I’ve had my PlayStation 4 for almost two weeks now, just enough time to sink my teeth into a few of the launch titles and get over the initial zealous excitement of opening a box of new hardware. Even after ruminating on the new machine for a while, I have to say that I am still very much impressed.
Before I even get into the actual hardware and software, I want to give a thought or two on Sony’s marketing strategy. Sony did a great job of raising public awareness of its console, obviously learning a bit from Nintendo’s missteps with the Wii U. The Greatness Awaits and Perfect Day commercials performed their jobs admirably and rank among some of my favorite video game commercials (yes, I have a list). However, neither of their biggest commercials talk about one of the biggest selling points of Sony consoles: PlayStation Plus. While the service gives subscribers access to lower prices on PSN and allows online play on the PS4, it also gives subscribers free games every month and people still seem surprised when they find that out. Nestled in amongst the cellophane-wrapped goodies of a new PlayStation 4 is a small voucher that provides codes for $10 on the PSN store, a free 30-day trial of the Music Unlimited service, and a month of free PlayStation Plus. Not only did I pick up Knack and Killzone Shadow Fall with my console, I also received the fast-paced and addictive side-scrolling shooter Resogun and the indie platformer Contrast for free. Let me reiterate that: I got two games for free and yet that seems to be a secret. Sony, you’re doing something wrong if people don’t know they can get video games for free just by purchasing your console and using a code to get a brief PlayStation Plus membership.
But I digress.
The physical design of the machine is pleasing, with slightly slanted front and back sides giving an air of futuristic sophistication. If these things were white instead of black, they wouldn’t look out of place as a sci-fi gadget in the next J.J. Abrams Star Trek film. The only complaint I have is that the slants can make it unnecessarily difficult to plug and unplug wires from the back of the machine if you need to shuffle it around or have a limited supply of HDMI cables.
On first booting up the console, expect to put in around 30-40 minutes of set-up time. This includes syncing up PSN accounts, downloading launch updates to access the PlayStation Network, setting system preferences, and downloading/installing new games. Once all of that is finished and the console reboots, the dashboard is opened up. One of the things that most impresses me about the PS4 is the fluidity of its menus, which are arranged into two rows. The primary row functions as the main menu with the most recently used games or apps placed farther left where they can be quickly accessed. Selecting a game or app from this list instantly launches it, while hovering on it for a second reveals drop down menus with more specific options. Meanwhile, the PSN store, friend lists, notifications, and messages are located in the secondary row. Players can freely flick between the two rows at any time, ridding gamers from the headache of shuffling through an ocean of icons. My biggest complaint with the user interface isn’t ever related to the PlayStation 4, it is with the online store Sony built for it. The PSN store menus are still a huge pain to navigate and I can only image they will get worse as more games, movies, and television shows are added. Unfortunately, that complaint also applies to many of the other apps available to PS4 users (with the notable exception of Netflix).
That being said, once the device has been set-up and the menus successfully navigated, the console moves incredibly fast. Netflix opens and begins streaming a show or movie within 10 seconds. As you play, the PS4 constantly records your previous 15 minutes of gameplay. Pressing the share button on the PS4 controller brings up the option to edit a video clip from that footage and upload it online to share with friends. Uploading videos takes under 20 minutes with decent internet speeds. You can immediately suspend gameplay at any time to return to the menus to send friends messages or fiddle with settings. Once installed, games launch within a matter of seconds.
The controller for the PlayStation 4 is arguably one of its best features and represents a drastic step forward from the previous incarnations of the DualShock. While it retains a design very similar to previous iterations, there are a number of small improvements that add up to a truly great controller. The material which covers the front is smooth, while the back plating is slightly textured to give it a bit more traction when gripped. Both of the analog sticks have ridges surrounding the edges to give thumbs more of a hold. The L2 and R2 triggers have a bit of an outward flair making them easier to press and providing a comfortable resting position for fingers. The touchpad in the center of the controller is perhaps the biggest addition and the source of my only complaint. The only game that has required me to use the touchpad has been Killzone Shadow Fall where it is used to give orders to a tactical drone. It feels awkward to quickly switch between joysticks and buttons to reach the touchpad with a thumb.
Maybe I just have small hands or it was clumsily implemented in Shadow Fall, but whatever the reason I am not overly fond of the touch pad. The controller also includes a light on the back which changes colors depending on the in-game situation, but seems to serve no real purpose except looking cool and helping gamers to find their controllers in the dark. There is also a built in speaker which yells things at you during various in-game situations. Most often it will be too loud and jarring, so you will want to turn it down with the in-game options.
The Share and the Options buttons have replaced the traditional Start and Select buttons. As previously discussed, the share button allows players to share a clip from their past 15 minutes of gameplay, but it also can take screenshots or initiate a livestream. The Options button pauses the game to bring up the in-game options, crazy, right? One of the most convenient aspects of the PS4 controller is that it allows users to plug their own headphones into the audio jack built into the bottom. You can then stream all of the audio to your headphones and not have to worry about disturbing sleeping housemates or neighbors. The controller also has a fairly decent rechargeable battery life and can be set to turn off after being left untouched for a set amount of time. Maybe it is the addition of the touchpad, light and speakers, but the PS4’s controller has a more agreeable heft to it than that of previous DualShock controllers. Overall, the controller just feels good to hold and play with, excepting the times when it shouts too loud or requires quick and awkward swipes on the touchpad.
What good is a console without good games to play on it? While not nearly as lackluster as the 3DS or Wii U launch line-up, the PlayStation 4 library at this time isn’t terribly compelling. Outside of Shadow Fall, Knack, and Resogun nearly every game available on PS4 can also be played on other systems. I think Sony was hoping that Killzone would be a console-selling IP, but I don’t think it is a must have. The shooting is a bit loose, certain mechanics don’t live up to their full potential, and the story is fairly standard as far as sci-fi shooters go. Knack is a simplistic, yet fun and challenging brawler for a younger type of gamer that is certainly charming, but also not a system seller. Resogun is a great arcade game on par with Geometry Wars or a supercharged Space Invaders, but it isn’t going to convince people to buy PS4s. True, you can play Battlefield 4, Call of Duty: Ghosts, and Assassin’s Creed IV on the console, but you can play those on any other piece of last-gen tech. As it stands now, the library is a bit slim and could use an infusion of life. This is likely to come slowly over the course of next year as the industry shifts to the next-gen with the release of games like Infamous: Second Son and The Order: 1886 and the various console-exclusive indie games like Helldivers and Guns of Icarus Online (and maybe Rime, my most anticipated indie game at the moment?). Unfortunately if you are looking to pick up the console at this time you are looking at a hefty amount of cross-platform sports titles and FPS games, with exceptions for kid-friendly Knack or Lego Marvel Super Heroes (which won’t release until the 29th).
From the physical design to the user interface, the overall impression of the PlayStation 4 is fantastic. It is a solid piece of hardware that possesses so many advantages over its predecessor that it is kind of silly. The ability to share gameplay clips, screen shots, or livestream on the fly is a very welcome addition to functionality and in all other respects the console seems built for the convenience of gamers. The biggest strike against the console is that there aren’t any truly amazing titles, but this is less of a problem because the hardware is so much better than what was available previously. I am honestly surprised at how tangible the improvements to the console feel beyond the expected visual upgrades.
My recommendation: If you are the kind of person who loves to stay up to date with the latest gaming technology, the PlayStation 4 is an impressive piece of hardware and has some fun titles worth playing, just don’t expect any life-changing experiences from the games currently available. If you aren’t thrilled by FPS games, Assassin’s Creed, or sports titles, you might want to hold off on a PlayStation 4 until that must-have game drops or a price drop hits.
Extra Lifers out there, what do you think of the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One? Are they worth buying right off the bat or are prospective customers better off waiting a while?