Friday 26 December 2014

PS4 review: 10 days with Sony’s super-console

Sony has focused on gaming for this generation - but will it be enough?

Published 09/12/2013 | 21:56

Killzone: Shadow Fall for PS4
Resogun for PS4
The Sony PlayStation 4 with PlayStation camera

SEVEN years ago, Sony touted the new PS3 as the ultimate entertainment machine, a master for everything from TV to movies to, yes, gaming. How times have changed.

Chastened by the difficult and not entirely successful evolution of its PS3 plan, Sony perhaps wisely positions the new PS4 as first and foremost a gaming monster. That strategy stands in opposition to Microsoft’s Xbox One plan – which has a familiar all-encompassing ring to it.

It explains why the new PS4 strips back some of the multimedia focus – to the extent that (for now at least)  it’s not nearly as  versatile as the PS3 in terms of music and streaming video.

So all that focus on games must mean Sony has cued up a phenomenal launch line-up, right? Well, not exactly.

No console launch line-up is ever perfect. Developers won’t spend huge amounts because the installed base of customers is tiny relative to that of previous generations. And it takes time to get to grips with the new architecture. The best games on Xbox 360 and PS3 took years to emerge, for instance.

Sony’s exclusive line-up for PS4 puts a lot of weight on the shoulders of the latest Killzone shooter – the only blockbuster in the arsenal. It stands up pretty well but doesn’t get much support from the rest, including the poorly received platformer/brawler Knack.

If you take out a €50 PS Plus subscription (which you’ll really have to for multiplayer), then the two freebies Resogun and Contrast are worth a look but hardly count as reasons to pay €400 for a console.

It is worth noting that cross-platform titles such as Assassin’s Creed IV and Call of Duty: Ghosts run noticeably better on PS4 than on Xbox One. That is  a reversal of the early days of PS3 vs Xbox 360, something which was ironed out in time and may well be the case in this generation.

WHAT’S NEW

* MORE pixels obviously. It’s the law that every successive generation must be more stunningly beautiful and PS4 passes that test – but only just. A less discerning eye may struggle to identify the extra detail.

It’s there most obviously in the extraordinary draw distance of the Killzone scenery but cynics may suggest it makes little difference to gameplay. My view is that we’re not yet at the point where the substantial boost in horsepower significantly affects enemy AI or other clever background ideas.

* The wildfire popularity of gameplay videos on YouTube testifies to the wisdom of Sony’s prominent inclusion of sharing options on PS4. You can easily broadcast your gaming prowess live (via Twitch or uStream), including video of yourself if you have the PS Camera. Or you can capture and edit the latest 15 minutes of your action – but only for upload to Facebook. Hopefully, YouTube uploads are only a quick patch away.

It’s simple, quick and step above what Xbox offers. If you’re in passive mood, PS4 makes it easy to browse other users’ live streams.

* Voice recognition becomes available via the headset or  if you shell out for the €60 PS Camera – but at this point it hardly seems worth it. The commands are very limited compared to that of Xbox One (although Irish X1 users have to resort to a little workaround to enable that). Beyond that, a few demos of augmented-reality games are the only promises of a bright future for the camera. Let’s hope the PS Camera becomes more than the novelty it served on PS3.

* Buying games digitally as opposed to in a shop feels a bit of a rip-off – you can’t trade them and they often cost more than their disc-based brethren. But the upside is that if you visit the house of a PS4-owning friend you’ll be able to play all your purchased downloads (saves included) there.

WHAT’S MISSING

* In pursuit of Sony’s mission to focus on games, a lot of the PS3’s functionality has fallen away on PS4. No more media streaming, no more music on CD, no more playing MP3s from a USB stick.

No more photo-viewing, no more RTE Player, the list goes on. Netflix is there and VidZone (ad-supported music videos) has just been restored.

As it stands the PS4 can no longer replace your hi-fi or streaming set-top box the way a PS3 could.

* Backwards-compatibility is a bit a of swear-word this generation. Xbox One has totally forsaken the concept and it looks as if Sony won’t bring any old games back until 2015. Don’t hold your breath but the proposed solution (streaming via the cloud) might be worth waiting for. No doubt it will cost us extra to play the old games we already own. Sigh.

* Compared to Xbox One, PS4 has few pretensions. So it has a web browser but no Skype, no access to a cloud file server such as SkyDrive, and no video-rental services. The interface appears vaguely similar to that the PS3’s XMB but it doesn’t look as if it comfortably supports dozens of apps and games.

But given the limited size of the hard drive (mandatory installs will quickly fill up the 500GB space), you won’t be able to maintain a lot of software on the PS4 anyway.

IN CONCLUSION

THE PS4’s weaker launch line-up is balanced by its cheaper price (though it really costs €450 vs €560 for Xbox One once you’ve factored in the near-mandatory multiplayer subscription).

Aesthetically, it looks a helluva lot more attractive than the hulking X1. But practically it isn’t as versatile as a living-room hub.

Until some killer exclusives emerge on either side in 2014, sitting tight on the sidelines would not be a foolish idea. It would be crazy to predict a winner in the console war right now (er, unless you count Apple). But in very simplistic terms PS4 may well have a gaming edge despite its slow start while Xbox One seems to hold the cards as an all-round entertainment device.

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