PlayStation 4 Review: Did Sony Stumble at the Starting Line?
- - Fast, powerful hardware, tons of potential.
- - DualShock 4 controller is phenomenal.
- - User Interface is solid, Remote Play works well.
- - Exclusive launch titles are weak.
- - PlayStation Camera is a bummer, Second Screen support is absent.
- - Compared to the PS3, it's a poor home theater device.
It’s finally arrived! After months of waiting, gamers are cracking open PlayStation 4 boxes and booting up their new consoles. After testing the new hardware for a short period ourselves, here’s our impressions of Sony’s new offering to the gaming masses.
Can I use it as a giant scented eraser? Mmmmm, smells like plastic.
Look at that fat PS3 that Sony released in 2006, then look at the PS4. It’s just night and day. The PS4 is actually smaller than the PS3 slim and, of course, more powerful. It’s slightly heavier than the Slim, but that’s ideal if you prefer to position the PS4 vertically rather than horizontally. The slanted design and white/blue LED on top also make for a cool talking point when you have friends over. In addition, the smaller form factor means the console is more portable, ideal when taking the PS4 over to a friend’s house or on the road when traveling.
One big difference you will notice between the PS3 and PS4 is noise reduction. The PS4 is significantly quieter and doesn’t really make much noise unless a Blu-ray movie is spinning. Games don’t make much noise since they are installed to the 500GB hard drive. The PS4 also stays relatively cool to the touch after several hours of play.
Be aware that all the heat is expelled from the rear of the console. It’s a good idea to place the PS4 in an area where all the heat won’t get trapped at the rear of your home theater furniture. Of course, installation is a breeze: just connect the power cable and included HDMI cable to get started. Be aware that HDMI is the only option for this generation. There’s no additional A/V outputs for older televisions.
Regarding the hardware’s power, it will be some time before you see the full effect of the PS4’s capabilities in games. For the moment, you will see small improvements over the previous generation in multi-console releases. Smoother framerates, added lighting / smoke / fire effects, more populated and lifelike levels and a greater level of detail in character models, just to name a few upgrades. However, don’t expect the huge visual leap that occurred between the PlayStation 2 and PlayStation 3. We already live in a high definition world.
UI background music doubles as a lullaby for putting babies to sleep so Dad can play more Call of Duty.
Two words to describe the new UI? Cautiously Optimistic. Sony has evolved the PS3 Cross-Media bar significantly, but there are some potential issues as gaming collections grow. My biggest concern is the single row of content that features all games and Sony’s applications. Very similar to the UI design in early Roku devices, the single row may take a while to navigate when you have 30+ games to look through. Sony should update the menu to provide more user control over what’s displayed along the bar. However, the most recently used app does cycle to the front of the row, thus someone constantly playing the same game won’t have to hunt down the icon each day.
The “What’s New” icon at the start of the bar is an interesting addition. Adopting a Pinterest-style display, players can check out visual notifications of what games their friends are playing, friend connections made, trophies earned and other interesting facts. The only downside is that the feed contains advertisements for games on the Sony store. In addition, your friends have to own a PS4 for their updates to appear in the feed. Otherwise, it will be completely blank.
Above the main content bar, users will find a icon menu that’s similar to the Cross-Media bar. It provides direct access to notifications, the friends list, trophies, the PlayStation Store, the message system, party chat lobbies, general settings and the power shutdown options. You really need to explore to see all the tweaks and improvements in those sections, but some standouts include worldwide percentages of people who have earned specific trophies, granular control over notifications and external device management.
Two of the biggest improvements to the UI include background downloading and the PlayStation Store interface. Regarding downloading, users can queue up new game downloads and go play a game rather than having to sit and wait through download / installation screens. It’s a subtle, but impressive touch that will make you appreciate the new generation of consoles. The PlayStation Store looks absolutely fantastic now. Huge box art is plastered all over the screen in glorious high definition and it’s quite easy to find new games to download.
DualShock 4 Controller
Includes a nightlight for scary games like Knack, the scariest launch title of them all!
Where to begin? The DualShock 4 controller improves on the DualShock 3 by leaps and bounds. The controller has evolved for an older, more adult audience. There’s a heft to it that makes the DualShock 3 feel like a plastic toy. The controller fits more comfortably along the palm of your hands due to the extended length of the sides. The shoulder and trigger buttons each have a specific feel and responsiveness, more so than the DualShock 3. The rear panel of the DualShock 4 is slightly textured for a better grip.
Very similar to the Roku 3 or Wii U, the DualShock 4 also includes a headphone jack designed to transfer the game’s audio to headphones. It’s fantastic when the other members of your home don’t want to listen to you blasting away in yet another CoD deathmatch. You can also route all multiplayer chat communication through the controller, so you don’t need to invest in a wireless headset. By the way, don’t bother using the mono earbud and microphone that comes with the PS4. The audio is absolutely horrible.
Unfortunately, all this awesomeness comes at a price. The battery life of the controller stinks. On average, the controller lasts about 6 to 8 hours before requiring a recharge. Alternatively, my DualShock 3 lasts triple that figure. The only upside to the poor battery life is that the PS4 can charge the controller while in standby mode, a feature woefully absent from the PS3.
It’s possible that the battery life is partially being drained by the light bar on the rear of the controller that doesn’t appear to have much use outside of PlayStation Camera-enabled games. It’s odd that Sony didn’t include an option to turn it off or at least dim it. There’s also a speaker built into the DualShock 4 that seems to be used sparingly in the launch games, similar to the touchpad on the DualShock 4. Anyway, PS4 owners will have to remember to plug up the controller after playing each night until Sony improves the battery within the controller.
It’s just like Kinect. If Kinect was optional, somewhat crippled and the majority of game developers ignored it.
I was a bit disappointed in the camera’s image quality. Perhaps I’m spoiled by Logitech’s 1080p C920 webcam, but the 720p PlayStation Camera has issues with lighting and produces grainy pictures. It reminded me of a laptop webcam and the constant struggle to find the perfect background lighting. However, I did like the field-of-vision (ideal for multiple players) as well as the compact design of the camera. Unlike the Xbox 360 Kinect, I can place the PS4 camera within my home theater system without drawing much attention.
Regarding gesture and voice controls, the camera performs admirably with the Playroom mini-games and the control functions. I didn’t have any trouble with the few basic voice commands, but it seems slower than simply using the controller.
To date, there’s no compelling reason to own the camera for a specific game. However, developers could include camera functions in multi-console games that use the Kinect camera. At the moment, Twitch / UStream is the biggest reason to pick up the camera. The resolution of the camera works well with the PIP function within both apps.
I just don’t see the majority of PlayStation 4 owners opening up their wallet for an additional $60 expense when that could go to an additional controller or another game. And that’s exactly why the PlayStation camera will remain a secondary peripheral rather than a feature heavily integrated into the system and games. Adoption rates will dictate how much time and effort is put into further development of camera features. This accessory could be the equivalent of the PlayStation Move controller, a great accessory for a niche group of PS4 owners.
The Share Button
The world must be interested in my leet gaming skillz! I got 40 views on my last YouTube video.
To be completely forthright, I’m not the guy who’s going to be sharing my gaming clips over PSN or Xbox Live. I’m lucky to get an hour a day to play video games. I just don’t have the time to become amazing at a game for an instructional video or run a live-streaming event to show how many times I can get riddled with bullets during Battlefield 4.
That being said, I’m mildly impressed with Sony’s integration of the sharing tools on the PS4. One tap of the Share button and the player can look through the last 15 minutes of gameplay in order to trim out a segment for a new video. While the editing tools are fairly utilitarian, the entire process can be completed within minutes after you understand the layout and options.
Clips can be encoded in HD, given specific names and uploaded to social networks. However, voice support is limited at this point. You cannot record introductions or voiceovers after the fact. You have to record live audio while playing, definitely difficult if attempting to concentrate on the game.
Beyond clips, the player also has the ability to share a live stream of their game with the Twitch or Ustream audience. Both are easy to set up, and comments made through the two sites appear below the gameplay window (which covers about 75 percent of the screen). This allows the user to receive real-time feedback immediately, both accolades and insults. One downside is that popularity often leads to missing comments as they scroll off the screen quickly. Similar to recording live audio for a clip, it’s a bit difficult to concentrate on playing a game and responding to comment feedback at the same time.
Serious question; can I keep playing while I’m in the bathroom?
As with most living rooms in America, control over the main television is hotly contested among family members. Enter Remote Play, the feature that allows you to mirror and control games currently running on the PlayStation 4 within the home, assuming you own a PlayStation Vita. I’ve tested it up to about 25 feet away from my home’s router with a couple walls in between and it works extremely well.
I do have my PlayStation 4 connected directly to my router through a wired connection rather than wireless, something that Sony recommends in order to keep the connection lag free. You can also turn on the PS4 using the Vita, assuming the PS4 is in standby mode. Navigating the user interface and launching games are also a breeze.
However, there are a couple downsides to playing PS4 games on the Vita. The control scheme of the DualShock 4 download translate well to the Vita, specifically the triggers. Since there are only two triggers on the Vita (opposed to four on the DualShock 4), the triggers are mapped to the four corners of the rear touchpad.
While that’s probably the best placement due to the hardware limitations, I often found myself cramping up on the tiny Vita controls. It’s not impossible to learn, but it’s uncomfortable. There’s also the issue of trying to read text on the screen. Games for the PlayStation 4 have been built with a large HDTV screen in mind. Squashing that image down to the Vita’s 5-inch display means you will be squinting from time to time.
Wait a second, is this actually a feature at launch? Not really…
If you weren’t aware, the Vita can also act as a second screen. This is also an option for any iOS or Android device after downloading the PlayStation app. Conceptually, the second screen is supposed to provide supporting content. For instance, someone driving around Los Santos in GTA V could take a quick glance at a second screen displaying a large, real-time version of the on-screen map. Or perhaps you could flip through a playbook on a second screen in a sports game.
Unfortunately, early support for this feature has been extremely weak from developers—pretty much non-existent. However, it was never likely that developers like EA and Ubisoft would go the extra mile to include a second screen option in multi-console games like Madden NFL 25 and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. That being said, Microsoft is also pushing along the second screen feature with the Xbox One, thus developers will move more quickly to include this option on both consoles in the future.
Until that time, the second screen feature does come in handy when you are forced to type anything on the PS4; vastly better than hunting and pecking with the DualShock 4. The Android / iOS app can also be used to check up on user profiles, trophies and friends as well as purchase digital versions of games while away from the console.
Home Theater Functionality
First movie to christen my PS4? There’s no contest. Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2
Oddly enough, the PlayStation 4 currently has fewer streaming media applications then the PS3. However, the majority of the big streaming video applications (Netflix, Hulu Plus, VUDU, Amazon Instant Video) are still included.
PS4 users are still missing out on a handful of video applications like YouTube and HBO GO. Sony has also left out the major music streaming applications like Pandora, likely to push the company’s internal music subscription service.
One aspect of the user interface that I love is that you don’t have to reload a video app when switching between games and other PS4 functions.
For instance, I started watching Skyfall on Netflix, paused it, popped out into the menu, started up Resogun, played a couple rounds and then went back into the Netflix app. The app was still loaded as if I hadn’t stopped watching the movie and I could push play to jump right back into Bond’s most recent adventure. On an added note, the PS4 version of Netflix is the new user interface that Netflix rolled out earlier this week. It’s extremely well-polished.
After the 1.5 firmware update (which took all of 60 seconds), I had no problem playing both Blu-ray and DVD movies. The interface for discs is extremely similar to the PS3, no major changes. Sadly, the deep, granular control over audio and video settings included with the PS3 is woefully absent from the PS4 interface. The PS4 is also missing all the fantastic DLNA media support offered by the PS3. If you want to use a game console heavily in your home theater, you are better off with the PlayStation 3 at this point.
This is where fanboy arguments are born. And ultimately devolve into mindless blather.
Just like the debut of many game consoles, the critical reception of the PlayStation 4 lineup of exclusive titles has been fairly weak so far. Take a look at the early Metacritic averages:
Only Resogun, a well-polished PSN arcade shooter, is trending above the 80% mark. (It’s fantastic, by the way. And included for free in a PlayStation Plus subscription.) If I had to guess, Sony was betting that Killzone was going to be their saving grave for the launch. In my opinion, that franchise is no replacement for a new Uncharted, God of War or Infamous game.
However, you can’t really blame the developers. While Sony will probably sell a few million PlayStation 4 consoles in the next few months, that’s a ridiculously small number compared to the number of PS3 consoles already out there. Developing cross-console titles is the smart play for the next two to three years. Developers also haven’t had enough time with the finalized PS4 hardware to develop seriously amazing games.
Should You Buy the PS4?
It’s the million-dollar question! Oh wait, no. It’s the $400 question!
The answer to this question will change based on when it’s asked and what you own already. If you already have a PS3, the PlayStation 4 simply isn’t a good investment right now. The best launch games can be purchased for the PS3 or Xbox 360. Any slight performance upgrade for the multi-console games or small portion of exclusive content simply isn’t enough of a selling point, either.
However, ask me the same question a year or two from now and I guarantee the answer will be different. Sony has created a truly powerful successor to the PlayStation 3 and the PS4 will take off as soon as an exclusive system seller emerges. The hardware is a beast, the controller is phenomenal, the user interface is a breath of fresh air, streaming gameplay is relatively solid and Remote Play is quite useful. The downsides include the limited home theater functionality, the absent second screen support and the disappointing PlayStation Camera. But those features could be improved over time, as well.
If you currently don’t own a PS3, investing in the PS4 now will eventually pay off down the line. It’s inevitable that Sony will bring the PS3 library to the PlayStation 4 over time, likely in digital form. Thus you would be better off owning the superior hardware in preparation for future exclusive titles. And that future looks pretty damn good. However, just because the PS4 has amazing potential down the line doesn’t mean it’s a success right now.
Final Rating: Sad Keanu