Let’s qualify that word, “comeback,” before we dive in, because 80 million PlayStation 3 consoles sold worldwide is hardly a fiasco.
Sure, the PS3 is no PlayStation 2 (over 155 million units sold), or even original PlayStation (over 100 million units sold), but who wouldn’t kill for that figure? Even Nintendo’s Wii, the last generation’s sales darling, just topped 100 million units. And there’s more to gauging a console’s success than unit sales: streaming media partnerships, downloadable content, charter game club subscriptions, social networking cachet – the whole revenue model for gaming’s shifted radically over the past decade.
But yes, for a company that from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s electrified the video games market, Sony’s PS3 felt like a step sideways: a powerhouse machine that cost too much at launch (and for years after), a storied supercomputer-like architecture that baffled developers for years, a system capable of memorable games like The Last of Us, Uncharted 2 and Journey, but also missteps and missed opportunities, from PlayStation Move (critically lauded but quickly relegated to the background — notice its absence from the PS4 launch ballyhoo) to the PlayStation Network hack debacle to the system’s forever teased but ultimately M.I.A. party (cross-game) voice chat albatross.
The PlayStation 4, by contrast, exudes refinement, a system that feels multipurpose-built and confidently purposeful. There’s no one standout feature to talk about this time, no genre-bending gizmo or water-cooler-worthy service to trumpet, and you won’t find an interface-reimagining Wii Remote in the box or a design-upending Super Mario 64 ushering in a new platforming epoch, but then that’s not what this next generation is about.
Instead, you’re looking at a meticulously alloyed platform that’s the sum of many pieces, a kind of Grand Theft Auto V of video game consoles. If the latter represents everything Rockstar’s learned about open-world design — an accumulation of design knowledge implemented with knowing, fastidious precision — the PlayStation 4 is everything Sony’s learned about platform design, honed and polished to something just shy of perfection.
Consider the physical box itself, a sharp-cornered, blade-edged ebony parallelogram that’s roughly 11 inches wide by 2 inches tall by 12 inches deep and weighs just 6 pounds — orientable either horizontally or vertically. The original parabola-shaped PlayStation 3, by comparison, was nearly 13 inches wide by 4 inches tall by 11 inches deep and weighed 11 pounds. The power supply remains internal, leaving you nothing to manage save a modest two-prong power cord. That’s not form hijacking function: Placed in the open, the system warms only a little when playing games, its broad rear-panel ventilation grid (including HDMI out, Ethernet and an auxiliary port for the PlayStation Camera) and cleverly recessed side grilles allowing the system to transfer heat from the internal parts such that the fans remain whisper-quiet in nearly all circumstances.
Whether you like the PS4′s backswept look, like the base of a Cylon Black & Decker, is a matter of taste. But what’s striking is how slender the system is, especially when you consider what’s under the hood: a custom eight-core AMD CPU, 8GB of blazing-fast GDDR5 memory, a replaceable 500GB SATA hard drive (though only 409GB is available) and a custom GPU capable of 1.84 teraflops performance — multiply that by two (roughly speaking) and with PS4 architect Mark Cerny’s talk of offloading work to the GPU down the road, you’re looking at a machine with ample crunch-headroom, bar none.
My only quibble with the design is the system’s two-tone veneer: roughly one-third of the exterior is glossy, the other two-thirds matte. You’ll thus notice even trace amounts of dust and fingerprinting on the glossy side (especially contrasted against the matte side).
Make that half-fingerprinting on the system’s front, which is where the sectional split between surface materials occurs and you’ll notice the new power and eject buttons — neither depressible, but touch-sensitive — near dual USB 3.0 ports and a slot-loading Blu-ray drive. Along this furrow, Sony’s placed an illuminated strip that pulses different colors and luminosity gradients as you put the system through its paces; according to Sony, that light’s meant to make the system appear to be breathing, a bit like Apple’s old exterior laptop LEDs (which may require the judicious application of electrical tape if you’re planning to put the system in your bedroom and sleep anywhere near it at night, since you can’t disable the light manually).
A moment of silence for the DualShock 1 through 3, each iteration — save for an upgrade to analog thumbsticks — all but identical since Sony’s gamepads debuted in 1997. Not so the PS4′s DualShock 4, which looks only superficially like its predecessors.
For starters, the handlebars are slightly longer, a measure that better stabilizes the controller in the center of your palms. The thumbsticks are a tick further apart, giving your thumbs more flex room, and their spheroid tips — occasional slip hazards — have been replaced with raised-edge circles (still rubber), which feel much more controllable under your thumb-tips.
The gamepad shell feels grippier, too, in part because Sony layered the under-half with a patterned surface — still a hard, smooth plastic, but coarse enough to give your hands better purchase. The revised left and right triggers gain a roughened surface as well, and the lower two triggers — L2 and R2 — feel firmer and have gently out-curved bottoms for more secure placement, remedying a problem with the DualShock 3 where setting the gamepad in your lap or on a flat surface would sometimes register unintended input if the looser triggers collapsed.
There’s now an illuminated “Lightbar” between the triggers, faced forward, that can partner with the PlayStation Camera to enhance motion control (Sony’s also improved the SIXAXIS motion sensors and rumble motors, so much so that you can, for instance, tilt the controller to tag letters in an onscreen keyboard, and it’s a lot quicker than cursoring around). The Lightbar’s also capable of feeding back color-based status information, say to indicate a character’s health state, though since you can’t eyeball the strip directly without flipping the gamepad 90 degrees perpendicular, you’re depending on the glow reflected against your fingers (that, or you can always play in front of a mirror!). It’s too bad Sony didn’t think to place a smaller, complementary light across the gamepad’s top.
Just above the thumbsticks, you’ll find a tiny speaker grille, allowing the controller to output sound (like playing the collectible audio logs in Killzone Shadow Fall). The audio quality’s what you’d expect from a tiny speaker, though it’s notably better and bass-ier than the one Nintendo includes with its Wii Remote. Below the grille, there’s a traditional PlayStation button — hold it and you’ll summon master overlays that let you tweak settings, close out apps or power off the system. And on the gamepad’s bottom, between the handlebars, late-night gamers will appreciate the new standard-size headphone jack as well as a connector for the bundled mono headset — a voice chat must, and an alternative to Sony’s new $60 dual-camera PlayStation Camera (not included with the PS4) if you want to operate the console using voice commands.
The most notable change lies (physically) between the traditional d-pad and geometric face buttons: a smooth, dotted, depressible touchpad — a nod to Sony’s touchpad-framed Vita that lets you play a game like, say, Angry Birds the way developer Rovio intended. The launch games make limited, complementary use of the touchpad, as you’d expect, but software like Sony’s clever built-in tutorial app, The Playroom, offers a glimpse of things to come. You rub the touchpad like a Genie’s lamp to wake a lively A.I. bot, or flick your finger forward across the surface to pitch tiny robot-things into your lap, augmented reality-style, vis-a-vis the PlayStation Camera.
Along with Sony’s new “start” and “select” replacements that bracket the touchpad — tiny ovoid “share” and “options” buttons, the former for editing and uploading game videos or screenshots, the latter for invoking context-sensitive menus — round out an array of individually modest but collectively gratifying updates that feel like the smartest updates to a gamepad in years.
Sony raved about the PS3′s CrossMenuBar navigation system back in the day — the interface won an Emmy, after all, so every time you heard about the XMB, it was “Emmy-winning this” or “Emmy-winning that.” But when Microsoft overhauled its Xbox Live interface in 2008 with vibrant context-specific squares, colorful images and avatar animations, the XMB felt comparably lifeless, a workmanlike carousel of icons that conjured the sterility of an IKEA furniture sign.
Out with Emmy-winning, in with lively images and contextual squares: The PS4′s interface, which Sony simply calls the “PlayStation Dynamic Menu,” builds on the XMB’s potential by subtracting from it, jettisoning all that top-level complexity and adding dollops of style and streamlining. Instead of an icon-flush X-axis with option-choked up or down menu items, Sony’s collapsed everything to a handful of category squares, the default leftmost — and most telling — being a social media-watcher that clues you into friend activity and marketing material when you’re online.
Beside that you’ll find content portals that reshuffle from left to right according to last one accessed: ”Live from PlayStation” lets you view live gameplay broadcasts, “Downloads” collates your purchases and downloads, and the obligatory Internet browser. New games — whether downloaded or accessed from disc — also appear here, the wrinkle being that if you have an Internet connection active, you’ll be drawing from (and feeding into) Sony’s PlayStation Network each time you access an application. You’re not required to access the Internet to play single-player games, but if you don’t want your PS4 reaching out to touch Sony’s servers, you’ll have to force it offline — there’s no “don’t PSN while connected” option.
Cursor up with the d-pad or left thumbstick from the PDM and a more mundane left-right menu appears with icons for system or application settings, your friend list, trophies, notifications and the PlayStation Store. This is where you’ll tweak the system or delve into more nuanced or granular features; Sony’s just pulled it back a level, divvying the PS4′s interface into spotlight and offstage layers.
At launch, Sony has 23 games on deck and calls it the company’s strongest lineup ever. I have yet to sample (much less complete) many of these, and several won’t be available until launch day, but I can say the ones I have played don’t fall short of that claim (then again, it’s not a high hurdle to clear). Many on the list are recently released last-gen games with visual makeovers, and no one’s going to consider the inclusion of a game like Angry Birds Star Wars a make-or-break purchase, but a few — in particular Knack, Contrast, Resogun and Killzone Shadow Fall — distinguish themselves from the bunch.
Knack is Mark Cerny and SCE Japan Studio’s contribution, which makes it the most intriguing of the PS4 launch titles, since Cerny (pronounced SARE-nee) doubled as the PlayStation 4′s lead architect. It’s a bash-and-smash action game about a creature called “Knack” composed of magically animated, reconfigurable bric-a-brac, helping humanity battle goblins who’ve emerged from who-knows-where to overrun the planet.
While Knack stands just a few feet tall by default, he can glom on bits of metal, ice and other odds and ends to transform into a colossal wrecking machine. The framing story feels a little generic here, as if grudgingly tacked on to justify the central game conceit, but that conceit — unleashing a creature who can grow to the height of a three-story building — is deftly executed and beautifully articulated.
I was only able to sample Contrast during a review event hands-on, but it shot to the top of my PlayStation Network must-haves — a 1920s noir-themed action-platformer with a twist: you can shift from colorful 3D heroine to slender 2D silhouette, alighting on lamplit walls, clambering over the shadows of other 3D objects and puzzling your way along surfaces to unlock narrative sequences that gradually describe a young girl’s troubled, Pan’s Labyrinth-ian family history.
One of the levels involved a haunting carousel, the shadows of horses gliding along circling walls, the protagonist leaping from one shadow to another, flipping in and out of the world to maneuver between actual platforms and their flattened contours. In another level, you participate in a kind of theatrical production, flitting Limbo-like through a fantasy story-scape as the metaphorical tale unfurls.
If you were into Super Stardust HD on the Vita, you’ll probably adore Resogun, another shoot-em-up from developer Housemarque. Here, they’ve opted for a side-scroller, only with the levels folded around until the ends touch, letting you roll backwards or forwards without restrictions. The object of the game is to free and save tiny retro-stick-figure humans, powering up your ship and executing special attacks that include a kind of battle-ram maneuver that lets you arrow through waves of enemies, annihilating them without destroying yourself.
As Housemarque explained during the review event demonstration, one of the twists, since the levels are transparently cylindrical, is that you can see what’s going on on the other side of the level, forcing you to pay attention to keep tabs on what the enemy’s up to over yonder.
And finally, Killzone Shadow Fall is grim, grim stuff — no surprise — but boy is it a looker, packing its dystopian Blade Runner-like vistas with buildings and more buildings and towering waterfalls and skyboxes that no longer feel like Truman Show skyboxes.
As I played through the solo campaign, the game reminded me increasingly of Dishonored, offering ever-widening paths to complete a mission, choosing stealthy or confrontational approaches and dealing with objectives in the order preferred. I can’t vouch for this one unreservedly yet, given how much more of the game there is to see, but it’s a lock for my library.
Sidebar: Game installs are now both compartmentalized and prioritized, allowing you to access different play modes, say the multiplayer facet of a game, without waiting as the single-player component silently stream-loads off the Blu-ray disc in the background. This double-dipping feature never slowed any of the games I tried, though even if had it, the install only occurs once.
That said, disc loading did occasionally cause the PS4′s interface to freeze for several seconds, which may be an argument for eschewing discs and going with direct downloads, since all of these games are obtainable directly through the PlayStation Store (the downside: Sony’s doesn’t support external USB hard drives, meaning you’ll have to upgrade the internal storage if you think you’ll fill that 409GB of accessible space quickly).
The Missing Features
Like Microsoft’s Xbox One, Sony’s PS4 launches with a day-one patch that wasn’t available during the review period. That means most have only seen the new PlayStation Store or online multiplayer or “Share” button functionality in demos.
What you’re not reading about here is considerable, in other words: all of the online features, the revamped PlayStation Network, the new sharing feature, all the new versions of otherwise familiar media apps and the system’s appeal as a multimedia consumption hub, the PS Vita Remote Play link — both on a high-speed LAN or through the cloud (I can say every developer I spoke with warned of latency issues with the latter) and Sony’s new, complementary PlayStation App that lets you control or interact with PS4 games or software using an iOS or Android smartphone or tablet (effectively enabling Wii U-like second-screen gameplay). I’ll circle back in a day or two, once I’ve had time to better absorb and assess the online experience.
When I reviewed the Wii U last November, I wrote that Nintendo had “a lock on the future of big-idea gaming.” But sometimes big idea gaming isn’t what captures imaginations (or hearts, or wallets). Sometimes refinement’s enough — taking an imperfect idea and perfecting it (or further trying to). That’s what $400 for a PS4 buys you this time around: a system that feels like something that’s been around the block off the block, instead of a feature-incomplete, overpriced collage of half-baked apps and feature hypotheticals. You’re still buying a promise, but for once it feels like a promise made from solid, well-trodden ground.
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