Sony PlayStation 4 System Review

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The Great Console War of 2013 has just begun and Sony fires off the first next-gen salvo with the launch of the highly-anticipated PlayStation 4.   Microsoft and Sony have two very unique and distinct approaches when it comes to dominating your living room.  Since both systems are virtually identical in their PC-like quality of next-gen graphics, that only leaves console-exclusive games and hardware-specific features as the determining factor in which system to buy – assuming you can’t get both.

Microsoft wants to take control over your living room and your life, but Sony is perfectly happy to just let you play games and for many, the PlayStation 4 might seem more like a PlayStation 3.5 with a new body and a new operating system, but I’ve had a week now to experience the new console and a new generation of games and personally, as a gamer first and foremost, Microsoft has their work cut out for them if they want to top the PlayStation 4.  The next generation has arrived…or at least it did on Nov, 15th when my shiny new system and a few unexpected accessories and games arrived for review.

THE UNBOXING

I was half expecting a choir of angels to sing as I opened the box to reveal a PlayStation 4, a second DualShock 4 controller, a PlayStation Camera, a vertical mount pedestal, and copies of Knack and Killzone: Shadow Fall, both PS4-exclusives.  The camera was perhaps the biggest surprise as not much has been mentioned about PS Move.  I knew that the PS4 was supposed to support the old Move hardware but had assumed I would be using the old PlayStation Eye.

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Opening the actual PlayStation 4 box revealed a surprisingly slim and sexy black console with both a flat and shiny black surface splitting the top, a controller, power cord, HDMI cable, an earpiece w/ microphone, and some paperwork that included a Quick Start guide and a trifold brochure with codes for 30 days of FREE PlayStation Plus and Music Unlimited and a $10 PlayStation Store code.

THE SETUP

Setting up the PlayStation 4 was incredibly simple thanks to the small size and low profile.  It slipped right into my entertainment rack just above the PlayStation 3, which will make it easy to swap HDMI and Ethernet when bouncing back and forth between the two systems during this transition time.  I’m not quite ready to send my PS3 out to pasture just yet.   The back of the PS4 has minimal ports; an HDMI, an optical audio, an Ethernet, and a dedicated port for the PlayStation Camera.  Sadly, there is no IR port so you cannot use a universal remote, and even my old PS3 Blu-ray remote is not supported, so until a Sony-approved remote arrives (sometime in 2014) it looks like you’ll be using your DualShock 4 for navigating your Blu-ray menus.  Hint: Plug in the controller while the movie plays to keep it charged for gaming later.

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I connected my DualShock 4 to the system and pushed the PS button to begin the activation.   I have to say I am very disappointed in the extremely short 4-foot micro USB cable provided to charge the gamepad.  The only thing more disappointing is that when you purchase a second $60 DualShock 4 you don’t even get a charging cable, which means you either buy your own or only charge one controller at a time.   Charging wasn’t a huge issue with the DualShock 3 as the battery in that controller lasted days and weeks whereas the DualShock 4 can fully deplete in 6-8 hours thanks to an aggressive twin-motor rumble and the multi-color light on the front.

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Next up was the camera installation, which was as easy as plugging it in and then following the on-screen video guide on where to place the camera and the space restrictions for using it properly.   The camera comes with this really cool folding stand and even has a vertical swivel to adjust after placement.  The camera not only looks like a mini-Kinect, it also shares a few of its functions like face recognition for logging in and some limited voice command support for simple navigation around the menus, which was hit and miss.

keyboardI knew that with all the account setup coming I had considerable typing ahead of me, so I plugged in my generic USB keyboard which was instantly detected and worked like a charm.  The first thing the PS4 asks for now is your identity.  You now create a local user for yourself and anybody else who might be playing on your system, or they can simply login as guests.   You can then attach that local user ID to your PSN account.  Interestingly enough, hardware like the DualShock 4 and even my USB keyboard gets assigned to a specific user.

Almost immediately you’ll be asked to do the update patch, which happens even if you haven’t logged into PSN.   I was setting all this up just after noon on Friday; about 12 hours after the midnight launch, and was expected slow speeds, but the 300mb update and system reboot took maybe five minutes tops.   Logging into my PSN account proved to be much more difficult with numerous timeouts and error messages.  It took about 30-45 minutes of repeated attempts to finally login to PSN and get access to my profile and the PS Store.   Thankfully, this was all a day-one issue, and the network has been flawless and fast for me ever since.

Until now I have managed to avoid joining the PlayStation Plus premium service, but the PS4 really makes it mandatory; at least if you want the full online experience.   I have to admit that I feel pretty silly for not joining sooner, as some of the Plus perks in the store nearly paid for my first year’s membership in just the first hour of becoming a member, and my $10 code that came with my PS4 knocked that first year down to $40.  I quickly queued up a few free downloads like Resogun and Contrast then went about finishing up my setup.

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THE CONTROLLER

dshock44During the setup process I couldn’t help but notice just how much better the DualShock 4 felt and fit into my hands.   The controller is significantly larger and heavier than the DualShock 3; something you don’t realize until you see them side by side.   The triggers feel fantastic and the buttons have a defined click to them almost like a mechanical keyboard; none of that analog mushy motion they tried on the DualShock 3.  It’s hard to ignore the touchpad that dominates most of the top surface.  Games like Killzone: Shadow Fall and Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag are making good use of the responsive pad.  Only time will tell if future games choose to support or ignore the feature, but I see great potential.  The twin sticks feel great and have recessed surfaces that help lock your thumbs in place.

The Start and Select buttons have now been replaced with Share and Options buttons that are nearly flush with the surface and can prove awkward at first to find and tap.  The Options button will open a menu of choices relevant to the screen you are at when you tap it, so tapping it in a game will provide an in-game menu, while tapping it in the operating system will give you system-specific functions like stopping an app or ejecting a disc.   The DualShock 4 has improved gyroscopic and accelerometer-based motion control that you will really appreciate in a game like Flower; one of the free PS3 to PS4 upgraded games you can get if you already owned it.   The level of control and precision was exquisite, and I ended up playing the entire game yet again on the PS4.

micThere is a small built-in speaker that offers some acceptable quality and even some functionality.   Many of the launch titles are making interesting use of the speaker like Killzone playing the audio logs through the controller rather than the TV – it gives it that rough recorded sound that adds to the immersion.  You can optionally redirect your system audio to play exclusively through the DualShock 4 speaker or listen to it with any standard headset.    Considering there is no current Bluetooth support for any wireless audio devices, this isn’t a terrible alternative.   The included earpiece that Sony provides is ridiculously cheap but still better than nothing for those who don’t have something better lying around.   I was getting some negative feedback on my voice quality using the included earpiece, so I quickly switched to my Tritton Kunai headset that I use with my PS Vita and had much better results both listening and being heard.

And finally we come to the big glowing elephant in the room; that big blue (for the most part) light in the front of your controller.   The biggest questions right now seem to be “how do your dim it” or “how do you turn it off”, but I was never annoyed by the glow and often forgot it was even there.  Many games are even integrating the light right into the experience.   In Flower the light will slowly cycle through dozens of subtle pastel colors to complement the screen.   In Killzone the light will continuously shift through several shades of green, yellow, orange, and red based on your current health situation, and even Need for Speed: Rivals will get you some red and blue cop-light action.  The light faces forward and slightly down, so it’s not like its shining right in your eyes.  The only problem I can possibly see is for those with reflective TV screens who hold their controllers up high while gaming.

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THE CAMERA

While Microsoft is forcing you to buy their $100 camera for the Xbox One, Sony at least gives you the choice of whether or not to invest in their $60 audio and visual input device.    Much like their console, Sony’s camera is mostly about gaming, so don’t expect any Minority Report motion controlled menu navigation, although you do get a few simple and functional voice commands that can suspend a game, take a screenshot, and launch other apps.  The camera does offer facial recognition, but you still have to confirm with a controller so you may as well just login with the controller.   You’ll also want to use the camera if you plan on broadcasting any live streams and want to include your own face in the video, but this is optional.

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To see what the camera is all about you only need go as far as the PlayRoom, a tiny collection of proof-of-concept pastimes that let you play some psychedelic air hockey (two controllers required), bond, abuse, and fondle a somewhat depressed robot, and have all sorts of fun with a collection of squabbling robots that reminded me of Raving Rabbids – I can see the gears turning over at Ubisoft already.  I’ve probably spent way more time in the PlayRoom than I should, but it’s always the first place I go to show off the system to anyone who hasn’t seen it.  Not only is it charming and delightful, it really showcases the controller and the potential of augmented reality gaming.  Tim Schafer has already signed on to support the camera, and if his work on the Kinect is any indication I have high hopes for the future of interactive visual gaming.

THE INTERFACE

Sony has adopted a side-scrolling, tile-like interface for getting around your PS4, although you can press up to see the familiar icons of the old media bar from the PS3.   There are new options and menu items and others have been moved or renamed, so it can take a while before you figure it all out.   I was impressed just how snappy the menus are considering all the graphics and live info being displayed on any given screen.  One major improvement is the ability to suspend a game by pressing the PS button and actually do just about anything else on the system without having to shut the game down.   I’ve often forgot I even had a game running until trying to start another one and having it confirm that I want to shut down the first.  Being able to pop out of a game and visit a website or watch a video then resume is a long overdue feature.  Some apps can be run concurrently and double-tapping the PS button allows you to switch between them for a true multi-tasking environment.

profileYour profile page now contains a lot more information that is organized into four main categories, while also giving you access to friends and trophy data; and yes, the trophy sync now takes seconds rather than minutes.  You can link your profile to Facebook and Twitter and even use your Facebook profile pic as your gamer pic.  I really appreciated this since the included profile images are still pretty lame, and it makes my PS4 a bit more personalized, but you really need to be careful what you share with your Facebook friends.  By default every time you start a game, watch a movie, earn a trophy, or do just about anything it will post an update, and spamming your friends’ Facebook is a sure way to get ignored, but finding and chatting with friends on the PS4 has never been easier now that Sony has finally added a Party option for up to eight gamers to gather, chat, and game; although none of the current games seem to be making effective use of it yet.   The PSN friend limit has been increased to 2,000, but with no way to sort or manage those friends I pity the popular people who need to find someone on their list fast.  At least you can now see friends by their real name if you have previously authorized each other to do so.

whatsnewI am concerned with the growing ribbon of games on my front page.   While my PS4 library is miniscule compared to my last-gen collection, I can only imagine how long the list of games will stretch in a year or more if something isn’t done to enhance the management of my game library.  Actually, it’s no better than the endless string of games that ran vertically on my PS3 only this time it’s horizontal with the most recently played games shifting left for easy access while “less popular” titles move right, off the screen and into obscurity.    The first tile on the left is always the What’s New screen that summarizes all your recent activity as well as any of your friends in a nice collage of informative tiles and the occasional Sony advertisement.   Clicking on any of these tiles will give you detailed info about the item.  Clicking on any of the game tiles in the main menu ribbon will bring up a cool summary page for that game highlighting recent activity, trophies, and access to game modes and digital manuals.

THE PLAYSTATION STORE AND OTHER SERVICES

pspluslogoMuch like the main interface, the store is a collection of side-scrolling tiles that are easy to navigate now, but I can’t imagine fumbling around this interface next year when there are a hundred items or more.  I do appreciate the large tile images, the detailed descriptions, screenshots and trailers, but the Store is already in need of a remodel.  While joining PlayStation Plus is now required for online gaming, Sony eases the sting by offering tremendous savings in the way of discounts and even free titles in the store.   Contrast is a $15 game but PS Plus members get it for free – that just paid for three months of your membership.  Of course the caveat to all the freebies is that they only remain active for as long as you remain a member, so once they get you…they got you.  And for those who don’t care about playing online, PlayStation Plus is still optional and you can still use online media services like Netflix.

The Music Unlimited app has a massive, searchable library of 18 million songs that you can queue up and play while you are skimming the PS4 interface, surfing the web, or even when you jump into a game, effectively creating your own custom soundtracks.  Once you try the 30-day free trial you’ll be hooked, and Sony is always offering discounts and deals to keep the subscription going.  Sony also has their own Video Unlimited App but most people will probably head straight for their favorites like Netflix, Hulu, Epix, and Amazon just to name a few.   I only tested the Netflix app and was impressed with the fast and intuitive interface and great new look.   Movies loaded really fast and were HD from the start, but if you scan forward there is a bit of noticeable cache time where the fuzzy video will slowly clean up.

The new web browser works well enough and supports HTML5 but still no Flash.   I seriously doubt many are using their PS4 as their primary surfing tool, but just having access to the web is nice for loading digital game manuals or hunting down a game FAQ.  I was disappointed that you could not use the touchpad as a mouse, and even more random is the ability to hold down L2 then use the gyroscope function of the DualShock 4 to move a cursor around the pop-up keyboard.   It was way too twitchy to be effective.

PERFORMANCE

Just about anything you do seems to queue up an action that is pushed into the background, and the PlayStation 4 seems to excel at multitasking.  Uploading a screenshot creates a task in the Uploads while making a purchase or doing a game update adds a task to the Download section of the Notification menu.   Pop-up boxes alert you when tasks are started and when they are finished, and you really have to load down the system before you’ll see any performance issues, the most noticeable being sluggish navigation in Music Unlimited.

gamemenuRegardless of whether you purchase a game on the PlayStation Store or buy a retail copy, that game must be fully installed.  The deciding factor here is if you have the bandwidth limits and speeds to download upwards of 30-50GB for each game.  If so, the clear winner is always a digital download.  Physical copies, even though fully installed, still require the disc to be inserted before you can play the game, so there is no real benefit to a physical copy other than possibly selling it or loaning it to a friend when you are finished.  Another brilliant addition to the PS4 is the ability to start and play your game during the initial download and install process.  If you insert a disc a loading bar will quickly fill and when done you can start playing while the install finishes in the background.   It’s just like caching a Netflix movie that continues to download while you watch.  In the case of Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag, I was able to play the single player game immediately while the multiplayer portion finished downloading.

The PlayStation 4 has a few power features including an optional timer to shut down your controller and system after set periods of inactivity.   There is now a suspend mode for the PS4 that runs the system in low power yet is still able to perform real-time system and game updates while you and the system sleep.  And finally, you can charge your controllers while the system is sleeping, but not when you turn it off.

SECOND SCREEN CONNECTIVTY

It’s hard to put into words just how much second screen functionality can add to a game without experiencing it for yourself.   Blu-ray movie watchers already have an idea of what to expect, but in the case of the PS4 these secondary screens are being used for much more than just consuming additional content.   They are actually changing the way you interact and play your games.    I was able to test these features on both the PS Vita and my iPad in a variety of scenarios.

Once you do the most recent update for your Vita there will be a new icon to connect to the PS4.  This allows for various second screen features as well as remote play of games like Killzone: Shadow Fall, Knack, Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag, and Battlefield 4 over Wi-Fi much like the remote play feature on the Wii U.  Of course this means it also suffers from the same issues as Nintendo’s system.  You cannot play the game outside your Wi-Fi bubble and the weaker the signal (further away from the router) the more laggy the gameplay.   Unless you have a strong Wi-Fi throughout the house, playing a PS4 game on the Vita might mean playing it in the same room as the PS4 itself.

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But you don’t need a Vita to enjoy the perks of remote play.  Sony has released a PlayStation App that brings the PS4 experience to your mobile devices.  In my case that was my iPad.   Once downloaded the app synced with my PS4 over Wi-Fi and I had access to all my messages, game alerts, invitations, and notifications as well as links to important websites.  There was also a connect button to directly assume control over my PS4 when applicable.

Despite its slick design and intuitive operation it seems that most of the developers are releasing their own game-specific apps for their second screen features.  I’ll be covering those apps specifically in my upcoming game reviews, but I have to say that having your world maps available in games like Black Flag and NFS Rivals without having to pause your game is pretty cool, and many apps, especially the one for Call of Duty: Ghosts allows you to perform useful tasks even when you aren’t synced with the game.

SHARING

Perhaps the most undersold feature of the PlayStation 4 is the Share button, that one magical button that allows you to capture a screenshot, view, edit, and post your most recent gameplay session videos or even broadcast your live gameplay via Twitch or Ustream.    I can only imagine the explosion of new Twitch accounts, as simulcasting your gameplay has never been easier.  No fancy capture cards or dedicated computer required – just tap the button, check a few boxes, and you are streaming, complete with optional voice over, text chat, and video feed if you have the camera connected.  Just make sure you have a good upstream on your internet connection.   I really appreciated the fact that the system somehow detects and blurs out notification messages that could compromise friends or system alerts, and if you leave the game it suspends the broadcast until you return or stop it.

storageThere are a few hidden downsides to the sharing system.  Currently you can only share your video captures to Facebook, and your screenshots can only post to Facebook or Twitter.  Hopefully a YouTube solution is coming soon, but considering how stringent their copyright policies are I’m guessing anything you would post (especially if it had licensed music like NFS Rivals) would be flagged immediately.  The other concern is the limited hard drive space on the PS4.  I had my concerns with only having 500GB and after only a week nearly half of that is used up with game installs and capture data.  The system automatically records a 15-minute sliding window of whatever games you are playing.  I’ve found no way to disable that feature, so I periodically go into the storage menu and do some clean-up.  At this point it’s not a huge issue, but in about 4-6 more game installs it will be, as I have found over 2GB of video clips being archived that I never even asked for.

THE GAMES

When it comes to choosing a new console it’s all about the games, especially when Sony is clearly pursuing gamers as their target demographic, so you better have the games.   Over the years each system has had their exclusives.   Xbox has Halo and Forza; Sony has Killzone and Gran Turismo and never shall the two franchises invade the other’s system.   But looking back and now looking forward, if one had to choose a system based on future exclusives I firmly believe Sony is the clear winner with new installments in the Gran Turismo, Infamous, and Uncharted series just to name a few.

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Admittedly, the launch line-up is pretty slim for this new generation (on both systems), which may create a more cautious and less urgent stampede to the stores this holiday season.   This is one of the first system launches I can remember outside of the Wii U where systems were readily available in stores the day after launch, and with the more anticipated titles pushed into 2014 I’m guessing more PS4’s will be bought with tax refunds than holiday gift cards.    First-party titles like Killzone: Shadow Fall and Knack are effective games in showing the advancement in system technology yet show no improvement in gameplay, and even indie games like Contrast and digital download games like Resogun seem more like perks for early adopters than incentives to actually purchase a new system.

CONCLUSION

Honestly, I don’t think the question is IF you should buy a PlayStation 4 as much as WHEN you should buy one.   If you’ve got $400 burning a hole in your wallet and don’t mind playing slightly superior visual upgrades of games than you can already be playing on a system you may already own then go for it.   Sony is counting on it.   It’s just a shame that there isn’t that one “amazing” launch title that can be used to justify an immediate purchase.   If only they had waited to release “The Last of Us”.

True gamers have always been early adopters, but I believe the next-generation of gaming is still a year or more away when it comes to game design and making the most out of the amazing system Sony has delivered.    Not everyone needs the Swiss army knife that Microsoft is selling, and while Sony may be slow out of the gate, they definitely have the best track record for innovation and evolution.  If you are a gamer first and foremost and you want to share that passion with a connected set of friends over a variety of devices then look no further than the PlayStation 4.