SF Fight!I recently bought a PS3 and have been muddling my way through the unimpressive library of PS3 exclusive titles.  Having had an XB360 since early 2006 and a Wii for nearly as long, the PS3 and I have a lot of time to make up together.

Just recently I rented and beat Heavenly Sword, a “first generation” (meaning one of the first releases) title for the PS3.  As mentioned here and elsewhere on this blog, I have gotten to run through a few titles on the console that heavily use the Wiimote sensor.  When Sony announced the Sixaxis controller, critics immediately saw the feature as a gimmick that would try to rival the Wiimote, and pitifully at that.  But now that this faithful critic and all around observer has had a chance to lay hands on both, what’s the verdict?

To emphasize the point, I am only comparing one PS3 game to every Wii game I’ve ever played.  Very unfair odds on either account, but I’ve noticed some very interesting things that have led me to believe there may be a clearer winner than someone may think.

SixaxisThere are two main factors (that I have made up, along with most of the other terms in this article, in my benevolence and wise observance – any resemblance to terms or arguments in existence was unintended or accidental)  in the success of unusual game mechanics.  The first and foremost is the talent, skill, and imagination of the developers, or at least what appears to be the talent, skill, and imagination.  When Assassin’s Creed, a game that hyped the cloak and dagger aspect of the player’s character, allowed only three ways to execute cloak and dagger techniques, otherwise forcing the character to fight enemies rather than evade them, the gimmick actually broke the game’s promise and doomed it to $60 worth of mediocrity.  At first glance, one might see this as evidence of the lack of imagination on the game designer’s part, but Ubisoft claimed that time restraints kept them from building the game they wanted to build, which forced them to put in shoddy achievements/trophies to artificially extend gameplay.  Whether it was the skill of the designers or the interference of other factors, the designers failed to execute the game mechanic well (though I know plenty who would disagree – at least accept this as an example).

The other main factor in the success of unusual game mechanics is fit.  “Does this game mechanic actually fit into the context of the game?” This is where the Wii successfully fails a lot.  Though the most recent game I played on the Wii was Super Smash Brothers Brawl, which smartly made the Wiimote optional and Wiimote gestures even more optional, there are plenty of examples to be found of the Wiimote motion sensor being shoehorned into a game.  Wii games like Raving Rabbids, a party-style title made up of small mini-games, are perfect for Wii controls.  Yet other games, especially third party multi-console releases like Tomb Raider: Underworld, suffer due to the requirement of having the Wiimote gestures featured in games where it doesn’t belong.

WiiMoteNow that I’ve defined what I see as the two factors influencing unusual game mechanics, it’s time to apply them to the PS3 Sixaxis controller and the Wii Wiimote.  Let’s pretend that we’re in a gaming utopia where these two factors have been executed well.  Full of creativity and fit for combat, when put in a ring, which of the two survives?

As I said earlier, the only game that I have played that used the Sixaxis controls extensively was Heavenly Sword.  Because of this and the fact that I beat it yesterday afternoon, it will be the point from which all of my Wiimote comparisons are drawn.  To start, let’s go beyond fit and into the realm of integration.

Integration, or making a mechanic an essential and even desirable facet of gameplay, is something that the Wii usually does fairly well.  In The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, Link’s bow and arrow are easily used by pointing the Wiimote at the screen and pressing a button.  Granted, it looked nothing at all like shooting a bow, but that is completely beside the point.  The controls had been integrated to a point where their implementation was usually easy and mostly effortless.

In Heavenly Sword, a button mashing beat-em-up that sometimes puts on a flight simulator’s jet pilot’s jumpsuit and runs around the room screaming “raawrrwaeerreeer rat-tat-tat-tat-tat!“, the sixaxis controls are integrated in one instance surprisingly well and in another surprisingly poorly.  In the former pressing and holding square or “x” (depending on context) while handling a long-range weapon will zoom the camera in behind the projectile (this varies among rockets, cannonballs, and arrows, along with a few other extraneous objects thrown in).  While in this zoomed-in state, the player can start tilting the controller, gently driving the projectile (thus the flight sim reference) to the desired destination…sometimes.  This mechanic increasingly becomes more of a skill rather than a cool addition as the game progresses, and this helps with the mechanic’s integration into gameplay.  If the mechanic is mostly optional, then it becomes unnecessary and becomes a forgettable option.  While Heavenly Sword‘s projectile-driving, so to speak, is technically optional, the game is nearly impossible without it, as there is no reticule to aim at very small, very far away targets.  The other instance in which the Sixaxis is used but is integrated very poorly is in actual combat.  Some of the combos require shaking the controller at the right moment as part of the combo button chain.  In the heat of battle, it seems silly to try and shake the controller a certain way to pull off a small number of moves that require it.

That last bit about poor integration also hits on another area that is intrinsically tied with the idea of integration – and this is implementation, be it awkward or convenient.  The awkwardness factor of shaking a controller in mid-combat is high, but it is rather small potatoes compared to some of the ways Wii games have integrated Wiimote controls.  I’m not sure if Nintendo forces Wii developers to include Wiimote specific gestures, but if they do, they are certainly the reason for the awkward implementation of the controls within Wii games.  As I mentioned before, this awkwardness is almost a given when it comes to multi-platform releases.

There is a lot to be said for all of these factors, but at its base, it’s all about design.  Depending on the strength of designs, whatever is built on top of it could be as stable as bunker or a house of cards.  Though the Wiimote is no card table, it certainly doesn’t have the foundation for a bunker either.  Because most games require the Wiimote to be held in one hand and its companion nunchuck in the other, the probability that the player’s hand won’t be in the proper starting position is very high, and the Wiimote depends on starting in a certain position, otherwise the controls are off (thus why it’s possible to golf in WiiSports while holding the controller in a number of positions varying from a “ping-pong champion” position to a “holy water flick of the wrist” position).  The Wiimote, while brilliant in its concept and marketability, leaves a lot to be desired.  And woe betide the designer who doesn’t tighten up the controls enough when dealing with the Wiimote – with the combination of card table + cards, the whole thing comes tumbling down.

Yet here, exactly where I thought the Sixaxis would fail, is where the it shines.  I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the reason the Sixaxis controller is closer to a bunker than a card table is because it’s held with two hands. It’s a shame that it might be that simple, but, to put it mathematically, the Wiimote in one hand is to a line through one point as the Sixaxis in two hands is to a line through two points.  A line through one point has infinitely possibilities for its direction, and that causes a lot of unpredictability and instability.  A line through two points has a defined course and has built in stability from those two points.  Or to put it non-mathematical terms, that s*** won’t work unless you’re holding it with two hands.

The Sixaxis integration and implementation in Heavenly Sword isn’t perfect, but not once did I have to “reset” my hands to regain control of the mechanic, where as I have not had a casual gaming experience with the Wiimote that I didn’t have to. I don’t necessarily expect these mechanics to be perfect, and I still think the Wiimote was the best innovation to come out of this generation of console gaming.  But when you’re first to do something, that means that you’ve given people a goal to shoot for and surpass.  The Sixaxis is certainly no Wiimote, not by a long shot, but it offers a few crucial things that the Wiimote, if it had come out a few years later, probably would have had in the bag.

So for now, off of the basis of one PS3 game vs. ten or so Wii games , I have to say that the Sixaxis was the most fun I’ve had with a motion sensing controller so far in this console generation.  There are surely Wii games that integrate these controls far better than I have given them credit for (in fact, if you know of any, please suggest them in the comments – I’m completely willing to revisit this later on), but Heavenly Sword‘s use of the Sixaxis mechanic wins this round.

We’ll see how long that lasts.