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The Stuff Service: nine months with PlayStation Plus
by Andrew Testerman

Please note: This article is a reflection on the North American version of PlayStation Plus, and the features or opinions mentioned here may not necessarily apply to its counterparts in the various other PSN regions.

Last year at E3, after many rumours and much hype, Sony debuted its new premium membership program: PlayStation Plus. PlayStation Plus was to be Sony’s answer to Xbox Live, promising premium content to subscribers for a nominal yearly fee. Many gamers balked at the announcement, loudly wondering what the point of the service was. "Multiplayer is already free," they said. "What else could they possibly have that you would want to pay for?"

After subscribing to PlayStation Plus for the past nine months, I’m here to offer up some impressions of Sony’s much talked-about stuff service.

Sony’s largest bragging point about PlayStation Plus was its promise of free games, and this is perhaps the most value-centric aspect of the service. Every month, PlayStation Plus offers its subscribers a free classic PSone game to download, akin to a book-of-the-month club. The initial selection was pretty shaky (2Xtreme? Seriously?), but the selection has expanded to include a fair few gems, such as the original Syphon Filter, Crash Team Racing, and all three Spyro the Dragon games. As a gamer who missed the original PlayStation entirely (my Nintendo 64 was just fine with me, thank you very much), PlayStation Plus' monthly game offers a decent way to catch up on some of my history. Each game normally costs between six and ten dollars, making PlayStation Plus a decent bargain for folks who want to build their library of digital classics.

PlayStation Plus isn’t only about classic games, though, and also offers a new service called Full Game Trials. PlayStation Plus subscribers are given the ability to play through the first hour of certain games in Sony’s 'Games on Demand'-style distribution service. This works better on paper than in practice, however, because while it’s cool to have the option to play through the first hour of Assassin’s Creed, the time required to download its 7.7GB of game data is ridiculous, and takes away much of the appeal of casual browsing.

Perhaps the coolest weapon in PlayStation Plus' arsenal is the ability to download open betas for games like Killzone 3 and DC Universe Online. Goodness knows if the feedback gathered from the beta actually makes any difference to the final build of the game, but the betas are certainly effective as advertising units; my roommate upped and bought DC Universe Online after immensely enjoying himself during the beta, and I’m sure a healthy taste of Killzone 3’s online component urged many a player into adding the title to their game repertoire.

PlayStation Plus also offers a series of discounts on digital content, slashing prices on items like downloadable games, multiplayer maps and certain PSOne titles. The discounts can be fairly paltry, but sometimes the service goes nuts (for example, when it offered Stacking as a free download during its first week of release). Sony offers several of its 'Minis' for free, too, though these are often underwhelming, get-what-you-pay-for PSP puzzle titles. Still, they’re another bit of free content to throw onto the stack, and I’m sure there are many who do enjoy them.

In addition to discounting games, PlayStation Plus offers price markdowns on avatars and PS3 themes. Again, I’m sure there are folks out there who appreciate saving a few bucks on a ModNation Racers avatar picture, but they’re a drop in the content bucket for me, and I rarely bother with them.

Media is the definitive reason why I purchased PlayStation Plus. I don’t have cable in my apartment, and after E3 Sony announced that PlayStation Plus subscribers would have first access to Hulu Plus, Hulu’s new premium content service that - amongst other things - lets users watch their programs on an actual television, as opposed to a computer monitor. Being the old fashioned, curmudgeony sod that I am, I leapt at the chance to no longer crouch over a keyboard in order to catch the latest episode of 30 Rock. Since then, Hulu Plus has opened up to all PSN members, but I still used the hell out it during the six months that it was a PlayStation Plus exclusive, and I am not sorry I did.

PlayStation Plus subscribers also get access to Qore, Sony’s monthly 'digital magazine'. Like a typical magazine, Qore features exclusive looks at new games and interesting developers, but all the content is presented through videos. I’m not sure if it’d be worth the $12-per-year subscription fee it normally costs, but as a free download, it’s reasonably satisfying.

There are a few other features that round out the PlayStation Plus experience. The first, and probably least deserving of fanfare, is PlayStation Plus' ability to automatically download patches and updates for games you own. In my experience, this works most of the time, but there have been a few instances where my roommate has fired up DC Universe Online and, after being notified that the system automatically downloaded a patch for him, found himself staring at another update download screen. Some, like Patrick Klepick (formerly of G4) have wondered why this isn’t integrated into the regular PSN functionality, which is a view I share. It is what it is, though, and I’d rather have automatic patch downloads on PlayStation Plus than not have it at all.

The newest feature to grace PlayStation Plus is online, cloud-based storage for game saves, which gives players the ability to save their games to the cloud and resume their progress on another PS3. I cannot, for the life of me, think of an instance where I would want to commute between two different PlayStation 3s and continue to unlock cars on another person’s copy Burnout Paradise, or something to that effect. This says more about my own social life than the actual online storage feature, but I do have to wonder how easy it is to access said game saves. Retrieving a GamerTag on Xbox Live is a royal pain in the rear, and I greatly hope that - if I do decide to continue my progress in Darksiders while visiting a friend’s house - I won’t have to jump through too many hoops.

Ultimately, the value you get from PlayStation Plus depends on how often you use your PS3. Gamers who use their PS3 as their primary game system will find plenty to love about PlayStation Plus; the multitude of free games, discounts, and other amenities make it an attractive option, and the savings can easily outweigh the initial cost of entry. Multiplatform gamers or players who don’t use their PS3 that often may want to stay away, though, as many of PlayStation Plus’ features reward gamers who invest a good amount of time into their system, and casual gamers who barely find time to use their PS3 at all may not be able to take advantage of everything PlayStation Plus has to offer.

Still, for what it’s worth, PlayStation Plus is a far cry from the redundant, money-driven service it seemed to be when Sony first announced it last June, and whilst it’s far from an Xbox Live-esque necessity for the system, it’s a great value for those who put in the time.

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- Andrew Testerman

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