Anticipation is building, and the release date is mere weeks away. There's no denying that a significant chunk of the gaming internet is awfully excited about the launch of the PlayStation 4. I recently had a chance to sit down with the console's big exclusive games and, without taking anything away from the console itself, found a reality less exciting than the hype would indicate.
Last Wednesday I attended a press event at Sony's corporate campus in San Mateo, about 30 minutes south of San Francisco. The event was designed to give the press a closer look at the Sony-published games that will be launching exclusively alongside the PlayStation 4. After I arrived, the press was divided into two groups and shuffled off to one of two rooms. The first room was dedicated entirely to the first-person shooter Killzone Shadow Fall, and the other contained a handful of smaller indie games, as well as the family-friendly action game Knack.
Here's a breakdown of what Sony was showing:
- Killzone Shadow Fall. This hardcore first-person shooter had its own room, which was dedicated to a 30-or-so-minute singleplayer demo and later in the day, a more lengthy multiplayer session. The game has wonderful, colourful graphics. From what I played, it's pretty much a first-person shooter with an emphasis on tactics that's on par with, say, a Crysis game.
- Knack. A third-person action/adventure game aimed at families, the development of which has been headed up by Mark Cerny, who doubles as lead architect of the PS4 hardware. I had a chance to speak with Cerny about Knack, and he explained why they'd included it in the launch lineup. "As chief system architect," he said, "I pretty much knew what the launch lineup would be, and it was clear that there were going to be some extraordinary core games at launch. But looking at that, I really wanted to make sure that there would be something for the rest of the family as well. Sons, daughters, spouses, and the like. And it isn't to say that's the only audience we were thinking about as we made this game (...) but it definitely is part of the thinking." Jason had a chance to play Knack a little while ago, and you can watch his impressions below. It looks fun, but doesn't look like a game that most people would buy a PS4 to play.
- Resogun. A gorgeous-looking but fairly simple twin-stick shooter from Housemarque, makers of the Super Stardust games. It's designed using voxel technology (rather than polygons), and looks awfully nice in action. It's fun, though it's also just a twin-stick shooter.
- Flower HD. An up-res'd version of Thatgamecompany's lovely 2009 art game. The game looks great in HD, but it looked great on PS3 as well.
- Sound Shapes. Another PS3 game redone for PS4, Sound Shapes looks about the same as it did on PS3.
And… that was about it. The racing game Driveclub was supposed to be there, but it was pulled from the event at the last minute; Sony would later confirm that the game had been delayed into 2014. The other game at the event, Jonathan Blow's The Witness, was probably the most interesting game there, but it won't be available until next year.
Walking through the two rooms, I couldn't help but feel a bit deflated — for all the hype and all the excitement surrounding the console itself, nothing here was all that exciting.
Watching this sizzle reel that Sony released yesterday — complete with ridiculously laudatory press pullquotes, sheesh — it'd be easy to get the impression that the PS4's launch library will be vast, varied, and impossible to find elsewhere. And, to read a complete list of games available at launch, it does seem like there'll be plenty of stuff to play on the console.
But if you strip out the cross-gen non-exclusives (e.g. Call of Duty: Ghosts, Battlefield 4, Assassin's Creed IV), the games that won't be available at launch (e.g. Destiny, inFamous: Second Son, The Order: 1886, and the recently delayed Watch Dogs and Driveclub), and the games we've already played on other systems (e.g. Flower, FlOw, Injustice, Escape Plan), the pickings begin to feel more slim.
This, as people who play lots of video games know, is par for the course for a console launch. Sony marketing tells us it's a huge fucking deal: You should be so excited! Look at all these games! Look at this sick hardware! OMG! But the reality is that on November 15, the PS4 will be a cool slanty box with a great controller and lot of potential, but not all that many games. At least not for a little while.
When chatting with my boss Stephen after the event, he offered the following: "Consoles don't really launch, not in the way that a rocket takes off, shitting fire and screaming into the sky. They wake up, slowly stretch their legs, stand up. Pause and yawn. Make their coffee and maybe a few hours (read: months) into things, they kick into gear."
That, more than anything else, was the sense I got at Sony's big event. Of a console at rest, poised, but in a lot of ways still getting ready to get ready. The PS4 launch, for all the hype and excitement surrounding it, will likely be a more laconic affair than some may be anticipating.
Anyone who bought a PS3 at launch to play, say, Resistance: Fall of Man and this year played the infinitely more impressive The Last of Us knows how far games usually come over the course of a console's lifespan. I asked Mark Cerny if, despite the fact that the PS4 is more of a known quantity for developers than the PS3 was, we could expect games to improve at the same rate they did this past console generation.
"I think we'll see a lot of growth during the platform cycle, definitely," he said. "I think that come the third and the fourth years of the platform, the developers will have really plumbed the depths of the hardware and figured out how to use all of the enhancements that we put in the GPU [Graphics-processing unit]. And we'll really start to see perhaps more interactive worlds and more detailed graphics in that time."
The PS4 launch, for all the hype and excitement surrounding it, will likely be a more laconic affair than some may be anticipating.
But November 15 will be a different story. We'll take the thing out of its box, we'll play some Killzone, and we'll marvel at the graphics… they are quite nice, though from what I've seen the game doesn't really look much more impressive than, say, Crysis 3 running on a decent gaming PC. We'll fire up some cross-gen games and appreciate how much better they look on PS4 than on PS3… and then we'll play them, same as we would've played them on a PS3.
We'll set up our new real-name PSN accounts, and mess around with the new game-capture and sharing features. And then, we'll start to check our calendars, gazing into the future at the release dates for Infamous and Destiny and the rest. (It should be said that as we wait, we'll be able to pick up the odd indie game — a Transistor or a The Witness to tide us over. Though it's not clear exactly when the bulk of Sony's much-talked-about indie exclusives will start coming out.)
I can't say any of this for certain, of course. Sony hasn't yet sent us a PS4 for review, and a lot remains to be seen about how this thing will work in the wild. That's one of the frustrations with events like last Wednesday's — mere weeks from the commercial launch of a massive new console, the press is corralled for one more PR-controlled shindig. Shortly, we'll be able to tell you exactly what we think of the PS4 and its launch lineup because we'll have experienced it in its entirety, in our own living rooms. But not quite yet. For just a little while longer, we continue to make do with extended glimpses.
In the event's big Killzone room, a dozen or so of the new consoles were set up, end to end. For all the dazzling explosions and high-res lighting effects coming off of the screens, I found myself far more interested in the black boxes encased in plastic below, and the nifty controllers attached to them. What potential does this thing hold? In two or three years, what games will we be playing on it?
That, more than anything else, is what I sense excites people about the PS4, and about next-gen consoles in general. Like any new gaming hardware, the PlayStation 4 represents a promise. The entire run up to its release has been Sony saying, essentially, "We want you to buy this thing, and over the years to come, we promise we'll make you glad you did." Gauging by the console's overall online reception it would appear that, through a combination of good messaging, skilful PR, and a seemingly genuine desire to please people who play video games, Sony has been convincing.
But although Sony would very much like you to believe differently, buying a PS4 at launch won't mean jumping onto a fast-moving next-gen rocket to the moon. It'll mean getting a cool-looking piece of technology filled with mostly untapped potential. It'll mean sitting alongside it as it wakes up, stretches out, and slowly goes about the business of becoming a fully-realised game console.