The wait is over – the PlayStation 4 is finally here. After having spent some time with it, we’re pleased to report that thus far, it is better in almost every way than its predecessor. It is cheaper relative to the competition than the PS3 was at launch; it’s easier to make games for thanks to its brand-new PC architecture that replaces the PS3’s proprietary hardware, and its controller is easily the most comfortable and nice-to-hold one Sony has come up with yet.
First impressions are extremely good: the console’s sleek looks, solid controller and clear commitment to gaming show a maturing Sony that is putting gamers and developers first, which should have a positive effect on how developers view the console and the games gamers will get to play on it down the line.
But as good as the console’s fundamentals are, the PS4 isn’t quite perfect. Sony has left out features that would make it a contender for space in every living room and not just those inhabited by gamers. Perhaps these will be added in future updates, or maybe Sony has other plans for that space that will only be clear as the years pass; right now, the PS4 is just a games console, and while it’s a good one, it’s not yet clear if that’s going to be enough to carry it through the next ten years. Just as worrying is a fairly weak launch game line-up, with none that offers an experience that can’t be had elsewhere.
For the moment, though, being a games console should be enough for anyone looking to dip their feet into the future of gaming, as the PS4 has a lot to offer despite these negatives. Let’s take a closer look at it.
The PS4 looks pretty sleek, with its angled lines and minimalistic fascia. As per our first impressions, the entire console is small and almost square-shaped, making it only slightly bigger than the latest PS3. It’s also quite low, and should fit underneath most modern HDTVs that have stands.
The Power and Eject buttons are tiny slivers that respond to the merest touch, and immediately above these is a light bar that shows you when the console is powered on, when there is a problem that needs addressing and when the console is in standby mode.
On the back are all-digital ports: an HDMI input, an optical output, an Ethernet jack and a power port. There is also an auxiliary port for the PlayStation Camera accessory (sold separately).
On the front of the console are two USB ports that can be used to charge the PS4’s controllers, even when the console is in standby mode. While the PS4 doesn’t support external storage at the moment, Sony is rumoured to be adding support for it via these USB ports in a future update.
The PlayStation 4 uses a custom-built eight-core processor that was built together with AMD, and a Radeon graphics chip based on AMD’s advanced Graphics Core Next architecture. As this is essentially a PC part, games can be developed for the PS4 without developers needing custom hardware, as was the case with the PS3.
Vital to the PS4’s survival through the next ten years or so is its memory stores. Sony has given it 8GB of GDDR5 memory that can be shared between the processor and graphics chip, which is sixteen times more than the PS3 had and the key to allowing developers to do things with their games that simply wasn’t possible with the PS3.
On the storage side, the PS4 comes with a user-replaceable 500GB hard drive. This might prove insufficient down the line, however, with every PS4 game requiring an installation, but as it can be upgraded with bigger drives with little hassle, that shouldn’t be a major issue.
The optical drive is a Blu-ray drive. That means the PS4 can play back Blu-ray movies, and accommodate games that take advantage of the medium’s large (50GB+) storage capabilities.
The PS4’s Dualshock 4 controller is nothing short of a piece of art. It’s form meets function in the best possible way, marrying just the right amount of weight with a comfortable design that sits almost perfectly in the hand.
Sony has retained many of the elements of its trademark controller design, but has redesigned the grips to be much more comfortable to hold for hours on end and removed entirely all of the Dualshock 3’s awkward sharp edges. The triggers now have concave indentations, and the shoulder buttons are easier than ever to reach and press.
For the first time ever, Sony has nixed the Start and Select buttons, replacing them with Share and Options buttons. Both buttons are rather awkwardly-placed on the controller, though, although that also means they won’t be accidentally bumped either.
Sharing is caring
The Share button lets you take screenshots and videos of whatever you’re playing or doing on the PS4, and upload it to the internet using Twitch and Ustream for video and Facebook and Twitter for images. Movie-streaming requires quite a beefy internet connection with a decent upload speed, though – we tried it with a 2mb ADSL line (512kbps upload) and it just wasn’t smooth for anyone watching. Quality settings had to be set to low before performance improved.
Streaming isn’t the only way you can share your PlayStation 4 experience with others. The PS4 records the last few minutes of gameplay to a buffer, and at any point you can press the Share button to access that video. You can then do some basic editing and upload the results online. You can also manually start the video-capture process by double-pressing the Share button, and add your own commentary by enabling audio capture via the included microphone.
Being able to share – and the fact that sharing is available to all PS4 owners, not just those with PlayStation Plus subscriptions – may well be the key to the PS4’s long-term success as it makes capturing amazing gaming moments just that much easier. The only complaint we have about it is that it’s slow: the PS4 does a lot of thinking while it loads the sharing interface, resulting in shares taking anything from 30 seconds to a minute to complete.
Three Radical Changes
One of three radical changes to the new controller is the large blue LED light affixed to its front. This is tracked by the PlayStation Camera and used to do all kinds of cool augmented-reality tricks, apparently, like interface with the Playroom demo that ships with the console and set multiple players apart when gaming with friends; we couldn’t test it ourselves as our test PS4 didn’t come with a camera, unfortunately.
Because of this LED, the Dualshock 4 controller doesn’t last as long as the Dualshock 3 before needing a recharge, although to be fair we still managed just over eight hours before it died for the first time. Being able to recharge the controller while the PS4 is in standby mode was a real bonus, as we didn’t need any third-party recharge station or to leave the PS4 on overnight as we’ve been doing with our PS3s all these years.
The second change is the addition of a touchpad that adds mouse-like features to some games, although ironically it doesn’t let you control the cursor in the PS4’s browser. It does let you move around Assassin’s Creed IV’s map, for example, although this didn’t feel nearly as smooth or as easy to control as just using the analogue sticks.
The third major addition is a tiny speaker that occasionally puts out sound to immerse you in games just that little bit more. We didn’t find it to be particularly noticeable, but it’s there, at least.
Overall, the Dualshock 4 is by far the best controller we’ve ever handled from Sony or anyone else, an opinion that only solidified the more we used it.
The PS4’s interface is clearly rooted in Sony’s UI design philosophy, so it doesn’t stray too far from that of the PS3. Like the PS3’s interface, it also manages to feel a little cluttered and busy, with no real way to arrange what you’re looking at in a way that makes more sense to you.
The main line of options starts with What’s New that shows what you and your friends have been up to on your PS4s recently. It tells you what trophies have been unlocked and what friends have been playing, and it can get incredibly crowded if you have a lot of friends that play a lot of games.
Then there’s Live from PlayStation. This option is one of the most interesting, as it’s here you can tune in to other people’s live broadcasts of what they’re doing on their PlayStation 4s. You can simply watch them play, or comment on their activity. It’s a neat addition that really makes you feel like you’re part of a community. Video quality is determined by the speed of your internet connection.
The PS4 also has a browser, but it’s fairly basic and doesn’t come with Flash installed by default. You’ll also see an icon for The Playroom as it comes with every PS4; it’s only useful if you have the PlayStation Camera accessory, otherwise all you can do is watch a video Sony has put together that shows what The Playroom is all about.
TV & Video is the next option, although it didn’t make a lot of sense: all we could do was download and install IGN’s PlayStation 4 app that linked to a bunch of its video content. There is no option here to play music or videos stored on PCs on your home network as Sony has not given the PS4 DLNA support, so you won’t be able to use it as a media player like you could the PS3 which is a rather big disappointment, and a severe blow to anyone hoping to set the PS4 up as their all-in-one living-room entertainment system.
The last icon is for your Library, which is just a record of everything you’ve downloaded and installed that isn’t a game.
Interspersed among these options are icons representing the games you’ve played recently, as well as one for the game currently in the PS4’s drive. It’s not too bad now, with only a handful of games out for the PS4, but when your library inevitably grows, the amount of icons that will clutter this view is going to get a little crazy unless Sony cleans the interface up a little.
Above this line of options you’ll find the more utilitarian ones, like system settings, notifications and the PlayStation Store. Trophies are here as well, and they have been arranged in a pleasing manner, with all of your bronze, silver, gold and platinum trophies on display. You can also compare trophies with friends here.
In all, the interface works reasonably well, but it’s not the most polished UI we’ve ever seen. We hope Sony works to improve it in the coming months.
Part of addressing criticisms levelled at the PS3 required Sony to kick things up a notch and do things differently with the PS4, like so:
The console can download system and game updates in the background now, even when it’s in standby mode, and all you have to do is enable it in the options. Go to Power Saving Settings, Set Functions Available in Standby Mode and choose Connect to the internet, and the PS4 will ensure it’s always up to date without you having to keep it powered on all the time.
These new power management features also let you charge your Dualshock 4 controllers while the PS4 is in standby mode. To enable it, you must select Supply Power From USB Ports in the same Set Functions Available in Standby Mode menu.
While all games now require some sort of installation, the PS4 only needs to install a small amount of data before the game can be launched; the full installation continues in the background while you play. This is the promised “streaming” feature Sony talked about in its press briefings earlier this year.
The most pressing questions on most gamers’ minds are probably all about the games, and we’re pleased to report that the games we’ve been able to test – Call of Duty: Ghosts, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, Knack, LEGO Marvel Super Heroes, Resogun and Killzone: Shadow Fall all look amazing on the PS4. That is to say they look like they’re running on a PC in terms of detail and smoothness. Since we’ve played a lot of Assassin’s Creed IV on the Xbox 360, we’re particularly impressed at the fact that there’s hardly a jagged edge to be seen on the PS4 version, textures are crisp and clear and the visuals are smooth no matter what’s happening on-screen.
That being said, the visuals on offer are not quite the next-generation leap we were hoping for, it’s more like they’ve finally caught up to where PCs have been for a while now. PC games still look and perform better because high-end PC hardware is more powerful than what the PS4 has to offer, and that gap is only going to widen as time goes by.
As good as the games we’ve seen look, ultimately the line-up isn’t all that impressive. The multi-platform games look better here than on either the Xbox 360 or PS3, of course, but other than their visuals, they don’t exactly bring much new to the table for being on the PS4. Sadly none of Sony’s exclusives we’ve seen, Resogun, Killzone: Shadow Fall or Knack are so amazing that they have us recommending you get a PS4 just to play them.
Killzone is a good-looking game to be sure, but it’s not a mind-blowing leap into next-gen in any other way, and Knack, although it tries hard, falls flat as a platformer with its repetitive gameplay, annoyingly-spaced checkpoints and often-unfair difficulty. Resogun, a downloadable game is the PS4’s shining jewel thanks to its gorgeous graphics and explosions, but even that requires that you love side-scrolling shooters in order to recommend owning a PS4 just to play it.
Overall, the PS4’s game line-up is solid, but there are no titles in there yet that we’d call a “system seller”, which is a bit of a disappointment. Still, it’s nice to see consoles have finally caught up with PCs, at least in terms of presentation, and we’re looking forward to seeing what developers are going to do with Sony’s new hardware in the coming years. For a closer look at the games’ graphics, as captured using the PS4’s Share feature, check out the slide show below.
While we haven’t been able to test the full range of what the PS4 offers due to the absence of the PlayStation Camera, we’re confident that what we have seen of the PS4 makes it an excellent addition to the PlayStation family nonetheless. It also has the potential to be even better in the coming years as developers get to grips with its capabilities, and the PS4 equivalent of The Last of Us – a game so good it’s worth the price of the PS3 on its own – arrives.
It’s just a pity that the game line-up is, at this point, a bit on the underwhelming side. The absence of any media-streaming options is likewise a bit of a worry, especially as the battle for the living room is only going to heat up in the years to come. Fortunately that can be patched in at a later stage, but for now, we remain a little disappointed with the PS4’s lack of multimedia playback options.
At this early stage of the PS4’s lifespan, our recommendations are thus: if you absolutely can’t live without trying the latest Killzone or you pride yourself on being an early adopter, then you should definitely pick up a PS4. If that’s not the case, you might be better-served holding off on your purchase until the PS4’s game line-up and media-streaming options improve.
Sony’s best controller yet
Compact, attractive design
Sharing screenshots and videos is cool
Disappointing game line-up
No media streaming options
Smooth streaming needs a fast internet connection
Sharing isn’t quick
User Interface: 6/10
Game Line-up: 4/10
And if you really want more, here’s Christo’s hands on video from a few weeks back.