Review: PlayStation 4

By Matt Maguire

7 comments
Matt Maguire examines today's release of next generation gaming machine, the Playstation 4.
The PlayStation 4.
The PlayStation 4.

Sony's announcement and presentation of the PlayStation 4 has been patient, smooth and assured. As Microsoft poured bees down its pyjama pants then thrashed about, Sony appeared to sink comfortably into a seat on the porch and await the rising sun. You're doing something right when you can satisfy the Internet with one word answers delivered over Twitter as Sony CEO Kaz Hirai has done.

Relaxed appearances can be deceiving though, and the lack of public pointing and laughing from Sony headquarters - a few jokey digs aside - signalled not only its knowledge that Microsoft would find the Skin Calm and some tweezers, but also that a console war is a long, drawn-out affair, so full-frontal engagement should be avoided for as long as possible. After all, Sony is only too familiar with the fall that follows pride. The company once brazenly declared the seventh generation would commence only when it said so, and then immediately proceeded to fall head-first into a slippery ditch from which it wouldn't scramble out of for a year or more after the launch of the PlayStation 3.

Sony's February pitch to gamers centred around five tenets - Personalised, Immediate, Simple, Social, and Integrated - and the response was immediate: this thing was looking real good.

That day the PlayStation 4's specifications were praised by luminaries such as id Software co-founder John Carmack, former Epic designer Cliff Bleszinski, and Avalanche Studios co-founder Linus Blomberg. The usual industry analysts were on board too. Epic Games vice president Mark Rein called the system a "perfect gaming PC".

Much has occurred since, but Sony's message has been amazingly consistent and its open, consumer-friendly policies have been hastily duplicated by Microsoft. This only highlights the strength and appeal - if conservative nature - of its initial proposal. Finally, the console's launch day is near, and Sony is the one delivering the cheaper, indie-friendly product.

LEAN BACK

The PlayStation 4 resembles a scale model of a squat and impregnable fortress built to withstand the post-nuclear winds of Helghast, its front panel angled back to direct dusty gusts skyward. Slightly smaller than a PlayStation 3 Slim, at 2.8kgs it is nearly half a kilogram lighter than both that console and the Xbox One (next to which it appears shockingly small, especially given its internal power transformer).

A shallow channel runs horizontally all the way around the PlayStation 4's front and sides, giving it the appearance of two separate, layered halves while providing valuable additional surface area for its cooling mechanisms. Hidden in plain sight at the front between these halves is the Blu-ray drive and a pair of USB 3.0 ports. Perhaps 40 percent of the upper top left hand side is a gloss black, separated from the right hand side by a thin LED strip that runs its length to the back.

The components crammed inside the PlayStation 4 are an AMD Jaguar 8-core 64-bit x86 CPU and custom Radeon-based GPU integrated on a single chip, a unified 8GB of GDDR5 RAM, and a replaceable 500GB hard drive.

At its similarly-reclined backside is an HDMI out, digital out (optical), Ethernet port, and an auxiliary port for the optional PlayStation Camera. All of that assumes it is sitting flat - the PlayStation 4 may also be tipped up on its edge and stored vertically using a stand which is sold separately.

Despite a dearth of colour, it's a bolder design than the Xbox One and as such will polarise. However, one thing is certain: its diminutive size and weight are a testament to the genius of Sony's engineers.

SWIPE THIS GADGET

The PlayStation 4 controller can only be described as a complete overhaul, with only the four iconic face buttons (which are now digital rather than analogue) carrying across largely untouched from last generation's effort.

Thankfully, the new two-tone controller is larger and heavier, with longer, textured handgrips that allow it to sit in the palms rather than be held in the fingers. Its sticks are noticeably lower (presumably so access to its touchpad is easier), and this gives them a smaller range of motion. Despite this, a reduced dead zone and increased stiffness allow for very precise movements. It's also easier to press L3 or R3 when the stick in question is on an angle. A mysterious auxiliary port is tucked away beneath the thumb sticks.

The triggers - now curved outward like actual triggers - are less spongy than before, and their underside is flat and angled slightly outward, so placing the controller in one's lap or on a table no longer results in any unintended shots fired. Some hands might find them a little too small. The d-pad is just fractionally larger, but its buttons recess towards their centre point, an alteration that does wonders for grip and precision.

However, the biggest change is the inclusion of a small touch pad where the PlayStation 3's select and start buttons used to sit. It recognises clicks, double-clicks, swipes, flicks, and pinch movements as independent inputs, although so far few applications have much use for it. A swipe on a pad to control the OWL drone in Killzone is certainly faster than holding a button for a radial menu though, and more creative uses for the pad will likely be found somewhere down the line.
PlayStation 4 review

Speaking of Start and Select, they are now smaller Share and Options buttons, whose position to the immediate diagonal of the d-pad and face buttons is strange until one becomes accustomed to sliding a finger off either to press them. For obvious reasons, Share is not able to be mapped to anything else by a developer, but the touch pad's flexibility more than compensates for this.

Also new is the four colour light bar on the front of the controller, which acts as a simple indicator - of health in Killzone: Shadow Fall and visibility in the upcoming Thief reboot, for example. With the lights on it's not noticeable, but in the near dark its colour is obvious but not distracting.

It also interacts with the PlayStation Camera, turning the DualShock 4 into a slightly less precise version of the Move controller that doesn't detect depth. (Move controllers are compatible with the PlayStation 4.) The controller's gyroscopic sensors are far more precise and less laggy than those on the DualShock 3 though; something particularly obvious when playing the PlayStation 4 version of Flower.

More intense, directional vibration motors and a small speaker similar to that on the Wii U GamePad round out the DualShock 4's feedback capabilities, and both are welcome additions. So is the fact that it charges in two hours using an included USB cable. The redesign here is a revelation, and easily brings the DualShock up to the high standard set by the Xbox One equivalent.

FIRE IT UP

A touch of the PlayStation 4's inconspicuous power button starts the console with a whirr, and following a few pulses of blue from its LED strip and the appearance of that familiar PlayStation logo, a sign in prompt appears.

The system is very slightly noiser than the Xbox One but still near-silent, and is very quick off the mark, going from completely off to login screen in 30 seconds, and back off again in 20. It's even faster from standby mode where booting is almost instantaneous, and going back to standby takes about three seconds. In that mode the LED strip turns a solid yellow, and depending on the options enabled, the PS4 can access the Internet to download updates or games purchased remotely, and supply power to its USB ports.

Those booting the console for the first time are prompted to share their Facebook picture and real name in-game, but opt-out is possible and sharing options may be altered later. It's worth noting that only those also displaying their real names will see the real names of others. Share settings to Facebook, Twitter, and PSN are then set, and the console can be designated as that user's "primary" system, which gives all its users the benefits of any PlayStation Plus subscription, for example. Elsewhere, the PlayStation 3's extensive sub account controls return.

The PlayStation 4's interface - known as the PlayStation Dynamic Menu - is a large improvement on the PlayStation 3's Cross-Media Bar, but not without its flaws. It's a horizontal two-lane menu system, each lane of which scrolls independently from the other. Across the upper lane (or "function area") are the familiar icons of menus past: PlayStation Store, Notifications, Friends, Messages, Settings, and more.

The lower lane ("content area") houses tiles for TV & Video, Internet Browser, Library (digital games), What's New, and also shortcuts to the system's broadcasting functions and any installed games. Here users may apply ratings and see related items, or just launch the game or application. The trouble here is that there is no games folder as such, and all tiles are arranged left to right in the order they were last launched. This will make navigating larger libraries for games or features not visited in a while a hassle, and will drive those who like to know exactly where any icon is at any time rather batty.

The quick-loading store is also a large improvement over that of its older brother. Although it understandably places a premium on recent content, its search function is great, allowing results to be filtered by genre(s), number of players, platform, price, release date, and more.

LIKE SPINNING PLATES

Like the Xbox One, the PlayStation 4 allows those in-game to jump out to the home screen and launch apps without closing said game. A single press of the PS button brings up the home screen from anywhere, and a double press takes the user directly to the last application that was or still is open. It works extremely well, and allows everything from settings tweakage to Store access to occur without leaving a game.

As with the Xbox One, it seems that the ability to play singleplayer while awaiting a multiplayer match is dependent on each game's developer implementing such a function, and the same goes for the ability to play a game as it downloads. So far: Killzone insists players don't leave the multiplayer lobby while awaiting a match, and neither Contrast nor Warframe allowed play while downloading. Downloads can't be prioritised by pausing others either - it's all or nothing.

THE VELVET ROPE

According to Sony, more than 180 games are currently in development for the PlayStation 4 - a figure that includes 24 exclusives. That last number is of particular interest as bigger-name exclusives on the PlayStation 3 easily outnumbered those on the Xbox 360. The removal of DriveClub (coming "early 2014") from the system's launch line-up certainly hurts, especially given the critical reception that has so far greeted Killzone: Shadow Fall's single player experience and PlayStation 4 architect Mark Cerny's throwback action adventure Knack.

However, Sony has spent years growing indie goodwill, and its deep roster of small yet intriguing launch titles such as Resogun, Escape Plan, Contrast, and Divekick, along with promising console-exclusive free-to-play titles War Thunder, Blacklight Retribution, and Warframe will give those early adopters skint from their acquisition plenty to digest.

A next-gen Uncharted is unlikely to land in 2014, but Sony has the exclusive console rights to a number of games that have us excited, including InFamous: Second Son, The Order: 1886, Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number, Octodad: Dadliest Catch, Soma, Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, Basement Crawl, Transistor, and The Witness.

There are plenty of smaller console-exclusive indie titles of proven quality coming to the PlayStation 4 as well, including The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, Don't Starve, Outlast, Rogue Legacy, and an update of the Ouya's best title, TowerFall Ascension. That's a strong 2014 line-up so far.

KIF, INFORM THE MEN

According to Sony, "social interaction is at the heart of PlayStation 4", and the DualShock 4's Share button is proof. This allows the simple distribution of up to 15 minutes of gameplay to Facebook or to friends via the PlayStation Network. Screenshots can also be uploaded. While it all works well, the built-in editing suite isn't quite as intuitive as that on the Xbox One, voiceovers can't be added to video clips, and the sharing options are too limited.

Sony has said more are coming in the future though, and the ability to very easily broadcast or watch gameplay live on UStream or Twitch is great. This function even allows picture-in-picture, so viewers can see and hear those whose gameplay stream they are watching.

A third broadcasting option is available via an app called The Playroom, a collection of concepts that Sony has been fond of including with new consoles since the mighty T-Rex demo on the first PlayStation. The Playroom allows those with a PlayStation Camera to live stream themselves rather than a game, although Twitch has already begun banning accounts streaming content not related to gaming. It's still a cool concept, and it'll be interesting to see what people do with it.

Rounding out the social feature on PlayStation 4 is the Party app, a great new shortcut that grants system-wide voice and text chat for up to eight, including those on PS Vita. The person that starts a party can accept the member recommendations of others and kick people out, and all party attendees have complete control over who they can hear. Anyone in a party that is also playing a game with voice chat will automatically be muted.

AN APP IN YOUR LAP

But the best app on the PlayStation 4 is undoubtedly the incredible PlayStation Plus service. A revelation on PlayStation 3, it's heartening to hear that a single subscription covers that console as well as PS Vita and PlayStation 4. It's certain to be even more popular now that it is required for most multiplayer games on the console (free-to-play trio Blacklight Retribution, DC Universe Online, and War Frame are notable exceptions), and it grants early beta and demo access as well as cloud saves and automatic patch installation.

Those still unconvinced by the PlayStation Plus value proposition can still use the PlayStation 4's Share, Remote Play, and Party functions but know that their judgement is questionable and act accordingly when they are around.

They will also still be able to access Music Unlimited for about NZ$8.50 a month, music video streaming service VidZone, and a ho-hum browser. Oddly, Video Unlimited is available in Australia but not here, while Quickflix is coming to both countries on December 4. The lack of audio CD support at launch will disappoint some, but Sony has promised that it will arrive in a future patch. More disappointing is the removal of DLNA media streaming - a feature widely used to get content from a computer to the TV in simple fashion.

PORTABLE PS4

The prospect of being able to stream all PlayStation 4 games to a Vita directly or via the Internet is definitely an enticing one. However, the purchase of a new handheld as well as a new console might prove hard to justify for many. Still, it's a smart way to reinvigorate sales of the Vita while rewarding current Vita owners at the same time. However, there is still some work to be done on the PlayStation 4's Gaikai-developed Remote Play function, and our experience trying it was rather mixed.

It's simple to connect the two devices, and with the Vita communicating directly with the PlayStation, things worked rather well. Sitting on the couch a couple of meters from the TV there was the odd tiny delay, but it was barely noticeable, even during twitchy games like Resogun. The strong connection persisted while up to about five meters away (provided line of sight was maintained), before the stream degraded and subsequently dropped. When drops did occur, it was hit-and-miss whether the PlayStation 4 would pause the game and await a stronger signal.

Our experiments connecting over the office wireless were substantially less successful, resulting in a poor connection and constant disconnects even when standing right next to the router. In fairness, that could be due to a router issue, but if so, few in the general populace will have an idea of how to remedy things. It's also worth noting that there is video online of people using Remote Play over a 4G mobile internet connection with no problem over in the States, and also that it's not possible to use the service over 3G.

EYE SEE YOU

Perhaps finally realising that the PlayStation Eye is a creepy name for a peripheral, Sony has dubbed the latest version the PlayStation Camera. About the size of a typical modern TV remote but nowhere near as wide, it's substantially smaller and lighter than the Kinect, which makes it easier to place. It has a wide 85 degree field of view, a four channel microphone array, and two cameras that capture at a resolution of 1280x800 and 60 frames per second. Understandably, its uses are extremely limited at the moment.

Facial recognition is the first function most will strike, although unlike the Kinect face data must be gathered by the camera before it will recognise anyone, and even then signing in with it is more trouble than it is worth. Where it does currently beat out the Kinect is in menu voice control, but only half a dozen or so commands are recognised overall. Like the old Kinect, it prefers users to be at least two meters away too, which is impossible in many gaming setups. It also lacks gesture control, and the only launch game that supports it in any capacity is Just Dance 2014 - oh, and NBA 2K14, if you count getting penalised for swearing in-game as a feature.

It supports augmented reality technology though, and those keen to stream their lives on the PlayStation 4 will find the NZ$108 price tag agreeable. It'll never rival the Kinect for features, specifications, or execution, but it is another option for both game and app developers to consider when creating their products.

THE END OF THE BEGINNING

There were several PlayStation 4 features we couldn't test. Sony has confirmed that two PlayStation 4 owners can access the content on a single account from two different consoles at once, and we will certainly look into this as soon as possible. Other touted functions such as Share Controller (control a friend's game over the net), demo streaming, and the PlayStation app simply aren't available just yet.

These are trifling matters. What's important is that Sony has made good on its promise to deliver a simple, powerful, cost-effective system that also happens to have a compelling 2014 release schedule to back it up. Plenty of room has been allowed for the system to expand in all directions, but what's already here is a swift, sleek gaming machine.

It's a great time to be a gamer.

- gameplanet.co.nz

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