PlayStations don’t tend to go quietly at the end of a console generation. The PS2 got God of War II a few months after the PS3 came out. The PS3 got one of its best exclusive games, The Last Of Us, just a few months before the PS4 launched. In 2019, it may have looked like Sony was actually letting the PS4 fade away before the next PlayStation.
But, no, 2019 was just an off-year for a mighty console that seems poised to have a big 2020–despite the fact that the PS5 is scheduled be out a year from now.
A Solid Showing Of Games
Sony was always going to have a tough time topping a 2018 that was framed by PS4 exclusives God of War and Spider-Man. This year produced the inevitable comedown.
In the winter-spring release window previously occupied by excellent PS4 exclusives such as Horizon Zero Dawn, Bloodborne and God of War, 2019 got Days Gone. It was an altogether decent but familiar open-world game about shooting through zombie-like hordes in the Pacific Northwest while riding and upgrading a motorcycle.
Late in the year, PS4 owners got Death Stranding, the first non-Metal Gear game in years from a team led by Hideo Kojima. Its slow start and emphasis on carrying things over long distances disappointed some players, while many who stuck with it found the game to be an impressively unusual experience.
For what it’s worth, Death Stranding turned out not to be a PS4 exclusive: Two weeks prior to its release, Kojima Productions said that it would bring the game to PC next winter.
The PS4 also got its annual release of MLB: The Show, new car and track updates for 2017’s GT Sport on a near-monthly basis, and the early-access launch of Media Molecule’s Dreams, a game development tool that players have used to create everything from a famous boss encounter to puppet shows.
Even in its strongest years, Sony never quite puts out an exclusive game lineup as dense as rival Nintendo’s, but PlayStation always stands out as having third-party support as good as, or better than, any other console. That lineup of games in 2019 included the acclaimed Resident Evil 2 remake, Kingdom Hearts 3, Apex Legends, Sekiro, Borderlands 3, Control, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, and Monster Hunter World’s Iceborne expansion. All those came out for Xbox One as well.
The biggest third-party console exclusive for PS4 of late has been the continuously expanded Final Fantasy XIV, though that seems to finally be heading to Xbox as well. Sony did get some indie stand-outs such as Outer Wilds that had initially only been on Xbox, but it hasn’t gotten some of the cooler ones on Switch, such as Untitled Goose Game and Baba Is You.
All of this amounts to a decent first-party showing for PS4 and parity, more or less, with Xbox One when it comes to third-party releases. But, again, next year may tell a strikingly different story.
Closing The Gap On Services
If Sony had ground to give in the excellence of its exclusive games, it had been overdue to catch up on the services it provides PS4 players. In 2019, some lingering issues were finally rectified.
At last, PlayStation users were given the ability to change their online gaming handles, something Xbox has allowed for years.
Sony’s free Remote Play service, which lets PS4 owners access games streamed from their console on computers and iOS devices added support for non-Sony Android phones and tablets. And Sony started officially supporting PS4 controllers for Apple devices.
A few more games—Rocket League, PUBG and Call of Duty—got genuine cross-console play.
PlayStation Now, Sony’s subscription service also kept improving. The paid program, which lets players stream and sometimes download select PS2, PS3 and PS4 games, became a much better deal thanks to a subscription price drop to $US10 ($15) a month. It’s not quite a rival to Xbox’s vaunted Game Pass program, which keeps getting big-name releases and interesting indies day and date with their regular release, while Now’s most recent big PS4 game is early 2018’s God of War. Nevertheless, PS Now is now a pretty good deal. You could, say, $US10 ($15) a month and spend a given month working your way through Bloodborne, the first Red Dead Redemption and Dark Cloud 2.
Other PS4 lifestyle improvements included an increase in online party sizes from 8 people max to 16, surpassing Xbox One’s 12, and an increase in online cloud save storage from 10GB to 100GB, though Sony, like Nintendo, makes you pay for cloud saves, whereas Xbox does not.
Sony’s PlayStation Plus monthly subscription plan is still required for most online play. It still delivers “free” games each month, although that offering slimmed down considerably this year after Sony stopped doling out pairs of PS3 and Vita games. Sony’s paid TV-streaming service PlayStation Vue was also marked for an early 2020 shutdown. In a PlayStation blog post announcing the closure, Sony gaming VP John Kodera said that the company has “decided to remain focused on our core gaming business.”
A more subtle drawdown happened with Sony’s formerly aggressive grab of timed exclusives for multiplatform downloadable content. This year’s Call of Duty was the first in five years to not put its DLC on PlayStation weeks before it came to Xbox. In the years before that, the DLC would come to Xbox before PlayStation. Now, all CoD: Modern Warfare DLC comes out at the same time on all machines.
After splitting from Activision and going independent with Destiny 2, Bungie also stopped releasing some content as timed exclusives to PlayStation. As far back as the first Destiny, some weapons and multiplayer strikes had been locked to PlayStation for a period of months or years. The only big game still doing PlayStation-first content in 2019 was Red Dead Online, though the rewards there are pretty peripheral and the exclusivity window seems to be short.
Sony’s promotional efforts for all things PlayStation also changed a lot this year. The company skipped doing an E3 showcase, perhaps because much of what it showed the previous year at E3 had yet to be released and any games targeted for PS5 wouldn’t be ready to show. Sony also didn’t bother to do any sort of end-of-year showcase, which it had conducted in recent years via the Paris Games Show and December PlayStation Experience events.
In lieu of those moments for gaming hype, Sony launched a series of online showcases, similar to Nintendo’s successful Nintendo Direct videos, dubbed State of Play. The first one, in March, included a showcase of VR games. Two more followed in May and September.
Whether they were good changes or bad ones, these moves didn’t ultimately hurt the core experience of playing games on PlayStation 4. They simply brought it more in line with gaming on other devices. By this point in a generation, it makes sense that so many things would even out one way or the other.
Three Years of VR
Virtual reality is a divisive technology. Some can’t get enough of it, and some are literally sickened by it. It was a gamble for Sony to try to make a VR headset three years ago, just as it was a gamble for PlayStation users to buy it. Sony hasn’t always been great about supporting its peripherals with a good, dedicated gaming line-up long-term.
It’s therefore been great news for PSVR owners that Sony has continued to support the platform and maintain a steady flow of games. Early in the year, PSVR got one of its more hyped games, the London gangster shooter Blood & Truth. A VR mode for the sci-fi exploration game No Man’s Sky was a mid-year highlight. Falconeering adventure Falcon Age was a stand-out, as was, for sheer spectacle of scale alone, Wolfenstein: Cyber Pilot. The PSVR part of the online PlayStation Network store is regularly stocked with new additions, including add-on packs for the competitive shooter Firewall and an expansion to the mouse action-adventure Moss.
As refreshingly solid as Sony’s PSVR support has been, there are a few catches. The PSVR tech is falling behind that of rival VR headsets, which are increasingly offering wireless and/or sensor-free experiences, as well as controllers that nestle more comfortably in a player’s hands. PSVR, by contrast, requires a wired connection between headset and hardware, an external sensor, and usually bulky Move wand controllers.
The other catch is that, as ample as the offerings for PSVR have been, Sony itself remains curiously hesitant to cook up its most marketable dish. While Valve is making a bona fide new Half-Life game (not announced for PSVR, sadly) to sell the virtual reality gaming experience, Sony has had a three-year opportunity to produce a VR game tied to any of its biggest franchises. Sure, there is a VR mode for GT Sport, but PSVR never got a VR game tied to, say, God of War, or Killzone, or Ratchet & Clank, or… you name it.
PSVR is, for better or worse, not a platform for Sony’s biggest franchises but instead one for its experiments, its creative adventures, and a slew of small-scale third-party efforts. It’s a boutique experience, appealing to some players but a missed opportunity for others.
And here comes a massive 2020…
Remember: PlayStation consoles don’t go quietly. Remember: 2019 wasn’t a typical year for the PS4.
The announced line-up of first-party games for 2020 is already strong. Next year, the PS4 is slated to get The Last Of Us Part II on May 29 from Naughty Dog, as can’t-miss a studio as there is in the business. Also expected is Ghost Of Tsushima, a samurai game from the generally strong Sucker Punch.
There are likely to be at least two major third-party exclusives—at least when they launch. The first instalment of Square Enix’s Final Fantasy VII Remake, one of the most anticipated games in ages, is only announced for PS4, as is Team Ninja’s Dark-Souls-with-samurais sequel Nioh 2.
In addition to all this, the upcoming year is stocked with multiplatform games that’ll hit PS4, including Witcher III studio CD Project Red’s big new game Cyberpunk 2077 and id Software’s Doom: Eternal.
All this and the launch of the PS5 at year’s end? Next year will be many things for the PS4, including possibly its strongest year yet.