PlayStation 4 Review
It is probably a silly idea to try to assess the long-term value of a game console right at launch - after all, this is hardware that should be lasting us for five, eight years or more - but it's still an important thing to do considering that these machines are expensive at launch, and nearly everyone that gets at least one of these consoles in the first year will be getting only the one. (And, in my personal travels, being "the video game guy" everyone knows, I've been asked many times whether a next-gen console is right for them this early in the cycle.) Because of this situation many gamers find themselves in, in this review I'll try and compare the PlayStation 4 more against the options of PC gaming or sticking with a current-gen console rather than pitting it directly against the Xbox One. I'll be answering the question of whether you need to upgrade to the PS4 from what you have; if you already know you want a new console and just want to know which, I'll be spending less time on trying to answer that.
The biggest change that the PS4 has over the PS3, aside from the obvious hardware and software stuff, is Sony's own attitude going into this generation. Back when the PS3 was launched, Sony Japan was high off of their success of the PS2, so they built a machine that was powerful but brazenly difficult to program for, using a brand new CPU architecture that was almost completely incompatible with everything else; developers needed years' worth of expertise to get the best performance out of it. This is why, especially in the early years of the PS3's life, most multi-platform games ran worse on PS3 than they did on the 360.
This time around, Sony's in a much different position. They've been in a lot of financial trouble over the last four years because of other divisions of the company, and they had to sell major assets like skyscrapers just to keep the lights on. They've been given a big dose of humility overall, and that more humble attitude made it into the PS4. It turns out that the hardware choice they made was very similar to the one Microsoft made with the Xbox One - base it more on PC technology with an eight-core CPU as well as a moderately powerful (but not beastly) GPU, both made by AMD. And in Sony's case, not much more was done hardware-wise beyond tossing some drives in there and a few other things to round out the console. This makes the PS4 a reasonably priced gaming machine with less of an emphasis on media, movies, and being the living room generalist, and instead focusing on gaming. It gives them a mild edge in raw gaming horsepower against the competition, but despite that, you still won't see as much of a graphical leap as we saw going from the PS2 to the PS3.
Graphically, there's no requirement imposed by Sony on any particular frame rate or screen resolution - developers don't need to render in 1080p, nor do they require 60fps - and a lot of that is simply because many consumers don't know or care about the difference, so Sony is simply leaving it up to the developers to decide. Still, the initial launch games make the difference pretty clear: 16 times the RAM means we get bigger environments draped in crisper textures and more detailed artwork, and a vastly more powerful GPU adds effects and sharpness that the previous consoles are incapable of. Will your mind boggle at the 1080p, 60fps action of Resogun? Probably, but it's less about the sharpness of the 1080p resolution and more about the sheer amount of on-screen action. Same goes for Battlefield 4 - the visuals are much better on PS4 over last-generation consoles, but more importantly, the much larger 64-player cap in multiplayer games fills up the game's large maps with players the way the developers intended all along. Being allowed to achieve that vision is more important than whether BF4 runs at 1080p on PS4 - but for the record, it's one of a few PS4 launch games to not actually run 1920x1080, settling on 1600x900 with an upscale to 1080p in order to maintain a smooth 60fps.
I'd love to tell you that all next-gen gamers are discerning consumers who can see the difference between 720p and 1080p at six feet or more, or that they understand how the responsiveness of 60fps over 30fps is exactly why Call of Duty has maintained dominance so many years, but the truth is that most gamers don't think about this stuff - they don't have time to sit there on forums debating this stuff endlessly. They just play. And luckily, PS4 is just as capable of giving these gamers what they want as it is the enthusiasts that will endlessly debate whether 1600x900 native res at 60fps is better or worse than 1920x1080 at 40fps. In the end, that kind of misses the point of new hardware - sure, the graphics are going to get better because the console runs faster, but there are other specs inside Sony's parallelogram box that will make a big difference for gamers, too.
One of the reasons why both Sony and Microsoft opted for an eight-core AMD CPU is because both companies need to do more multitasking than ever before. With the PS4, Sony allows players to do much more than the PS3 could while a game is running, but the biggest one right now is probably the Twitch.tv streaming - something that Microsoft couldn't finish in time for the Xbox One launch. Sure, the streaming capabilities of the PS4 aren't fantastic and serious livestreamers with hundreds or thousands of viewers will continue to use their dedicated streaming PCs to broadcast even when playing PS4 games, but for the casual player, Sony's built-in system is ridiculously easy - it's as simple as making or logging into a Twitch account and broadcasting your game with a button press.
There's more to PS4's multitasking, too, but it's mostly related to Sony's revitalized PSN for downloads, online play, and more. Some features are just good ideas yanked from the 360, like the ability to do voice chat in private rooms that run entirely outside of the game you're in. Others, like being able to open a web browser and other simple built-in apps without closing your current game, aren't much individually but should add up as more functionality and more non-game apps are added to the PS4 in the future.
One thing that many gamers don't understand is why these console manufacturers who have huge franchises don't have a bunch of big games ready with the launch of a new console. The simple fact is that these companies can only get a couple of million consoles out the door between launch and Christmas, but it doesn't make financial sense to put a game that'd normally sell five million copies on a console that has a small fraction of that in its install base. That's why they don't do this, but they might put just one game on it anyway, knowing that it would have sold more had they waited, just to support the console. Basically, during a console's launch, they want to come out as weak as possible while looking as strong as they can at the same time.
With that said, that means that we shouldn't have terribly high expectations for launch games. And frankly, between the PS4 and the Xbox One, that's probably appropriate considering what we actually got. On PS4, the best launch games are the multiplatform ones that also had a PC release like NFS Rivals, Assassin's Creed IV, and Battlefield 4, as the PS4 versions were easy to release alongside the more demanding PC versions. As far as exclusives go, the PS4 comes up a bit short with FPS Killzone: Shadow Fall, which looks good and leaves an excellent first impression, but that good feeling sours as the game goes on and things start to fall apart. Honestly, the clearest show of why you hopefully didn't waste your money on a new console (which is about the best we can hope for from launch games) might just be Resogun, which takes simple, but addictive gameplay and shows the PS4's graphical prowess in a clean and effective way with 1080p 60fps graphics - much the same way that the $5 downloadable game Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved was during the Xbox 360's launch.
Beyond that, the PS4's launch lineup is pretty dull. Because of a couple of game delays, Xbox One favored a bit better, mostly because they didn't desperately need the multiplatform Watch Dogs release near as much as Sony did (Dead Rising 3 was Microsoft's open-world action game) and DriveClub got delayed past the launch window.
The PS3 was plagued with slow updates and slower downloads throughout its life, and while many have forgotten the fact that a few years ago, PSN was hacked and taken offline for weeks, some of us still remember. So this was a big deal for PS4 - could Sony rebuild a console and network from scratch that downloads and updates reasonably fast? The answer is yes. They didn't do anything for the still-weak Vita and PS3 network performance, but at least moving forward, the new branch of PSN can download much faster and background updates and downloads are super-smooth. Now, we'll also have to see if this version of the network's more secure than the last as well.
PS Plus offers great value once again, with Resogun and Contrast coming free at launch. One downside moving from PS3 is that PS Plus is now needed for online play, much the same way Xbox Live Gold is required to play online. Honestly, I don't see this as too big of a deal except for the most casual of gamers who only play occasionally and only one online game here and there; as it is, PS Plus offers a lot for the money by way of free games and decent discounts.
One of the big, rather unique promises that Sony made with the PS4 is that you can take your game with you, away from your TV, if you also have a PS Vita. By encoding the game's video output that'd usually go through the HDMI cable as a streaming video and by taking control inputs from the Vita, the PS4 allows you to play games directly on the Vita without even having your TV turned on. Sony even promised that this would work over the internet. From my experience, however, this system turned out to be spotty at best. First, you really need the Vita to connect wirelessly directly to the PS4, not through your current router; that's the only way to reduce lag enough to make action games actually playable. But if you do that and you want continued online functionality from the PS4, you have to connect that through a wired network. And even then, straying more than ten or fifteen feet from my PS4 caused all sorts of problems, from broken-up video to audio issues all the way to complete disconnection from the PS4 more than once a minute. And playing over the internet? It barely worked for me in any scenario.
Simply put, Remote Play didn't work for me in any reliable sense at all, except when I'm in the same room with the PS4 and the wife wants to watch TV. And you might notice that when you saw the demos of Remote Play running in Sony promo materials, the Vita was almost always just a few feet from the PS4 - there's a reason for that. I'm really disappointed that Sony hyped up everyone for this thing and couldn't deliver reliable performance.
So, let's get back to playing the PS4 normally. The DualShock 4 controller is a great piece of hardware with a slightly larger design than the PS3 controller, with the two analog sticks placed further apart. They're also smaller but feel great, with consistent resistance as you move from the center to the edge, and they have little "dimples" in them near the edge so your thumb doesn't slide off when holding a single direction for a while. The triggers are fantastic, and while almost no games so far have used the little touch-pad/button thing in the center in any way other than enabling a few vague swipes, the promise is there for some interesting control methods that don't get in the way of the usual controller functions.
The PS4 itself is smaller than many would imagine it to be, especially those who had a launch-day PS3. It's about the size of a slim PS3 but with a flatter design that sits a little more stealthily in your TV stand. The angled front and back make the console look smart and sharp, and the all-black design - something Sony largely hasn't really messed with (unlike other console manufacturers) - looks great. The PS4 will get quite warm and crank up its fan to loud levels if you sit it inside a closed cabinet, though, just like nearly any console will have to do - so make sure it's got some ventilation, especially behind it. But as a starting point with hardware revisions almost sure to come in the future, the launch PS4 comes in with a very nice look, form factor, and sound level.
One thing I do like is that unlike the competition, Sony retained the PS3's ability to accept a hard drive upgrade by the user - and not just one sold by Sony, but any laptop hard drive under 9.5mm thick. It's user-replaceable without voiding the warranty and even now people can put 1+ terabyte hard drives in their PS4s, or if they're completely crazy, they can even drop in SSDs. Granted, only a small percentage of gamers even know this capability exists, but for a machine that's supposed to last a really long time, it's good to have that choice.
Sony put some basic functionality into the PS4 for video services like Amazon Prime, Netflix, and Hulu Plus, which at this point is almost required to sell nearly any internet-capable machine that connects to a TV - especially when I'm seeing Roku units that can do this go on sale for under $40. Unfortunately, that's about it; while the Xbox One has an HDMI input and does a lot of stuff with multitasking and allowing you to switch between your game and TV - which at least at this point, I find a bit goofy - Sony went for near-pure gaming functionality with only a few media applications. Unfortunately, Sony's attempts to leverage their own music and movie industry connections for the PS4 are limiting its functionality. They've got their own "Music Unlimited" application and service that allows people to pay a monthly fee for streaming music, but they don't support more popular services like Spotify, Pandora, Rhapsody, or even MP3s on a thumb drive. (Support is supposed to come at some point for at least some of this, but who knows?)
And much like the console's lack of support for putting gameplay videos on YouTube, it also doesn't have a direct YouTube player, either. Sony's missing a lot of functionality here, and at least some of it is more because Sony's pushing their own products and services, and that's just not a great plan long-term. Still, I guess we can't expect much better from Sony, the company who's almost constantly had at least one media format war (very few of which they've really "won") going ever since BetaMax was introduced over thirty-five years ago.
There are reasons why Sony was able to make the initial PS4 smaller than the launch PS3. They included a more efficient cooling system, a lower-power CPU than the Cell, and a slimmer Blu-Ray drive than the first PS3 had, but there are also things that the old "phat" PS3 had at launch, like full hardware-based backwards compatibility, that the PS4 lacks. So yes, that's right: there is no backwards compatibility: you can't play disc-based PS3 games on PS4, and only a few downloadable PS3 games will wind up being fully reworked to run on the new console - because, as it turns out, changing CPU architecture entirely causes issues like this. Some will blame Sony for making a poor decision in doing this with the PS4, but it's a technical problem that couldn't be solved without putting actual PS3 hardware in the console, driving up the costs for everyone.
And while I am spending much of this review complaining about Sony's decisions with the PS4, this isn't one I'm going to hit them on. We should keep in mind that Sony was just in a heap of financial trouble a couple of years ago because of trouble in their non-gaming divisions, and they couldn't make an extravagant with the new console or sell it at a loss of hundreds of dollars per unit (like they did with PS3) just to try and make it back in the future. The PS4 doesn't cost much less than the price it's sold at, and that's what Sony needs to keep afloat at this point. There was a poor decision made by Sony, but it was actually made almost a decade ago, back when the PS3 was being developed - that Cell CPU design plagued them early in the PS3's life with badly-performing ports by third party publishers, and it's causing them problems even today with the Cell still being so expensive to make and hard to emulate.
Sony has announced that the Gaikai streaming technology they bought a couple of years ago will re-debut on the PS4 in 2014, which in theory would allow Sony to let you play your bought PS3 games through the same streaming technology (delivered from Sony's servers to your PS4) in the same way the PS4 streams games to the PS Vita. From my experience in using the old Gaikai back when it allowed you to do things like play AAA games like Mass Effect 2 directly on Facebook through a PC's web browser, it worked pretty damn well and adds only a tiny amount of lag, even over the internet. Of course, this is going to be a very different Gaikai when it debuts on PS4, so we'll see how it works when it launches.
We'll also see if and how Sony lets you play PS3 games - if they do let us play older games, will it be any PS3 game? Will it authenticate your existing PS3 disc by making you put it in the drive, and then stream the game to you? Will streaming cost an additional fee? How will it affect fast action games that require twitch reflexes? What's the video quality going to be like when Sony rolls this thing out to millions of PS4 users? There are a lot of questions that need to be answered before we get too excited, especially considering how Remote Play turned out.
Instead of Select and Start, the DualShock controller includes its clickable touchpad and two different buttons: Share and Options. The Share button allows players to make and share gameplay clips from any game (not just ones that build in their own support), and the PS4 constantly keeps a recording of the last fifteen minutes of gameplay in a buffer so that you can stop and save clips from that running chunk at any time. This is also how you can start a Twitch broadcast. These won't be replacing the streaming or YouTube capturing solutions of anyone with a sizable channel - more on that later - but for casually putting together something for your friends to see, it will work fine. And I say "will" because it doesn't really work the way I want it to yet: you can only put shared PS4 game clips on Facebook, not on any other service that matters. I think the idea is that this will eventually be filled out with multiple services, but so far this is all we have. As long as this gets expanded over the coming months to include YouTube, Vine, Instagram and maybe others, then I think it'll be a winner. Until then, this is a promising feature that is simply unfinished.
Other features that were promised included being able to watch a PS4 player's live Twitch stream through the PS4 directly (which does work) and then joining their game directly right from that screen (which doesn't work), or the ability to ask your friend to take control of your game to help you with a tough section - I'd think this can only work once Gaikai streaming is working, as that's the only way it could really be delivered if you don't own the game the friend's asking you to play.
The PS4 comes with a rather spartan set of physical connections to the rest of the world: power (with no brick!), Ethernet to your network, optical audio for an audio receiver, HDMI out to your TV, an Aux connector for the new camera accessory… and two USB ports on the front. That's it - yep, only HDMI, and yes, Sony's pulling the same crap they did with the PS3 where the HDCP encryption they wrap everything in stops you from capturing the output with a capture card. The intent is to stop people from recording movies or TV shows they could be watching on the PS4, but let's face the fact that this technology hasn't stopped movie or TV piracy one bit. It does make it very hard to stream or capture gameplay with an external device, which is important since these devices have vastly more features and better quality than you'll get from the PS4's Share button.
Sony has said they're going to remove HDCP protection at some point in the future, but whatever legal state they thought they were in when they initially decided to encrypt everything with it on the PS4, well, that situation isn't likely to change anytime soon, so what's really going to motivate them to do anything about it now? The MPAA isn't going to relax and there isn't much consumer pressure: most gamers don't even know what HDCP or a capture card is or how it works, and the slight uproar this news caused months ago has already died down. I'm very skeptical that HDCP will magically disappear in a future PS4 firmware update, but I'd love to be wrong.
Some have said that Sony's built-in streaming and share capabilities negate the HDCP issue entirely, but it doesn't for many of the internet's biggest game-related content creators, many of whom are regular gamers like you and me. Simply put, the PS4's own video compression quality is generally only passable for how it looks and performs, and many Youtubers and Twitch streamers have already rejected it in favor of other methods. Yes, there is a way to capture or stream the PS4 and it involves buying extra hardware and technically breaking the law, although we can all pretty much agree that this application of the law is stupid and silly. It's worse this time because at least with the PS3, capture cards could interface through analog Component video to at least get some kind of streaming or capture going, but this time, it's HDMI only, leaving people to have to buy extra gear or use the PS4's built-in stuff - which admittedly is handy and very cool to have for casual clips or a broadcast for your friends, but it's not good enough for channels with thousands or millions of views.
The last major topic I want to bring up is something that happened to my PS4 specifically. I bought a launch unit from Amazon, which seems to have been the place to go to get a bad or broken PS4, but the issue I had seems to have been kind of unique. My PS4 worked just fine for about a week, then when I powered it up one day, it booted up into safe mode and said that it didn't have a working firmware. I had to go and download a full firmware (1.51 had just been released), put it on a USB stick, and load it onto the PS4. The console installed the firmware and then forced itself to do a full, clean format of the hard drive (deleting my games and save games, which weren't saved to the cloud despite me being a PS Plus subscriber). I wound up with the equivalent of a factory-fresh PS4 and had to sign in all over again and re-download everything, then deal with the loss of progress in games I'd played so far. It's worked perfectly since.
Now, I'm not sure what happened here - whether there was some kind of loss of power during an update or what - but I have to say that even if that was the case, what was the need for the full hard drive reformat? I had only had the PS4 a week or so at that point, so it wasn't really a huge deal to lose everything, but what if this happened a year into the console's life? So: minus points to Sony on that one. But on the other hand, the console offered me a way to get it going again without sending it back to Sony. Would a regular user know how to find firmware, put it in the right folder on a thumbdrive, and follow the instructions? Maybe, maybe not, but at least the option's there. Plus one point to Sony. But not enough points to make up for the crash. The console shouldn't have hard-crashed in the first place.
Obviously, this kind of thing isn't going to happen to everyone's console, but it's still useful to see what happens when things do go wrong. Is a failure followed by a self-recovery (with user intervention, admittedly) better than no failure at all? Clearly not, but it does shed light on the process.
Sony has made something both ambitious and decidedly understated with the PS4: it's small and unobtrusive, and it focuses more on gaming than its main competitor, the Xbox One, and it costs $100 less than what Microsoft's asking. The controller's excellent and the raw capabilities of the console are great, but Sony's still got a ways to go in order to complete the array of services that they should have had ready for the launch. On top of this, it's now clear to me that Sony doesn't have quite the iron grip on their developers as Microsoft does, as DriveClub was delayed (for better or worse) while Gran Turismo 6 got a last-gen launch this last week… on PS3. They really could have used a good exclusive racing game at launch. And probably an RPG of some kind.
But then again, the latest Xbox - which originally was the console that Halo built - would have had a better launch with some kind of exclusive first person shooter too (which even the PS4 got!), and that didn't happen, either. My conclusion is that nowadays, there's just no way to win the next-gen launch. The best you can hope for is to lose it by less than the other guy, and at this point, I think Sony might just be edging out the Xbox One in that regard. But do I recommend you rush out and get one, or camp out at your local store trying to snap one up before Christmas? Nope, not at all. Not even close.
The PS4 is a great machine and likely will eventually be supported by great software, but for now, I recommend people keep the consoles and PCs they have and either play through their game backlog or buy Steam games on sale.
Disclaimer: This review is based on hardware pre-ordered at E3 and shipped by Amazon for the PS4's North American launch day.