It's not really fair to judge the PS3's online component before, like, the console is actually released and gamers start putting it through its paces, but it's still interesting hear Eurogamer's take on a pre-launch version of the PlayStation Network, courtesy of some exclusive face time with Sony exec Phil Harrison. From the site's extensive coverage of many aspects of the service, the most noticeable theme is that Sony seems to have been closely watching the successes and failures of Xbox Live, and is serious about its promise to meet or exceed all of Live's capabilities. Therefore, many of features that 360 fans have become accustomed to -- consistent UI, multiple methods of communicating with friends, and downloadable content -- are prominently featured in the Network experience, with other aspects -- namely a full web browser, multitude of game-specific mini-stores, and pricing in real currency as opposed to "points" -- clearly designed to one-up Microsoft's offering. Other nice touches here include the ability to create a master account and regulated "associated" accounts (helpful for parents looking to police their kids' usage), a global "Wallet" with which you make all micro-payments (including those required by third-party publishers), and of course, an upgradable OS that leverages the hard drive on both versions of the PS3. Downsides? Unlike Xbox Live, the first iteration of PlayStation Network doesn't let friends communicate while playing a game; even though you'll get a notification of new messages during gameplay, you have to exit the game in order to read them and respond. Also, it's still not clear if / how Sony will implement player rankings a la Live's leaderboards, which is a feature that naturally-competitive gamers have come to expect. All-in-all, though, it sounds like Sony has put a lot of thought into the usability of this increasingly important aspect of the console experience, and assuming that the company is able to overcome potential shortages, lack of rumble, and other well-known nitpicks, the PlayStation Network looks poised to attract the same fervent following as XBL.

[Via PS3 Fanboy and Joystiq]

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Hands-on with the PlayStation Network