PlayStation Network a work in progress

By Associated Press

It's easy to praise the PlayStation 3 for its crisp graphics and multimedia capabilities: pretty much every PS3 video game features some of the best-looking visuals around.

But there's one area where Sony Corp. definitely has some catching up to do - online gaming.

The PlayStation Network is painfully behind Nintendo Co.'s Virtual Console for the Wii and Xbox Live for Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox 360.

Both of those services already have strong online communities for gamers and a diverse, steady flow of new content that Sony hasn't been able to match yet.

That's not to say the situation can't be remedied. The fact that it's online means the service can be updated and tweaked over time, and Sony has done a good job of continually updating the PlayStation Network with new features and fixes.

But a few months since it was launched, there still isn't much to see or play.

As a result, my online PS3 gaming has been mostly limited to interconnected battles in fast-paced first-person shooters like "Resistance: Fall of Man."

It's the kind of title that's well-suited to playing with others, who you can even shout at if you're wearing a headset with a microphone.

It's also the sort of gaming I've been doing on my PC and on Xbox Live for years now.

There are just a handful of exclusive games (for mostly $5 to $10 each), some free demos you can download from Sony's PlayStation Store, and a paltry selection of movie and game trailers.

So far, music isn't available, though Sony executives have said it would be possible.

Getting the content piped onto my PS3 through my home wireless Internet connection was a problem unto itself. (For those without Wi-Fi, the PS3 includes a built-in plug for a wired connection.)

Once the download process starts, you can't back out and continue surfing around - you're stuck waiting until the entire file arrives.

And if you happen to lose your connection at any point during the download, you'll have to start all over again.

Considering some of these games are hundreds of megabytes in size, we're talking about a lot of time spent waiting instead of gaming.

It's not all bad. The games I've sampled so far were quite good and continue the PS3's reputation as a visual knockout. (There's a definite emphasis on racing games, for some unknown reason.)

A demo version of the upcoming off-road racer "MotorStorm" really showcased just how powerful the PS3 really is, with realistic physics as I bounced over boulders and, more often than not, hurled my motorcycle over the side of a dusty desert mesa.

"GripShift" was another racer-style game where I sped around courses in desert and jungle settings that more closely resembled roller coasters than race tracks.

Perhaps the best-looking game I've seen on the PS3 is a free game called "Gran Turismo HD" released exclusively online in December.

There's only one track, but the mountainside background and the photorealistic race cars are truly stunning in high-def. As a bonus, you can post your racing times online and see how your lead foot compares with others.

After so much driving, I was ready to try out something different.

I chose a demo of "Blast Factor," an arcade-style shooter where I piloted a tiny ship and blasted viruses from cells shaped like hexagons.

It took me only a few minutes to zip through the demo's three levels. I went ahead and picked up the full version for $7.99, thinking there might be more to the actual game. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case and it quickly became a repetitive, tedious affair lacking any replay value.

Sony's service also features some older "classic" games from the original PlayStation such as "Jet Moto" and "Crash Bandicoot."

Strangely, you can't actually play them on the PS3 - instead once you've downloaded one of these games they must be transferred via USB cable to one of Sony's PlayStation Portable systems in order to be enjoyed.

And the bigger question remains: Why can't I just play the classic games on the PS3?

It's these sorts of annoyances that continually marred my experience with PlayStation Online.

I realize it's a new service and probably a massive undertaking, so I'm willing to give Sony a while longer to get it right. I'd even consider paying a monthly fee, if I thought it would help fill the content void.

As it stands, this is one free service where you get what you pay for.