To the delight of living room video gamers everywhere, Sony’s PlayStation 4 hits stores this Friday. Even if you've been anxiously awaiting the arrival of this device for months, there has been little hands-on detail about the games or the hardware, until now.
First, let's deal with the most-asked question: "Will my PS3 games work on the PS4?" Sorry, no. Totally different hardware design means no backwards compatibility. Which means this $399 console is no impulse buy, but it is a pretty good price for a stronger and more powerful device, with a number of nifty add-ons to boot. For the core audience, the PS4 offers up better graphics and the potential for more realistic-looking games. Its sharing functions will expand those social gaming experiences to new people who might want that sort of thing. The optional peripherals also promise some intriguing new possibilities that developers may or may not capitalize on.
I’ve spent several days with new console, so let’s cut to the chase and I’ll tell you what I think:
The PS4 is essentially a parallelogram, or a rectangular box with a slight angle to it. The angle isn’t just a stylistic thing, according to designers – it also has a functional purpose. With a façade that slopes downward just a bit, it’s a little easier to push the power and eject buttons. The slight overhang at its back, meanwhile, hides its cables.
An LED stripe runs down the length of the console and pulses blue when it’s on, or orange when it’s in standby mode. The pulsing is a nice touch – it’s meant to give the impression that the machine is “alive,” as the designers say.
Over all, it’s as decent-looking an addition to the living room as could be expected. The angle and long LED differentiates the PS4 from other Blu-ray players and set-top boxes, making it look a little sleeker than the rest.
How does it perform?
Most buyers will be picking up the PS4 for its improved graphics. The console boasts an eight-core single-chip x86 AMD Jaguar processor and an AMD Radeon graphics core next engine, with 1.84 teraflops per second of shader throughput. If you don’t speak nerd, that means it’s comparable to current high-end gaming PCs. Of course, PCs will continue to improve over the next few years and inevitably end up with a big edge, but at the same time developers are going to learn how to maximize what they have to work with on the PS4. Games a few years from now will inevitably look staggeringly better than launch titles, the same way that early PS3 games now pale compared to current releases for that console.
That said, the launch games already look fantastic. The made-for-PS4 Killzone: Shadow Fall is a visual feast – rain-slicked surfaces reflect light in a way that’s almost too real, while clouds in Knack seem so fluffy that you kind of wish you could lie down on them. The improvements are most noticeable when comparing games that were also released on previous generation consoles. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, for example, looks stunning on the PS3, but even more so on the PS4. The game’s roiling oceans seem that much more realistic on the new console, while other small touches – like footprints on a beach that persist – enhance the realism.
How does it work?
With engineers working on the interface and network features right up until launch, Sony has been quiet on these aspects until this week. The cross media bar (XMB) menu system of the PS3 has been pushed to the background and replaced with a grid of icons that are showcases for Facebook-like “activity feeds.” Navigate onto a game icon, for example, and all kinds of news about it will pop up – any new downloadable content for it will be prominently shown, as will friends’ activities. You can quickly get a glance at which of your friends have uploaded screenshots and gameplay videos in that particular game.
Much of the stuff from the XMB – system settings, trophies and so on – is still accessible, but it’s wisely put into the background behind the main “What’s New” grid. It’s a smart layout, since you can still access all the nuts and bolts, but the things you really want are up front.