After seven long years, a new generation of game consoles is finally upon us. (No, let's not split hairs about Wii U.) Sony's PlayStation 4 leads the assault, edging ahead of Microsoft's Xbox One by a mere week. Mike Williams and Jeremy Parish have spent the week getting their mitts all over a final retail unit and several games, smudging its glossy black surfaces with their vile human fingerprints.
While Mike and Jeremy certainly haven't seen the full extent of the PlayStation 4 experience -- particularly the online portion, which won't be properly "real" until the machine launches this Friday and millions of nerds start hammering the servers -- they've seen more than enough to get a feel for the console. So how is it? Does PS4 live up to the world's massive expectations? Does it truly usher in a new era of video gaming, or would we all just be better off taking the money we've budgeted for this new console and buying a better video card for our PCs?
The PS4's minimalistic look calls back to the PlayStation 2, taking the basic feel of that console and making it look less like a boxy alarm clock from 1982.
Jeremy Parish, Senior Editor: Oh my god, fingerprints everywhere! I feel like my pretty PlayStation 4 was ruined the moment I touched it. I've destroyed it, Mike. I'm history's greatest monster.
Mike Williams, Associate Editor: I think it's pretty slick, and the fingerprint bar is only a small part of the system, not the entire thing. It's not as bad as some of the consumer electronics I've had in my time; the system should be in your entertainment stand most of the time. I would invest in some anti-static wipes, though.
Jeremy: OK, maybe I'm being a little overly dramatic. I actually like the look of the PS4, which is surprising because it's basically the exact same black plastic box as the Xbox One. Except this one's a parallelogram! But its minimalistic look calls back to the PlayStation 2, taking the basic feel of that console and making it look less like a boxy alarm clock from 1982. I like a lot of the subtle details that break up the simple lines, such as the groove that hides the USB ports on the front face and contains a power indicator LED on the upper surface. And it's small, too -- it feels so tiny compared to the behemoth that was PlayStation 3.
If I have one complaint about the machine's look -- besides its deep, passionate love for fingerprints and dust -- it's that the thing is so incredibly minimalistic that when you mount it on the vertical stand accessory it's hard to tell which side is the top. I kept sticking discs in upside down because the PS2 taught me that the recessed portion of the console's face is its lower half. But no! It's reversed here. Once I taught myself that little detail, it really cut down on the embarrassing disc goofs.
Mike: The system is a bit weird-looking and art deco for me. It does make it stand out from Microsoft's black box, but some of the design choices bother me. The Power and Open Disc buttons are hard to press at times, so you're better off doing those functions from within the system menu. The power indicator LED breaks up the sleek, black surface, but it's rather muted compared to the bright blues found in the PlayStation 2 and PlayStation 3. I would've liked them to kick up the brightness a bit, as shown in commercials and press photos.
The muted glow of PS4's indicators seems like a really thoughtful touch -- the designers saying, "How can this system be a good citizen in the modern, connected living room?"
Jeremy: Art deco? Man, I wish. I'd love to have a crazy brass-trimmed console like something out of BioShock. I'm really a big fan of the muted, subtle design elements that you've poo-pooed. Like the LED -- I hate how every room in my apartment has searing blue lights blazing away. Blue LEDs are the worst when it comes to light pollution! The more muted glow of PS4's indicators seems like a really thoughtful touch -- the designers saying, "How can this system be a good citizen in the modern, connected living room?"
Which makes its too-short USB charging cord for the controller all the weirder. There's no way that dinky little thing is going to stretch from a 60-inch TV to a couch.
Mike: On the bright side, the charging cable for the Dual Shock 4 is your average micro-USB. If you're invested in non-Apple consumer electronics, you should have tons of these cables lying around your house. Worst-case scenario, you head to Radio Shack or Amazon and buy a 6-foot cable for $3.
And HDMI is a standard on the system. Sony has retired the old proprietary port. Completely. If you want to hook the PlayStation 4 up, you better have an HDMI-ready television, or at least some alternative converter solution. That's bad for some people with older televisions, monitors, or too many HDMI-ready devices on their current televisions. I'll probably need to buy an HDMI switcher or a new television, since I'm not quite ready to retire the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 just yet.
Jeremy: A new television seems like it might be a bit of an overreaction, don't you think? Unless your current TV is just really terrible or something.
Mike: It could be better. And bigger… Honestly, I was thinking of buying a new television this year.
Jeremy: Well then. Anyway, yeah, I'm not in love with the move to HDMI only. It was a real hassle setting up the system in my hotel room to get in some review time with the games this week, since this hotel locks out the HDMI ports on its in-room televisions. Thank goodness for cool maintenance guys!
It's not like the decision to use HDMI as the standard for PS4's output is for the customer's good -- that's my real complaint. Sony opted to use HDMI because they can add copy-protection to HDMI. That means if you want to stream or record videos of your PS4 play, you have to use Sony's baked-in streaming tech. And that means they can limit or lock out how your use and record your system however they like. It's strictly a protectionist measure that, as usually is the case, inconveniences everyone in an attempt by a corporation to squash the behavior of a few people. Thankfully you can buy HDMI splitters that also null copyright protection, but that doesn't do you any good if you want to go with component or VGA-out. Makes me pine for the good ol' days of Xbox 360, which had like a billion different output options to make things as convenient as possible for users.
[HDMI] is strictly a protectionist measure that inconveniences everyone in an attempt to squash the behavior of a few people.
Mike: It's interesting that you say that, because while my Xbox 360 has an HDMI-out, I have it connected to my TV through VGA.
Jeremy: Me too! That's ‘cause we're cool.
Mike: That's because my TV only has two HDMI ports, which are already taken up by the PlayStation 3 and the media PC. Yes, I could switch the PC and 360, but I haven't. Either way, I think the HDMI-only nature of the PlayStation 4 may be a rude awakening for some consumers this holiday season.
Jeremy: I'm in the same boat, with my gaming TV's HDMI ports occupied by a Wii U and a PS3. This might not be such an issue if the PS4 were, you know, backward-compatible so I could retire my PS3. But I can't. Sad trombone.
Mike: And you'll want to retire your PlayStation 3 after playing with the Dual Shock 4 for any length of time. I liked the Dual Shock 3. It's like getting new glasses, you don't realize how bad your vision was until you put on your new prescription. The Dual Shock 3 was the legacy of an old design that needed to be put out of its misery, while the Dual Shock 4 is a truly comfortable bit of hardware design.
I have big hands, so my preference is for larger controllers (I loved the Xbox Duke). The Dual Shock 4 has bigger handgrips for me and the new triggers are curved just right. You touch the controller and your hands just fall into the right place. If you have a chance to try out the PlayStation 4 at your local retail outlet, just sit with the DS4 for awhile. Like night and day.
You'll want to retire your PlayStation 3 after playing with the Dual Shock 4 for any length of time.
Jeremy: Man, don't bring the Duke into this. You're gonna scare away all the sane people.
The Dual Shock 4 isn't that big -- I have smaller hands, but it still feels comfortable. The controller has a great tactile sensation, with different textures wrapped around the wings of the controller to help it fit perfectly into your hands. The recessed tops of the analog sticks is much nicer than the DS2/DS3 mushroom knobs (I don't know why they ever abandoned the recessed design, which actually debuted with the pre-rumble Dual Analog controller for PlayStation). The shoulder buttons feel about the same, but the whole thing just feels more comfortable.
The big change for this controller, however, is the integrated touch pad. It's a great compromise between the Wii U's touch screen and the Vita's annoying rear-touch pad. Same concept, but more compact and effective. I've already seen some cool uses for the touch pad, like the way it serves as an instant-access gear menu button in Thief. I know there'll be a ton of gimmicks and bad ideas surrounding the pad, but that's the nature of video games.
The one irritating element of the controller? The Option and Share buttons. They're placed too closely to the touch pad, and they're all raised the exact same amount above the surface of the controller and have the same tactile feel. I keep hitting the touch pad when I'm trying to press Option, and I'm sure this will continue until I finally train myself not to do it.
Mike: The new Dual Shock 4 also means that developers are changing up how some of your favorite games work. Select is gone and in its place, many games are using the touch pad's button click as a replacement. For example, EA has move timeout calling to the touch pad click, something that threw off a fellow journalist when he tried Madden NFL 25 on PS4 for the first time. A number of games are also moving functions to the new, more ergonomic triggers, so be prepared.
The User Interface
Right from the beginning, you can see how the growing horizontal list of games you've played could become unmanageable.
Jeremy: Let's talk about what the stuff inside the box looks like. The PS4 interface… well, if you've used the PlayStation Store in the past few months, you have a pretty good sense of what it looks like. Simple, lots of boxes, much more compact than PS3's XMB, and… not really designed with heavy users in mind.
All the applications you've used on your PS4 appear in a main "strip" of large icons that grows as you add new games and software. Remember how your games list on PS3 would just grow and grow and grow? This will do the same thing. It's minimalistic, yes, but it's the same stupid thing we saw on PS3. Evidently Sony doesn't realize its users often buy a lot of games. Maybe they just don't want to come off as overly optimistic or cocky…?
Mike: Right from the beginning, you can see how the growing horizontal list of games you've played could become unmanageable. If you rent a game, you're stuck with that game's icon on your PlayStation 4 home screen forever. Hopefully, they'll add the ability to remove old tiles or at least let you create a curated start screen. Right now, some of the design choices in the new UI are great, but this puts it below the XMB.
Otherwise, those familiar with the PlayStation 3's XMB will find many of the same icons in the new UI: Profiles, Messages, Trophies, Friends, and Settings all make return appearances from other Sony hardware UIs. Don't expect something completely different and revolutionary here. Sony is merely smoothing out some of the rough edges and replacing them with a whole host of social media-style features. You'll never not know what your friends are doing on their PS4s.
Jeremy: Thankfully, the social features are strictly within the PlayStation ecosystem, so your Facebook friends won't see that you just got a Platinum trophy for the latest DragonBall Z game and out you as an anime nerd, Mike. Even more importantly, you can change your social settings to ensure your own privacy. No doubt as game reviewers we'll end up getting even more elaborate embargoes than ever with instructions about when we're allowed to share information on what we're playing. Not that this affects anyone but us, but it's a very specific example of the awkward push-and-pull relationship of Sony's enthusiasm for sharing via socialization and maintaining a tight grip on content and access.
Much of the UI is simply not operational without an Internet connection. The PlayStation 4, for better or worse, is an online connected system.
Mike: Some of the social features are pretty exciting. I don't need to know about everything my friends are doing in-game, but being able to share screenshots and videos in every game is a welcome addition. Sometimes you have those perfect game moments and not everyone has an Elgato capture device ready. Sharing a video or screenshot is only a Share button away on the PlayStation 4. Hitting the button brings up a specialized menu for uploading video clips, screenshots, or even broadcasting to Twitch or Ustream. There aren't many options for sharing right now: video clips are stuck on Facebook and screenshots can only be posted on Facebook or Twitter, but it's a decent start. i'm looking forward to Sony adding more options for sharing in the future.
Jeremy: Consoles as interactive DVRs is a great concept, though I'm sad that it comes at the expense of being able to record freely via your own means. I'll be assembling a clips video of my most shameful multiplayer deaths in short order.
One thing we haven't heard any information about since, oh, say, February is that whole Gaikai streaming thing. Remember that? The instant PlayStation archives? The ability to stream entire game from throughout the history of the PlayStation family with the press of a button? Here we are with machines in hand, and not a word about this key feature. I didn't expect it to necessarily be up and running at full capacity on day one, but the fact that it's been swept entirely under the rug really concerns me.
Mike: Although the PlayStation 4 can play games without ever connecting to the internet, much of the UI is simply not operational without an internet connection. Under each game tile is a number of options, including game manuals and community information, but only if you're online. Profiles, your friend list, and old messages aren't visible unless you're online. That video sharing feature is always recording, but you can't view your recent videos or screenshots without connecting to PSN. The PlayStation 4, for better or worse, is an online connected system. The game's will still play without an Internet connection, but you're not getting much else.
Day-one patches were included on the game discs, no PSN verification was required, no mandatory connections are requested.
Jeremy: Be that as it may, I will say this for PS4: Unlike certain other next-gen systems I could name, you can at least set it up and play it without an Internet connection.
Clearly online is part of the PS4 DNA; sharing and streaming and digital sales and multiplayer and all those good things are baked into the console at a primal level. However, it still functions offline, which turned out to be quite handy when we had to set up the system in a hotel with badly dysfunctional Internet. Day-one patches were included on the game discs, no PSN verification was required, no mandatory connections are requested.
Oh, yes, patches. We live in an age of patches. The first console I bought with my own money was an NES, whose setup consisted of plugging everything in and sticking a game in the front slot. Ah, memories. Getting PS4 ready took about, what, half an hour?
Mike: Around that. The system itself only requires HDMI and power cables. The PlayStation 4 has no power brick, which only adds to the system's sleek feel. There's also an optical port and ethernet port for those so inclined in either direction.
We were stuck with hotel WiFi, which led to a subpar experience with the PlayStation 4 menu. Lag, stuttering, the works. Eventually, we just turned off the Connect to the Internet option in settings. That could be a problem for those of you with spotty internet connections: having your internet completely off is better for the PlayStation 4 UI than having an unreliable internet connection.
The system takes around 30 seconds to start from complete shutdown, and standby doesn't seem to shave much off that time. The PlayStation seems designed to be put into standby, but certain features - like the Resume and Suspend Modes for your games - aren't available at launch. Currently, moving to standby shuts down your current game.
Jeremy: Yeah, I've been a little surprised by how long it takes the system to enter sleep mode, not to mention booting from a cold start. In fairness, the process did seem to go faster after the first couple of times, but simply entering standby mode can take as long as 45 seconds. And booting from standby sometimes takes longer than a cold boot? I don't get it.
If PS4 preserved the current state of your game when you entered standby (so you could jump back into the action as soon as you turn the system on again), I could maybe understand the delay, but I guess Wii U isn't the only console that drags moving from process to process. I'll be interested to see if this gets faster with later patches, and if Microsoft's controversial decision to allocate a quarter of the Xbox One's RAM to system processes pays off with faster transitions, shutdowns, and boots.
The Bells and Whistles
The PS4's voice command features seem pretty meager compared to Kinect 2's.
Mike: The PlayStation 4 comes with a cheap mono headset for voice chat and system voice commands. If that's not good enough, you can also spring the extra $60 for the former PlayStation 4 Eye, now known simply as the PlayStation Camera.
The Camera not only takes pictures of you and watches you while you sleep on the couch, but it also double as a microphone for voice commands. These commands are activated by simply saying "PlayStation" or holding down L2 on the menu screen. The system also has facial recognition for logging into the system. You have to go through a small calibration tool to set it up, but once that's done, it works reasonably well. If you're into the whole game sharing thing, the PlayStation Camera can also send live video alongside your Twitch stream.
Jeremy: I like that the PS4 headset hooks up to the system exactly the same way as the Xbox 360 headset did -- it plugs into the lower portion of the controller. The Dual Shock 4 has a built-in speaker, though, so I wonder if that will affect the headset experience?
It's pretty clear that Sony wants you to have a PlayStation Camera to make use of voice commands -- they left it out of the system package to give them a bigger competitive price edge versus Xbox One, I'd imagine -- but I have to say that the PS4's voice command features seem pretty meager compared to Kinect 2's. They work, but in a much more limited capacity. I guess Sony has to make the effort, but I can tell Microsoft has the upper hand here based on my real-world experiences with Xbox One.
Mike: I agree, the voice commands on the PlayStation 4 seem about as good as Kinect on the Xbox 360. While Sony is catching up, Microsoft has already jumped ahead with the new Kinect for Xbox One. Sure, voice commands aren't integral to gaming, but they're nice quality-of-life options to have.
The launch lineup isn't exactly amazing, but it's probably the most visually solid day-one lineup we've ever seen. None of the weird hiccups that you saw with the initial waves of PlayStation 2 or Xbox 360 games.
Jeremy: You know what's another nice quality-of-life option to have? Manuals. But don't expect ‘em here! Manuals are gone forever. Those boxes look so empty… but I guess it doesn't matter, because I plan to go all digital. Just as soon as I beef up my hard drive to several gigabytes so I can fit more than 10 games on my system.
Mike: I'll miss manuals. Injustice almost surprised me because it looked like it had an included manual. Nope, just a license agreement, safety warnings, and some blank pages for notes. Because you need detailed notes for Injustice.
Instead, PlayStation 4 owners are stuck with all-digital manuals, like the PlayStation Vita. Unfortunately, if you're offline, you can't access the digital manual at all. This is less of a problem these days because games tend to teach you how to play within the game, but it's still rather annoying.
Jeremy: OK, but enough complaining. There are things that bug me about PS4 -- some of which will be fixed up in time and with patches, some which won't -- but I can't complain about the system's power. The visuals vary from game to game, but when they look good they look good. And while I haven't had hands-on time with every single title available, all the games I've looked and played seem to have consistent frame rates and impressive resolution. I'm not going to pretend I've counted scanlines or frames per second, but it all seems consistent… which, in my opinion, is the most important feature. The launch lineup isn't exactly amazing, but it's probably the most visually solid day-one lineup I've ever seen. None of the weird hiccups that you saw with the initial waves of PlayStation 2 or Xbox 360 games. Or, heck, even Super NES games.
Mike: Sure, the lineup is full of multiplatform games, but they're all pretty good multiplatform games. Unlike the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 launches, you're not looking at prettier games stripped of features that are standard on the previous generation. At least on the PlayStation 4, it seems developers have had time with the system, so you're getting better graphics and more features. Worst-case scenario, you're getting games with new features and modes that aren't huge graphical leaps over their current-gen counterparts.
Mike: I'm pretty damn excited about the PlayStation 4. I love new technology when it delivers a great experience and in my limited time with the PS4, it delivers. Does it have some problems? Yes. The system seems completely reliant on internet for the full experience, so those on the edge of coverage will be hobbling along. Moving in and out of standby takes longer than I'd expect for a $400 piece of hardware.
But the games we've played are impressive and do their best to represent a clear vision for the "next generation." All told, Sony has a solid lineup, with something for everyone and more great games on the horizon. Early 2014 will see Infamous: Second Son, Thief, and Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeros alongside a host of digital-only indie games. The Dual Shock 4 is one of the best controllers I've ever held and developers are starting to do some interesting things with the touchpad, but there's no feeling that they're forcing themselves to do so.
The company is putting their best foot forward, so it's left to the public to decide the system's fate. I know I'll be there on day one with my PlayStation 4.
The fundamental tech here seems sound, and Sony has taken a ton of fantastic independent developers under their wing to ensure the system will have a steady stream of content into next year, which never really happens with consoles.
Jeremy: Sony has so much riding on the success of this system. They can't afford another slow-burn success like PlayStation 3 -- PS4 needs to be a hit out of the gate. To their credit, I will say that if PS4 bombs, it won't be because Sony doesn't get it. They've done a lot right, and I've been impressed with both their tech and their message (slightly humble, highly enthusiastic, uncharacteristically straightforward) since the console's first showing back in February. I know we've made a fair number of critical remarks here, but a lot of the issues we've pointed out are things that will be resolved in due time. The fundamental tech here seems sound, and Sony has taken a ton of fantastic independent developers under their wing to ensure the system will have a steady stream of content into next year, which never really happens with consoles.
History has proven time and again that great tech alone does not guarantee a console's success, but great tech backed by smart business and strong software tends to do a lot better. Even if PlayStation 4's day-one lineup kind of stinks, the next six months look great. And beyond that… I'm pretty optimistic.
I barely used my PS3 for gaming (it was mostly a Blu-ray and PlayStation 2 upscaler), but I expect my PS4 to fare much better. As long as you're aware of the short-term flaws (which we outlined above!), PlayStation 4 seems like a sure thing for any serious gamer… especially one open to the rich wealth of games available beyond the same-y, predictable world of AAA packaged retail.