The first thing that anyone familiar with the PS3 will notice when they turn on the new Playstation 4 is just how much faster the user interface is. Technology has come a long way in the 7 years since Sony’s last system was released, and in that time we have seen smartphones and tablets change the market and start encroaching on the gaming industry. While playing on the small screen will never take the place of long game sessions in front of a 50″ HDTV, the big hardware players certainly must have felt pressure to make their new machines feel “compatible” with these changing times. Both the Playstation 3 and the Xbox 360 have taken advantage of their ability to update in order to extend their life well beyond what was expected of them, but hardware can only be pushed so far before its limitations start to show. The biggest issue with the PS3 from a user perspective had to be the inordinate amounts of time wasted while updating or waiting to move between screens or booting into the Playstation Store. I liked my (fat) Playstation 3, but the sluggish performance and the lack of Xbox Live (more on that later) kept me from playing anything but console exclusive games for the most part. It feels so right to have a console that can keep up. I got to go hands-on with Sony’s new system and put it through its paces this weekend. My take away: Its a damn good video game console!
The PS4’s dashboard is still based on the XMB (Cross Media Bar) of the Playstation Portable and PS3, but it has been given a full face lift that makes it much more appealing to the eye. Big images pop in high resolution and make navigation fluid and easy. The media hubs from the PS3 are noticeably absent from the primary menu since the PS4 does not currently have DLNA or MP3 support. This exclusion has been known for a week or so now, and it was a poor choice on Sony’s part. Their transparency on this issue and claims that support will be added via a future system update should ease the concerned minds of those expecting the PS4 to be the center of their entertainment experience (assuming the “the future” doesn’t take too long). Profiles provide a richer experience now that they can be linked to Facebook. The improvements carry over to the trophy system as well, which now ranks trophies by rarity. It just adds to the meta game to know that you may be part of only 0.1% of all players of a game to have unlocked the platinum for instance. Trophy’s still require a “sync” to Playstation Network to view up-to-date unlocks, but thankfully the time it takes to perform the operation has been drastically reduced. Furthermore, accessing the Playstation Store is now almost instantaneous. It is hard to judge how easy to navigate the store will be because the selection is so bare at the moment, but if the current experience is any indication, the new Playstation Store is going to be a joy to use as it continues to grow.
I can’t understate what an improvement the new Dualshock 4 is over the 3, either. The shape of the hand grips feels perfectly engineered for comfort, and the textured plastic on the backside prevents your hands from accidentally slipping (I don’t know about you, but I suffer from sweaty palms). The L2 and R2 triggers are no longer squishy, convex abominations, but are now concave and feel a bit more resistant as you depress them. The analog sticks also feel much more solid and accurate, while the new design prevents your thumb from slipping off. In terms of actual new features of the controller, the touchpad located above the analog sticks should allow for interesting new possibilities for developers in the future. The instances I saw it used for felt a little tacked on, but I can say that it accurately translated my gestures and swipes every time, so I look forward to see it better integrated into gameplay. There is also a new built-in speaker, but I can’t give it much praise. It delivers decent sound quality and nothing more. The Wii did this with the Wiimote, and it didn’t impress me then either. Everything else about the controller feels about the same, and that is a good thing. The Dualshock 4 might be the best controller ever built.
Sony hasn’t been pushing one of the Playstation 4’s most impressive features, and that is the ability to stream straight to the PS Vita. Say what you will, but the ability to play your next-gen games on a dual analog handheld device is beyond cool. A few years ago, handheld devices were barely pushing Playstation 2 era graphics, and all of a sudden, this! I’ll stop gushing for a moment… I was playing on a reliable local network, and never experienced any lag or frame rate issues. Those trying to play remotely over the internet or a mobile connection may run into hiccups, and perhaps this is why Sony isn’t advertising this ability on the PS4 further. Even if it is only usable locally, for those who own a Vita, it makes buying a PS4 a no-brainer. The only complaints I can muster have to do with control mapping and the Vita’s display. Because the Vita is missing the L2/R2 triggers and the L3/R3 analog buttons, these functions were remapped to each of the four corners of the handheld’s touchpad on the rear of the device. Developers may be able to independently program how controls are remapped– I’m unaware– but this setup seemed to be the case for both Need For Speed Rivals and Resogun, and the results were inaccurate and unreliable the majority of the time. As for the display, the Vita only outputs at 960×544… a significant drop from the 1080p that you get when playing on a PS4, proper. But really, it is hard to fuss about the shortcomings too much when this feature even exists. Kudos, Sony!
I cancelled my PS4 preorder when the launch lineup was announced. Knack didn’t appeal to me, and even though Killzone looks better than ever, the gameplay that Guerrilla Games had shown looked extremely tired. Hoping it would surprise me, I jumped into Killzone’s campaign and got lost in the beautiful environments and top notch facial animations. That is as far as my enjoyment for the game went, though. Granted I only got a few missions in, but the game is boring and its design is totally unintuative. Time and time again I found myself trying to figure out what the hell I was supposed to be doing or where I was supposed to be going. Then I tried multiplayer, and everything I enjoyed about Killzone 3’s competitive play seemed to be gone. Bluh! Quick Review for Killzone: Shadowfall… Not worth your time. Moving on. There was one exclusive that I completely overlooked on that launch list: Resogun. I come from a younger generation, but this game is apparently based on the ‘Defender’ formula– think dual stick shooter, except you can only fire to your left and right. You really have to try it for yourself to understand how fun and addictive it can be. Trying to save all the humans, reach max multipliers, and top your own high score will keep you playing over and over the same way Geometry Wars did for those of us who owned an Xbox 360 at launch. And its worth mentioning that it does for voxels what Geometry Wars did for neon particle effects, creating some ridiculous eye candy on screen. It may not be the killer app Sony needs to move consoles, but if you do have a PS4, Resogun is a must play. And it is free with your Playstation Plus membership! The only other game I got to sink some time into was Need for Speed: Rivals. If you are a fan of the series, this seems like one of the better entries since Most Wanted came out at the end of the PS2 era. Rivals is the same game on both current and next-gen systems, so the only thing really worth talking about is the visuals. It is certainly a step up from last years entry in the franchise, but with new hardware, it does still feel a little underwhelming. It makes me anxious to see what a Need for Speed game developed natively for next-gen systems will look like. Until then, Rivals was a lot of fun. I’m still trying to decide if I am going to buy it for myself this Friday when I get my Xbox One, or give in to Forza Motorsport 5.
Sony has built a great system with the Playstation 4, but it needs more games to make it worth buying. With new entries in established franchises like Infamous and Uncharted on there way, and major support for indie titles, the catalog will fill out with time. A Playstation Plus membership is required to play multiplayer online this time around, and I encourage anyone on the fence about it to go ahead and shell out the dough. With everything they give back, it will pay for itself (not to mention you get Resogun!). I got some limited experience with some other system features like sharing, the PS Camera, Playroom, the mobile app, and multitasking, that I didn’t feel like writing about, but if you have any questions, I’ll do my best to answer them.
The PS4’s first major test comes at the end of the week when Microsoft launches the Xbox One. Come back next week to read my impressions and see how both systems compare!
Thanks for reading!