All posts by Mark Smith

I've been an avid gamer since I stumbled upon ZORK running in my local Radio Shack in 1980. Ten years later I was working for Sierra Online. Since then I've owned nearly every game system and most of the games to go with them. Not sure if 40 years of gaming qualifies me to write reviews, but I do it anyway.

Take to the Skies! Air Conflicts: Vietnam Is Out Today for PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation3

Are you ready to enter the cockpit and throw yourself into battle across the deadly skies of Vietnam? Well it’s time to do your duty, as Air Conflicts: Vietnam launches today for retail in North America and Canada. Experience the explosive conflict of Vietnam by piloting more than 20 incredible fighter jets and helicopters, destroying enemy artillery and guiding your squadron to victory.  With an extensive storyline and multiplayer gameplay modes, Air Conflicts: Vietnam will keep armchair fighter jocks glued to their seats on console and PC.

Air Conflicts: Vietnam is an arcade-styled air-combat game that immerses players in the harrowing skies over Vietnam. Take to the air in screaming fighter jets or grab the controls of devastating helicopter gunships as you shatter enemy encampments with explosive ordinance, decimate North Vietnamese ace fighter squadrons, escort bombers as they deliver their deadly payload, or rescue stranded soldiers and deliver support troops to the ever-changing front lines of the vicious battlefield.

Key Features:

  • ·Live a thrilling wartime narrative. In an epic single-player campaign, filled with heroic moments and the darker side of war, your performance in air combat and support missions drives the story from the initial escalation of tension, through key battles of the Vietnam War and, ultimately, the fall of Saigon.
  • Jump into the cockpit for instant action. Pilot and customize more than 20 planes and – for the first time in the Air Conflict series – helicopters, including the workhorse UH-1 Iroquois, fire-breathing AH-1 Cobra attack gunships, the devastating F4 Phantom and F104 Starfighter jets, plus fearsome enemy MIG fighter jets.
  • Lead your squadron to victory. Command up to four jets or helicopters, maximizing their unique abilities to complete challenging objectives, while earning experience, leveling up and improving your leadership and air combat skills.
  • Challenge your friends for air supremacy. Play up to eight online opponents in nail-biting, fast-paced capture-the-flag, deathmatch and team deathmatch air battles.
  • Get your groove on. As you test your pilot skills against AI or human opponents, treat your ears to a cool rock soundtrack in the style of vintage Vietnam-era tunes.

View the trailers below for a look at the fearsome combat aircraft you’ll encounter in the game and see how they tear up the skies in action-packed flight combat.

Air Conflicts: Vietnam Feature Clip “MiG15 & MiG21”

Air Conflicts: Vietnam Feature Clip “F4 Phantom II”

Air Conflicts: Vietnam is out today for PC, the Xbox 360® video game and entertainment system from Microsoft and the PlayStation®3 computer entertainment system.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas Mobile Coming this December

Rockstar Games has just announced that Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is coming to mobile devices next month.

Encompassing Los Santos, San Fierro, Las Venturas and everything in between, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas has been upgraded for its mobile release. Newly remastered graphics including dynamic and detailed shadows, greater draw distance, an enriched color palette, plus enhanced character and car models make this the best-looking version of San Andreas yet.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas also features brand new touch controls including contextual control options to display buttons only when you need them and three different control schemes for driving and maneuvering, as well as a reworked checkpoint system for easier progression. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas for mobile also comes equipped with full controller support, including Made for iOS controller capability on iOS7. It will be available for select iOS, Android, Amazon Kindle and Windows Mobile devices. Stay tuned for more details in the weeks ahead.

Digital Board Game Adaptation of Space Hulk to Launch on the App Store for iPad on December 5th

The first Warhammer 40,000 based iPad title soon to be available

Get the original board game experience with this fully featured digital version of Space Hulk

spacehulkDanish development studio Full Control today revealed that the first Warhammer 40,000 based title will be available on iPad on December 5th. Space Hulk, the 3D digital  adaption of the best-selling board game will launch on the App Store for iPad this December priced at $9.99. Featuring cross-platform play between iPad, PC and Mac, the iPad release follows the successful PC and Mac launch earlier in summer 2013.

“We are excited to unleash Space Hulk, to a new generation of tablet players”, said Thomas Hentschel Lund, CEO of Full Control. “With single player turn based action, intense cross platform multiplayer battles, Space Hulk is destined to become a cult classic”.

Space Hulk is a 3D digital turn based strategy game that recreates the classic claustrophobic board game experience for single player and multiplayer. Set in the isolated corridors and tomb-like chambers of an ancient vessel lost in the graveyard of space, players lead a small army of fearless Space Marine Terminators to battle in a ferocious fight for survival against hordes of predatory alien Genestealers. Based on the “Sin of Damnation” campaign from the 3rd edition board game, Space Hulk includes a robust 12-mission single-player campaign.

Developed by Full Control, Space Hulk will be available on the App Store for iOS on December 5th, 2013. For more information about Space Hulk, please visit: http://www.spacehulk-game.com/

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Warlock 2: The Exiled Reveals its Magic Tricks in First-ever Screens

Paradox Interactive, a publisher of games and an exile from their previous offices, today revealed the first-ever images of gameplay in Warlock 2: The Exiled, the forthcoming turn-based strategy fantasy wargame from Ino-Co Plus. Coming to PC in Spring 2014, Warlock 2’s magical war-gaming is revealed for the first time to eager practitioners of the dark arts in a series of spellbinding screenshots and a live stream using the sorcery of the Internet.

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These images will magically spring to life during a livestream on November 26 at 8 p.m. CET (11 a.m. PST), where Paradox’s own magical staff – that is, personnel, not walking stick – will show off live gameplay for the first time. Behold their power by visiting their Twitch.TV channel: www.twitch.tv/paradoxinteractive

Journey back to the realm of Ardania, the land that cannot go an entire week without being conquered, and conquer it once again! Exiled to a shard from a shattered world, players of Warlock 2: The Exiled must contend with fellow exiled mages and a host of terrifying creatures. Wield ancient magic, summon even more terrifying creatures, go to war, and discover just who possesses the greatest balls of fire.

Warlock 2: The Exiled features:

  • Spelling Counts – Over 150 spells to add to your tome, allowing command over powerful enchantments, nasty hexes, and elemental forces
  • A Crass Menagerie – Hundreds of different mythical and magical beasts to deploy on the battlefield with distinct tactical uses, from giant rats and dwarven prospectors to werewolves with hats on them
  • Friendship is Magic – A multi-player experience as robust as the single-player experience, including PvP, Co-op PvE, and every combination in between
  • Warlock 2: The Playstyles – Fight your way through the shards to reclaim Ardania in new ‘Exile’ mode or dispatch opponents the old-fashioned way in ‘Sandbox’ mode.

For a glimpse at the perils of Warlock 2: The Exiled, watch this trailer, courtesy of a confused old man who claimed to be able to shoot lightning:

Infinite Crisis: New Champion – Mecha Wonder Woman!

Get an extensive look at Mecha Wonder Woman in the latest Champion Profile from Infinite Crisis, the upcoming free-to-play MOBA from Turbine based in the DC Universe.

Mecha Wonder Woman began life as D1A-NA, a diplomatic robot in service to Queen Hippolyta, ruler of the Amazon women of the island nation of Themyscira.

Called the “Wonder Woman” by mass media, Hippolyta made it her life’s work to forge a more peaceful world. D1A-NA was ever-present as the queen traveled the world and in time developed a personality that reflected the idealistic woman’s feelings on justice and equality.  Sadly, while accompanying Hippolyta on an errand of mercy, D1A-NA witnessed the horrific assassination of her queen at the hands of Doom Legion assassin bots. At that moment, she was transformed. An iron resolve developed within her, and she vowed to both avenge the queen’s death and continue her quest.

With aid of the Justice Consortium D1A-NA remade herself, far exceeding her creator’s original design. With these upgrades and knowledge of the Amazonian Warriors stored within her memory banks, she has taken on the mantle of “Wonder Woman” to shine the light of truth on a corrupt, violent world.

Check out the new Champion profile video and make sure to sign-up for the closed beta to be among the first to test your skills in the Infinite Crisis battle arena.

‘NASCAR The Game: Inside Line’ Releases Final DLC Bundle Packs of Season (360, PS3)

Hey NASCAR Fans,

As the checkered flag waved for the last time this season over the weekend at Homestead, NASCAR fans and racers everywhere can still relive the tremendous 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season with Activision’s and Eutechnyx’s NASCAR The Game: Inside Line, available now* for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii. Alongside the excitement of every race weekend, Inside Line Highlight DLC packs were released, giving players and diehard fans the chance to relive and rewrite the most memorable NASCAR moments from previous races using telemetry data.

Throughout the 2013 season, NASCAR The Game: Inside Line released a total of 28 DLC packs**, starting off at Daytona and crossing the finish line at Homestead, including a free NASCAR Sprint All-Star DLC pack. The latest batch of Inside Line Highlights, a sampling of which is described below, can be purchased in discounted bundles for only 30 in-game tickets each:

Bundle Pack 1
Bank of America 500, Charlotte, October 12
Highlight: Holding the Lead
Who: Kasey Kahne
Type: Rewrite
Description: Rewrite history and help Kasey Kahne hold off Brad Keselowski and take the win at Charlotte

Camping World RV Sales 500, Talladega, October 20
Highlight: Through the Pack
Who: Kurt Busch
Type: Relive
Description: Drive as Kurt Busch and match his fight into the top ten by the start of lap 50

Bundle Pack 2
Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 Powered By Kroger, Martinsville, October 27
Highlight: Manoeuvring Past Matt
Who: Jeff Gordon
Type: Relive
Description: Drive as Jeff Gordon and take the lead from Matt Kenseth by the end of lap 480

AAA Texas 500, Texas, November 3
Highlight: 88 to the lead!
Who: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Type: Rewrite
Description: Dale Jr. was in 5th place for the green flag on lap 80, rewrite the restart and help the 88 into first position in three laps

Bundle Pack 3
Advocare 500, Phoenix, November 10
Highlight: Leading From Pole
Who: Jimme Johnson
Type: Rewrite
Description: Jimme Johnson had a tough first lap, losing a lot of places after a close call with Joey Logano. Rewrite the start and hold the lead after 3 laps.

Ford Ecoboost 400, Homestead, November 17
Highlight: Two Positions, One Pass
Who: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Type: Relive
Description: On lap 224 Dale Jr. went from third to frist in a great pass on the outside. Can you relive his pass and run around the outside?

 

NASCAR The Game: Inside Line is now available on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii. Keep up to speed on the latest NASCAR The Game: Inside Line news at www.NASCARTheGame.com or join us on Facebook (www.facebook.com/NASCARthegame) and Twitter (@NASCARTheGame).

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*Inside Line Highlights DLC only available for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3
**Races at Bristol, Kansas and Dover will not be available

Basement Crawl (PS4 Exclusive) – FIRST SCREENS

Bloober Team’s Basement Crawl is an awesome mash-up of strategy, action and skill that harkens back to the days of classic Bomberman while immersing the player in a chillingly macabre setting. This multiplayer-focused game brings great imagery, unique challenges, multiplayer showdowns and more to PS4 owners, and is the first must-have post-launch download for the new system.

While no official release date has been set we expect to see something by the end of 2013.  Meanwhile, enjoy these first-look screens, some level art, and a teaser video.

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And if you missed our earlier post with the teaser trailer, here it is again.

LEGO The Hobbit Videogame Announced

WARNER BROS. INTERACTIVE ENTERTAINMENT, TT GAMES AND THE LEGO GROUP SET OFF ON A NEW JOURNEY TO CREATE LEGO® THE HOBBIT

Join Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf the Grey, Thorin Oakenshield and Company On Their Quest to the Dwarven Kingdom in the Next LEGO Videogame Coming 2014

Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, TT Games and The LEGO Group have announced LEGO® The Hobbit™, the latest addition to the popular LEGO videogame series thatbrings to life the enthralling and legendary  stories from Oscar®-winning filmmaker Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit Trilogy.  The game will be available in 2014 for the Xbox One all-in-one games and entertainment system and Xbox 360 games and entertainment systems from Microsoft, PlayStation®4 and PlayStation®3 computer entertainment systems and PlayStation®Vita handheld entertainment system., the Wii U™ system from Nintendo, the Nintendo 3DS™ hand-held system, as well as Windows PC and Mac.

LEGO The Hobbit will be based on the first two films of The Hobbit Trilogy, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and the upcoming The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug, a production of New Line Cinema and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures (MGM), opening worldwide beginning December 13, 2013.  Following the storyline of the first two films, LEGO The Hobbit will take players on quests throughout Middle-earth, joining Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf the Grey, and Thorin Oakenshield and Company in their exciting adventures toward the Dwarven Kingdom of Erebor.

“We are thrilled to depict the characters and environments of Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth in LEGO form with the LEGO The Hobbit videogame,” said Tom Stone, Managing Director, TT Games. “Our family-friendly take on these thrilling adventures will have kids and parents playing and laughing together as they build and explore in LEGO Middle-earth.”

In LEGO The Hobbit, kids and families will be able to take on the form of their favorite Hobbit characters, including Bilbo, Gandalf, and all of the Dwarves: Thorin, Fíli, Kíli, Óin, Glóin, Dwalin, Balin Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Dori, Nori and Ori.  Each has his own special – and quite hilarious – ability: For instance, Bombur can be used as a trampoline that enables his companions “belly-bounce” out of danger!

Players will visit key locations from the films, including Bag End, Bilbo’s Hobbit-hole in Hobbiton, trek through the treacherous High Pass over The Misty Mountains, and explore the depths of Goblin-town, Mirkwood and Rivendell. Along the way, players will solve countless puzzles, partake in Treasure Quests and battle with Orcs, Trolls and fouler things.  They will also be able to mine for gems, discover loot from enemies, and craft powerful magical items or build immense new LEGO structures.

LEGO The Hobbit is currently being developed by TT Games and expands on the play themes introduced in the brand new LEGO® The Hobbit toy collection.  For more information, please visit: http://thehobbit.LEGO.com.

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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.