolution. Hopefully this polygon-pushing beast will stay with me, but the prospect of spending nearly six bones to play RR5 and no DVDs is a little hard to swallow.

After I stopped fuming I hooked my new toy up to my second oldest toy - a 20" Sony Wega (I urge you all to buy one). Having gone the S-video route with my Dreamcast, I did not order an S-video cable for the PS2 but instead used the enclosed standard AV cable. To my disbelief, I found zero difference between S-video and standard AV with the Dreamcast. I've been told that the Wegas have a top-notch comb filter which explains the high quality signal. If there is a difference, it's minimal.

What I did next was to play a few hours worth of RR5 to get the feel of the game and the look of the graphics. Having heard about the aliasing issues, I quickly noticed that some features were horribly aliased. And now each time I play it I notice it. I repeated the party line heard on the internet - this is a launch title. Okay. So I then played some early Dreamcast titles to compare the graphics of the two systems.

I chose to look at the import versions of Sega Rally 2, Monaco Grand Prix 2, and Sega GT. Sega Rally 2 came out just over a month after the release of the Dreamcast, and MGP2 came out around four months after release. Both titles could be considered first generation titles. Sega GT, which was released over a year after the Japanese Dreamcast release, could be considered second generation. What I did first was compare the overall graphical quality of the first generation Dreamcast titles to Sega GT. For the most part I found little difference in them. The textural quality of all the games was pretty even.

The import Sega Rally 2 is notorious for horrible frame drops at some points in the game. Furthermore, there is a decent amount of draw-in on some of the courses. Pop-up and slowdown are non-existent. The frame rate of SR2 tries to hover around 60 frames per second. When it drops, it drops to around half that value. Monaco Grand Prix 2 appears to have no pop-up or draw-in but runs at a slower frame rate, a fairly consistent 30 frames per second. The exception is on the Monaco course, where a few turns cause the frame rate to drop to the single digits. You can contrast these titles to Tokyo Xtreme Racer which suffers from both slowdown and frame rate loss.

The two early titles look great. Cars have a natural look to them, and the trackside detail is spectacular. Trees have a particularly pleasant look, even at close range. Sega Rally 2 also exhibits extra animations in the backgrounds. But what both titles do have is some aliasing. If you look closely you will see some aliasing. Not much, mind you, but it is there. Moving to Sega GT, I basically found the same graphical quality as Sega Rally 2 but with no frame loss and less draw-in.

So now we move to RR5. As I said earlier, since I heard prejudicial comments about the aliasing, I couldn't help but focus on it. In places it's bad - real bad. The aliasing on the Dreamcast is minimal. On the PlayStation 2 you see visible steps in some lines. Aliasing is throughout the game - the cars, the borders, overpasses, buildings. If you polygon it, aliasing will come. But what's new about that? Everyone knows it's out there and can only hope it goes away with learning the hardware. But for first generation titles, the Dreamcast wins the aliasing war hands down.

Next comes texturing. Much has been said about the memory scheme with the PS2 hardware. The PS2 does not have dedicated texture memory, so some hypothesize that the textures on the PS2 won't approach those of the Dreamcast. Well, RR5 has a mix of textures. Some of the textures look good, others don't. Same can be said for the Dreamcast. With the number of polygons the PS2 can push, I would tend to think that the polygon count will make up for any shortfall in the texture department.

What really struck me about RR5 were the trees. The trees in RR5 blow away the trees in the Dreamcast games. You may think this is nothing, but those are the types of things I focus on to assess the hardware. Any platform can load up the primary objects with polygons. It's the other stuff that people don't focus on, but that really show the power of the hardware. So the trees in RR5 show me that the PS2 has substantially more graphical oomph than the competition. Just drive up to one slowly and you see intricate detail and thousands of individual leaves. In comparison, the trees in the Dreamcast games have a blander texture that leaves (no pun intended) out the fine details.

But what impressed me the most was the speed of the game. RR5 runs at a consistent 60 frames per second with no frame drops or slowdown. Comparing RR5 to SR2 is fair, considering each title is first generation and the style of each is similar. The most number of cars I've had on-screen in SR2 is two, excluding myself (first person view). Other than the start of the race, I have had as many as three other cars in view on RR5. RR5 doesn't even so much as blink an eye. It purrs like a kitten and is an absolute joy to both play and watch. The same can't always be said about SR2.

One thing both titles have in common is draw-in. I never noticed pop-up in RR5, but draw-in is evident on the horizon in a couple of spots. The draw-in instantly reminded me of the draw-in in SR2. The amount of draw-in is similar to Sega GT. It happens, but not often enough to distract you.

Graphically, the PS2 has some known issues. Time will tell if programming will mitigate them. Hopefully it will, as the aliasing certainly is annoying at times. But if all PS2 games can run at 60 frames per second and never skip a beat, we will be in gaming heaven.

RR5 didn't give me the opportunity to test the sound adequately. The sound was judged through both the Sony Wega speakers and using Sennheiser SD-580 audiophile quality headphones. The headphones were attached through the headphone jack on the Wega (which has an annoying clicking sound) and through the stereo output via a Sennheiser DSP Pro surround sound processor headphone amp. The quality of sound from both the Dreamcast and PS2 were equal. The Dreamcast racing titles appear to utilize stereo sound better than RR5. The Dreamcast titles provide a definite audio clue to where the other cars are. By comparison, the aural quality of RR5 provided an inadequate soundstage. I don't fault the hardware one bit since the original PlayStation has a good soundstage (in fact better than what RR5 yielded).

The last point of comparison is the new Dual Shock 2 controller. First, from a Sony to Sony viewpoint, I must be honest and say that I quickly yanked it from the console and used an older controller. The analog buttons annoyed me. To keep my speeds up I had to press hard, and I was worried about damaging the controller. It was also uncomfortable to keep a tight press on the gas button. The analog buttons, in my opinion, are a joke. The throw on them is non-existent. The difference between 50 and 100 percent is so small that you won't ever be able to finesse the analog buttons. That's my only issue with the new controller. If games come out and abandon the analog button capability, I won't be heartbroken. And at least the controller color will match the console. The analog stick worked great with RR5 by the way.

But I must say that the standard Dreamcast controller is my favorite of all time (followed by the N64, PSX, and Saturn). The PSX controllers tend to be too small for adult hands. The placement of the shoulder buttons is unnatural. For the types of games I play (mostly racing), nothing besides a steering wheel beats the Dreamcast controller. The analog triggers have a decent throw that allows you to finesse the gas and brakes. The hands envelop the controller naturally. In my opinion the analog stick is the best of the bunch.

So where does all this leave me? Well, one happy guy. I've got plenty of toys and all the latest systems such that I don't have to get caught up in the petty console wars. I'll continue to buy Dreamcast games because, frankly, some excellent titles just won't make their way to the PS2. And the opposite holds true as well. The only downside currently is the high software price for the PS2 relative to the Dreamcast. Import PS2 titles average $75 each. New import DC titles are routinely priced in the $50-$60 range. If I were a fighting man, I don't know if it would be worth $25 more to pick up Dead or Alive 2 on the PS2 instead of the Dreamcast. That's a 50% higher price, and I don't think the overall improvement from the Dreamcast to the PS2 is 50%.

The fact is, I wasn't blown away by the PS2 like I was with the Dreamcast. The Nintendo 64 offered better graphics than the PSX and Saturn, but the leap wasn't huge. Then the Dreamcast came around and blew everyone away. The graphics make the PSX look like color by numbers. The N64 fairs better, but you can see its age showing. The PS2 is just a moderate improvement to the Dreamcast, much like the move from the PSX to the N64. If I had never seen a Dreamcast in action and just saw the PS2, I would have soiled my pants on the spot. But having been exposed to the Dreamcast for over a year, I've got a been there done that attitude.

What this does is leaves the consumer with a limited budget in a great position. The consumer can look at which games he wants to play and buy the console which supports his choice. Both consoles have excellent graphics, although the PS2 looks better - but not by a landslide. In the end, both Sega and Sony fans win. The biggest winners are those who adopt both platforms.

By: James Smith 4/28/00

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