The PS2 network adaptor is a simple black slab, not even as big as a standard trade paperback book. Installing the hardware is a snap. After popping off the expansion bay cover on the back of the PlayStation, the network adaptor plugs snugly into the console's back with just a few twists of two mounting screws to lock it into place. Snap in your telephone line or Ethernet cable, and the hardware side of the installation is done.
The included software disc takes you through the setup and installation routine step by step. Primarily, this process consists of entering your Internet access username, password, and settings. Sony doesn't charge any fee for online access, instead relying on you to use your existing Internet service provider (ISP). America Online users, beware: whether you access AOL's dial-up or broadband service, the online behemoth will assess you an additional $4.95 per month to facilitate access via your game console, be it the PS2 or the Xbox. Currently, AOL broadband access is not available, but the company plans to offer it in the near future.
The PS2 network adaptor provides Ethernet and dial-up connectivity. So, unlike Microsoft's broadband-only approach with the Xbox, legions of dial-up gamers aren't left out in the cold. Just like their PC brethren, however, gamers will find connecting through their cable or DSL modems to be an infinitely smoother and more satisfying experience. Users with a robust home network already in place will benefit most; stretching an Ethernet cable from the PS2 to our two-year-old NetGear router had us up and running on our EarthLink DSL connection in no time.
Just as the company has left it to independent ISPs to provide Internet access, Sony has left all the responsibility of facilitating online play to its third-party developers. In other words, Sega must create and maintain servers for Sega titles, EA must support EA titles, and so on. In and of itself, this does not adversely affect gameplay. However, it does provide the potential for uneven options and support across the spectrum of PS2 online titles if, for instance, one software company is less experienced in the online arena than another. Another result of Sony's approach is the fact that you must create a separate login name and password for each PS2 title.
Sony's "every developer for itself" online approach contrasts significantly with Microsoft's Xbox Live service, which is run solely by Microsoft. For the Xbox online gamer, that means a consistent level of service; universal features (such as voice chat); and a single, universal login name and password for all online games. It also means that Microsoft charges a yearly subscription fee, while Sony's service is free. "Free" is at the discretion of the game publishers, however, and forthcoming premier titles (read: EverQuest) will no doubt charge a monthly subscription fee.
Interestingly, the PS2 network adaptor features internal connections for a standard hard drive and is even emblazoned with the letters hdd. Such a hard drive, already available in the Japanese market, would further narrow the feature gulf between the PS2 and the Xbox, but Sony remains mum on when such a hard disk would be available in North America or how it would be implemented.
Once the setup software verifies the connection and stores the ISP settings on the memory card, the business of competing with opponents around the country can begin. Sony includes playable demo versions of Madden NFL 2003 and Frequency and provides a mail-in voucher for a free online version of car combat classic Twisted Metal Black. But those who are looking for some worthy online competition will want to steer toward newly available online-enabled titles such as Sega's 2K3 lineup of sports titles, EA's 2003 sports titles, Sierra's Tribes Aerial Assault, Activision's Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4, and Sony's SOCOM U.S. Navy SEALs.
The mechanics of online play will be instantly familiar to PC gamers. After establishing a login account for the individual game, you can either jump directly into a death match (in Twisted Metal Black), or head to a "match-making" lobby chat room where you can size up potential opponents before inviting them to play a head-to-head game of football or basketball. Most games display skill levels, ping times, and disconnect percentages, giving you an informed perspective on how serious (and dependable) a gamer your perspective challengers are. Just like anything else online, broadband gamers will have a much smoother experience than their dial-up counterparts.
The PS2 Online Adaptor has a street price of $40. Given its scarcity on store shelves, a huge number of PlayStation 2 owners have already taken the online plunge. While Xbox gamers get a two-way voice headset and the convenience of a "walled garden" approach to gaming, PS2 owners get the option of dial-up access and the absence of a yearly service fee. But like everything in the console world, the ultimate success of the PS2 network adaptor will be the games that best utilize and optimize its features. With potential killer apps such as EverQuest, the Sims Online, Counter-Strike, and Star Wars Galaxies slated to hit one or both consoles in the coming months, the battle to win online gamers is just beginning.