Seven years is a technological eternity. Yet the PlayStation 3 has sold well for that long, ever since DJ Fatman Scoop and Ludacris hosted its blowout launch event in New York City in 2006. At launch, the PlayStation 3 was big, heavy, and expensive — it took nearly two revisions and almost a dozen SKUs of PS3 to get Sony to 2013. The console now starts under $200, the controller rumbles, Blu-ray is the dominant physical disc format, backwards compatibility is a moot point, and there's a large back catalog of titles both physical and digital. PlayStation Move exists now.
But even as the current generation continues to adapt and evolve, Sony has decided it’s time to start anew. Time to do something fresh, to create the console that will sate gamers for seven more years. Sony’s new PlayStation 4 reflects the company’s guess about the future of video games, and displays the many lessons Sony’s learned over the life of the PS3. It’s built a different kind of console for a different sort of purpose as it looks to 2014 and 2021 to see what we’ll want to buy.
The next generation of console is here, and it’s here to stay. But while Microsoft decided to use its next console generation to lay siege to your living room, Sony’s simply taken its formula to the next level — it’s attempted to build the game console of our dreams.
A black box
Broadly speaking, it doesn’t matter what your console looks like — it’s certainly not a reason to buy, or not buy, any given console. That’s why it’s so nice to see the care Sony took in building the PlayStation 4, a remarkably better-looking console than the PlayStation 3 — or the Xbox One, or the Xbox 360.
Most immediately obvious is just how small it is; at just over 2 inches tall, 12 inches deep and 10 inches wide, it's smaller than any version of the PS3 (even the "super slim" model) ever made, and slides into a home theater stack far more easily. The acutely angled parallelogram of a box appears to consist of four different slabs, two glossy black and two textured matte gray, stuck together with wide seams between them. It looks designed rather than simply boxed, with Sony's attention to detail clearly showing. The sharply sloped front hides two USB 3.0 ports, and makes the power and eject buttons easy to press just by feeling your way down the face of the console with your finger. I confused the two buttons easily, though, and wound up turning off the system a couple of times while trying to eject a game.
Sony didn't need to pay attention to the box itself, but it did
The console's back has a standard, if slightly spare, set of ports: HDMI, Ethernet, optical audio out, and a proprietary socket for the optional PlayStation Camera. When you're setting the PS4 up, all you need are two cables — power and HDMI — to get up and running. (It uses the same exact cables as the PS3, so if you're upgrading your Sony console all you'll need to do is drop the new box into place.) And unlike the Xbox One, there's no monstrous power brick to find room for, since everything's contained in the console itself. I was worried the integrated power supply might make the console hot and loud, but it doesn’t: I could hear the PS4 in a quiet room, and it certainly warms up under strain, but I never needed to worry about it.
It's really what's on the inside that counts, of course, and what's inside this box is impressive. The PlayStation 4 has a custom processor with eight AMD Jaguar CPU cores, and a next-gen Radeon GPU. It's based on the ubiquitous x86 architecture, which could make development and upgrades much easier going forward, but it does draw a line in the sand between the PS3 and PS4. None of your old games will work, so you might not want to remove the PS3 from your home entertainment center just yet.
The PS4 also has a 500GB hard drive — which I imagine you’ll end up upgrading at some point over the life of the console, since one game can take up 40 or 50GB — plus 8GB of memory, and a six-speed Blu-Ray drive which can load and install games faster than the PS3. It adds up to a console that’s incredibly powerful and is able to play graphically intensive games up to 1080p at 60 frames per second. But Sony missed a couple of important future-proofing opportunities. The PS4 doesn't support the 5GHz Wi-Fi spectrum, nor does it support 802.11ac Wi-Fi — both make for faster, more reliable connections, and are only going to become more standard in the future. Sony seems to assume we'll all be using Ethernet cables a decade from now, and that's a mistake.
This won't be the last PS4 design we ever see — again, the PS3 changed drastically over the years — but it's an excellent, powerful, capable start.
A better controller
Of course, you won't be spending your time with the PlayStation 4 staring at a box. You'll be interacting with the new DualShock 4 wireless controller, which is easily the best gamepad Sony has ever built.
Sony's basic controller layout hasn't changed in 16 years. Like all three DualShock models before it, there's a pair of symmetrical analog sticks in the center, four face buttons on the right, a directional pad on the left, and four triggers around back. There are a number of fancy new features here, like the colorful light bar up front, and a clickable touchpad up top. The most incredible thing Sony has done with the DualShock 4, however, is that the company has made perhaps the most comfortable gamepad I’ve ever laid hands on.
Maybe the most comfortable gamepad ever made
Where previous Sony controllers were designed to be held with fingertips, the DualShock 4's elongated, enlarged grips fit the entire length of my palms. Covered with a matte texture that manages to be grippy without feeling sticky or rough, the controller just melts into my hands without a second thought. Not only are the dual analog sticks, D-pad and face buttons perfectly spaced for your thumbs, they also feel significantly higher-quality than before. Perhaps most importantly, the DualShock 4 is finally a competent controller for first-person games thanks to raised edges on the analog sticks and incredibly comfy triggers that no longer feel like an afterthought. The controller's motion sensor has also been much improved. It's way easier to control the way my flower petals fly in Flower, such that it no longer feels like I’m wrestling with the controls.
Since the DualShock 4 now uses a Micro USB port, you can juice the controller’s rechargeable battery with a smartphone or tablet charger, or even hook it up to a PC. What's really impressive, though, is the standard 3.5mm headset jack. Not only can you use the included mono headset for voice chat, but you can also plug in any old pair of headphones and route the entire system's audio through the controller. You can play late into the night without waking anyone up, just like with the Roku 3. Not all cellphone headsets seem to work — a pair of Apple EarPods failed me — but you can also hook up a USB headset by plugging it into the console itself.
The controller's light bar, touchpad, and integrated speaker aren't used all that much in the system's launch titles, but they've definitely got potential for later down the road. The light bar lets the optional $60 PlayStation Camera track the controller in 3D space, just like a PlayStation Move. In Assassin’s Creed, you can travel in and around on the map, and in Killzone, the light bar's color gives you a visual indication of your health, starting out green and then turning yellow, orange, and finally flashing red when you're in danger of bleeding out. The best use for the speaker I’ve seen so far is in Resogun, where it blares warnings when an urgent situation requires your attention. It’s cool, but like the light bar has much greater potential.
The light bar and integrated audio will only become more fun and more useful
Held up against the Xbox 360 controller, long the gold standard for gamepads, or even what we've seen of the new Xbox One, the DualShock 4 feels as good or better on practically every front. If there's a fly in the ointment, it's that you'll need to keep it charged; I only measured 10 hours of gameplay before our brand-new gamepad bit the dust. The DualShock was immediately back in the action once I connected a Micro USB cable, but the included cable didn't reach all the way to my couch. Even with cell phone chargers, it's still harder to keep the DualShock 4 ready for action than to swap a couple of AA batteries into an Xbox controller when you inevitably run out of juice.
A blue screen
Practically everything the system does, even the built-in web browser, requires you to log in to PlayStation Network, and most of the console's highly touted features aren't available until you install a 300MB day-one update as soon as you turn on the console — all you can do is pop a disk in and play a game otherwise. Multiplayer games, voice chat, background audio, PS Vita remote play, game streaming, and even the Blu-ray player are locked down. If you don't update, the PlayStation 4 will be a very lonely place.
But even after you do update, the PS4's interface still revolves entirely around games. Where the PlayStation 3 was designed as a media hub where your pictures, music, and videos were neatly arranged in a scrolling two-column interface, Sony has stripped the vast majority of that away. While the PlayStation 4 still keeps things zen with soothing ambient music and gently rippling blue background animation, your home screen is primarily a single row of miniature hubs for your apps and games in the order you last played them.
The PS4 is a series of hubs, all centered around games
It's kind of like Netflix: each game has its own little poster, and you hover over it for more information. Dive deeper into any title by pressing down on the analog stick and you can see what your friends have been doing in the game, which trophies you've earned, read the game manual, and get updates from the developers and the game's community. The hub also serves as a miniature storefront for downloadable content, complete with game wallpaper it plasters onto your PlayStation 4's background while you're shopping.
The hub-like app list is bookended on the left by What's New, a place where you can see a stream of everything your friends do; and Library, a different list of all your downloaded games. On top of the list is a smartphone-like notification bar: when you tap the analog stick up, you can access those notifications, along with your friends list and other social features.
At first, it seems to make sense. Just like on the PlayStation 3, you scroll left and right, up and down to accomplish things. But I had to do an inordinate amount of scrolling and clicking to do most anything. Since the main list of apps and games automatically sorts itself by recency, you can't count on anything ever being in the same place… and as the list gets longer, that just becomes more difficult. There's no way to sort or filter the list — even inside the meaninglessly distinct Library app — and if you have too many friends, the What's New hub will quickly fill up with announcements about each and every time one of them started playing a game, earned a trophy, or just about anything else.
But the real problem with the PS4's interface is that Sony hasn’t been paying attention. Sony hasn’t learned something smartphones and social networks mastered years ago: making notifications actionable.
Sony's interface is fast, but still too stuck in the past
If you see that your friend just started a game of Killzone, you can't press a button to send them a message or join in the fun: you have to go to that friend's profile first. Even if you're watching a live stream of someone's multiplayer game, you can't directly join them — you can only launch the game, or message them for an invite. If that friend then sends you a message, you won't know what the message is right away: the PS4 will only tell you that you've gotten a message. You need to leave your game and go to your messages to actually read the message text, then press several more buttons before you can reply. In an age of instantaneous communication, it feels like Sony can't quite let go of the snail-mail paradigm.
Sony's navigation and social features might be half-baked, but everything that revolves around games works quite well. Every game has to be installed to the hard drive, but you can play games while they install. It only took five minutes from the time we popped in the Killzone: Shadow Fall disc until I was playing the first level. Once you're in a game you can instantly jump back to the home screen and fire up the web browser, change settings, or check notifications without having to quit your game, and you can instantly jump right back in again exactly where you left off. And if your friends are online, you can loop them into a party and not have to deal with the messaging system at all: you can all use voice chat to communicate, and automatically drag them into multiplayer games as well.
Though the UI is plenty speedy when you’re just browsing through games to play, it can bog down when you suspended a game. I even saw it freeze solid on several occasions, which is extremely worrying. I’m not sure what the culprit might be, but it seems that the PS4 doesn’t free up resources for other tasks while a game is paused this way. You can’t have more than one game suspended, either — you’ll be prompted to shut down the game you’re leaving.
The optional $60 PlayStation Camera is essentially pointless right now, without any camera-based games, but it does make the PS4’s interface a tiny bit more convenient. It can quickly jump you to any title in your library if you say the word "PlayStation" and the name of the game. It can also recognize your face to automatically log you in to the console — though you’ll also have to hold up your controller as well — and has a few more voice commands like "Take Screenshot," "Back to Home" to jump out of a game, and "Power" to turn the console off.
A forgotten home theater
It's odd, in a way, that Sony touts the PS3 as the most-watched Netflix device on the planet, and yet so clearly demotes it and the other media apps on the PlayStation 4. There are a dozen apps at launch, running down the list of usual suspects: Netflix and Hulu, Amazon and Crackle, Redbox Instant and Vudu. There are apps for the NHL and NBA and something called YuppTV. Every PS4 system also comes with a built-in web browser.
All of the apps look good and work well, except the web browser, which is only slightly less sluggish and terrible than the one that came with the PS3. Any modern smartphone does a better job. But the Netflix app, which has been recently redesigned across platforms, looks great on the big screen. And between Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon, there's little to want for in terms of mainstream content. But these apps are very clearly not a core part of the PS4 experience — they're buried in a TV & Video section of the home screen row, after Sony's proprietary Video Unlimited and Music Unlimited apps.
The PS3 was a media powerhouse, and the Ps4 goes way too far the other way
As if to fully prove its point that the PS4 is a gaming machine and not a media receiver or a home theater PC, Sony's actually stripped away the local playback functionality that was so useful on the PS3 (though the company may be changing its tune on that to some extent). Even when I plugged in a Sony camera, I couldn’t access its pictures or video. It feels like overkill: why needlessly remove useful functionality from such a powerful, versatile machine?
The answer, right or wrong, is obvious: Because it's not about games. And the PS4 is all about games.
A new game library
In the long run, the launch-day game selection won’t matter. The games that launched the PS3 in 2006, including Resistance: Fall of Man and Ridge Racer 7, in no way still define the console today. And Sony’s already talking about the great games coming soon to the PlayStation 4, like Uncharted 4 and a new Infamous.
Eventually, launch titles don't matter — but they do right now
But the two dozen or so launch titles for the console are unlikely to satisfy the exact gamer Sony’s trying so desperately to court — and that may be disappointed with what’s available for the console they pre-ordered. Electronic Arts, Activision, Warner Bros, and Ubisoft have all committed some of their biggest franchises: there’s Need for Speed: Rivals for racing, Injustice: Gods Among Us for (superhero) fighting, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag for stealth-killing, and of course the war-torn shooters Call of Duty: Ghosts and Battlefield 4 — not to mention all kinds of sports courtesy of both EA and Take-Two.
The PlayStation's three next-gen-exclusive titles are all from Sony itself. Killzone: Shadow Fall is a visually stunning but ultimately uninspired first-person shooter. Knack, a more family-friendly platformer in the vein of Crash Bandicoot, is fun but often far too repetitive. It does have the honor, however, of being one of the few non-sports titles to support local multiplayer co-op.
It's not that any of the games we've played are bad — quite the opposite, in fact — it's just that they're almost exactly what you'd expect. Aside from visual enhancements, the games played largely identically to their current-generation versions. There's comfort in picking up Battlefield 4 and knowing exactly what to do, but for many, the improved physics and lighting won't be enough of a difference. In some games, especially Need for Speed: Rivals, we suffered some pretty annoying framerate issues when too much was happening on the screen. Nothing we saw really took our breath away, and nothing looked better than what you get with a good gaming PC.
The standout game at launch is Resogun, which is actually free to download for PS Plus subscribers (which you will be, if you want to play online multiplayer). The game is developed by Housemarque Studios, who did the equally bright-and-manic-shoot-em-up Super Stardust HD for the PS3. At its core, it's a side-scrolling space shooter (think: Defender), where you blast everything in sight while flying around a cylindrical stage avoiding enemy fire. It's a surprisingly strong showcase for the PS4's ability to render numerous objects at once at a consistent framerate, and it’s a great online co-op title.
Very few PS4 launch titles will withstand the test of time, but they're not supposed to. In many ways, these games serve a broader purpose: to showcase publisher support and, on a more base level, to ensure the gamut of genres is represented. What next-gen gaming is right now is crisper graphics, more dynamic lighting, and farther draw distances. What next-gen gaming will ultimately be is something else — something the PS4 appears to be powerful enough to handle.
But as long as you like shooting things with friends, there’s plenty to shoot while you wait for better games. Even as Call of Duty: Ghosts and Battlefield 4 are far from reasons to buy a new game console, there are plenty of guns to unlock, levels to earn and vehicles to pilot in the meanwhile.
Share and Share Alike
Sony has made broadcast a big deal for the PlayStation 4 — so much so that it has a dedicated button on the controller. Pressing the Share button anywhere will let you capture a screenshot or video of the last 15 minutes of whatever you were just playing, or even broadcast your screen live to Twitch.tv or Ustream. Captured content is organized automatically in folders, and there’s not much you can do in the way of editing. Uploading seems a bit inconsistent right now — while we managed to upload a screenshot earlier, as of this writing we can’t get past the "Please Wait…" screen when trying to upload video. We’re also not seeing consistently high-quality video streams when broadcasting, but that could just be early days.
A glimpse at the future
There are two optional peripherals for the PS4 — one not even technically a peripheral — that together show off some of the most enticing possibilities of Sony's new console. One is the $60 PlayStation Camera, which is incredibly basic for now, but could potentially become something as vital to the PS4 as the Kinect is to the Xbox One.
The other is the $200 PlayStation Vita, the portable console that never really became a viable platform in its own right, but now doubles as a second screen and supplementary controller for the PS4. It can be set up to mirror the console's screen, essentially allowing you to stream games from the PS4 to your Vita from anywhere. It works remarkably well: there's just enough lag that fast-twitch shooters will almost immediately become futile journeys into certain death, but for games like Madden and even Need for Speed: Rivals it works. The Vita can even turn on the PS4 remotely if it’s in standby mode, so you don’t have to get up and find a controller if you’re playing from bed. The only real problem to speak of is that games for 40-inch-plus TVs don't always look good on a 5-inch screen, and that as you get further away from your console and router the lag starts to become overwhelming.
It portends a future like the one Sony says it imagines, where you're constantly able to watch other people play, play yourself from a variety of devices, and always be connected to the same gaming experience no matter where you are. Hopefully Remote Play is just the beginning of that implementation.
The second screen and the camera could eventually be huge parts of the PS4
The Vita is a good controller for some PlayStation 4 games, but breaks down on anything more complex. The DualShock 4's touchpad is mapped to the Vita's touchscreen, and Start and Select on the Vita become Option and Share, respectively, for the PS4. The additional triggers (L2, R2) and the "click" of the DualShock joysticks (L3, R3) are mapped to the four quadrants of the PS Vita's rear touchpad, and that's where things get a little hairy. While some games like Killzone automatically detect Remote Play and intelligently change up the buttons to make the Vita a better controller, not all titles do.
The Vita can also be used as a second-screen supplement to the PS4, much like the PlayStation app for iOS and Android. The app is relatively bare-bones, allowing you to access all your PlayStation Plus information from anywhere. You can make friends, send messages, and even buy games and initiate downloads from another device — as soon as you get back to your PS4, the game will be ready and waiting for you.
Just as SmartGlass has seemingly limitless opportunities for ways you can see, understand, and even interact with whatever you're playing or watching on your TV, the PlayStation apps give you a way to broaden the gaming experience. And if you have a Vita? You can actually take the whole experience with you. If nothing else, this is what the Wii U GamePad should have been.
The beginnings of a great console — but not yet a must-buy
The PlayStation 3 is a remarkably different device today than it was seven years ago, when Fatman Scoop showed it to the world. And so will the PlayStation 4 be, seven years from now, probably in ways neither Sony nor I can possibly guess. Right now it’s a fast, powerful console with a great controller and a mostly useful interface — and though there are plenty of bugs and quirks, the only real problem right now is that there’s not a single game that will make anyone leap off their couch to buy a console.
What Sony's done, though, is mark its territory. Stake its claim. Sony's not making big, grand gestures about the future of the living room the way Microsoft is, or attempting to alter the way we watch TV and talk to our families. It just wants us to play games. The PlayStation 4 is absolutely, unequivocally a gaming console for people who want to play video games, and it never pretends to be anything else. And even though the games aren't yet there for Sony — as is really always true with launch titles for consoles — they will be. Sony's earned the benefit of the doubt on that.
For right now, though, there's little incentive to spend $399 on a PlayStation 4. Not only are there few games worth the price of admission, the vast library of PS3 games is more compelling than anything the PS4 currently offers. If you're desperate for a new console, rest assured that eventually the PS4 will be one; it has plenty of power, a great controller, and a lot of good ideas about how we can play games better and how we can play them together. But for right now, they’re mostly still just ideas.
Photography by Michael Shane