Summoned to New York, enticed by the promise of two full days of PlayStation 4, we returned with new information and the system in-hand. After that albeit brief hands-on time we can finally state what we think…after a handful of days entranced by a slick, stylish, powerful piece of hardware with promise and potential in spades.
But to call it a fair review at this point is disingenuous. We can only review the opening salve of a system designed to last probably ten years. PlayStation 4 today is going be a very different system, different beast, different experience, than the one we will use a year from now, certainly two years, and it may not be recognizable (save for the core hardware architecture design) in ten years.
So this is what we think at this consumer-time birthing. And there won’t be a score…because putting a score on a system at launch is, well, pointless and, frankly, dumb.
Damn, it’s pretty. We’ve seen the physical system for some time now, and it looks great. Sleek with its angled front plates (allegedly to make it easier to press those panels as button to both turn the system on and eject discs…though I don’t remember the time I pressed a button on a machine to turn on a console…). It has subtle white and blue lighting cues to inform both readiness and potential problems. But it’s a box likely hidden in an entertainment system, and hardly the most important feature.
Interestingly, the Dualshock 4 has emerged as a fascinating piece of this hardware story. It does feel good, a little weighty, in your hands, with comfortably beveled analog sticks (even for those that prefer the off-set styling). The triggers are tight and curve the right way. The Share and Options button are almost flush to the face of the controller, which means that you can’t accidentally hit them, but also makes them a little awkward to select in some situations.
What’s going to be most intriguing in the months ahead is how developers use both the track pad and the big, bright light. For some PC-conversion launch games (like DC Universe Online) there’s no immediate natural fit for using the track pad, but for Warframe, the developers introduced a sweep motion on the pad to fire off secondary powers. It’s pretty neat and responsive, and when games are designed specifically for this machine, I’ve no doubt we’ll see numerous inventive methods of integrating sweeps and presses with the requirements of the game.
It was oddly fascinating to see how different developers utilized the programmable light function. In one game it turned shades of red to indicate taking damage. In another it shone brightly to alert you that you were in the light. In another it simply, effectively, matched your character’s power element (red for fire, blue for cold). And obviously this is just the start of what’s a small, but potentially very creative use of a simple light.
Fundamentally, the controller is slick, full of functionality, comfortable, and designed this time around for actual gamers, not for design’s sake.
Walking through the interface was on the one hand familiar and on the other enlightening as a new generation of software functionality reminds us that these expensive boxes are not just for games. But with the PS4 it does appear that access to your games, your friends, your trophies, and the PS Store sit collectively atop the focus list of what’s quickly and seamlessly accessible. If you’re playing a game and want to check out any other part of the interface, hitting the PS button instantly pauses and keeps the game loaded while you multi-task, say, in the Store. Press the PS button again and you’re playing again. Instantly.
Talking of the Store, the redesign is pretty clear, but the new large-format selection boxes mean you don’t see many options on screen. Right now it may not be an issue, but a year-plus down the line and the volume of content could make scrolling a real pain. However, a real plus is the ability in some games—at the publishers’ discretion—to let you choose what part of the game you want to download. So you’ve decided to buy Killzone (go ahead, right now nobody will blame you) and want to download it. You can select to start downloading the single or multiplayer portions depending on what you plan to play first. If you’re a multiplayer fan, go for that option and the smaller amount of data required native on your machine to get going means you’ll be quickly in the game. It’s a very neat touch for those people who get the late call to jump in a game of X and you get to choose how to make that happen as fast as possible. Kudos Sony, on a small but very handy function.
Then you’ve got the mighty Share button. We’ll gloss over the fact that HDCP is on so there’s no capturing for editing in your own way and posting to video sites like, oh, say, YouTube, and focus on what you can do—which is capture gameplay, using the rudimentary trimming and voice-over controls, and post to the walled garden of your PSN buddies or Facebook. And that’s disappointing.
But you can stream to Twitch, which is sorta great if the quality of the stream wasn’t quite so damn poor. Tons of gamers will get excited to showcase their skills through the streaming service, but how many are going to get views, and what’s going to make the cream rise to the top? This function has a ton of people excited for the system, but how it plays out over the next few months will determine whether it boosts interest or becomes an occasional curio.
This is the shocking part. Sony’s line-up for PlayStation 4 launch is driven by third-party titles. The likes of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, Battlefield 4, and Need for Speed: Rivals are much more system-seller material than Killzone and, ahem, Knack. Now Killzone deserves mention because, boy, is it pretty. If you want to show off to friends and family how your system is really next-gen, then that’s the choice. (DriveClub would certainly have filled that role if it hadn’t, disappointingly, been delayed).
If you didn’t see the lack of enthusiasm for Knack coming then you weren’t paying close enough attention. That was a weird choice right out of the announcement gate, and no surprise its interest serves more as a curiosity than the pick of launch options.
What helps make up for this is that two games are available for free right out the gate—Contrast and Resogun. Early word is that Resogun could have Geometry Wars-like legs in providing fun (free fun no less) on the system. But likely a huge selling-point for gamers begging parents to invest in a new system is the slew of quality free-to-play games available at launch.
Blacklight Retribution is a tight, stylish, fundamentally fun shooter that’s garnered a devoted PC audience and now is available on PS4. For a change of pace, there’s simply no reason not to try SOE’s DC Universe Online. Tweaks to the core mechanics over its time on the PC, powered by the thoughts and ideas of a solid audience, have helped shape a fun MMO that’s got Batman and Superman…and that should be enough on its own (though the new art and significantly increased draw distances really do add tremendous scale to the locations, and by extension your sense of power as a superhero in this DC world.).
We’re also really high on Digital Extremes’ Warframe, which has evolved considerably since its PC free-to-play debut. The fact that you can play and unlock every weapon, ability, enhancement, and doodad in the game without paying a dime (so long as you put in the time) is impressive enough for gamers on a tight budget after the big purchase, but it’s backed by a slick sci-fi action backdrop that appears to be hitting a higher gear on the back of feedback from the community.
Great experiences all three of them, and available at launch, for free. Takes some beating.
What’s to come? Well, Metal Gear (and that might be enough for many people), inFamous, and this is where the mid-term future for PS4 is not quite so competitive. Still, mention the words Gran Turismo, Uncharted or, amusingly, The Last Guardian and many gamers will just sit and wait, happy with playing free-to-plays and all the great indie games courted at release.
Start with PlayStation+, which makes some interesting changes for the PS4. The first to note is that, like Xbox Live, it’s now required for you to play multiplayer against other people. A big deal that really few commentators seem to care about, it seems (like Microsoft broke down the door, now Sony can waltz through with barely a peep). But the fact that some services like Netflix exist outside the PS+ barrier is huge. To be able to use some of these key entertainment functions and not be required to cough up the extra $50 a year in addition can also tip the balance for some buyers currently on the fence.
You also get the free games with PS+ and it seems like a service that, while adopting many cues from Xbox Live, is going to more than handle itself competitively when it comes to building on these features.
We also have to mention the PS Eye, the $60 add-on that enhances the original model for some log-in recognition but we can’t see generating much excitement. Once plugged in you have to scan your face from three angles for it to generate its profile. When that’s complete, it should recognize your face and automatically log you in…but it’s not as seamless as the Kinect, nor in our tests, as efficient at recognizing people and voices. But we’ve seen it set up, we’ve seen it work, and with the right applications down the line, is a viable option for a number of applications.
PlayStation 4 right out of the box (assuming you didn’t get a dud) is a super-impressive piece of kit that oozes potential. The disappointing surprise is the lack of quality first-party games at launch, but it’s more than made up for by great third-party franchises and a stellar line-up of free-to-plays. Right there, those games guarantee you can do “something” with your PS4 the moment you switch it on.
If Killzone merely hints at the potential of what we might see a year or so down the line, then what the hell magic could someone like Hideo Kojima conjure for Metal Gear? It’s mind-boggling. But the system is clearly powerful, the launch hardware issues are likely just that and will be forgotten, despite lingering questions about the ability to cool such a powerful machine.
Like we’ll say for the other one, it’s a great piece of kit that will ultimately be defined by how it advances its software and services, and what the power under the hood allows the developers of said content to achieve.