After the longest home console generation, the wait is finally over and the next generation of video games arrives on November 15, 2013 with the PlayStation 4 from Sony Computer Entertainment (followed closely, one week later, by the Microsoft Xbox One, of course). The question each generation, however, remains: is it worth shelling out hundreds of dollars for a new machine, and does it provide more than a simple coat of paint?
SCE had a few bumps in the road as the launch drew near. First came the delay of a major third-party title, Ubisoft's Watch Dogs, which was going to be sold in official Sony packages for the PS4, creating a preorder snafu that the company and its retail partners had to scramble a bit to cover. Then the first-party title Drive Club, a racing game that was meant to be a free download for PlayStation + members (and thus essentially a pack-in game) also got delayed past launch, leaving a launch lineup that included only two first-party exclusive disc-based games.
Thanks to third-party releases (though these are multi-generational games - out also for the current PS3 and Xbox 360 systems) and a handful of downloadable launch titles, the number of games still sits at over twenty directly at launch; that's more games than any reasonable gamer could get through between now and the end of the year, for certain. Still: is it worth being an early adopter for?
The first time you power on the PlayStation 4, after a quick guided setup, you'll want to immediately download the day one system update. Weighing in at just over 300mb, the download and patch go quickly, and unlock much of the basic functionality of the console. With the full interface now open to play with, it is immediately apparent that the PlayStation 4 is at once familiar and brand-new. A new multi-tiered user interface gives you quick access to the things you already know from playing on the PS3, like your friends list, trophies, and all your basic settings. The second tier includes individual icons for all your games, plus icons for TV & Video apps, the Video Unlimited store, the Music Unlimited service, a custom web browser, and a social-oriented "What's New" tab to show you what you and your friends have most recently gotten up to on the PlayStation Network. The individual icons for every game may get unwieldy for those with large collections, but the more organized "Library" tab lays them out in an easier-to-view tiled window. Also, if you have the new PlayStation Camera (not included, $59.99 retail), you can use some new basic voice commands, like simply telling your PlayStation to launch your game of choice. If you've downloaded them from the digital store, that's it - the game will launch and be ready to play. If it is disc-based, the icon is there and the game is installed, but you still have to put the disc in to play.
Much noise has been made about the installation sizes for games. Indeed, the 500gb harddrive only gives you about 409gb of usable space. Some sample game sizes: Killzone: Shadow Fall - 39gb, Assassin's Creed IV - 21gb, Need for Speed Rivals - 16gb, Madden NFL 25 - 15gb, DC Universe Online (base game/free content only, no paid expansions) - 28gb. Downloadable PSN titles like Sound Shapes and Contrast clock in at 1.2gb and 2.5gb respectively, while Resogun, one of the first PS+ freebies, is a mere 466mb.
What all that means to you is that you'll be able to store somewhere in the neighborhood of fifteen to twenty fullsize games on your harddrive at any given time. Collectors will have to deal with space management, or upgrade the harddrive - any 2.5in notebook-size SATA drive will fit in the easy-install system, and a 1tb drive, doubling your space, will run you around $70 at retail.
The good news is, the actual install process, especially from a blu ray retail disc, is so seamless, you'll never know it is even happening. Gone are the days of watching a status bar fill up for 10-15 minutes before even seeing the game's title screen, as was all-too-often the case on the PlayStation 3. Instead, the PS4 caches the most basic game data immediately - meaning nearly instantaneously, bringing up the game menu in seconds (or less) after clicking on the game the first time, and letting you start playing right away - the larger install happens entirely in the background while you play, and with the five disc-based games we tried for the review, none of them had any noticable wait nor any skips or bumps along the way. You want to play your game the second you unwrap it? You can, and that is a huge and much-needed improvement for this generation.
System and game updates are likewise now mostly background activities. PS+ users (you now have to be a subscriber, at $50 a year, in order to play online multiplayer - and the subscription gets you free games on PS4, PS3, and Vita every month) will receive all their updates over night while the system is in the near-zero power standby mode. When you wake up in the morning and want an early gaming session, you can have it, no lengthy updates required. Updates for games you are currently playing (or others on your system) download entirely in the background while you play, and simply auto-install the moment you quit out. It is entirely automated and seamless - thinking about updates may truly be a thing left in the past generation.
The Dualshock 4 is the latest iteration of the basic controller design that PlayStation fans have been using for a decade and a half. The controller's ergonomics have been adjusted into a fit that feels considerably more comfortable, allowing for long gaming sessions without any cramping. More responsive and better designed triggers (the L2 and R2 buttons on the shoulder of the controller) and thumbsticks make the basic functionality of the controller more natural and delivers a stronger gaming experience. The new functions of the controller, including a touchpad, built-in speaker, share button, and responsive lightbar are all welcomed additions - each to be evaluated based on the individual game and how developers use them, of course. Still, more options for gameplay is a good thing, and none of the add-ons took priority over making the controller a better, more functional, more comfortable device. The Dualshock 4 is everything the Dualshock line should have been all along - even folks who like their staggered control sticks will appreciate that this feels considerably better than the Dualshock 3, at the least.
The optional PlayStation camera adds in some base functionality, like voice-launching of apps and photo-login to the system. The pre-installed Playroom app shows off some of what the PlayStation camera will do in the future, but most games did not take much advantage of it yet. It is not nearly as fully-integrated into the user interface as the Kinect is for the Xbox 360 (and from what we've seen, moreso with the Xbox One), but is definitely a huge improvement over the PS3 Eye. Hopefully we'll see more functionality steadily introduced with the new multi-lens hi-res camera, as Playroom is a fun proof-of-concept. Its main functionality for now seems to be in the sharing and broadcasting modes - using Twitch or Ustream, you can live-broadcast games, or share your own video walkthroughs, with your face and voice right there on screen for other players. It helps bring the on-the-couch experience to multiplayer in a bigger way than ever before seen on a console.
Overall, with several games played, the interface fully explored for hours, a couple of quick tries with the Vita remote play feature (it works - it just plain works, to control the full interface, play games - it really does), and a handful of apps (Netflix is nicely redesigned with a much more presentation-focused look), it is safe to say the PlayStation 4 delivers on next gen promise. The anticipated issues turned out to be non-starters, and the hardware's capabilities should be pleasing to developers for several years. This is a beautiful piece of electronics, with improvements in every major category and a future rife with possibilities.
We'll have more detailed impressions, including game-specific functionality and design pluses and minuses in the days to come.