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.
One of the best things about the PS4 is the ability to jump between screens quickly. Hitting the PS button on the controller, for example, instantly brings up the main interface, where you can access other features without closing your game. Double-tapping the PS button, for example, takes you into the last app you were in. So, for instance, you can pause a game and quickly call up the console's Web browser to check for hints on how to pass a part you're stuck on, then immediately switch back into the game. It's seamless and amazingly fast.
What about games?
Although it's positioned as the console for core gamers, the PS4 is relatively short on big core launch titles, at least in comparison to the Xbox One. Killzone: Shadow Fall, as a first-person shooter, is the obvious flagship launch game. Its graphics are stunning and do a great job of highlighting the console's technical capabilities, but the game itself is underwhelming. Knack, a brawling platformer, is also a visual showcase and a lot of fun – although it is aimed more at children and is a little too long for what it is. (My separate reviews of Killzone here, and Knack here.)
Otherwise, the PS4 is counting on visually buffed versions of current-generation games such Skylanders: Swap Force and FIFA 14, plus an army of indie games such as ResoGun and Contrast, to entice byers this holiday season. Sony is promising 20 exclusive games within the console's first year, with a dozen of them being brand new franchises. The company has a solid track record of producing excellent exclusives, so there's little doubt that more, good first-party games are coming.
Sony has put significant effort into redesigning its iconic Dualshock controller, to the point where it's a thing of beauty now. Its handles are slightly longer, which provides for a better grip, and its bottom shoulder buttons are now more trigger-like. While the Xbox 360 was the console of choice for fans of shooter games thanks mainly to its controller triggers, the PS4 is now more on par.
The "start" button from previous Dualshock controllers has been scrapped, here most of its usual functions are merged with the old "select" button for a new "options" button. It's conveniently placed adjacent to the right thumbstick, so pausing and accessing menus is quick and easy. The same goes for the "share" button on the left side. It's amazingly easy to put the game on hold and launch right into uploading gameplay pictures and video (more on this below).
The entire controller is more weighty and comfortable, mainly because of the new touch pad squeezed in between its shoulder buttons. The pad also adds new functionality for game developers – in Killzone, for example, quick swipes on it sends instructions to your drone sidekick.
It's possible the pad may prove to be an unnecessary gimmick: One big complaint among non-gamers is that console controllers, with their myriad buttons and thumbsticks, are already too complicated to learn. The touchpad, which potentially adds even more controls to games, only makes that situation worse.
The addition of a speaker within the controller itself, however, is more intriguing. I actually forgot it was there until I picked up an audio log in Killzone, which then started playing back through the controller. Even though I've experienced this kind of feature on Nintendo's Wii U, it still gave me a start. It's a small, neat touch that – in the right hands – will enhance games.
Last but not least, the Dualshock 4 has the PlayStation Move built into it. The front of the controller resembles a Battlestar Galactica Cylon of sorts, with an eye-slit-like light that glows blue, red or yellow. The light actually serves a few purposes – in Killzone, it's a quick gauge of your character's health (red is dire), but it also enables motion tracking. (More on this in the next section.)
All told, the PS4 packs an impressive amount of technology into its controller. It's a huge step up from its predecessor that will not only make Sony's console a more credible competitor for shooters, it also opens up enticing new possibilities for developers.
Downloads and interconnections
The PlayStation Store is largely unchanged from the PS3, although any purchased TV shows and movies are now streamed rather than downloaded. One nifty change to game downloads is the ability for publishers to offer prioritized downloads. Say you want to buy a digital version of Call of Duty: Ghosts – rather than waiting for the whole thing to download before playing, you can now choose to get the multiplayer mode first. When it's finished, you can go ahead and play while the single-player continues to download.
Canadians are, as usual, getting short-changed when it comes to non-game video apps, with only four – Netflix, Crackle, Crunchy Roll and NHL Game Centre – available at launch. Americans, in comparison, are getting 11, including apps such as Hulu. Still, Netflix is really the only one that matters.
While Microsoft has made its motion– and voice-sensing Kinect an integral feature of its own next-generation console, the Xbox One, the PS4 isn't exactly lacking in these technologies. Sony, however, has wisely made them all optional – players can pick up the $60 Eye camera if they want, but it's not necessary.
The Playroom is an included app on the console that shows off some amazing augmented reality possibilities by integrating the Eye, the Dualshock's Move capabilities and the free PlayStation smartphone and tablet app. AR Robots, for example, lets you play with a group of comical robots. Wave at them and they'll wave back, or hoover them up off the screen into your controller. Once they're in there, you'll see them huddled inside the Dualshock, where pressing buttons results in corresponding tremors in their surroundings. Their surprised reactions are amusing and delightful.
The app, which will be available soon after launch, lets you create toys that the robots can play with. You can, for example, draw a ball on your tablet, then flick it towards the TV, where it appears in full 3D glory. The robots then start batting it around. It's cutesy stuff, to be sure, but it's definitely got that "wow" factor that I'd really like to see expanded.
The social sharing features
Virtually none of the PS4's online capabilities were working prior to launch, a fact that still holds true as of press time. It's therefore hard to assess them and, more to the point, without public stress testing it's highly likely that there will be problems once millions jump onto Sony's servers on Friday. The best anyone can hope for is that any issues end up being minor and short-lived.
In a demo of these features at the New York event, Sony representatives showed off the controller's sharing features. A simple push of the "share" button immediately gives players three options: they can upload a screenshot to Facebook or Twitter, up to 15 minutes of their latest gameplay footage to Facebook, or launch a real-time broadcast of their game via Twitch or Ustream.
The video upload function includes an easy-to-use editor, where clips can be shortened and chopped up. Similarly, players can launch live broadcasts of their games that others can watch online. The function allows picture-in-picture if the broadcaster has the Eye camera, so you can see the player as well as what he or she is playing. Observers can also input comments in real-time, which the person broadcasting can then answer "on air."
Personally, I can't imagine too many things more boring than watching other people play video games, and I'm dreading seeing my Facebook feed load up with such videos. Still, it will appeal to a certain subset of inventive gamers who will put it to good use, not least of which are those who want to immortalize their own humiliation of friends in multiplayer games. One note of caution for Canadians – where monthly broadband caps are relatively low – these uploading and broadcasting functions are likely to chew up a lot of bandwidth.
While casual games on smartphones and tablets have captured some of the game industry's dollars, consoles aren't going anywhere. They're still the best way to enjoy immersive, interactive escapism, and the PS4 represents a new high-water mark in delivering that experience.
There will inevitably be hiccups with the PS4's online functions at launch – it'll be a minor miracle if Sony manages to avoid major problems – so early-days buyers should be prepared for delays.
For serious gamers, it's not really a question of "if" they're going to buy a PS4, but "when." Despite the massive install base of the current generation, developers are shifting their resources to the newer, more powerful machines. It won't be long before all of the good games are coming out exclusively on next-generation consoles, with the PS3 and Xbox 360 eventually resigned to the same dustbin filled with Famicoms and Sega Dreamcasts of eras gone by.
And one final note: unless you're a PlayStation loyalist there are other choices in the console market you might consider. So stay tuned, next week I'll have a review of the PS4's main competitor: Microsoft's Xbox One.