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Tech 2001 /
The Second Coming

With the arrival this month of the Playstation 2, Sony'slatest bid for gaming-world domination, Derek de Koff examines the soul of the machine -- and worries about his own.

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Video-game aficionados are a passionate bunch of terrible spellers. One imagines that the slackers who contribute to Internet-gaming bulletin boards type with one hand while frantically punching their DualShock controllers with the other. Within these ranks, a war has broken out. Sega Dreamcast devotees detest Sony PlayStation fanatics, and vice versa: "Sony is soulless to the core," writes one gamer at happypuppy.com, "and ruthlessly effishient!" "Don't believe him! He's a hard core Sony fan and he's putting up a smoke screen!" "I don't give an M2 what people say about Sega! Sega rules! Sega now and 4ever!" With the PlayStation 2 set to arrive in America on October 26, this sort of exchange has reached an especially fevered pitch lately.

I fall on the side of the Sony PlayStation fanatics. That's why I was determined to get my hands on the PS2 by any means necessary. Since its release in Japan on March 4, thousands of PS2s have been smuggled into America, and impatient gamers who just can't wait -- they want to vaporize their robots now, dammit -- are quite content to lay down as much as $800 on the black market to get their hands on a Japanese model. To make matters worse, Sony's just announced that because of chip shortages, only 500,000 machines (not the rumored 1 million) will be initially available in the U.S. Unable to cope with the thought of waiting months for my very own PS2, I scoured eBay and lucked out: I snared one for just $483.86.

What's all the fuss about? For starters, the PlayStation 2 has enough graphics-rendering brainpower to qualify as a bona fide supercomputer, your very own hal. Aside from being compatible with original PlayStation games, it also plays DVDs and, most intriguingly, offers Web access -- which means (a) you'll be able to play MediEvil II against someone who actually does lives in Transylvania and (b) you may not have to interact with people in that old-school, face-to-face way ever again. That's why, when the PlayStation 2 box arrived at my office, I was back at my apartment, alone, within fifteen minutes. It was time to see how much juice this sucker really had.

I made all the preparations for a lost weekend. Blowing up zombies is, after all, serious business -- a hard-core scene that at its most feverish resembles that of a card-carrying drug fiend: The sun blares through blankets tacked over the windows, the telephone is unplugged, cigarette butts and Rolling Rock bottles surround a shivering figure wearing boxers and an overlong sweater, chattering to himself about flesh-eating ghouls.

I plugged in the system -- it's a black metal box, resembling a shoebox (but the sexiest shoebox; a Prada shoebox). I turned it on -- the moment of truth -- and it made a voluptuous little whisper, a cooing bleep, as if the machine were trying to tell me it loved me. My system came with two complimentary games, and they were boring, as complimentary games always are. But it was the most eye-popping boredom I've ever endured. The action is crappy, and yet the graphics are spectacular. The racing-car game, Grand Turismo 2000, brought on a delusional episode: Suddenly I was a superstar drag racer on ESPN2. (The clichés applied: I felt like I was starring in a movie -- a movie that I controlled.) Expanses of racetrack so convincing I could almost taste the blacktop; my car skidded out, emitting a plume of smoke I nearly choked on. When the game ended and I found myself alone in my third-floor walk-up, it was disconcerting not to be mobbed by my adoring fans.

The other game that came with my PS2, the Tekken-style DOA 2: Hardcore, offers a cavalcade of ninja characters; it's strictly a kick-the-crap-out-of-your-opponent experience, but the surroundings looked even more authentic than they do in actual ninja flicks: chill arctic wastelands, ravaged postapocalyptic warehouses, urban rooftops and alleyways so dilapidated I feared for my safety. Characters rendered so lifelike, I was half tempted to ask a few of the hotter ones for their phone numbers -- but I settled on gleefully karate-chopping them through plate-glass windows. (The sound of shattering glass -- shards flying everywhere -- made me cringe.)

My only complaint: Although you can play CDs on the PS2, Sony's done away with the PS1's lysergic spiraling graphics that would morph into various psychedelic positions in tandem with the music. Owning my very own supercomputer is great, but I'd like to be able to watch geometric shapes kicking the Charleston to D.J. Mike Cruz's "Movin' Up." (I've heard this feature might be restored for the American version -- and besides, the Japanese model isn't compatible with American CDs.)

In any case, that's a very small omission, especially in light of the splendors I have seen. The Sega Dreamcast people can thread nasty comments all they like; that platform's living on borrowed time -- sooner or later, it will be buried in the same cemetery as ColecoVision, eight-track tapes, and Betamax. That said, PlayStation fanatics, I fear, face a much greater danger: completely losing their grip on reality. Who can say what kind of zombies we gamers, already no strangers to weekends barricaded in our bedrooms, will become after we're addicted to playing games with George Lucas-worthy imagery -- and playing them against people who live 20,000 miles away?

The original PlayStation was a gateway drug -- a toke or two of marijuana. But the PS2, that sexy little black box, is the technological equivalent of China White heroin.


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