Illustration by Sam Woolley
The PlayStation 4 evolved this year. Sony's flagship console got a little bigger and a little more powerful, though its potential is as yet undertapped. It also got its very own VR headset, though that headset noticeably fails to match its PC counterparts. It's not clear whether Sony has moved their gaming system in all the right directions, but they're certainly skipping forward.
This is part of our 2016 "State of" series, a look at how the major consoles, VR platforms, and PC are doing this year.
In the first three years of its life, the PS4 was a solid, in many ways unremarkable console. Its pace of improvements was slow and steady -- an operating system update here, a new exclusive game there. That pace quickened this year, as Sony moved to more aggressively outline what the PS4's next few years might look like.
Sony's year in gaming was defined by two things: The release of PlayStation VR in October and the PS4 Pro in November. Both pieces of hardware seem designed for a world that may not yet have arrived -- a world where people play games in 4K when they're not playing in VR.
The PS4 Pro is a preemptive evolution, designed to keep the PS4 current in an age when graphics processing technology improves at too brisk a clip to sustain a five- or six-year console life-cycle. It features significantly improved graphics processing power and marginally improved CPU speed, which so far has translated to higher-res games and, sometimes, 1080p games running at higher frame rates.
Sony also replaced the standard PS4 with a new, slimmer model this year, for those who care more about shelf space and price than than about horsepower. The Pro goes for $559 and the Slim for $348, though you've been able to find a Slim (or a still-in-stock standard PS4) for under $300 over the holidays.
On the left, the PS4 Pro. On the right, a standard PS4.
The PS4 Pro has also split the PlayStation userbase into first- and second-class citizens. Sony has pledged that all PS4 games will run on both systems, but it's a safe bet that over the next year or two, the Pro will become more of a standard while the original PS4 becomes a poor relation.
We're already seeing what that will look like: The Last Guardian, one of Sony's biggest 2016 PS4 exclusives, runs at an expected 1080p/30fps on the PS4 Pro but the framerate frequently struggles on a standard PS4. The Pro version doesn't feel like an upgrade, it simply feels like how the game is supposed to play. The standard PS4 version feels like a downgrade. Expect that to become more common in 2017.
However you may feel about the jump to PS4 Pro becoming mandatory, it certainly is an upgrade. It marks the dawn of a more complicated age for console gaming, where video game devices receive more frequent, smartphone-like incremental changes, to be yours for the full price of a new machine.
That could be a long-term boon for game developers and better guarantee reverse compatibility for our digital games, and could at least be more cost-effective than it currently is if console makers come up with some sort of hardware trade-in program. Or it could be an expensive boondoggle that counteracts console gaming's appealing simplicity. The answers to those questions will be clearer by the end of 2017.
The Virtual Reality
PlayStation VR is a viable way to introduce people to the wonders of modern virtual reality, but it only has a couple must-play games and is easily the weakest of the big three VR systems in terms of hardware, software and camera tracking. It could still turn out to be good enough to work as a mainstream-ish way to get a VR headset into your living room, particularly given its lower cost compared with the competition.
But with its current games lineup and functionality, PSVR seems less like an essential piece of tech and more like a novelty gadget, something to briefly break out and show to guests before stowing it back under the coffee table.
In September, the PS4 got a significant software update that added a large number of overdue features to the console's operating system. Most notably, the 4.00 update added a quick-access sidebar to let you manage messaging, party chat and power settings much more quickly than before. (It doesn't sound exciting, but it's very nice.)
We also got a folder system that made it possible to sort our ever-growing game libraries into something other than a single horizontal line, which is particularly useful given the PS4 Pro's 1TB of storage space. The rest of the year gave us some smaller but no less welcome additions, including the ability to make gifs, easier music streaming, and (praise be) the ability to turn off visual notifications for screenshots.
Folders make it much easier to keep track of everything.
Many of the PS4 software's shortcomings remain -- it's still too difficult to manage devices or change output settings, and some settings are still buried in hard-to-find places. Other more niche services like Share Play and PlayStation Now still are often hobbled by stringent bandwidth requirements, though both features are fundamentally good ideas that will hopefully continue improve over time.
The Network and Services
Sony's PlayStation Network still gets the job done, and it still could do the job better. It still goes down more often than it should, particularly given that Sony increased the price of a yearly subscription by $US10 ($13) this year. More and more games require an internet connection to play, so when PSN goes down, gamers often need to change their evening plans with little warning. Game download speeds are inconsistent and generally slow, as well, which is more and more of a problem in this age of 60GB games and 9GB day-one patches.
As connectivity and bandwidth become increasingly crucial for day-to-day video game enjoyment, it's more important that dedicated gaming networks function properly. Sony's network didn't dramatically improve this year. Also, another year has gone by and we still can't change our PSN names. Give us a break, Sony.
2016 was another thin year for PS4 exclusives. We got two highly anticipated games in May's Uncharted 4: A Thief's End and December's The Last Guardian. The latter game arrived almost ten years after it was announced, at the end of a development cycle so protracted that it became difficult to separate the game from the narrative surrounding it. The end result was an unusual, flawed, often beautiful experience.
Uncharted 4 was another rip-roaring adventure and one of the most technologically and visually dazzling games yet released on a console, but ultimately fell short of developer Naughty Dog's previous high-water mark, The Last of Us.
In fact, the PS3's Uncharted 2 arguably remains the series' peak. It's probably for the best that the affable adventurer Nathan Drake is finally going to stop leaping from crumbling buildings and settle down to enjoy his retirement.
Take a break, Drake. You've earned it.
Those two games were the most noteworthy of Sony's 2016 exclusives, joined by a terrific Ratchet & Clank quasi-remaster, a silky smooth port of the Vita standout Gravity Rush, and a few PSVR gems like Super Hypercube and Rez Infinite. Early in the year one could be forgiven for thinking that No Man's Sky was a PS4 exclusive, though it also came out on PC.
Sony's exhaustive marketing push was at least partly responsible for building up the expectations that were so roundly dashed by the actual game, though trailer footage and the developers themselves did their share of the legwork on that account, too. Several big 2016 exclusives were delayed into 2017, including the much-hyped Horizon Zero Dawn and the less hyped but lovely-looking Gravity Rush 2.
Lack of exclusives notwithstanding, the PlayStation 4's game lineup felt strong in 2016, thanks mostly to a great run of multiplatform and indie games. Terrific big-budget games like Doom, Titanfall 2, Battlefield 1, Overwatch, Hitman, XCOM 2, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Watch Dogs 2 and Final Fantasy 15 joined a strong run of indie games like Inside, The Witness, Thumper, Oxenfree, Stardew Valley, Firewatch and Hyper Light Drifter to round out an unusually robust year for console games.
Several other major multiplatform games got substantial updates, including The Witcher 3's lovely send-off Blood & Wine and Dying Light's massive The Following. PlayStation Plus subscribers got a few solid free games throughout the year, including Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, Invisible, Inc., Helldivers and Grim Fandango Remastered, though as usual there were no coveted, big-budget PS4 freebies.
Gravity Rush 2, due out in early 2017
2017 is shaping up to be a good year, with Horizon Zero Dawn and Gravity Rush 2 hopefully benefiting from their delays. Kotaku's staff is so hyped for the PS3/PS4 JRPG Persona 5 that it might kill us, so if the site goes offline in April, you'll know why. Other exclusives like Spider-Man, Ni No Kuni 2, Detroit: Become Human and Days Gone could wind up coming out in 2018, or could launch earlier than expected.
All those are in addition to a number of exciting multiplatform games like spring's Mass Effect: Andromeda and fall's Red Dead Redemption 2. (We'll believe that second one as a fall 2017 game when it actually happens.)
If you owned a PS4 in 2016, you may not have had a bunch of big exclusive games, but you still had a hell of a lot of new, interesting things to play. That's only going to get better next year.
Many will buy a PS4 Pro this fall with the intention of "future proofing" their PS4 experience. Of course, the best you can do with any modern gadget is to buy yourself another few years before succumbing to inevitable obsolescence. The speed at which the PS4 Pro will become obsolete remains an open question.
Sony has established a solid enough lead over the last few years that a processing boost and some ostensible support for 4K TVs may be all they need, at least for now. But the PS4 Pro is still not in the same league as a high-end gaming PC, and if the upcoming Xbox Scorpio's announced specs are anything to go by, Sony will soon lag behind Microsoft's horsepower, too.
Nintendo's promising-looking Switch will likely put up more of a fight than their beleaguered Wii U ever did, and both new consoles will hopefully push Sony to make even more meaningful improvements to maintain their top spot.
Here at the end of 2016, the PlayStation 4 is the most powerful gaming console you can buy. Its library of quality exclusive games received only a few new entries this year, but that slow growth is complemented by the best console versions of a broad selection of multiplatform games.
The PS4's future is uncertain, but its present is not. At this moment in time, the PlayStation 4 is a very good gaming console.