As an object, there is no mystery surrounding the Xbox One. It is as accessible as a household device could possibly hope to be. 'I look like something you've used before,' it seems to say.
The Xbox One is familiar. The Xbox One looks like a VCR. It looks like a DVD player. The Xbox One could be a blender for christ's sake. It looks like it might make you a cup of coffee or toast your sandwiches.
The PlayStation 4, on the other hand, is drenched in mystery.
The PlayStation 4 looks like a monolith. Like an object from the future, or another dimension. It looks like it came from space. It's sleek; a shape strange enough to feel beguiling, weird enough to dazzle the eye. I approach the device apprehensively. I plug it into my television. Where is the on button? ‘I can't find the on button’.
The PS4 is so mysterious it won’t even tell you where the on button is.
I clumsily dance around the device grunting and panting like a confused gorilla. “Where is the on button?” I vocalise — barely — as I begin slapping the monolith at random points in its architecture. On button? On button! ON BUTTON! TURN ON GODDAMN YOU!
Thus Spoke Zarathustra plays softly in the background. A beam of blue light shoots up the centre of the device, splitting the monolith in half. I have turned the PlayStation 4 on.
The PlayStation 4 is on.
Let’s talk about the PlayStation 4.
People want to pretend the things that make the PlayStation 4 valuable as a product aren’t important. People who write about video games will say these things with a straight face. Words like: ‘The design of the console isn’t that significant’. ‘The difference in visual quality between the PS4 and its rival the Xbox One isn’t important’. They’re wrong.
They are important. It doesn’t matter if the difference in visual quality is insignificant, it only matters that there is a difference. I do not care how silly it makes me look. This is a newsflash: as long as there is a difference in performance between two rival consoles it is important to know what that difference is and which one is more powerful. This information will help you make an informed choice and that is important. It may not affect your decision — obviously there are other factors — but it is an important tangible. When people say these things aren’t important what they’re really trying to do is make a grander point about video game aesthetics or design. That’s fine, but it doesn’t make you a more informed consumer.
So, to open this hands-on of the PlayStation 4, I am here to tell you what you most likely already know: when it comes to 3rd party games that run across both consoles, those games are going to run better on the PS4. They will most likely run at a higher resolution. They might run with a smoother frame rate. The difference between the two may shrink in time. It most likely will shrink as developers get used to creating games for both consoles but, for now, there is a difference and it is noticeable. And it is important.
But there is more.
Other things are important.
Because, conversely, people may try to tell you the things that make the Xbox One valuable as a product aren’t important. They’ll say things like, ‘I just want to play games, I don’t want to watch TV on my console. I don’t care about apps and music’. This may apply to you but it doesn’t mean these features won’t be useful to other people.
Let’s place this in the context of a review. As a device designed to sit at the centre of your living room experience, the PlayStation 4 simply cannot compete with the Xbox One, not even now as Microsoft’s Trojan horse takes its first clumsy steps in the Australian market. As a media center, The Xbox One is a device brimming with potential; The PlayStation 4 is curiously muted.
And as rudimentary as the Xbox One’s app selection was upon launch, the PS4’s choice is significantly worse. The prices you are expected to pay to watch television are just as overpriced as they are on Xbox. $2.99 for one standard definition episode of Breaking Bad? No thanks.
And it’s missing what is perhaps the most forward facing feature of the Xbox One: the HDMI-in.
I am currently not using the HDMI-in on my Xbox One. I don’t have a digi-box, I don’t have Foxtel, but the mere presence of this input is reassuring. ‘Time will pass’, it seems to say. ‘One day you will have a use for me, and I’ll be here waiting’.
The PlayStation 4 does not have a HDMI-in. I’m not sure if that’s a mistake, but it’s definitely an omission worthy of note. It may not be important to you, but it is important.
Let’s talk about controllers.
The Xbox One’s controller is a refinement of something that was already close to perfect. The PS4’s controller represents a far more dramatic shift. It takes something old-fashioned and it wipes the slate clean. It upends the tea table. Perhaps the most glorious compliment I can grant the PlayStation 4’s controller is this: it makes things competitive.
Because before there was no competition. The Xbox 360’s controller was a refined, delicate thing. The PS3's was a steam rolled car crash trundling towards death; creaking and groaning with its spongy analogue sticks, and its unresponsive, ill-positioned buttons. The Dual Shock 3 was a controller in dire need of reinvention; the direct, technical equivalent of the middle aged man wearing the exact same clothes for the past 30 years because that’s what he wore back when he was skinny and beautiful. My Dad is 53 years old. He still wears Adidas Samba. In this analogy my Dad is a PlayStation 3. His Adidas Samba running shoes are the Dual Shock 3. Dad, you really need to get a different pair of running shoes.
The PlayStation 4 controller doesn’t fit into my analogy, it fits into your hand. It looks and works in the way you couldn’t imagine a PlayStation controller working until this point. It’s comfortable, it’s responsive. The analogue sticks have changed to the point where I think I may actually prefer them to the Xbox One equivalent. Never in a million years would I have thought I could be capable of writing that sentence, but now that sentence exists.
And the controller innovates — in the right areas. It lacks the sheer brilliance of the Xbox One’s fourway rumble rotors, but the addition of a touchpad and an internal speaker more than makes up for that omission. And, guys, it has a headphone jack in the controller. In the controller.
Last generation, the PS3’s controller was bad to the point where I actively chose not to play third party games on the PlayStation unless forced to. Now it’s a competition. Hell, it’s more than a competition. It’s neck and neck, to the point where I legitimately don’t know which controller I prefer.
Video games. The PlayStation 4 plays video games. It plays them very well.
Much has been made of the PlayStation 4’s sparse launch line-up. It’s razor tight, but there is an argument to be made that the Xbox One’s slate is slightly better, particularly when it comes to exclusives. There’s Forza Motorsport 5, Ryse (if you like that sort of thing) and Dead Rising 3. The PlayStation 4, on the other hand has Killzone: Shadow Fall and Knack.
But here’s the weird thing: I’ve spent way more time playing games on the PlayStation 4 than I have on the Xbox One. Why is that?
There are two answers to that question.
The first answer is Resogun. The expanded answer is that Sony, already, bears the fruit of a far more extensive digital focus when it comes to video games. The PlayStation 4 has launched with a decent line-up of digital exclusives and in 2014 that number looks set to swell considerably. This is significant.
The second answer is simple: whenever I want to play a third party game that’s available on both the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One, I play that game on the PlayStation 4.
I do so for a number of reasons. Games install quicker on the PS4, they look better on the PS4, they run more smoothly. I can play them quicker. I like rattling through the PS4’s slick UI. I like the blue light the PS4 makes when it turns on. Slowly but surely I’m starting to like the controller more. At this stage, when you play a game on the PlayStation 4, it feels like you’re playing the definitive version of what that game should be.
Last generation the PlayStation 3 had a more lengthy list of compelling exclusive titles, but that didn’t matter to me. I played my Xbox 360 more. Far more. The ability to play a better version of the game that appears on both platforms is paramount and, for now, in that regard, the PlayStation 4 has the Xbox One beat.
I’m going to say something most people won’t say in console ‘reviews’ for fear of offending someone.
I have a favourite. The PlayStation 4 is my favourite.
The PlayStation 4 is my favourite for a whole bunch of reasons specific to me. I don’t want/need a console that functions as a media center. I don’t like the idea of trying to talk to a device that doesn’t understand my Scottish accent. You might want/need some sort of media center. You probably don’t have a Scottish accent.
My brother has a Scottish accent. In a phone call recently he asked me which console he should buy. I told him to buy a PlayStation 4. After hearing my reasons why he should buy a PlayStation 4 he decided to ignore me and buy an Xbox One. Why? Once again there are two answers.
The first is simple: his reasons for buying a console were slightly different than mine.
The second answer is far more interesting: the PlayStation 4 is my favourite because I already have an Xbox One. The feature set the Xbox One brings to my life? I am already taking it for granted.
The ability to seamlessly use Skype, the ability to stream content to my TV, the YouTube app, the exclusives. They matter less to me because I already have them. Their very existence as part of the Xbox One package allows me to just indulge in the PlayStation 4 as a machine that plays games.
Here is the real question, this is the one I find more difficult to answer: if you were to ask me to walk into my living room right now and throw one of those consoles over the balcony, I have no idea which one I would choose. I prefer the PlayStation 4. But could I really live without the Xbox One now that it has become an integral part of my life? I just don’t know.
Oh come on Mark you big pussy, just choose one.
Okay, I’ll throw the PlayStation 4 over the balcony.
But only because it has a far better chance of surviving the fall.