Greatness awaits. That's been the main slogan for the PS4 over the last month, along with the party line hashtag #4ThePlayers. But does it really? Have Sony stayed true to their assertions of focusing this console on gamers and developers? The (marathon) race for supremacy in this, the eighth, console generation has begun, and this time both of the big hitters from Microsoft and Sony are out of the gates at the same time. We've already heard about the Xbox One, but what of Sony's machine. After spending most of this year basking in their competitor's PR gaffes and U-turns, Sony's console finally has to stand on its own merits.
So, can it cut it?
The PlayStation 4 is a sexy piece of kit, that much is certain. I had my slight reservations about it early on, but at 275mm x 53mm x 305mm and 2.8 kilos, the frame is both smaller and lighter than the first round of PS3 Slims let alone the original last-gen console itself. There's no ugly power brick you need to find space for, and although at a glance it looks like an obsidian monolithic homage to the National Theatre in some ways, it makes my other consoles look like ugly, jagged crates. Sat next to an Xbox One, it just oozes aesthetic superiority.
Like the Xbox One, the PS4 is split on top into a matte side and a glossy sided, divided by light strip that glows blue when you turn the power on. Though alarm bells might sound ringing when that strip turns yellow, it just means that the console is in Standby Mode. The glossy part is removable and houses the system's hard drive, which can be swapped out. But, unlike the competition, the uniformly solid surfaces downplay the difference between the console's two halves, making it look different by design, rather than appearing like two VCRs glued together. Up front there are two discrete USB 3.0 ports in the central lateral groove, which are much easier to find than they ever were on the PS3. The on/off and eject buttons sit above and below the disc drive respectively, and are a little fiddly given that they're touch receptors rather than actual buttons. At the back, it's all digital with HDMI out the only output, with a supplemental optical port for separate audio setups, and an AUX port for the Camera.
The PS4's quiet, understated design is matched by quiet performance. In amongst the hum of my PC and the dehumidifier in my office, the PS4 purrs almost inaudibly. It registers a mere 2-5 dB in terms of ambient noise when everything is turned off and the windows shut, with only the occasional spin of the disc drive impacting my ear drums in noticeable fashion. Put simply, it easily outstrips the latest versions of the PS3 and Xbox 360 in terms of noise production and is virtually inaudible unless you have a perfectly silent room. It's seriously impressive.
Less impressive, however, is the lack of media consideration or futureproofing. There's an ethernet port for wired online gaming, but the console only supports 802.11b/g/n radio at 2.4 GHz with no 5 GHz support when it comes to wireless, and refuses to support the new 802.11ac standard. That means little right now, but it doesn't bode well for future units, and we expect to see that rectified in future models. Sadly, the PS4 doesn't play nicely with old media equipment either, with no IR port for universal remotes, and no support for the PS3's Bluetooth Blu-Ray remote. Couple this with the fact that the PS4 won't play audio CDs, and you begin to understand Sony's complete focus on the gaming side of things. Beautiful to behold, and boasting fine specs, the PS4 has been built to play games and little else at this point in time, and it's far from an ideal media hub.
It is, though, the most powerful console on the market.
I loathed the DualShock 3. It felt flimsy and light, too small for my hands, with sticks that sat far too close together, and spongy triggers that were uncomfortably unassuming. It's no coincidence that my last two premier console choices have been conducted on the basis of comfort: first the Gamecube, then the Xbox 360. I've always had a PlayStation in my life, but that's been due to Sony's impressive propensity for nurturing exclusive talent, and in spite of its consoles' irritating physical interface.
The handles on the DualShock 4 are a little more bulbous and snuggle into the palm more happily than before, with the added length meaning that fingers aren't bunched up and your hand can wrap around the controller fully without having to bunch up your hand. My hands used to hurt after playing lengthily on a DS3, but they'd sigh with contentment here if they could. The protruding spine on the back might throw a little googly into the mix for those who like to stretch out along the back of a controller, but frankly it hasn't bothered me one bit.
The button spacing is outstanding. I still prefer the alternate stick layout as a general rule, but the widening of the gap between the two sticks, placing them closer to the controller's handles, means you don't have to stretch as far, and the rotation circles for each are supremely comfortable. I often develop fairly sweaty hands when gaming, and the matte finish on the DualShock 4 massively outclasses the finish on the Xbox One's controller, which I found to be a rather slippy at times. The same can be said of the analogue sticks and their construction. The pronounced lip to each stick holds the thumbs far better than the DS3's sticks ever did, and they feel more precise thanks to a little increase in dead-zone resistance. This, combined with the extended length and pronounced curvature of the triggers, means that the DualShock has finally become a decent gamepad for shooters at the fourth time of asking.
It's got a nice bit of heft to it too, and feels at first to be pleasingly robust and solid. I always felt with the DS3 that I was about to crush it into bits, particularly in tense gaming moments, but although Killzone has shredded my nerves, the DS4 remains largely intact. We've not experienced the troubles some have had with the analogue sticks showing signs of bobbling and peeling, nor have the shoulder buttons become sticky at this point, but it's worth noting that there have been issues for some. By and large, though, we've had nothing to complain about when it comes to build quality.
The touchpad and light bar are ultimately gimmicks at this point in time, though swiping the former to shift between OWL drone functions in Killzone: Shadow Fall is a nice example of subtle integration that we hope gets pursued. But the best thing about the DualShock 4 is its headphone port. Plug in anything with a 3.5 mm jack and you can route the entire system audio through it. Better yet, if you have a headset with a multi-function jack, you can use the mic as well.
Put simply, the DualShock 4 levels the playing field in terms of comfort and control. No longer is the Legacy design a noose around Sony's neck, rather the DualShock is a truly comfortable controller, stuffed with features, and proves a pleasure to use.
The User Interface
The Xross Media Bar is dead! Long live the PlayStation Dynamic Menu! Actually that's balls, the Xross Media Bar is only an "Up" press away on your PS4, but Sony have stripped back the old UI, and repositioned the focus on this new bar which contains the following buttons: What’s New, TV & Video, Live from PlayStation, Internet Browser, Video Unlimited, Music Unlimited and Library, along with the launch icons for any games you have installed. What's New is a new, constantly shifting drop-down tileset that updates as you and your friends go about your gaming business, letting you know at a glance who's playing what, new Trophies that have been unlocked by you and your peers, and other social tidbits.
It's a little cluttered to be honest, with no real way of manually organising your installed app and games, with the PS4 instead ranking them by recent use. You can navigate via voice commands if you have the Camera or a headset plugged in, but they are scattershot and unreliable at best, and severely limited with no full system integration. That said, the little drop-down options on specific game tiles allow you to check out wider information on some, or perhaps jump straight into multiplayer experiences such as in KIllzone. There's lots of potential here with the Dynamic Menu, but we'll need more time and more games to really see if Sony maximise its potential.
There is plenty of slickness to be found here, however. You'll need to grab the latest update straight out of the box, which will take six minutes or so to download, but then you're away. You can't play games instantly, mandatory installs are here to stay and they are pretty damn hefty, but you don't have to wait very long before you can jump into the action. Some games will let you crack on straight off of the bat with the whole game (Killzone), others (NBA 2K14) might present a feature-lite experience for you to muck about with until the game installs fully.
Swooping in and out of apps with the PS button has been a joy, with a nifty little double-tap allowing you to switch between open apps. Friends Lists have been tweaked a little, with up to 2,000 chums now loggable on your account, and a two-tier system meaning that you have network friends and then "real-name" friends on top of that. Trophies have been tweaked too, with Trophy rarity adding a little more incentive to proceedings.
Ask me again in a year or so.....
Fine. But, facetiousness aside, it's difficult to say anything at all about the PlayStation Camera. Sony decided early on that the Camera would not be bundled in with the PS4 in mandatory fashion as Microsoft have done with Kinect, but it was still there at launch, staring sadly from shelves with its Wall-E eyes. To be fair to the Camera, it does add some functionality to proceedings, it's just that most of those functions are botched or broken. Voice commands thus far have proven wildly inaccurate and inconsistent, both in terms of UI instructions and in-gaem, such as calling plays out in NBA 2K14. In fact, I even got called for a technical foul for swearing when I hadn't said a word for the previous ten minutes!
Facial recognition is pretty cool, and signing in with the Camera The PlayStation Camera just looks and performs to an almost amateurish degree when placed in comparison with the new, improved Kinect, and Sony's unclear designs for the Camera have much to do with that. By making the Camera an afterthought, acknowledging the contentious nature of a pack-in peripheral and therefore ignoring it for the most part, we're left with an expensive add-on with little to no support, no meaningful integration with any games, and no real purpose.
The Playroom is a cute little app, sure, but it typifies Sony's attitude to their camera: this is a gimmick and nothing more. Now, that might resonate with a number of people, but it renders the peripheral completely pointless in the first place, bereft of any focus, and lacking in function.
As mentioned above, the PSN is more readily baked into the UI, thanks to features such as being able to join friends' matches from your Friends List and the dynamic nature of the What's New tab instantly delivering the latest social news to your virtual doorstep. That being said, the wealth of information is sometimes difficult to filter, and as with the Dynamic Menu, you can't organise your Friends List. As it stands currently, there's no voice command integration for any of that either.
The PlayStation Store still suffers from navigation issues, though it's not alone in this. However, whereas Microsoft effectively negated the need to sort that out with a new robust Kinect camera, it's still a chore to find anything on the PlayStation Store. God only knows what it'll be like when some games actually turn up! PlayStation Plus is still awesome, though, and significantly better than Microsoft's equivalent offering. Though you'll need PS Plus to get online when it comes to playing games, Sony don't gate any of their media services or apps behind the paywall.
When it comes to video sharing, Sony have gone for simplicity above all else. Hitting the "Share" button will instantly bring up options to top and tail the last fifteen minutes of whatever you've been doing on the system, and upload to Facebook or stream your gameplay to Twitch. Easy peasy. Sadly, though, that's your lot. No YouTube functionality, and no way of taking the video files themselves and mucking about with them. In an age of YouTube ubiquity, where gaming videos are enormous business for all parties, this seems phenomenally short-sighted on Sony's part, particularly when you through in the same HDCP encryption on the HDMI-out port that plagued the PS3, rendering digital capture futile.
Sharing videos, then, is slick and easy and limited. Sadly the videos that you can produce are frequently murky, having undergone some horrific Frankenstein-esque compression, and don't really show off the PS4 in its best light. At the time of writing the Twitch functionality has naturally been appropriated by many for good, and abused by a select few to the extent that the banhammer has already emerged.
The PlayStation Vita
The interplay between the PS4 and the PlayStation Vita has been something many have been eagerly anticipating, and straight out of the box it's possible to use the Vita either as a second screen for the games and apps you're running on your PS4, or as a Remote Play device, allowing you to play on the move.
The PlayStation App for second-screen gaming works in much the same way that SmartGlass does for Xbox: introduce the console to the app, punch in the code for an initial setup and away you go. You can control your PS4 from your tablet or Vita via the app, but the discrete screen also allows for separate message and friends list management, alongside viewing your Trophies. By and large, though, it's about offering up that second-screen experience, so added info for movies, maps in certain titles, and in The Playroom you can use the touchscreen to draw all manner of objects before flinging them into shot on your PS4 with a flick of a finger.
Remote Play works excellently over a LAN connection, but contrary to Sony's initial assertions it is in fact possible to beam your PS4 gameplay to your Vita over separate networks. We switched our PS4 on, and then abandoned it and went down the road to a coffee shop serving up free wifi with the Vita. It was pretty laggy thanks to an awful connection, but we still managed to see what Trophies our friends had been collecting of late. and even fire up a spot of Resogun. The bottom line is that Remote Play works, and works well when you have a decent connection to the net. The Vita pales in comparison to the DualShock 4 as a controller, but Killzone: Shadow Fall looks stunning on that OLED screen, and if you live in a house where the TV is in demand a fair bit, this will certainly come in handy.
Sony are touting further cross-play features down the line, so we'll have to wait and see just how worthwhile that dual-console PS4 and PS Vita bundle is as a gaming proposition. Remote Play is a damn fine start, but more will be required. The Vita has failed to grab a decent install base outside of Japan, and Sony will need to continue to present reasons to pick up the machine, even with the recent price cut.
Sadly, for a console subtitled #4theGamers, made a company who displayed an admirably singular purpose in the run up to the PlayStation 4's release, the biggest fault with the PS4 is it's paucity of essential titles at launch.
There's an almost laughable dearth of first-party material here. For all of the talk of Sony being a fantastic publishing partner, only three true exclusives are present at launch. One -- Resogun -- is a fantastic-if-niche title; the other two -- Killzone: Shadow Fall and Knack -- are perfectly lovely to look at, but lack substance. To play them, you'd think that waves-based grinding and incessant double-jumping were the pinnacles of the FPS and platforming genres respectively. Knack is a sad echo of family-oriented creativity from a crew that brought us Crash Bandicoot, and a game that revels in repetition -- a trait that it shares with Killzone. Guerilla's game is stunning to behold, with drop-dead gorgeous graphics. But it's design is ultimately uninspired, its story fairly risible, and a mildly promising first-half fades into incessant waves of idiotic goons.
The third-party titles are split. There are some -- Call of Duty: Ghosts and NBA 2K14 -- that demonstrate a clear advantage over versions on other platforms, leveraging the much-vaunted ease of development for this machine to produce experiences that stand far above their previous generational equivalents. But there are others that exhibit cleaner, crisper lines with little else to show for the step up. Multiplatform titles being "feature complete" across two generations is good news for those happy to sit tight this Christmas, but it means that the PS4 in particular -- thanks to the paucity of exclusives -- suffers from a significant lack of killer apps.
It makes no sense either, given the enormous effort extended by Sony in making their points about free and open development on PS4 over the summer, that the PlayStation Store is almost strikingly bereft of indie games. The charm offensive of the past few months has been found lacking in delivery at this first hurdle, and Sony's position is a little reminiscent of Nintendo's following the launch of the Wii U. It's not quite as bad as that (we hope), but Sony have been coy regarding future plans. We know Infamous is coming early next year, but it's no Titanfall. The Order: 1886 and a new Uncharted title have both been teased, and there's a slew of incredibly interesting indie titles on the way, such as Octodad, The Witness, Transistor, Oddworld, Outlast, Mercenary Kings and so on.
Those are all yet to come, though, and there's nothing right here and now that makes the PS4 a must-have device, no marquee title that defines why the console might be considered even a strong purchase if not essential. I'm enjoying my PS4 immensely, but that's largely thanks to excellent third-party titles that you can buy for a tenner less each on current-gen consoles. There's just not enough of an incentive to make the several-hundred-pound jump.
The tagline of "Greatness Awaits" could not ring more true.
What we have here is a strikingly capable, exceptionally crafted console that has proven itself easier to develop for and swifter for gamers to use at this first round of asking, in comparison with its direct competitor.
It is everything that the original PS3 was not: accessible, swift, player-oriented, and affordable. But Sony's much-touted focus on games has delivered a console with surprisingly few of them to recommend. There are good games on the PS4, some great games, in fact. But most of those exceptional experiences can be found elsewhere, cheaper, and with not an enormous drop off in terms of quality. Sony have the in-house talent and the exclusive IPs to deliver massively on PS4, and the console is tantalisingly capable and bursting with potential and possibility.
But we're still awaiting greatness for the time being.