Sony’s PlayStation 4 delivers on the fundamental promise of home console gaming more effectively than any other system in the history of the medium: To deliver a powerful, robust gaming foundation with extreme ease-of-use. After only a few days of use, this much is abundantly clear. So far, the PS4 is hardly a perfect system – issues with noise, multimedia support, and interface gaps are not insignificant – but on the whole, I find it overwhelmingly impressive, a console that perfects upon the principals of the past – a superior controller, a remarkably fluid and intuitive user interface, and major improvements to online and social functionality – even as it innovates for the future with superior graphics and creative, expertly implemented features. This is, of course, only a starting point – like the consoles of the generation that preceded it, the PS4 of today will not be the PS4 of tomorrow – but even as a foundation, I feel invigorated by the PS4, my faith in and enthusiasm for gaming rewarded by one the single most gamer-friendly console I have ever used.
This is a comprehensive, detailed review of the PlayStation 4, split into seven parts and covering as much relevant information as possible. Read the entire review in order, or select from the table of contents below to jump to whatever section interests you. For those of you only interested in the final score, it is posted at the bottom of each page.
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Part One: What’s in the Box?
The PlayStation 4 is attractively packaged, arriving in a surprisingly slender box that feels much more compact than previous generation console boxes (especially the original PS3 and Xbox 360). It isn’t quite an Apple product, pared down to the absolute minimum amount of packaging space, but those who enjoy keeping their old console boxes around won’t have to fret too much about storage space.
Inside the box, users will find the system itself, the DualShock 4 controller, the AC power cord, a USB cable for use with the controller, an HDMI cord, a mono headset, and the prerequisite manuals and warranty information (which also include a free month of PlayStation Plus, a free month of Music Unlimited, and a $10 voucher for the PlayStation Network store, the lattermost of which is particularly appreciated).
The HDMI cord is a nonessential but appreciated inclusion – I did not need it myself, but the cord is good quality and I may have use for it further down the road – while the mono headset is of such absurdly cheap quality that I cannot imagine most users experimenting with it more than once, let alone ever taking it out of the plastic wrapping. Audio recorded through the headset sounds very good, but the earpiece itself is extremely uncomfortable, and the headphone wire is undesirably prone to tangling. It is no great matter, though – just grab any old pair of stereo headphones with a microphone you may have lying around, and you should be good to go.
Otherwise, everything is perfectly in order, with the only glaring omission being a vertical stand for the console – and then only because the stand is pictured on the box itself, and has been in most of the PS4 publicity photos. The lack of the stand isn’t a huge disappointment by any means – the PS4 can be stood upright just fine without the use of a stand – but the exclusion is a mildly perplexing one, especially since, in the United States at least, Sony is not currently producing a vertical stand of their own. Users who want one will have to buy a third-party product.
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Part Two: The Console Hardware
From a physical, aesthetic standpoint, the PlayStation 4 is a masterpiece. With its bold, surprisingly attractive parallelogram design and sleek, smooth exterior, the console is undeniably striking to look at, perhaps more so than any other home console in video game history. Stood upright or laid on its side, the system simply looks great, and while I would not necessarily describe the PS4’s size as ‘small,’ it takes up much less space than most newly-launched gaming consoles, and its sleek design is such that, when placed inside an entertainment center, the PS4 seems to all but disappear. A hardware design that is both attractive and invisible – that is a neat hat trick, and the system’s low-profile is aided by the fact that the PS4’s power supply is housed inside the console itself, meaning all users will need to get the system up and running is the AC Cord and an HDMI cable (and an Ethernet cord, if you prefer not to use Wi-Fi).
All that being said, from a hardware standpoint, the PS4 is not perfect. It performs beautifully, and we will talk about that in a later section, but in terms of interacting with the box on a physical level, there are some annoyances. First and foremost is the “Power” and “Disc Eject” buttons, which are not actually buttons at all, but extremely slim little touch panels, akin to the Xbox 360 slim redesign. But where the 360’s touch panels were way too responsive – barely brushing the power or eject button would activate the controls, often at inopportune moments – the PS4 has gone much too far in the opposite direction. Users must hold their finger on the touch panel for at least a few seconds before the system responds, and the length of time seems extremely inconsistent; ejecting the disc occasionally takes only a brief moment, but can sometimes require a few presses, while the length of time required to turn off the console (or, more accurately, put it to sleep) always feels uncomfortably long. The problem is compounded by the small size of the panels, and the even tinier size of the images that indicate what they do. After figuring out which button is which, I doubt most users will subsequently forget, but there is such a thing as too low-profile, and the ‘power’ and ‘eject’ buttons definitely fall into that category. Overall, I would much prefer physical buttons for the PS4; it is something I am sure I will get used to, but for now, it feels wonky and unpolished.
The slot-loading Blu-Ray drive suffers from a similar lack of profile. It works perfectly once you find exactly where the disc needs to go in, but doing so can be a bit of a guessing game unless one’s eyes are on a precisely even level with the drive itself, thanks to the PS4’s all-black design. I cannot say for sure what the solution might be – a glowing light on the drive itself, a small bit of color around the drive, etc. – but something to distinguish the boundaries of the drive would be appreciated; it is particularly bothersome in vertical orientation, where users must also account for the parallelogram shape to make sure the disc smoothly enters the console.
But in my time with the PS4 so far, the biggest physical problem is, undoubtedly, the noise. The PS4 is a loud console. When playing a game – any game, be it disc-based or downloadable, big or small, Triple-A or Indie – the PS4’s fans make quite the racket, and have, at times, gotten so loud that I became worried about the console overheating. At its noisiest, the PS4 is without a doubt the loudest console I have ever used – and what worries me most is that this is not a problem affecting all users, nor one intended by Sony.
Senior Vice President Masayasu Ito said in September that the cooling fans were supposed to be quiet, and that the PS4 would, on the whole, be even quieter than the PS3 (an attractive proposition, given that my PS3 slim from 2009 makes almost no noise whatsoever). And for many people, this appears to be the case, as few professional reviews of the PS4 have mentioned its noise level as detrimental. But since the console was released to the public, users have begun reporting noise levels similar to what I experienced – the videos in this article are representative of my own unit, in fact – and to my knowledge, there has been no official response from Sony. Whether this is a manufacturing problem or an overclocking issue (the latter of which could hopefully be resolved via firmware update), I very much hope it is something Sony can fix, because playing with this level of noise is undeniably distracting. Most of the launch games I have played are loud enough to drown out the console noise, but quieter or more sonically delicate games – like Contrast or Flower – are negatively impacted by the fan noise.
Now, it’s not all bad news. For the most part, the fan noise only kicks into high gear when I play games. When watching a Blu-Ray disc, DVD, or streaming video, the PS4 is about as silent as the PS3, and noise is not a problem (so far – I have not watched a great deal of content yet, so it is possible the PS4 could get noisier in these areas in the days and weeks to come). And to be honest, I would not necessarily be troubled by the noise if Sony had not specifically promised it would be a non-issue – video games as technically intensive as these tax fans, and that’s just the way things are. But my PS4, at least, is obviously making poor use of its fans – there is no reason the fans should be that loud that much of the time, across every single game on the system – and that bodes ill for the console’s long-term viability. It’s not a red-ring-of-death issue yet, but it very well could turn into one, and that worries me.
Assuming the noise is a fluke, however, and one that can be resolved via firmware updates or warranty exchanges, I am overall quite positive on the PlayStation 4 as a physical piece of hardware. From the size to the shape to the effective ‘light bar’ that bisects the top of the console (telling the user whether the device is on, off, or asleep), this is an extremely handsome and usable system.
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Part Three: The DualShock 4 Controller
Saying the DualShock 4 is the best controller in PlayStation history is such a vast understatement that it borders on being meaningless – and this is coming from someone who has always liked and respected the basic DualShock design, going all the way back to the original PlayStation in the 1990s. The controller has always had its roots in basic, traditional gamepad design – the analog-stick free original PlayStation controller is basically an SNES controller with handles – and that is something I appreciate. But over the course of the PS3’s lifespan, it became increasingly clear that the traditional PlayStation controller design was falling behind; I don’t believe the DualShock 3 was a horrible controller by any means, but as shooters became a commanding genre and the Xbox 360 showed us what a more substantial controller made for adult hands could feel like, it has long been clear that a change was in order.
The DualShock 4 is that change, and what makes it so incredibly effective is that even though it improves on every single aspect of the DualShock 3 – every, single, one – it does so while maintaining the general layout of a traditional controller, simultaneously innovating for the future while building off the best foundational aspects of the past.
When I first picked up the DualShock 4, I was immediately amazed at how instantly my hands molded to it. On the DualShock 3, I was able to comfortably fit my pinky and ring-fingers around the handles, but my index fingers never quite knew where to sit on the triggers, and my middle fingers didn’t have place to be whatsoever. But on the DualShock 4, my hands immediately know where to go; the handles are long and substantial enough for my pinky, ring, and middle fingers to wrap around comfortably, and my index fingers rest perfectly, instinctually on the triggers. My thumbs feel good on the analog sticks, and reaching any of the face buttons is easy and instinctual. Not even the Xbox 360 controller, which I have long considered the pinnacle of console gamepad design, fits this well in my hands. The DualShock 4 simply feels right, to the point where describing just how perfect it feels in words is practically a fool’s errand.
Testing the controller across a wide variety of games – so far, I have played Killzone: Shadow Fall, Knack, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, Resogun, Contrast, Flower, and Trine 2 – only increases my level of satisfaction. No matter the genre or style of gameplay, the DualShock 4 rises to the occasion, and no matter how long or intensely I play, the controller never starts to feel uncomfortable in my hands. It may be made out of plastic, but thanks to a textured grip design that feels cool to the touch, the DualShock 4 never starts to make one’s hands feel overly hot (a problem I always encountered on the PS3, and occasionally on the Xbox 360).
The buttons themselves are almost uniformly the best versions of basic gamepad buttons I have ever encountered. The face buttons click easily and satisfyingly (the switch to digital input, rather than analog, is a very good thing, as I found the DualShock 3 face buttons to be occasionally unresponsive), the bumpers are perfectly sized and easy to depress, and the directional pad is stupendously accurate in all situations. The analog sticks are very similar in feel to the Xbox 360 controller – depressing them feels identical, actually – but I think I prefer the DualShock’s 4 combination of a convex and concave design for the top of the sticks; I feel I have even more grip than ever before, and unlike the DualShock 3, thumbs sliding off is a total non-issue (as is thumbs touching while playing, as the sticks are now spaced further apart).
But the biggest improvement undoubtedly comes in the L2 and R2 triggers, which are not just a massive step-up from the comparable buttons on the DualShock 3, but on any triggers I have ever used (Xbox 360 included). Wide enough to comfortably rest one’s finger on, with a slight curve to ensure those fingers will never slip off, the triggers just feel right the moment one touches them, and they depress with the absolute perfect amount of tactile resistance (which is to say very little, but just enough to feel substantial).
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The new buttons – “Share,” “Options,” and the touchpad – are both unobtrusive and easy to access and use, so much so that the loss of “Start” and “Select” never feels like a sacrifice. I have found that most PS4 games use “Options” as they would “Start,” which makes sense, while the launch line-up only occasionally gives the touchpad any clear purpose. But when the touchpad is employed – typically, as in Assassin’s Creed 4 or Trine 2, to emulate a mouse – I find it works well, if not spectacularly. Clearly, this is a feature most developers are going to need more time to make use of, which is fine by me. I like the concept of the touchpad very much, and in what practice I have had with it so far, I cannot wait to see what shape it will take in the future.
In addition to playing games, the DualShock 4 interacts with the PS4 user interface in a number of clever, satisfying ways. Most obviously is the inclusion of a standard, 3.5mm headphone jack on the bottom of the controller, which allows users to stream the audio of the game to almost any standard headset (Sony cannot guarantee every pair of headphones in existence will work, but most should do just fine). It works beautifully – from settings, users can choose whether or not to stream everything or only chat audio, and once that decision is made, all you need to do is plug in the headphones; the system will do the rest. This is undoubtedly one of my favorite features of the PS4. There are a variety of situations where one might need to use headphones while gaming – playing late at night, playing with other people in the house, sound system problems, etc. – and the PS4 makes doing so the easiest thing in the world. Not only does the sound transmission work flawlessly, but it is also of amazingly high quality; even using a simple pair of Apple Earpods, I found the sound quality extremely impressive, and using better headphones and headsets only sweetens the deal.
Pairing the DualShock 4 with the system is easy, and having multiple users use multiple controllers is astoundingly simple. When an additional controller is turned on, the PS4 asks which account it would like to use, with the option to sign in as a guest. Until the controllers or system are turned off, those controllers are then paired with the selected account, meaning there is no confusion as to which controller belongs to which player, nor any difficulty in one player accessing their own profile or data. These are all things that could be difficult or awkward on the PS3 and Xbox 360, but never on the PS4; playing locally with friends has never been easier, something I frankly did not expect in an era when local multiplayer is on the decline.
For further personal identification, the DualShock 4 also includes a nifty if overlarge triangular light, which shines a different color for each player (blue by default) and orange when charging. The light is angled down, so it will never get in your eyes while playing, but I do find that the light is so bright and so large that it can reflect off the television when the image being displayed is dark. That is an annoyance, though a relatively minor one. Certain games use the light bar in creative ways – Killzone flashes red when you are about to die, and turns green when you come back to life – but overall, it is the only part of the DualShock 4 that lacks a clear and obvious purpose.
Nevertheless, it is quite possible the DualShock 4 is the best controller I have ever used. That statement will be put to the test in the months and years to come, of course – the Xbox 360 gamepad is tough to beat, and I’ve used and loved it for eight years now – but it is undeniable the DualShock 4 makes a strong, immediate impression, and that it is one of the Playstation 4’s single greatest assets.
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Part Four: The User Interface and Experience
While console gaming should, in theory, be the ‘easy’ and ‘accessible’ way to play games, one of the unfortunate drawbacks of the last generation of video game consoles was that, as the number of things a gaming platform was expected to do increased – starting with the already heavy load of more complex games and online play, before quickly blossoming into multimedia download and streaming hubs – the user interfaces became increasingly cumbersome. The Xbox 360’s firmware was always clunky and imperfect, but has become slow and crowded to the point of frustration in its latter years, while the PS3’s Cross-Media Bar, though always fast, became extremely convoluted and overstuffed (especially by the time users had loaded it up with dozens of hard-to-organize digital games). What Nintendo was thinking with the Wii’s strange ‘tile’ design I shall never know.
Thankfully, the PS4 arrives out of the gate with what is undoubtedly the fastest, smoothest, and most pleasingly intuitive user interface ever presented on a home console. No, it isn’t perfect. There are missing features aplenty, gaps in the user experience that can and should be present, but as a starting point? This is fantastic. When I say the PS4 delivers more than any other system on the fundamental promise of console gaming, it is the user interface and functionality I refer to more than anything else.
The basic interface is incredibly fluid and easy to navigate. The PS4 launches into a simple hub that horizontally displays your most frequently used games and applications, in the order you used them, with an option to access your full digital game library and multimedia apps stored at the end. It sounds like it would be a mess, but it isn’t – as much as game consoles today are multimedia devices, an individual user, for the most part, won’t be using more than a small handful of games or apps at once. Seeing everything you are most likely to use right up front is a godsend, then, because no longer do we have to dive through menus and submenus to find our primary game of the moment; what you last played will be one of the first options you see, and most anything else you are likely to use is right there, up front and incredibly easy to access. Imagine the “Recent” sub-menu from the Xbox 360 – which lists the last 10 or so opened applications – turned into the hub of the user interface, only vastly better organized and quite a bit more powerful. You can access settings, options, and social features for any of your recent apps – including disc-based games, which the PlayStation 4 thankfully treats like any other application – right from the main screen, with a simple press of the down arrow or a tap of the options button.
Yet as streamlined as the central PlayStation 4 experience is, getting down to the nitty-gritty details of console management isn’t difficult in the slightest. One just has to hit the up arrow to be taken to a row of familiar menus taking you to the PSN Store, your profile, your friends, your online parties, and, of course, settings, which is hugely improved from its wildly convoluted counterpart on the PS3 (data management in particular is much easier, but adjusting audio, video, network, or any other setting is a breeze).
In short, every part of the use interface is fast, fluid, and usable, even when playing games. You can bring up the main PS4 menu at any time with a touch of the PlayStation button on the controller; the game is suspended, and you have full access to the entire suite of settings and social features (starting another full game or application will, of course, close the one you are using, though you can access the PSN store without closing the active game or app). You can start downloads, which will continue without any user prompting in the background, access video and photo sharing features and start uploads, and even let other games install or update while you return to the game you were in. When you choose to do so, the game resumes without so much as a hiccup. ‘Effortless’ doesn’t even begin to describe it. You do not even have to turn the console ‘off’ when you are done playing – just put it into low-power mode, where you can let downloads, uploads, and installs continue, and even charge your controllers.
In short, the PS4 just makes gaming easier. The everyday stresses that arise from the clear delineation between active games and applications and the interface itself are now gone, as is any worry or trouble that might come from digital downloads, saved game uploads, game patches, and installs. For the most part, it is as easy as could be, though some improvements are needed. Organizing your digital game library to your liking is effectively impossible right now, and while that’s not a problem when that library only includes a handful of games, it will quickly become more cumbersome. The main recency-based hub certainly alleviates a lot of that concern, but greater organizational tools would nevertheless be welcome, and the same goes for multimedia apps. I immediately installed Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and Crunchyroll, and for what the PS4 has, that’s all I need. It would be nice to never have to see the other streaming apps, which I know I will never use, in the applications menu. Similarly, I have little interest in Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited, but they take up two tiles in the main menu, whether I’ve used them recently or not. Sending them away for good would be welcome.
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Overall, though, the core user interface is excellent, and it is augmented by an already robust set of social and practical features that, like the interface itself, simply work. The PS4’s focus on social functionality has been well advertised, and I like how the Friends and Profile menus have been redesigned to more closely mere (and interact with) social media. Sending friend requests, seeing what your friends are doing, and engaging with those friends is easier than ever, and the PlayStation Network is much more robust in terms of what you can do with social interaction and online gaming. Party Chat is the most obvious example – I have only used it briefly, but it is, like most of the PlayStation 4, easy and intuitive to use – but little things, like seeing what your friends are playing and immediately being able to jump into their game, whether you were playing that game or not, also impress.
The integration with social media is limited at this point, restricted only to Facebook and Twitter (and Twitch and UStream on the streaming side), and I hope it opens up a little more in the future, particularly in regards to which social media a user wants to focus on. I, for instance, barely use Facebook any more these days, but you have to link your accounts to access some PS4 features, like using a picture of yourself on your profile. As an avid Twitter user, prioritizing one social media over the other would be nice. Nevertheless, I find the social functionality pleasing; it is extremely easy to link accounts and share what you are doing, and the level of integration in the “Share” system is impressive.
Sharing is, of course, one the PS4’s flagship features, so much so that “Share” is now a button on the controller. The ability to take screenshots, record and edit gameplay footage, and even stream your own gameplay all seems far too ambitious to work perfectly, but for the most part, the “Share” functionality is amazingly stable and easy to use. Just as advertised, a click of the Share button during gameplay will both take a screenshot and give you access to the last 15 minutes of gameplay footage, which you can then take clips from to your liking. Videos can be uploaded to Facebook, and screenshots to Facebook or Twitter, while a third option allows you to start broadcasting gameplay to your own private Twitch or UStream channel.
In my experience, all three functions work flawlessly, and I was particularly surprised by the sheer simplicity with which gameplay streaming works; on multiple occasions, all it took for me to start broadcasting my gameplay was a hit of the button (after making a Twitch account, of course) and the selection of an option or two; before I knew it, I could see my own gameplay live (mostly – there is a short delay, of course), with voiceover, on my computer or iPad. The video is obviously much lower quality than what you see on the PS4 itself – though not ‘bad’ by any means – but the experience is nevertheless surreal. As for screenshots and videos, I have my own personal wishlist – uploading videos to YouTube, exporting to a personal computer, having access to multiple frames worth of screenshots rather than just one, and slightly more advanced editing tools – but for now, this is a really cool foundation for a feature that I would expect to be much more clunky out of the gate.
As you can probably tell by now, the Internet is more central to the PlayStation 4 than it ever has been on a home gaming console, and while the machine is not an ‘always-online’ device, using the PS4 offline is a much less exciting experience. That made for a pretty rocky launch day – PSN was, in my area at least, completely down until late in the afternoon, leaving me with very little to do for the majority of Day One – but once the PS4 gets online, it works wonders, in ways I have already described and in others I have not the time to describe. One of the nicest surprises of the PS4 is that once I did manage to connect it to the internet, I have found my connection to be consistently faster and more stable than on previous-gen devices. Downloads are vastly faster via the PS4 than they were on the PS3 – and I have both connected to the exact same router via LAN – online gaming has been stable and free of lag, and applications that use the internet (PSN Store included) are speedier than their PS3 counterparts. And while I have already touched upon this a little bit, the fact that the PS4 can manage itself while the user is away – downloading games and patches, uploading saves and video clips, performing installs, etc. – is a miraculously efficient breath of fresh air.
But the best – or, at least, coolest and most promising – of the PlayStation 4’s many new or improved features is, to my mind, Remote Play, which, in my experience, works exactly as advertised. Your mileage will vary, of course, depending on internet connection and speeds and home layout, but as I have used it – with the PS4 plugged directly into LAN, with a high-speed connection – Remote Play is amazingly seamless. After pairing your PS Vita (a piece of hardware that paved the way for many of the PS4’s coolest features, actually) with your PS4, you simply launch the “PS4 Link” app from the Vita, wait for it to connect, and marvel as the entirety of your PS4 interface is streamed directly to the Vita’s gorgeous OLED screen. You can use the Vita as a controller for TV playing, if you wish, or you can turn off the TV and play on the Vita screen, in the room your PS4 is in or another (depending on connection strength).
I have been able to use Remote Play successfully throughout the lower level of my house, which means I have use for it in a variety of circumstances. Just earlier today, my brother wanted to play some Mass Effect on the Xbox, so I gladly gave the TV up – and continued playing Knack on my Vita, on the same couch. That’s likely going to be the main attraction for most gamers, but I was even more excited by the prospect of playing my PS4 from bed at night via the Vita, which is, astoundingly, possible. While trying to go to sleep last night, I booted up the PS4 directly from the Vita (which is possible when the PS4 is in standby mode), launched Assassin’s Creed IV, and went around finding collectibles in Havana before going to sleep. And when I’m done playing remotely, I can put the PS4 back to sleep as well – no physical contact with the console itself is required to make Remote Play work, which is perhaps what excites me most about it.
There are limitations, of course; Blu-Ray, DVD, and Streaming movies will not play over Remote Play (though I didn’t necessarily expect them to), and even though the feature has largely worked perfectly for me so far, I do encounter lag and slowdown every now and then (though this can usually be remedied by making sure doors between rooms are open). But when Remote Play works – and for me, hiccups are the exception – it is an insanely cool feature. And it should be noted that part of what makes it work so well is the Vita itself, which has robust and comfortable enough controls to pull the entire thing off. I’m sure the connection between the Wii U gamepad and the Wii is a bit more stable, but I’d much rather play remotely from the Vita – the best-designed handheld I’ve ever encountered – than I would from the monstrous Wii U gamepad.
Overall, the PS4 user interface and functionality is mighty impressive, and while there are improvements to be made – some that have been announced, others that fans are calling for (more on that in a little bit) – I think this is about as good a foundation as any gamer should hope for on a brand new console.
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Part Five: Games, Gameplay, and Graphics
I have already established that the PS4 is, thanks to its user interface and controller, a great system to play games on. The next question to answer, then, is how are the games themselves? After sampling a large handful of them – Killzone: Shadow Fall, Knack, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, Resogun, Contrast, Flower, and Trine 2 – I am happy to say I feel cautiously enthusiastic, if not over the moon. There are some real gems here, Resogun chief among them, and some great multiplatform titles – Flower, Trine 2, Assassin’s Creed – that play better here than anywhere else. There are also disappointments – Knack is fun but lightweight, and nothing about Killzone: Shadow Fall grips me so far from a gameplay perspective. But overall, I think this is a healthy launch lineup, with many more options than those I myself have sampled, and if there is no killer app as of yet, this still feels to me like a stronger day one than either the PS3 or the Xbox 360 had.
But I’ll leave it to full reviews to examine these games critically. What I want to do in this section is to expand my thoughts on what gaming on the PS4 is like – because no matter the content of the games themselves, the gaming experience on the PS4 is kind of mind-blowing.
It starts, for me, with the installs. For retail games, I have chosen to continue buying physical discs, and I found my choice instantly vindicated when I put in Killzone and saw it launch to the main menu faster than any disc-based game I have ever played. No joke. While the game needs to install 39 gigabytes to the hard drive for play, it does so in the background while you play, and does so so efficiently that the game’s start-up is practically instantaneous (the fact that Sony’s first-party PS4 games each cut out all the extraneous corporate logos helps that launch time immensely). Knack worked the same way. And if Assassin’s Creed IV launched a little bit slower, it still seemed to get me to my game faster than any disc-based title on the previous generation, which is amazing considering just how much the PS4 is installing in the background.
To my mind, this cements that for retail titles, physical copies are unquestionably the way to go, for not only is there no time barrier between putting in a disc and starting to play, but it will make data management much easier further on down the line. Much has been made of how the PS4’s 500GB default hard drive will be quickly filled with installs this large, but the fact of the matter is, if installs are this easy and this instantaneous, there is no risk whatsoever to deleting old installs. If I need to make room for a new game somewhere down the line, I’ll just delete an old install, and if I ever want to play that game again, I’ll have the disc sitting on my shelf, ready to be played at a moment’s notice – when it installs again, it will again do it quickly and quietly in the background. Compare this to digital downloads, which will not only take a significant amount of time to download – even with the PS4’s fast download speeds, 40GB for Killzone is a hefty chunk of data – but will require that time investment again if you ever wipe the install and want to access it again. The PS4 does allow you to play digital games after a certain amount has downloaded, and that feature is much appreciated, but it still pales in comparison to the convenience and permanency of physical media.
But the big question is, of course, how these games look once you start playing them, as better graphics are the main draw of any new console. Suffice it to say, the performance power of the PS4 is mind-boggling, and it is apparent, to varying degrees, from any one of the games I have played so far. The clearest and most obvious benefits come in the areas of lighting, colors, and textures, and it is true across the board, as true for games built for the PS4 from the ground up (Killzone, Resogun) as for those originally created for older hardware (Flower, Trine 2). There is a level of nuance to the lighting in these games unlike anything I have ever seen, while textures are far richer and detailed than anything current-gen tech could ever hope to achieve. Colors are almost impossibly vivid, vibrant, and full-bodied, again with a degree of nuance in shading and depth that is, to my eyes at least, unprecedented in this medium. These benefits are most notable to my eyes on Killzone, which is an impossibly beautiful game, but the same can be said of Knack (which is aesthetically cartoonish but stunningly beautiful nevertheless), Assassin’s Creed IV (which looks foundationally like a current-gen title, but with better graphical fidelity top to bottom), and Trine 2 (which possibly shows off the lighting effects better than any other PS4 title I have tested).
Yet the biggest graphical leap forward on the PS4 undoubtedly comes in the form of asset count and particle physics – in both Knack and especially Resogun, you will see more assets on screen than the PS3 or Xbox 360 could ever hope to achieve, all rendered with stunning stability and fidelity. Resogun in particularly is just jaw-droppingly spectacular to look at, as clear a graphical proof-of-concept as gamers could ever hope for. When levels heat up and the screen is jam-packed with enemies, bullets, explosions, and other various particles, the image is literally overwhelming, but not muddy or slow. Knack may, overall, have been possible on the PS3, but the conception of the title character would have to be different, because the number of moving pieces that form Knack himself is astounding, and looks amazingly cool in motion. The limitations to how much a developer can fit on a single screen seem to be all but evaporated, and I cannot wait to see what comes of all this further down the line.
Every PlayStation 4 game runs natively in 1080p – though Call of Duty: Ghosts and Assassin’s Creed IV both require Day One patches to do so – and the importance of resolution should not be underestimated. 1080p televisions have been the standard for years now, but gaming has been locked in to 720p since 2005, and the difference is truly staggering. I suspect many of the graphical improvements the PS4 has to offer, at least on smaller titles like Contrast or previous-gen games like Flower, comes simply from the leap in resolution, which offers vastly more depth and detail in color and textures. 1080p gaming simply looks great, and with a system that also has the graphical capabilities to give that resolution a workout, the possibilities are endless.
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Part Six: Multimedia
The one major area where the PlayStation 4 comes up short is in multimedia support. It’s not that the system doesn’t have basic multimedia functionality – it does, and can serve well as a living room hub – but that in the areas of video and music, the PS4 is disappointingly stripped down from its predecessor.
Let us start with the good: the PS4 is, like the PS3 before it, an exceptional Blu-Ray player, with lighting-fast load times and robust, easily accessible functionality. It is disappointing to me that there is no media remote available for the system at launch – I wish I could use my PS3 remote, but barring that, I would have bought a new one – but Sony has clearly given thought to how the controller can double as a remote, and mapped remote controls to the DualShock 4 more effectively than any other controller ever has. Once you learn the controls, it is extremely easy to perform basic functions – pause, fast-forward, rewind, skip forward/backward, bring up an information pane, etc. – and just as simple to access more complex settings like audio, subtitles, angle, and settings on the fly. I found using the DualShock 3 a pain when I didn’t have access to my remote (and felt the same way about the Xbox controller on the 360), but with some nice tweaks, the DualShock 4 controls Blu-Ray and DVD movies quite well indeed. A remote would still be preferable, but this will do for now. The Blu-Ray/DVD interface is also quite nice, albeit slightly pared down from what the PS3 presented; I prefer the PS3 interface for Blu-Rays more at this time, but there is nothing wrong with watching movies on the PS4, and I suspect things will only improve with time.
Meanwhile, all the videostreaming apps users are familiar with from the PS3 return here, with often similar, if sometimes improved, interfaces and functionality. I sampled Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon, and they all ran great. I would like to see these services integrate the DualShock 4’s touchpad into their menu navigation for quicker and easier browsing (something the PS4 UI needs to do as well, actually), but for now, they run great. No complaints here.
Things get more complicated when one starts broaching the realms of music, pictures, and non-local videos, as the PS4 unfortunately lacks the robust DLNA support that made the PS3 so valuable to many a power user. Where the PS3 was a wonderfully usable media server for the entire household, the PS4 essentially operates on the opposite end of the spectrum, and it’s not the absence of picture and video viewing that bothers me quite so much as the lack of extremely basic media functionality. In the year 2013, for a device as powerful as the PS4 to not support files as universal as MP3s is ludicrous. It is as simple as that. You should be able to put your music on the PS4 and play it, and the fact that you cannot is a tremendous oversight. I am similarly disappointed by the lack of Audio CD playback – though that one baffles more than saddens me, given that I have never seen a DVD or Blu-Ray player not support CDs – a feature I do use on my PS3 every so often.
For now, the only music-playing option supported by the PS4 is Sony’s “Music Unlimited” streaming service, for which a 30-day trial is included with the console. I cannot say I am a fan of this service, considering that trying to operate Music Unlimited has been the only instance during my time with the PS4 that the system experienced slow-down or became unresponsive (I eventually was able to retain control, but I had to listen to a lot of the bad song I accidentally started playing before that happened). Take that for what you will.
I am sure Sony will restore much if not most of this functionality in the future – they would be foolish not to, quite frankly – and that one day, the PS4 will be every bit the home media hub we all want it to be. But at launch, that is not what this system is. It is an excellent gaming platform, with multimedia on the side, and while that should not be a deal-breaker, it is, for the time being, a letdown.
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Part Seven: In Conclusion
So now we come to the ultimate question: Should you, the consumer, be interested in buying a PlayStation 4 (assuming, of course, that you can find one in the months to come)?
As you might expect, it depends. It depends on what kind of gamer you are, and it depends on what you want and expect out of a gaming console. Casual gamers and those who primarily use their home consoles as multimedia hubs need not bother with the PS4 at present. The current-gen hardware likely does everything you want and need it to do, and support for those systems isn’t going anywhere in the immediate future. This is something even hardcore gamers should think about, because if you aren’t necessarily interested in any of the games the PS4 has within its launch window, it’s not like your current systems are going anywhere. The PS4 may signal a new era for gaming, but the current era isn’t over, and it isn’t necessarily obsolete just because new hardware has arrived.
Here’s the bottom line, to my mind: If you are someone who plays games frequently, who enjoys video games as one of their primary modes of entertainment and artistic consumption, and have any inkling of wanting a PlayStation 4, you should do your best to get one. This system was made for you. As I said in the beginning, the PS4 marks the ultimate evolution, as of now, of the basic promise of console gaming: power and usability, depth and fluidity, all rolled into one beautiful, intuitive, robust package. The PS4 makes gaming easier, it makes gaming more accessible, and it makes gaming more fun, because focus no longer has to be split with wrangling the user interface or expending extra energy on downloads, installs, and the like. And with a set of truly impressive, remarkably enjoyable features – sharing and Remote Play chief among them – the PS4 continues to innovate even as it perfects. The PS4 is so impressive in so many ways that what should theoretically be its biggest leap forward – the graphics, which are, indeed, unparalleled – seems in some way an afterthought after several days of use.
The system is not perfect – there are problems, both big and small, and I want to stress that until I know more about the noisy fan issue referenced earlier, any recommendation I give is qualified. This is not in the same league as the Red Ring of Death, but it is an unexplained flaw, not experienced by every user, that detracts from the gaming experience. Hopefully it can be resolved. If not, it’s not necessarily a dealbreaker, but it is a significant drawback.
But in the end, my overall feelings are positive, and glowingly so. The PlayStation 4 is the home gaming console I have always wanted, and one I suspect will only get better in the future. We are coming off the best and most creatively rich generation in video game history – whether the next one can match it has yet to be seen, but the PlayStation 4 is one hell of a start.