The next generation of video gaming, that is. With the recent release of two brand new video game consoles, it’s become a full-on arms race between Sony and Microsoft to see who can achieve dominance with these new systems that have a whole host of neat bells and whistles to lure gamers. I was one of the lucky ones able to get my hands on Sony’s PlayStation 4 when it released at midnight on Nov. 15 and now that I’ve had ample time to check it out from top to bottom, I figured I’d provide some thoughts on what it does well, where it comes up short and, most importantly, whether it’s worth $400.
Viewed in profile, the PlayStation 4 is basically just a slim rhombus. It runs quiet, has both a glossy and a matte black finish and a slim light bar that runs the length of the top cover. In other words, it’s a big black box, just like every Sony console has been since the PlayStation 2. But who really cares about what a box looks like when it’s only ever going to sit under your television? It’s what the box can do that really matters. Thankfully, this is where the PS4 has you covered.
It should be said right up front that, at present, nothing on the PS4 is going to blow your mind from a graphics standpoint. While both “next gen” systems are running on faster, more powerful hardware, there’s nothing on either system that makes a graphical leap that looks as impressive as the jump from PS2/Xbox games to PS3/Xbox 360. Where games benefit from the new hardware is that many games run natively in 1080p resolution and sometimes at 60 frames per second. So while there may not be an initial “wow factor,” the games do look noticeably better running at such high settings.
The better hardware also allows for a level of background detail that wasn’t possible before, and for developers to really let loose with things like art design and animation. For instance, “Killzone: Shadow Fall” doesn’t do anything mind-blowing, but there’s a level of fidelity and detail present in the game that is certainly a noticeable step up from previous games in the series on PS3.
To me, the significant achievement of the PS4 is in the details. Sony has gone to great lengths to streamline the user experience and has created an interface that is clean, simple and makes getting into your games and apps a seamless, smooth process.
Gone is the PS3’s XMB (Xross Media Bar) that divides apps, games and services by category, instead opting to put everything on a linear timeline. Whatever game or app you’ve most recently played or used is at the front of the queue, with everything else lined up behind (though with everything located within your “library” folder at the very end). This could potentially lead to a little bit of scavenging if you’re looking for a particular game you’ve downloaded but not played in a while, and it’s also slightly annoying that you can’t group games together in a single folder, but the icons for each app and game are big enough that it’s easy to pick them out from the crowd while scrolling.
Then again, if scrolling isn’t something you feel like doing, just plug the included headset into the base of the newly redesigned DualShock controller (more on that beauty in a second) and just say “PlayStation, launch …” and it’ll automatically launch the game you pick. There aren’t a ton of voice commands available, but they work well and you don’t have to have the (entirely optional) camera peripheral connected to make them happen (unlike the Xbox One’s Kinect camera).
Another detail I love is the way users can snap back and forth between apps and games (and even apps and apps). For instance, let’s say I’m neck deep in a portion of “Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag” and can’t for the life of me figure out how to get past it. I can go to the PS4’s Web browser, bring up an online game guide and then instantly switch back and forth between game and Web page with a simple double tap of the DualShock’s guide button.
The transition is quick and clean, a description that could be used for pretty much every point of functionality on the PS4’s user interface. The party chat function is especially impressive in this regard. Chatting with friends has never been easier as now you simply shoot out an invitation to someone on your friend’s list, they accept and boom — you’re chatting together. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing different games or games at all, you stay in the same chat. Heck, you can even put the machine into standby mode, then turn it back on, log in and you’ll get popped right back into the chat if it’s still active.
And speaking of the DualShock, the wholly revamped controller is easily one of the crowning achievements of this new system. It’s larger and wider than the previous controller. The directional pad is bigger, the analog sticks just plain feel better now with more resistance to their movement and a top that isn’t rounded to provide better grip. The triggers on the controller’s shoulders are outwardly curved now and feel like actual triggers. It cannot be overstated how much this improves playing first-person shooters (or any game, really). It’s also got a touch pad in the center that has made for some clever (but thankfully unobtrusive) uses in various games, such as selecting various modes for your combat drone in “Killzone: Shadow Fall.”
But the best feature of the controller also might be my favorite feature of the entire system. In the same port where you can plug in your included headset, you can also plug in nearly any set of headphones, making it so that all audio is channeled through the headphones and not the television. As a husband whose wife prefers to not hear the sound of digital mayhem erupting over the television at all hours of the evening, this feature is a godsend. My only complaint? The battery life is average at best, granting six to eight hours of gaming before requiring a recharge.
Everything is integrated with social media these days, it would seem, and now your video games are, too. Sharing is a huge deal to Sony when it comes to the PlayStation 4, so much that they put a “Share” button right on the face of the controller. What does this mean, exactly?
Let’s say that you just experienced an epic moment in a game and you positively have to show it off. Just click the share button and you can look back at the past 15 minutes of gameplay and pick a portion of it to upload as a video to Facebook. Or you can capture a screenshot to upload as well. Would you rather your friends (or even total strangers, for that matter) watch in real time as you play? The Share button also lets you start a live stream via Twitch or UStream that allows users to watch whatever game you’re playing and even chime in with text comments as you provide audio commentary via the headset.
These are all features that I never thought I would care one iota about, and yet in practice they’re pretty cool — the streaming feature especially, which is almost absurdly easy to get going. With two clicks, I can start a stream and my buddies can hop on, watch me blow some stuff up and heckle me as I do it. It doesn’t fundamentally change the way we play games, but it’s a very neat, very fun feature.
So what else can this thing do? Well, you’ve got access to a whole host of video streaming apps such as Netflix Instant, Amazon Instant Video, Redbox Instant, Crackle and others. And while you are required to pay $50 a year to be able to take part in online multiplayer for video games, Sony has wisely not put access to these streaming apps behind that paywall, unlike Microsoft, which still requires you to pay for Xbox Live in order to access your Netflix Instant account.
Additionally, the PS4 retains its predecessor’s Blu-ray playing capabilities. The PS3 was one of the best Blu-ray players on the market and the PS4 could eventually be the same. Eventually. It lacks 3D playback and its stability isn’t quite in line with the PS3’s. (Though that’s simply from what I’ve read online. I haven’t experienced issues personally.)
And while the system doesn’t allow for playback of MP3s, if you have a subscription to Sony’s music streaming service, you can actually keep that playing and use it as background music for any game you’re currently playing.
So all of this functionality is great and all, but what about the games? It’s here that the PS4 stumbles a bit. It’s been a good long while (probably the Sega Dreamcast) since we had a launch lineup with truly great, outstanding titles. Console launches, almost as a rule, simply don’t have the strongest games.
I picked up “Killzone: Shadow Fall,” and while I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the game, it still only does stuff you’d expect out of a modern first-person shooter. It’s good, but not mind-blowing. The majority of the lineup, too, (and this goes for the Xbox One as well) is cross-generation, meaning you can find the same games on PS3 and Xbox 360. So while “Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag” may look amazing running at a native 1080p resolution, it’s still effectively the same game as you’d get on PS3 (or Xbox One or Xbox 360). However, third-party games, such as that one, often have been cited as having optimum performance on PS4 as opposed to other consoles.
That said, the biggest standout of the launch lineup may be “Resogun,” a side-scrolling shooter that has its roots in the arcade classic “Defender,” which is a terrific graphical showcase and addictively fun, if a bit simple. Also, it’s a freedownload if you’re a PlayStation Plus subscriber (a service that I cannot recommend enough, as it provides access to online multiplayer but also provides users multiple free games each month).
The quality of the games may not be a shining standard, but there’s lots to choose from, at least, especially in the way of free games. Games such as “Warframe,” “DC Universe Online” and “Blacklight: Tango Down” are all games that are free to download and play right out of the box.
IS IT WORTH IT?
That’s difficult for me to say in 100 percent objective terms. I love the PS4. I love the additions and modifications that Sony has made to the platform and I love the overall functionality of the system and the ease of use. I’m a fan of the game franchises that are exclusive to Sony’s platforms and so I know I’m going to absolutely get my money’s worth out of the system.
If you’re a hardcore gamer, chances are you’ll find the same level of excitement and value out of it that I have. Sony, I think, is wise to focus largely on this as a games machine instead of trying to make it an all-in-one media box the way Microsoft has positioned the Xbox One. (I haven’t had a chance to use a One, so my personal jury is still out on that system.) But if you’re a parent or more casual gamer unsure if you want to drop several hundred dollars on this new system, it’s probably best to hold off until at least midway through next year once the library of exclusive games is more robust.