The next gen is here! Or half of it anyway. Sony's PS4 has come in first the haphazard sprint to the new-console finish line, and it's pretty awesome.
What Is It?
It's the PlayStation Freakin' 4. The first new Sony console since 2006. A gaming station for gamers who like to game. A beautiful slab of $549 hardware that puts pretty explosions on your TV screen. The first of the two titans of next-gen gaming (sorry Wii U).
Why Does It Matter?
It's been forever since we've had a debut like this. With Nintendo off on its own wacky schedule with its own wacky (but neat!) hardware, Microsoft and Sony are in a two-horse race to win the hearts and thumbs of traditional gamers. Neither has shown us new console hardware since the PS3 launched back in November 2006.
Back then, Sony was still riding the wild success of the PS2, but this time, Sony's coming from behind in terms of raw sales; the 360 maintained a 32-month winning streak as the best-selling console, interrupted only by a deft PS3 Grand Theft Auto V bundle. It's also facing a tectonic shift in what a console is in 2013. Digital distribution, downloadable games, social media integration, entertainment apps; it's not just about horsepower anymore. It's about anchoring people's living rooms for the next decade and beyond.
We've spent enough time with the PS4 to have strong first impressions, but we will be updating this post as more features go live.
The real meat of the PS4 is, of course, inside the actual console, that slick, slanted black box with a shock of glossy plastic along its upper left side. It's biggish but not gigantic — 11 inches wide, a foot long, and two inches high, roughly the size of a small pizza box. The disc slot and the two USB controller ports sit on the front, in the gap between the box's upper and lower halves, tucked away in to make the whole thing seem monolithic and stark. Likewise, the "buttons" take the form of two, vertical capacitive touch areas that are terrifically subtle, and therefore easy to graze by accident.
It's miles and miles more attractive than the weird launch PS3 with its awkward bubble. It'll probably fit better into your entertainment centre or onto a shelf below your TV too, so long as you've got a foot of depth for it, but basically if you had room for PS3 or the fat Xbox 360, you've got room for the PS4. Of if you live like an animal with your TV on a small groady table and boxes on the floor, you are good too. Believe me, I can tell you.
Turning on the PS4, you're greeted by a trench of light between the two halves on the topside that "breathes" blue. The light retreats to just the front third or so of the console's top, and glows a nice white when it's up and running, and pulses red on shutdown. It's superfluous, but it feels very future.
And that's a fitting summary for the whole console. Sure, the slanted design and the lights and the stripe of glossy black look fancy, but the PS4 is still just a black box that looks mostly like other black boxes. Xboxes, Sega Saturns, PS2s, most consoles turn into a black bar with a light that's under your TV, and the PS4 is no different. That's fine, good even; it's not about the box but rather what the box can do for you.
Inside, the PS4 is a completely different beast from its predecessor. With a whole new x86 architecture instead of the PS3's labyrinthine Cell-based guts, the PS4 is closer to a PC — and to an Xbox — than ever. That hypothetically makes it easier for developers to work with, but also has serious implications for how this particular black box performs.
Once the console has found its resting place, it'll glow every now and then and you'll hardly think about it. It's unobtrusive by design. The real hands-on part of this package is the new DualShock 4 controller. Hot damn is it nice.
The DS4's layout is instantly identifiable as a PlayStation controller: d-pad and buttons in the same places as the previous generation, sticks toward the bottom, a pair of bumpers, a pair of triggers. That's good. But the ways in which it departs from its predecessor are even better.
The PlayStation button has moved down a little more squarely between the twin thumbsticks to make room for the fancy new touchpad — a clickable little ditty, as though a laptop trackpad made a baby with a Blackberry Storm. To the left and right sides are the two new, practically flush buttons that replace start and select: "options" and "share." On the back, another huge new addition, a smooshed pentagon of light that will occasionally glow white or blue or red or green mid-game as some sort of inexplicable mood lighting, or if you're trying to interact with the PS4's optional PlayStation Camera, which uses the glowing beacon to spot your controller.
But enough about how it looks. The only real question is how does it feel. And the answer is fan-freaking-tastic. It's a drastic improvement over the old DualShock 3. Massive. The sticks — which are slightly smaller and wonderfully tighter than they were last time around — have little lips of rubber around the edges that'll help keep your thumbs from running off the edge, and are grippy enough that you hardly even need them. Expect a lot of folks who thought that they needed their sticks to be off-set (Xbox-style) to realise that side-by-side sticks are OK too. It was just the DS3 that sorta sucked.
Another big gripe about the PS3 — the L2 and R2 triggers on the back — are wildly improved, to the point of being actual triggers instead of a squishy, outwardly curving mess. The DS4 triggers curve inwards (like triggers should), and while they still feel a little squishy compared to an Xbox 360 controller, they're terrific in their own right, and super terrific compared to the act they're following. Expect your PS4 shooters to follow Killzone: Shadow Fall's lead and start mapping fire to the triggers instead of the bumpers as a general rule. Pulling R2 to fire feels good now, instead of totally absurd.
The PlayStation Camera is a rectangular little bugger with two front-facing, wide-angle lenses, and four front-facing microphones. It's an optional $90 add on — unlike Kinect, which is packed in with Xbox One — and you need it to use any of the PS4's fun interactive features like facial logins, or picture-in-picture streaming.
It comes with a handy little foldable stand, which makes perching it anywhere pretty trivial. And just like the new Kinect and the previous PlayStation camera, there aren't any moving parts — aside from a manual tilt-option — which is always a good thing.
On that stand, it looks enough like Johnny 5 that it will freak you out a little.
We know how to play games, we promise, but our buddies over at Kotaku play them more and play them better. For a more hardcore, games-centric take on the PS4 and a closer look at its launch line-up, you can — and should! — check out Kotaku's PS4 review too.
Man if you've been stuck on PS3s and Xbox 360s you are in for a treat. And if you've been stuck on a PC, well, you are haven't really been "stuck" and are in for basically more of the same. Surprise surprise, next-gen games are roided up last-gen games. Textures are higher res, performance is great despite way higher demands, explosions are exploisionier, dust is dustier, rain is rainier. We knew this already, but it's better in person.
It's important to remember that this is just a launch, so the selection of games is limited and launch games are historically not the best display of a system's power. Devs haven't learned to harness these machines as well as they will in a year or two. Also this is a pre-launch review, so the selection of games we can talk about is even more limited.
But from what we've seen (a lot of Killzone and Knack and a few other things the quality of which we can not really speak), the PS4 has made a great case for itself as a pumped-up, but little more. Things look better but the new functionality is just sorta... extra.
Yes, the controller has a touchpad now, but you'll hardly use it except as a touchscreen d-pad in Killzone. A touchscreen d-pad you'll brush over while you're reaching your right thumb over to the real d-pad without taking your left thumb off "run".
Similarly, the whole speaker-in-a-controller thing is neat. It's been neat since the Wii did it, but it's never been vital. And the PS4 doesn't change that. Killzone audio-logs play from that speaker. Smashy crystal collectables in Knack make a smashy crystal sound from that speaker. Yeah sure it's OK I guess or whatever but mostly whatever.
And when it comes to the PlayStation Camera, take what you just read and multiply it by two. At least. Again, this is only launch, but games that utilise the camera are sparse. Just Dance is a launch title and... that's about it. Maybe that'll change if there are cross-platform games that have crucial Kinect controls, but that seems unlikely. That's not to say that it's bad; just that there's no real reason to buy one. Not until there are games you can actually play with it.
The best showcase for the PS4's new stuff is the Playroom, an AR demo loaded up on every box. You saw it at E3, but take another look at the trailer; Sony's models are far prettier than I am.
It's pretty true to life, if a little less exciting in person. You can take a bunch of robots and shake them around in your controller using the DualShock 4's new version of motion control. You can make it dark by covering the controller's "window." You can flick them out using the touchpad. You can suck them back in by clicking it. It's fun, it's dumb, and it's about the only thing (so far) that takes all of the PS4's newfound abilities into account.
Actually, on second thought, I am pretty attractive, so here's a shot of me — slack-jawed as always — vacuuming up robots in my filthy apartment.
We'd also be remiss not to mention that — unlike the PS3 — multiplayer is not free on the PS4. Not. Free. If you want to play online, you'll have to pick up a membership for PlayStation Plus, Sony's Xbox Live counterpart. Streaming video is still free, fortunately, but online folks are going to have to cough up some dough. Either to pay for a PlayStation Plus subscription or to go buy a gaming PC. Sorry guys. We're bummed about it too.
The PS4's interface is a more image-based, more colourful and most importantly faster version of what you've seen on the PS3. Where the PS3 interface was a lot of lists, the PS4 is a lot of tiles. Where the PS3 was laggy and slow, the PS4 is not.
When you log in, you're greeted with a horizontal stripe of tiles that lists all your games, apps, and whatnot, and if you select one, you get pulled into a little app- or game-specific screen that displays fun, applicable stuff like shortcuts to multiplayer, or recently uploaded clips of said game by friends of yours.
In addition to games and media apps, there's a built-in place for you to go and spectate folk's game streams and highlight clips right on your TV screen. There's also a web browser, complete with a cursor that curiously is operated by the thumbstick and thumbstick alone as opposed to the trackpad that's part of the controller. It's strange. Also, do not use a web browser on your television. That should go without saying.
Above your row of apps you'll find a row of smaller icons. This is where things like settings and trophies live, but also where you can change your profile, get messages, and check your friends list. Speaking of which!
Friends factor into the PS4 experience in a big way (you can add up to 2,000 of 'em if you're popular enough). But since not all friends are created equal, PSN has two versions of friendship: avatar and screen name buds, and photo and real name buds. No matter what level though, you can only friend someone who wants to reciprocate. No creepstalking on PSN. And once you collect some pals, their activity will show up in your custom activity feed.
What you can do with those friends — and the internet at large — is actually pretty neat. At any given time, the PS4 is keeping a video record of what you're doing. Basically a 15-minute dash cam. And if you find yourself having done something HELLA DOPE like surviving a five-against-one stand-off in Battlefield 4 multiplayer or whathaveyou, you can just press the share button to call up that visual history, edit it down some and push it out to your social networks. Well, you can push videos out to Facebook. Twitter is screenies only.
If you'd like to narrate your videos with David Attenborough-style voice overs, your options are slim for now. You can dig into the settings and configure your headset mic (or PlayStation Camera, if you have one) to record audio all the time, so it's there when you share your clips. But that's it. There's nothing you can add in post yet. No after-the-fact audio or picture-in-picture or nothing. At least not yet.
But sharing stuff post-craziness is only one option. You can also stream your screen — and your hideous, grimacing face (with PS camera) live through the stupid simple Ustream and Twitch integration. Just pop open the menu, pick your streaming-service poison, make a few choices about whether to stream your face and/or if you want live comments to come up on your screen and you are good to go. There are checkboxes that let you push links out to your Twitter and Facebook as well. It's almost scarily easy. There are going to be a lot of people doing this just because they can. But more power to 'em, I guess. Game like everyone's watching.
The biggest thing to note about the PSN social scene, though, is that it's a freaking ghost town right now. Which makes sense! The PS 4 doesn't officially launch until Friday. We'll be back to update once we get a feel for what it's like to have friends, on PSN and hopefully someday also in real life.
The PlayStation Store gets a big refresh too, and just like the rest of the PS4 UI, the first thing you'll notice is that it's blazingly fast, no lag in sight. When it comes to big, blockbuster games, day one digital downloads are a great way to skip gaming retailers. The problem is waiting to pull down a 20GB+ game that you want to play now. To help mitigate the foot-tapping, PS4 lets you download either the single or multiplayer version first, but more importantly you can also start playing as soon as your download begins.
Meanwhile, TV shows and movies from the PlayStation Store have gone the other direction: no downloads required. Unlike on the PS3, where you actually had to wait for content to come down and also clog up your hard drive with it, the PlayStation Store on the PS4 finally lets you stream.
At launch, the selection of apps with which you can watch stuff in Australia is sorta sparse. The list includes Crackle, Machinima, MUZU TV, Network Ten’s tenplay, Quickflix, SBS On Demand, TED and Twitch. They look nice, with interfaces that fit the PS4 style nicely.
It's not bad for launch, but the real question is how things will look a few months from now. Hopefully a little better.
If you pick yourself up a PlayStation camera, you'll find it is integrated into the PS4 experience proper, but not especially deeply, as you might expect from something optional. It has a few tricks though. Along with a microphone or headset plugged into your controller, it allows for voice commands. Bark "playstation" and you can get the box to start listening to you, at which point you can say the name of an app to jump to it and say "start" to get going. It works reasonably well for the most part, though we found ourselves often having to repeat and enunciate. And sometimes — if you try to switch to an app while something else is already running and get the "you wanna close this?" dialog — you'll wind up at a menu where voice isn't going to work.
When it comes to actual visual stuff, there's a relative dearth of options as well. Using the PS camera you can login by face; if the camera spots a face it knows it'll suggest logging you in, and you can hold up controller to confirm. Our experience with this was iffy, but it could get better with a software update. Either way, having to confirm really takes the magic out of it. You know, because you could just login with that controller you're holding juuust as easily.
There's also the issue of where to place the camera. The Playroom demo instructs you to snap it 20 inches from the ground, but then Just Dance asks you to perch it on top of your TV. Sure it's easy enough to move, but that's a pain, especially if there's no consistent placement preference among the many, many games that will use it.
The only other real extra to consider is the PlayStation Vita, which you can use to enable Wii U-style remote play, putting the PS4's library literally in your hands. We do not have a PlayStation Vita, but we got to the opportunity to use one to remote play Need For Speed: Rivals at Sony's PlayStation review event, and the results were promising. The image quality was great (aside from a little noticeable tearing) and I was able to look back and forth from the Vita to the TV and control just as easily from both. The Vita doesn't have any rear triggers, so L and R buttons are mapped to the touchscreen, which is weird but fine.
It's nothing to go out and buy a Vita for, but it's a huge plus if you already have one.
Man this is serious next-gen, and next-gen is seriously great. It goes without saying — but I'll say it anyway — that the graphics and performance on this sucker are badass. You've been seeing trailers and gameplay footage of this stuff for nigh on two years now though, so you know that already.
The DualShock 4 is boss. Sure, the Xbox 360 got this right years ago, but after suffering through DS3 for so long, the new controller is a real joy. And even not in the context of last generation's failure; it's a great piece of hardware that was clearly, painstakingly designed to sit in your hands for hours on end. You can feel that. It is great.
The updates to PSN are another breath of fresh air. The PS3 interface was old, tired, and slow, in need of a big overhaul on a skeletal level. And that's not to mention all the new social hooks. It's hard to believe, but social media as we know it — as we breathe it — mostly exploded after the last generation of consoles had already launched. It's easy to forget, but the rise of streaming also came after the PS3/Xbox 360 launched.
The PS4 is definitely a great gaming machine in the tradition of the PS3 before it, but its new functionality comes off as a little half-baked. That's totally understandable for a launch console, but that doesn't make it any less disappointing. Sharing videos and screenshots is great, but your options of how and where to share them are limited. Having no option outside of Facebook for videos is a real bummer. Likewise having no way make video or picture and then just link to them instead of pushing them out to social networks is a drag.
Likewise the DualShock 4's new tricks are going relatively underutilised, and it seems likely they'll continue to. I mean, the occasion that you used six-axis motion control on the PS3 were few and far between, and almost universally groan-worthy. The PS4 is pushing indie titles in the store pretty hard this time around though, and maybe those will be more likely to take some chances and experiment, versus big, first-party games.
The good news is, almost all of the PS4's issues right now could be solved with creative developers and/or a software update, but for now the PS4 is very much a better PS3. Which is to say it's better in a whole lot of ways, but there's nothing here to really blow your hair back. It's what you'd expect from the consoles of the past brought into the present, a console whose form is primarily inspired by decade's old traditions, as opposed to what you'd expect from something that is made from 100 per cent future.
Should You Buy It?
Not yet. I mean, if you're some sort of Sony diehard who can never possibly be swayed to the Microsoft side, then sure. The PS4 is a good console. There is nothing aggressively wrong with it as to scare away or displease a devoted fanboy. You will like it, you will be happy.
But if you're relatively console neutral, or even just open-minded? Wait. The Xbox One is right around the corner, and it would be stupid not to wait a measly week or so to see what sort of counterpoint it offers.
Beyond that, take a look at the launch line-up before you go about and buy anything. If you don't need to play Battlefield 4 or Call of Duty: Ghosts on a next gen console right freaking now, you can stand to wait. You've still got some time before the really fun stuff, the potential system-sellers (Infamous: Second Son, Destiny, Metal Gear Solid 5, etc, etc) start coming out. And in general, waiting a year or so on a new console isn't the worst thing in the world; games will be more sophisticated, graphics will be better, maybe you'll even probably see a price drop if you wait long enough. Just saying.
So, yes, the PS4 is good. The PS4 is great! But it's only one half of an equation years in the making. You can wait like a few more weeks to see both sides of it.