Sony launched the PlayStation 4 on 29 November in Australia, to the overwhelming demand of gamers nationwide. With stores unable to heighten supply until early 2014, does this signify an excellent product? Brendan and Eddie picked up Sony’s next-gen console from day one, and review all key areas of the PlayStation 4.
1. The Console: Unboxing & Initial Setup
The PlayStation 4 embodies simplicity, from setup and even down to the packaging of the console. As soon as you open the box, everything is in view – console, controller and all necessary cables. The PlayStation 4 includes one DualShock 4 controller, mono headset, HDMI cable and USB charging cable for controller (along with necessary items like AC power cord and quick-start manual). There is only one thing in this list that is disappointing, which is the mono headset. While it is conveniently small, the wiring is incredibly thin and delicate, and it wouldn’t surprise us if we hear reports of this item breaking over the years.
The build quality on the PlayStation 4 is superb. Unlike the Xbox One, there were no visible scuffs or fingerprint marks after unwrapping both the console and controller. Setup is also a breeze with the PlayStation 4 – it takes roughly five minutes to go through the key steps, such as setting the region, date and time, logging into PSN and downloading the day one update. If you include the PlayStation Camera, there are a few additional setup steps before you enter the home user interface. These steps include scanning your face at various angles to allow the camera to log into your profile via face scan.
2. The Controller
While the PlayStation 3 controller stood as the definitive iteration of the DualShock legacy, featuring motion sensing, wireless bluetooth and a USB rechargeable internal battery, it had plenty of flaws. The DualShock 3’s insistence on a ten year old pad design meant Microsoft had a low bar to overcome. With a sensible design, button configuration and ergonomics, the Xbox 360’s gamepad has come to define the modern era of console gaming. The DualShock 4 controller, much like the hardware it is bundled with, is a sincere admission from Sony that the last generation’s lessons of corporate hubris were well and truly learned.
The overall shape of the DualShock 4 feels familiar, but the handles of the controller have been elongated and beefed up this time around. The moulded pad design rises up to the slightly angled face and then dramatically drops off towards the back of the controller, which houses the new light bar (trackable with the PlayStation camera) and micro-USB charging port. The controller feels balanced in your hands, with the controller sitting more comfortably in your palms. Your thumbs and forefingers come to rest naturally on the sticks and triggers.
Other shortcomings of the DualShock 3 have been addressed with analog triggers that feel responsive and more suited to games like shooters. The two analog sticks now sit further apart, with grippy rubber and dimples that keep your thumbs in place. However, in games like Battlefield 4, where you need to depress the left analog stick to run, the stick can feel uncomfortably tall at times. Sony has also introduced a mono speaker and a stereo headset jack that works with the bundled mono headset. It’s encouraging to see Sony making it easier to use standard headphones for quieter play sessions and standard headsets for game chat. Previously, PlayStation 3 owners were restricted to either expensive Bluetooth or USB sets.
The showstopper feature sits next to the new ‘Share’ button, which makes sharing and broadcasting your gameplay sessions easier. In the middle of the DualShock 4 is a clickable touch pad which looks and feels similar to the PlayStation Vita’s rear touchpad. So far, the use of the trackpad has been limited, but we expect to see more in the future, particularly when you consider how Media Molecule used the rear trackpad for the critically acclaimed Tearaway.
The DualShock 4 is a well designed and beautifully crafted controller from Sony. It is one of the best controllers they’ve ever made. The only thing that mars this great piece of kit is the short battery life on the controller. We expect that iterations and improvements to the DualShock 4 are coming that will address battery life, but for now the DualShock 4 is a welcome improvement going into the next generation of video gaming.
3. The Camera
The PlayStation Camera is a handy accessory for the PlayStation 4. While its functionality has not been incorporated into many titles as yet, the camera allows for logging in via face scan and voice control. The face scanning feature for logging works quite well and fast – the camera detects the light bar from the user’s DualShock 4 controller, then proceeds to scan your face. If the two are picked up and properly recognise the data saved from setup, the user is immediately logged into their profile. As for voice control, this feature is quite user-intuitive, however it is only limited to basic functions such as controlling the UI. It’s not as widespread as the Xbox One’s Kinect, but the PlayStation Camera is able to open games/apps and turn the console off.
The PlayStation 4 comes with a demonstration game for the camera, called The Playroom. This game features a small number of augmented reality mini-games to show off the capabilities of the PlayStation Camera, such as loading many AR mini-bots around you as well as playing with Asobi, the feature interactive robot in The Playroom. Asobi flies around you and can be moved around by your hands or be tickled.
4. The UI & Apps
The PlayStation 4’s user interface has been updated and improved over the ridiculously branded “Xross Media Bar menu” that was the PlayStation 3’s standard. The XMB’s influence is not completely absent, the PlayStation 4 still opts for a moving background, but it is far more subtle this time around. The biggest legacy design to the past are the horizontal rows, which are integral to how the new UI is organised. This time however, the PlayStation 4 treats system and player functions as distinct from your content, like games and entertainment apps. The PlayStation 4’s Dynamic Menu, is graphic design heavy with an emphasis on scaling sensibly and usably on big screen TVs. The PlayStation 4 UI is split between two horizontal rows: the “function area” and the “content area”. The “function area” sits above the “content area” and is hidden until you’re ready to access it. You’ll find useful settings including Trophies, Messages, Notifications and the PSN store.
The “content area” houses your games, apps and media with their position dependent on how often you use that software. The PlayStation 4 will always show your last used software first, with the rest ordered accordingly. There are also rollover menus for all the different games that appear in the content area. For example, by rolling over Resogun, you’ll be able to see what’s new for the game, including available updates; you can view your trophy list, and see which of your friends have played the game.
Another key feature of the PlayStation 4 is Sony’s efforts to make the console more social media friendly. You can now import and use your Facebook profile picture as your PSN avatar instead of the default options. You can also send a real name request, on a friend by friend basis, making your gaming experience feel more personal. The friend list is more intuitive, with player profiles giving you an activity feed that’s more inline with services like Facebook and Twitter. Within the Friend’s app, you can compare trophies, view what your friend has been playing and even jump into a chat with them.
Trophies have been updated with a new ‘rarity rating’. An algorithm compares how many people have actually unlocked the trophy around the world and assigns a rating like ‘Ultra rare’ or ‘Common’. You can now gauge how hard a particular accomplishment is, adding an extra dimension to trophy hunting.
The PlayStation 4’s most useful social feature is the ‘What’s New’ content area menu, which summarises a lot of the activity we’ve been discussing. Jumping down into the menu you can view all of your friend’s activities such as games they’re playing, trophies earned and games they’ve rated. You can view their shared screenshots and videos, which you can like from the menu and even jump directly into a live broadcast. The ‘What’s New’ menu is designed with the controller in mind and is easy to navigate. By having a summary of what your friends are have been doing, the PlayStation experience feels more personalised and in some cases can fuel your rivalry or sense of skill superiority.
Hitting the new ‘Share button’ on the PS4 controller will open up a menu that allows you to share screenshots, gameplay videos or to start broadcasting what you’re doing on the PlayStation 4. Bringing up the share menu is fast, but to edit a video clip you’ll need to temporarily suspend your game. You can edit the last 15 minutes of activity to smaller video clips, by selecting start and end points and hitting the trim button, saving it to a new clip. After you’ve finished editing your clip, the video will be added to your upload list and you can return to your game. There’s no waiting or inconvenience with the PlayStation 4, it is simple and easy to do.
So far, the apps offering is bare bones, with the extensive streaming options that the PlayStation 3 enjoyed like ABC’s iView and SBS, unavailable at launch. Apps are starting to trickle down into the store with VidZone – a free, streaming music video app becoming available at the time of writing. At launch, PlayStation 4 owners had access to Sony’s Unlimited Music and Video apps – apps that housed and played Sony’s extensive catalogue of music and movies; Quickflix – a subscription based streaming service that offers TV shows and movies; and the IGN app, essentially a video player that lets users watch trailers and video reviews from the IGN website.
With the focus on content first, the PlayStation 4’s design ethos is inline with many modern web designs. These design cues from the web, particularly how social media feeds work, inform much of how the dynamic menu looks and feels. While Sony is reluctant to make major overhauls to its console UI like Microsoft mid-cycle, for the PlayStation 4 they’ve opted for an elegant, modern and refined UI foundation from the beginning. With the added processing power of the PlayStation 4, the UI also feels zippy to navigate with multitasking and the launching of games happening almost instantaneously.
The PlayStation 4’s user interface is not only better looking than its predecessor, its also usable and intuitively set out for users — another positive step for Sony this generation.
5. The Games
One key difference with gaming on the PlayStation 4 compared to previous generations is the requirement for PlayStation Plus in order to play online. While that may seem almost identical to Xbox Live, PlayStation Plus offers discounts across the range of games and media to purchase, as well as two free games each month. For the launch of the PlayStation 4, one of the free games we’ve been playing extensively is Resogun.
Resogun is a 3D side-scrolling shoot ‘em up, in the style of arcade classic ‘Defender’. After choosing a ship, you need to navigate through one of five levels, surviving waves of enemies until you defeat the stage boss. Game modes are kept simple, you can choose to focus on completing a single stage or you can blast through all five levels in arcade mode. You have two screen clearing bombs and the ability to ‘boost’, where your ship speeds up and flies rapidly – destroying any enemies in your path. You’ll also be able to charge your ‘overdrive’, a maxed out version of your weapon that destroys anything it touches. You’ll also need to rescue up to ten humans that appear on the map after you destroy the glowing ‘keepers’, it is an optional mission but you’ll net ship upgrades, extra lives and bombs for being the hero.
You’ll need to master all of these tools and become an evasion ninja to register those high scores, particularly when you start to play Resogun on the recommended difficulty: Experienced. Resogun is a deceptively simple and fun game that will endear its way into your library. Resogun is unassuming and revels in its simple, but thoughtful game design. While we’re all expecting more from next-generation games, Resogun runs smoothly and at times is visually impressive. This exclusive offering from Housemarque goes someway to cementing Sony’s commitment to being an independent friendly platform. Without Resogun, Sony’s otherwise lack lustre launch lineup would look even more dire.
Sony’s black box has relied heavily on third-party games to bolster its launch line up, often with the added bonus that the PS4 versions feature higher resolutions than their Xbox One counterparts. We checked out two offerings from EA, Need for Speed: Rivals and Battlefield 4.
With the delay of PS4 exclusive Drive Club for launch, it appeared the PS4 would be without a racer (even a Ridge Racer) for launch. Even more frustrating for early adopters is Sony’s decision to launch the latest installment of Gran Turismo on the PS3! Racing duties have been handed to Ghost Games debut, Need for Speed: Rivals. The new development studio pulls together talent from Criterion Games and DICE, with the mandate from EA that they will be developing all future Need for Speed games using the Frostbite 3 engine.
Need for Speed: Rivals is the spiritual successor to Criterion’s Hot Pursuit with a focus on open world driving, exotic cars and high speed chases. Set in the fictional Redview County, Racers and Cops will battle each other in a mixture of settings, from lush forest roads to stark desert highways. Career progression for either Cops or Racers also returns from High Pursuit, with cars and upgrades earned through accumulating ‘Speed Points’ – points earned through completing races and other events while on the road. Racers have a notoriety level that will increase their multiplier the longer they are on the road, but they risk losing it all if a Cop successfully busts them before making it to a safe house.
With the technical prowess of the Frostbite 3 engine, which allows for slick visuals and a dynamic weather system, as well as the promise of a seamless blend of single and multiplayer through ‘AllDrive’ — Need for Speed: Rivals has emerged as a next-generation racer worthy of your attention.
Speaking of all things Frostbite 3, we’ve also been playing DICE’s flagship warfare simulator: Battlefield 4. To date, reviewing the game has been tough due to a number of persistent bugs and ongoing server issues plaguing BF4. However, the time we’ve spent with the game is a vast improvement over previous console releases, at least in a technical sense.
BF4 runs at constant 60fps at 900p, a vast improvement on Battlefield 3 on the PS3 which was throttled to 30fps at 720p. In practice, movement feels unnaturally smooth, while levels are rendered in spectacular detail. Maps and player limits have also been increased with Conquest mode hosting up to 64 players for the first time on consoles. The sheer scale of a 64 player war impresses a sense of what DICE have been trying to achieve since BF3. The extra players will also force you to refine your team strategies and make use of the new ‘lean and cover system’ to stay alive long enough to cap flags.
Battlefield 4 is a frustrating game to try and play, with bugs and flaky servers ruining any good will you have towards the game. There are glimpses of the brilliant game that made me shell out money for a Premium Membership two years ago. But for now, the community is in its infancy with some servers only half full, which makes DICE’s otherwise well designed maps feel empty and lifeless. Until things settle down and the community grows, the ‘true Battlefield experience’ might not be apparent for a while. However, if you’re a veteran Battlefield player you know that this is where the series truly shines. BF4 is a long term game that gets better the longer you stick with it. But for now, BF4 is testing our patience.
6. Remote Play
Remote Play functionality is an excellent feature to the PlayStation 4, especially when you’re away from the console or if the TV is occupied by another member of the household. For those who haven’t heard of the concept before, the output of the PlayStation 4 is mirrored to the PS Vita, allowing for the handheld console to take full control. This feature has been used in earlier console generations such as the PlayStation 3 and the PSP, but was very limited in its capabilities compared to now.
The video streaming between the PS Vita and the PlayStation 4 is seamless and ideal for playing games on; lag was not noticeable, nor did it hinder the experience. The PS Vita’s OLED screen is perfect for Remote Play – games look incredibly sharp and vibrant, with the screen quality looking virtually identical to the TV output.
Remote Play has effectively given a new purpose for the PS Vita. While the handheld console may be suffering from a lack of third-party games, it is a perfect companion device to complement the PlayStation 4. Sony are also releasing PlayStation 4/PS Vita bundles in the UK and US markets, and we can only hope that a local release may happen.
7. Final Thoughts
The PlayStation 4 is a console which embodies simplicity at its core. From setting up the console, to using the UI, the PlayStation 4 is most certainly a user-friendly device that will appeal to all kinds of gamers. The graphical capabilities of the PlayStation 4 are superb, with the inclusion of Anti-Aliasing and an increased draw line for objects in the distance (Killzone: Shadow Fall demonstrates these two features impressively). Unlike the Xbox One however, the PlayStation 4’s launch lineup didn’t exactly appeal to me, with Resogun and Knack being my favourite titles for the console so far. While the PlayStation Camera complements the PlayStation 4 with regards to UI voice control and logging in using face scan, they are effectively the only two features the camera can be used for right now, with the lack of games and applications utilising the accessory.
If Sony can improve and increase the range of titles for the PlayStation 4 for 2014, as well as seeing more developers integrate the PlayStation Camera into their games, the PlayStation 4 will then certainly make a strong mark for console gaming in the new year.
The PlayStation 4 is a next-generation console with a lot of promises yet to be fulfilled. One of the marks of the PlayStation 4’s success will depend on the quality and frequency of independent titles to bolster periods in between bigger games. So far, we’ve been promised a handful of new games and the return of critically acclaimed games like Uncharted, but the launch lineup hasn’t been as strong as Microsoft’s launch lineup. However, from the outset, Sony’s black box has confidently demonstrated its technical prowess with many games running smoothly at Full HD. Also, the PS4’s product styling and diminutive design lend itself more readily to your living room over the Xbox One’s gargantuan presence.
At launch, Sony’s PS4 is lacking a number of media features we’ve grown accustomed to as PlayStation 3 owners. So far, Sony executive have been open and honest about why those features were missing and if we’ll see them in future patches for the PS4. It’s a common theme when you consider the PlayStation 4, many of the refinements to the system are a direct result of open communication with consumers and developers. If Sony continues to keep the dialogue ongoing, there is no reason why its console can’t be successful in the face of stiff competition.