The PlayStation 4: The Kotaku Review

The PlayStation 4: The Kotaku Review

How good is the PlayStation 4? Ask me in five years. Ask me after Naughty Dog’s next couple of games, after I figure out whether God of War is headed in the right direction, after I learn whether it has become unfathomable to play a console game without livestreaming it.

You know what? Ask me in a week, because I’ve only been using the new system online since 9pm Wednesday night and let history show that this review first ran online on Thursday morning.

That’s why, for now, I’m calling this a Review (In Progress). These days, many game reviews aren’t really done when they first run. They can explain parts of the game accurately at launch, but online communities shape these games. That’s true too, for the surprisingly online-centric PlayStation 4. We update game reviews to factor in how a game’s multiplayer stands up. And I’ll be updating this one, significantly, as we test more of the system’s offline and online features. Still, there is a lot I can share now.

Today I can tell you a bit about what the PS4 is, how it’s working in its pre-launch phase, and what, as a device, its manufacturer Sony has situated it to be.

The console is a sleek, easily portable (!), wonderfully quiet slab

The PS4 is a surprisingly small box. It is so sleek that it might as well be the 2015 PS4 Slim tossed back to us 2013ers via a time machine. It is lighter, thinner and quieter than the original 2006 PlayStation 3. Some game machines, such as the first fat PS3 or the original Nintendo DS, arrive with an imperfect design that predicts their own looming displacement. Not this one. The PS4 shapes up as a box in need of no space-saving or cosmetic improvement. It doesn’t use a power brick and even uses the same power cable as the PS3.

The new angles of the unit look nice. My colleague Tina calls the console italicised. But this is still as artless a box as most game machines. Perhaps Nintendo’s GameCube was the only console ever designed to be seen rather than to be hidden in an entertainment centre. Sony’s newest is designed to disappear.

The PS4’s trim shape and low profile is nevertheless a boon to gamers. On day one, the PS4 turns out to be easily portable. This is surprising and pleasingly discordant with the fact that, as the performance of PlayStation 4 games proves, this console is a powerhouse. Mighty as it may be, for several days, I’ve been able to easily slip the console into a backpack. I grab two cables and a controller and travel with the machine with little more inconvenience than if I was hauling around a thick laptop computer.

The controller has better sticks, better triggers, better weight and an awesome jack

There is much to like about the console’s new, improved controller.

The DualShock 4 retains the twin-stick, many-buttoned layout that hardcore gamers love and that probably horrifies most of the people who went bowling on the Wii. This controller will break no barriers the way the Wii’s Remote did or the commercials for Microsoft’s Kinect say it will. It should nevertheless please dedicated console gamers. A circular groove around the tops of the controller’s thumbsticks enable more confident analogue movement. The shoulder buttons have more punch. The triggers finally curve outward to cradle your finger as the Xbox 360 controller’s did. And the whole thing is a tad heavier than the disconcertingly light DualShock 3.

One of the signature additions to this PlayStation controller is a multi-touch touchpad, though it plays no great role in any of the console’s launch games that I’ve found. It’s been used for simple swipe-based commands of in-game minions in Killzone and can zoom in on a map in Assassin’s Creed. Nothing amazing yet. It is inoffensive, at worst.

Better, though less ballyhooed, is a headphone jack in the controller that, in conjunction with a change in the console’s settings, can output all of a game’s audio to controller-connected headphones, a trick most recently seen on the Wii U. Call that setting the Domestic Bliss option. Your most beloved housemates will appreciate it if they walk in and you swap the game audio from blaring through your speakers to purring through your headphones. And it works, I can confirm, with regular old iPhone headphones.

The DualShock 4 apes one of Nintendo’s sillier concepts and puts a speaker in the controller. It wasn’t really necessary. But let’s give a cheer for Sony adding a more sensible feature and allowing controllers to be charged when they are plugged into a PS4 that is in standby mode.

Overall, consider DualShock 4 a healthy upgrade.

The revamped PlayStation Network is essentially a Facebook that puts games — good games — first

Now we get to the parts of the PS4 that are harder to review. Namely, everything else. Back in the days of the Super Nintendo or even the original PlayStation, a game console did pretty much just one thing. Maybe two. It played games. You either had fun with it or not. Then Sony made the PS2 a DVD player and Microsoft belatedly turned the Xbox 360 into a video-streaming, fitness-tracking box that also runs games. Even the gaming purists at Nintendo filled their new Wii U last year with video streaming services and a built-in social network.

Keep the PS4 offline and the system really isn’t much more than what I’ve already described: it’s a thin black slab with a nifty controller, and it runs impressive-looking games. (OK, it can also play Blu-Ray movies.) Yours for $549!

Plug the PS4 into the Internet and you can expect a very different experience. It’s ironic that the PS4 was the system that was never announced to require an online connection. That was just going to be the Xbox guys until they changed course. But it sure feels like the PS4 would benefit from a persistent one. Maybe you don’t have to be always online with this unit, but it’s designed to make you want to be. See, Sony’s turning PlayStation gaming into an incredibly social experience. Turn the machine on and the main menu screen will be full of a cascade of updates from whatever PS4-related stuff your friends have been doing: playing games, uploading clips, broadcasting livestreams. I’m not talking about some small feed of info tucked on the side. Below the system’s row of main navigation icons tumbles a waterfall of updates. It is the element designed to catch your eye.

It’s a tautology, but everything about the PS4’s online systems feels designed to make any and all gaming experiences be social. In some respects, the system is catching up to its Xbox rival in activating cross-game party chat. In others, it’s stepping beyond, allowing users to press a “share” button on the DualShock 4 and, with a couple more button taps, broadcast the game they’re playing to anyone on Ustream, Twitch or a PS4 who will watch. To PC gamers, this will seem like another case of cute ‘lil consoles trying to keep up. But if consoles are all about simplifying things, then here is the PS4 with a guarantee that the next time you get a Naughty Dog game, a God of War or Killzone, then it’ll be second nature — and easy — to not just start playing but let anyone watch you as well. That share button should also make it second nature to upload video of anything cool that just happened in a game, posting it to Facebook and, eventually, Sony says, to more flexible services like YouTube.

I’d like to tell you how terrific or terrible all of this online PS4 stuff is, but I can’t. I can only report my initial findings and point out that the value of a social network can only be determined when there are a lot of people on it. On Tuesday night, November 12, 2013, as I write this, there are not a lot of people online with the PS4.

Here’s what I’ve done:

  • Gone to the PlayStation online store, queued up some games to download and then hopped around the system menus. No hassles there.
  • Friended co-worker Jason Schreier online… saw his PlayStation Network ID begin to show up in my activity feed as he started playing Assassin’s Creed IV…sent him a “true name” request and accepted one he sent me, and then saw him show up more in my activity feed under his real name. I did this with other people, too, and found that their real names didn’t always show up in my feed.
  • Started playing arcade shooter Resogun… pressed the controller’s Share button and chose the broadcast option… realised I needed to create a Twitch account and did so through the PS4…and then livestreamed some of the game while Jason spectated first just by spotting me in the Live on PlayStation area of the dashboard that features popular streams (I was popular by default) and then through Twitch… he even typed a few comments! Here’s how that looked:
  • Tried using the share button to capture and upload clips, which mostly worked, though I was confused as to how to reliably ensure that the system was capturing what I was just playing. I’ll need to test that more, but, at worst, there are just a few kinks to work out there. Noteworthy: I had to exit the game I was playing to trim the clip I captured from it and I can only share my clips to Facebook as of now.
  • Attempted to control my PS4 using a Vita via the systems’ Remote Play feature but managed little more than a slideshow on my never-ideal internet connection. Jason had more success using a PS4 and Vita in Manhattan but needs to test this feature more before we can tell you how reliable it is. In my house, I can say, it looks like the Wii U will still outperform the PS4 for off-TV play.

The sharing functions are very exciting. I also like the social feeds. But I say all this now when I’ve yet to see if the sharing crumbles under heavy bandwidth usage and if the social feeds will become too cluttered. It’s impossible to know this stuff until crowds of people are using the PlayStation 4’s network. It’s also hard to tell how dependent an ideal PS4 experience will be on having fast home Internet. Sony’s servers for the PS3 were never anything to brag about and dragged, at least for me, while Microsoft’s Xbox 360 ones blazed.

We did hit one hardware speed bump that we’re hoping/guessing is an anomaly

Aside from all this online stuff, there’s one other awkward detail that I can’t accurately assess at this moment. It’s this: the first retail PS4 we got from Sony didn’t work. Now, please, don’t panic. It’s impossible to tell how much of a fluke this was or whether this is the canary in a coal mine of pending PS4 hardware troubles.

Here are the facts: In the past week, my Kotaku colleagues and I have used one pre-release PS4 and three retail PS4s with no problems. I’ve also heard from fellow gaming reporters who’ve used their PS4s with no problems. But the first retail unit that Sony provided me failed to work when I plugged it into a TV in Kotaku‘s office. A colleague and I were able to compare it to a second PS4 that did work and we found that the issue was rather simple: the bad unit had a faulty HDMI jack that we couldn’t fully plug an HDMI cable into. It couldn’t make a solid connection and therefore, apparently, couldn’t transmit a stable signal to our TV. We tried different cables and monitors. The issue was with the console.

I certainly hope this is a fluke. I’ve asked Sony to share any insights they have into how common this issue has been. They’ve not provided any official reply yet, but a rep did seem surprised when I first told him about it. Obviously, we’ll be keeping an eye out for any other reports of this issue. Again, to be clear, the other four units we’ve tested first-hand have worked fine.

Things we worried about, like mandatory installations, are actually no problem at all

As the PS4 begins to sell to thousands of gamers, we’ll learn more about how the machine holds up: what it’s good at and where it struggles. Our team at Kotaku and I have for now tried to do our best to anticipate some of the possible stress points.

We’ve put our ears to the unit and been pleased to barely hear the disc drive spinning. Don’t worry, this thing is no leaf blower.

We’ve reacted to the news that all games must be installed and tested how long it takes to have to wait to play a 20 or 30GB game after the first time you put its disc in the machine. Good news: only about 30 seconds.

We haven’t dropped the console.

We haven’t put it in a sauna.

And, no, we’ve not put it in a blender.

We have played some games on it, and, well, they’re launch games. They’re ok, not amazing. One of the reasons I’m not yet recommending you run out and get a PS4 is that, as cool as a lot of the system is, there’s no game on it that you just have to play and can’t play anywhere else.

We’ve checked out some multiplatform games like Assassin’s Creed IV and Skylanders: Swap Force and marvelled at their graphics. We’ve popped Madden in and wondered if we were looking at a PS3 game.

I just wish the launch games were better

I’ve mostly just thought about what can come of this PlayStation 4. The PS4 has a compelling agenda to make console gaming feel not just more social, but to facilitate better sharing of games and to foment more conversation about games. I’m excited, of all things, to not just curse about the tough part of a game but to hit the share button and show you that annoying section right while I’m still fired up about it. I’m excited to use the PS4’s true name system to make me feel like the people with whom I connect on gaming consoles are real people who I know and who do things with games that I can care about. And, yeah, I’m excited about all this stuff that is barely tested and is on a system that doesn’t offer many gaming moments that I want to share yet.

The console starts out way better than the PS3 did

The PS4 is just starting, and as it is, it is hard to experience the PS4 without thinking about the machine that came before it. The PlayStation 3 made an incredible journey, from rotund Resistance and Lair-playing machine to the console of The Last of Us, Puppeteer and The Unfinished Swan. The console got skinnier. It got better. And it wound up playing some of my favourite games ever.

In November 2013, the PS4 is hopefully both a great extension of the PS3 and, oddly, a clean break. It’s not backwards-compatible, after all. Not yet, not until 2014 when Sony plans to deliver streaming games to those of us with good enough Internet connections to remote-control PS3 games housed on some Sony server somewhere. For now, the PS4 sits next to the PS3 without fully displacing it.

Picture this Friday as a crucial moment in the great Sony relay race. The PS3 is handing off the baton, and just as it happens, time seems to freeze. The next runner, the PS4, has taken the hand-off but hasn’t quite landed its first stride. The PS3 will keep running for a time, coasting on its own momentum. The PS4 looks poised, ready charge forth. We assume it’ll happen. But that hand-off is still in progress. It’s too soon to tell what happens next.

The PS4 seems like it’ll be a hell of a console, but it’s mostly potential and a bunch of new tools in need of some awesome games for them to work on.

I think you’ll want one eventually. But, cool as the PS4 is, a lack of a must-play game means you can afford to wait. Do you need to have a PS4?

This review will be updated throughout the coming weeks to ensure we’ve covered all the basics and adequately tested all the social features with a growing PS4 userbase.

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