The PlayStation 4 is an unexciting video game console, all things considered. It's a box that you put under your TV, and it plays video games. Slowly but surely, it's getting better at doing that. The games it plays are also getting better and more numerous. Slowly, but surely.
This is part of our 2015 "State of" series, a look at how the five major consoles (and PC) are doing this year.
The PlayStation 4 of 2015 isn't all that different from the PlayStation 4 Sony launched in 2013. It's gotten a minor hardware update, but the box and controller look the same. Its operating system is largely unchanged, aside from a few small but welcome new OS features. It's gotten some great new games — enough that we now feel the console is worth buying — though it still lacks the handful of killer exclusives that we were hoping it'd have by now.
From its launch until today, the PS4 has maintained a pace of steady improvement to both its functionality and its game library. Taken individually, those improvements may have arrived too slowly for some fans. But when viewed over a long enough timeframe, the PS4's upward trajectory is easier to see and more reassuring.
Sony's console has also maintained a number of small advantages over its current-gen competitors. For example, despite the odd exception, it's now taken as a given that the PS4 version of a multiplatform game will run at a higher resolution and with more consistent performance than on the less-powerful Xbox One. However, when placed on the full spectrum of modern gaming — one that includes the PC — the PS4 becomes much less of a confident competitor.
The PS4 has gotten a minor hardware revision: a new console purchased this summer will feature more efficient power management and clickier power/eject buttons than the original 2013 model. Sony has also launched a 1TB model — recommended, given how quickly the initial 500GB hard drive can fill up — though it remains as easy as ever to simply install your own larger hard drive.
The DualShock 4 controller has seen some minor tweaks, but nothing to address users' two primary complaints: The lacklustre battery life and the thumbsticks, which are a bit too squishy and prone to decay after heavy use. (Thank god for custom thumbstick caps.)
Of course, both the physical console and its controller were already pretty good. If it ain't broke, etc.
The PS4's operating system remains largely unchanged from two years ago. It's still clean and no-frills, and it remains occasionally difficult to navigate. The share button still works very well, and the Capture Gallery is a solid software addition that makes managing captured screenshots and videos much easier. The settings menu is still confusingly organised, and adjusting a given setting can still require a lot of hunting around.
The better-late-than-never suspend mode, which lets you put a game to sleep along with your console, is certainly nice for offline games. PlayStation Now, Sony's streaming games initiative, could one day become a reasonable subscription service but remains a poor substitute for true backward compatibility. The console's media playing abilities have been notably expanded, with Sony finally adding DLNA support this year, along with some solid music streaming applications.
Sony's PlayStation Network works better than it has at some points in the past but still leaves significant room for improvement. The service goes down just often enough to be considered problematic, and party chat has any of a number of annoying problems, including hiccuping chat quality and NAT issues that break lines of communication between specific party members.
After two years of heavy online PS4 use, it's clear that Sony's online infrastructure just isn't where it could be. Also, they really need to let us change our freakin' PSN names already.
Games make the console, and the PS4 has plenty of good games, though the majority of the best games on the system are also available on other platforms. Just three of the games on our list of the 12 best PS4 games are PS4 exclusives, and one of those — The Last of Us: Remastered — is an HD remaster of a PS3 game.
In terms of PS4-only games, the spring of 2015 was a disappointment. This time of the year is usually when console owners get a big exclusive or two to sink their teeth into, but PS4 owners got only Until Dawn and Everybody's Gone To The Rapture way back in August, and in October, Disgaea 5 and Bloodborne's The Old Hunters DLC.
Last spring's lineup was disappointing as well: Driveclub blew a gasket at the starting line and The Order: 1886 was delayed to 2015, where it would land with a disappointing thud. Bloodborne's arrival in mid-2015 underlined just how much the PS4 needs meaty, acclaimed exclusives to make it feel like a competitive alternative to a gaming PC.
Despite all of that, it's still possible to look at the PS4 and come away with the impression that it's a strong console with a lot of good games. Part of that is due to Sony's two-pronged strategy of aggressively pursuing partnerships with independent game developers while also closely associating their console with a number of big-budget multiplatform franchises like Destiny, Assassin's Creed, and Call of Duty. The latter goal has mostly been achieved thanks to the questionable practice of securing timed-exclusive DLC, but it's hard to argue that Destiny, for example, isn't more closely associated with the PS4 as a result of Sony's deals with publisher Activision.
2016 looks promising, with a bunch of exciting multiplatform games coming to the PS4 along with a smattering of promising exclusives like Uncharted 4, Horizon Zero Dawn and The Last Guardian. The PS4 library seems on track to continue its steady growth, expanded regularly with multiplatform games and, less frequently, with a new must-have exclusive. (No pressure, Uncharted 4.)
Sony has demonstrated a continuing willingness to experiment with new ideas, though few of those ideas have markedly improved the PS4 experience. SharePlay, for example, is an innovative feature that allows players to trade off control of their games with friends online. It's a neat concept, but far from essential, and doesn't work well enough on most internet connections to be all that practical.
Going by last weekend's PlayStation Experience press event, it appears as though Sony's next big push for PS4 will be their PlayStation VR headset, which will launch at some point in 2016. It's easy to be sceptical of PSVR: No matter how excited Sony's spokespeople are about it, is a dedicated (and likely expensive) VR headset and suite of accompanying games really what the PlayStation 4 needs? It's possible, but unlikely.
In the spring of 2015, the PlayStation 4 is as sturdy a gaming device as it ever was. The console has yet to have a single, transformative moment where everything kicks into overdrive, and it's seeming increasingly unlikely that it will anytime soon. Sony's strategy has been less about software overhauls and bold new directions, and more about steadily building on the foundation they laid in 2013. It's working well enough so far.
Illustration by Sam Woolley