Let’s get by the obvious stuff first. Yes, there are growing reports of hardware issues with some launch units, mostly centered around boxes that came from Amazon. Yes, PSN went down for an extended period on Friday, and even today some features are still disabled because of the network load. No, there are no demos on the market, meaning that consumers are essentially forced to roll the dice on some admittedly phoned in launch titles. And yes, the Playstation Camera is basically a $60 window dressing from an added functionality standpoint as of today. Yes, there is no out of the box DLNA/MP3/audio CD support, even if we’ve been told it’s coming. Yes, these are some worrisome things in a launch window that will see some stiff competition hitting the shelves in 4 days from now. As far as I’m concerned, though, these are fairly macro issues for the ecosystem, and things that we could see coming months in advance (except for the hardware issues cropping up over the weekend). I will take the negatives with a grain of salt, given that the console has been out for 4 days now, and keep an eager ear to the ground to see how Sony addresses these issues going forward.
What I really want to do, though, is talk about the Playstation as a gaming device. After all, that’s why we saw the above concessions in features, given that Sony put a very heavy and public emphasis on gaming this year.
Now, I didn’t go out and buy every launch title, but I have played enough to get a pretty good sense of what’s going on here at launch. Here are my game impressions so far.
Resogun: One of my favorite games on PS4, bar none. Brilliantly simple core mechanics, exceedingly complex at higher difficulties, and requires a laser focus (pun intended) to save every last human on each level. Online co-op is serviceable, if not a little lacking in features over single player, but I’m glad it’s an option. Some of the best “group huddled around the TV rooting for the player” moments of the weekend were thanks to Resogun. Housemarque has stated that “We have long term plans to support the game with DLCs and updates, but at this point we cannot reveal anything specific. We are looking into a lot of options at the moment“, so I’m hopeful that this is a title that will retain a prized slot in my gaming library.
FIFA 14: This was my most played game of the weekend, as I’m very much invested in the Pro Clubs mode of FIFA with my friends here at The Gentle Lovers. Outside of gameplay, FIFA flat out flies this year; the menu and UI is as snappy as I’ve ever seen it, and it’s a joy to navigate. No more mashing on buttons, trying to prod the game along on your way into a match, everything is running like melted butter. I’m not sure I can speak to the gameplay in such flattering terms this year, however. It does run at full 1080p and at 60 frames per second, and that by itself is a monstrous improvement for the series. Online modes run remarkably lag free compared to current gen as well, which can definitely make or break a sports game.
Battlefield 4: I can’t really comment on this, given that the game is completely broken at this point. 64 player servers crash instantly, Conquest as a game mode is completely inaccessible, and numerous Playstation error messages pop up during gameplay, ending your connection to your server. DICE has royally FUBAR’d this launch, and I couldn’t be more disappointed as someone who spent $110 dollars on it, with their Premium DLC add-on.
Contrast: If you told me this game was a launch title for the PS3, I would probably believe you. Totally underwhelming graphics and clunky gameplay make it easy to see why this was a PS+ freebie. I was actually excited to see how the novel gameplay idea of using your shadow to platform would be implemented, but ultimately came away disappointed with the execution. Not a terrible time waster, but nothing I would want to spend money on.
NBA 2K14: This game has incredible graphics, but for me, that’s where the fun ended. The gameplay feels roughly the same as NBA 2K11, in that players struggle to smoothly animate around each other, which completely kills the immersion that the new graphics heap upon you in spades. In FIFA, for example, you’re constantly watching players jostle and react to each other with very realistic, organic responses, but the animation in 2K14 feels much more baked and ultimately rougher around the edges. I was actually so disappointed with it, that I’m trading it for Madden (even though I’ve heard has its own share of issues this year).
Blacklight: Retribution: Had some issues actually getting into matches, but when I did, I liked what I saw. I’ll need to play some more to get a better idea of what the game is about, but the shooting mechanics felt solid.
Flower: This is how I spent my free $10 PSN bucks. I enjoyed Journey, so I figured I’d give this laid-back digital title a shot. My first impression was that I was in a living, breathing version of the iconic standard Windows XP rolling hills wallpaper. The graphics are incredible, and the gameplay is divinely relaxing. Flower is definitely in the “game as an art” category, but it’s a fantastic change of pace from the standard fare of shooters and sports games. Money well spent. I’ll be reviewing it soon.
The PS4 is a beautiful machine, and definitely the sexiest thing I have sitting in my entertainment center. With the internet filling my head with visions of bricked hardware and flashing red lights, I will admit to a certain level of distrust as I pulled the unit from its shockingly spartan packaging. I have heard reports of the disc loader making grinding noises, units with fans that don’t turn on properly, eventually leading to overheating, and some units that just plain will not boot. I, luckily, didn’t not have a single issue this weekend in regards to the hardware acting up. I put the unit in standby mode when not in use, and used it for 7 hours straight on Friday night without a hitch. I never got a sound like a fan was running at high RPM, and my disc loader sounds just like any trayless loader.
Heat while playing seems to be a non-issue in a well ventilated environment. My shelf has an open front and back, and I did not feel any level of heat coming from the PS4 that would approach what the PS3 or Xbox 360 would crank out, which was a very pleasant surprise.
The controllers proved to have a fairly short battery life of about 8 hours, which was the one major disappointment for me, but that’s why I bought an extra; it’s easy enough to pop a fresh one off the dock when needed, and much more convenient than plugging in a USB cable to recharge while playing. At no point did I notice any abnormalities with the rubber that covers the analog sticks, as some have mentioned on Reddit and NeoGAF. One of the best features of the DS4 is the ability to plug any 3.5mm stereo headset jack into it, and pump all of your game audio into your headset/headphones wirelessly through your controllers. I am admittedly a major audio snob, and the compression that the PS4 is doing to the audio is so minimal that you will not even notice it, in my opinion. It’s an excellent option if you don’t want to shell out an extra $100 on a dedicated headset, and have a spare wired headset laying around. If your headset has a mic and has 3 rings on the audio jack, the PS4 can even use the microphone for PSN chatting!
I’m going to lump the Playstation Camera into hardware, even though it’s completely optional. My reaction to it so far: neat, but why did I buy this again? The only game that currently supports the camera is The Playroom, a bundled tech demo that is installed on every Playstation by default. You can kick digital robots around your living room, play augmented reality air hockey, or shoot a stream of champagne from your crotch region (because that’s always hilarious)…but that’s it. No Skype, no video chatting through PSN, no launch titles supporting it. I’m a little worried about the longevity of this device, but I’m hoping that devs step up and integrate it in a meaningful way. On the positive side, the motion tracking is VERY accurate, and the 1:1 motion sensing is leaps and bounds above even the original Kinect hardware. Sadly, what it can’t do is handle dark rooms since it relies on traditional cameras instead of IR beams like the Kinect. The facial recognition seems to work as intended, as well.
Here is the biggest point of interest for me, personally. I think most of us knew what to expect from the games, in that they were mostly going to be current gen games with slightly improved graphics…and widely, that holds true. What was largely unknown until early last week was, how would the system handle on a day to day basis? How would the UI improvements make the PS4 a device we want to use and engage with? Would Sony, notorious for some strange UI choices in the past (Vita bubbles!) be able to find a happier medium, with a more mainstream look and feel?
I feel confident in saying that version 1.5 of the PS4 OS is a great building block. It’s not everything I want it to be, but like I said earlier, it’s been out to the public for 4 days and we know that Sony is listening to feedback in a very “boots on the ground” sort of way. Shuhei Yoshida is as engaged as ever in his personal Twitter mission to speak as directly and bluntly with the Playstation Nation as possible. I had to remind myself that the Xbox 360 UI used the horrific Blades on its launch, and that the Xbox ecosystem grew leaps and bounds over its lifespan last gen. I’m very optimistic that we’ll see the same from Sony here with the PS4.
What’s good is the speed; you’ve never used a console like this before. The OS is reacting at the speed that you are inputting commands. No more waiting, no more spinning loading wheels, none of the general UGH GO FASTER moments that the current gen consoles excel at. Hopping between game and dashboard is seamless and smooth, to the point that you can forget you even have a game running in the background. Unfortunately, we do not have the ability to suspend games into RAM at the moment, but hopefully that will be added back in the next firmware update.
Speaking of speed, if you have the means, I would highly recommend replacing your hard drive with a solid state drive. I put a 512GB Crucial M4 drive in mine the moment I took it out of the box, and the load times are simply awesome. There are SSD speed tests floating around the internet, but the consensus seems to be that an SSD will cut your load times in roughly half.
The menus are built to harness this speed and get you where you want to be quickly. The top layer of the dash is dedicated to things like your friends list, your party, and console settings…in other words, things you want quick, dedicated access to. The lower menu is where your apps and games live, and this menu changes the way it’s sorted based on what you’ve played or opened last, very much like the Xbox’s “Recent” menu. In general, I really like this sorting method, but here’s the deal: there’s no other way to sort it. This is a bad thing when, 4 years from now, you’ve installed 50 games and they’re all occupying this single horizontal row. Want to play that game you bought at launch, and haven’t touched since? Have fun scrolling forever.
This problem unfortunately extends to the friends list, which has been expanded out to enable you to have up to 2000 friends. You’d think surely that there would be sorting option with TWO THOUSAND FRIENDS…but you’d be wrong. The best we get is the ability to sort by who is currently online. If you want to find a specific person, your fastest way is to type their name in the search box, but you have to type in the entire name, not just a portion of it. Bad design 101.
The sharing feature is a little gimped in my opinion as well. Sony is giving you an incredible amount of flexibility in caching your gameplay, but only allows you to do a simple mark of the starting location and ending location for videos. There is no splicing options, there is no support for recording commentary over the video clip, and, most importantly, there is no export to YouTube. I don’t know about you, but most people on my Facebook friends list don’t give a damn about how awesome my FIFA club is doing and that sick header that I scored last night. It’s almost embarrassing to post clips publicly to an audience that doesn’t care, and it needs to be fixed yesterday. At a minimum, we need to be able to export raw video clips out to a USB drive for editing on our PCs. That alone would solve most if not all of my issues with the current sharing situation. The good news is, what you do share is pretty solid quality…until Facebook compresses it to hell and back. Even with these caveats, I have found myself sharing more things than ever before just because I can, and if Sony puts a little more man power into this feature, I think it will be one of the best selling points for the console.
The browser is kind of a weird case on the PS4. It renders webpages nicely, for the most part, unless they utilize Adobe Flash in any large way. The truly strange part about Flash is that I’ve seen embedded YouTube videos working, but if you go to YouTube.com, you get messages that Flash needs to be installed. I would be more forgiving of the lack of Flash support if the PS4 had a YouTube app, but at this point, there’s no reliable way to watch online video via the PS4.
One of the major bright spots I’ll file under software is Playstation Plus. This service has been fantastic on the PS3 and Vita, and continues to shine on PS4. You might have noticed that 3 of the games I mentioned above were PS+ games, meaning they came free with my subscription. That’s a huge boon for a launch that is giving everyone a free month of PS+, and gives Sony a great shot at selling their service as truly being value added to the user experience. Looking back over the weekend, I would say that I would easily have paid $30 for Resogun alone, and there are more PS4 only games coming, like Drive Club in the spring.
Another major upgrade in regards to the Playstation Store is the store itself. Very snappy response times compared to the PS3, and my downloads averaged about 50Mbps, which is a MASSIVE increase over the aging PS3. I was able to download multi-gigabyte games in just minutes. This is a future I could get used to.
Remote Play with the Playstation Vita has been a much touted feature throughout Sony’s marketing run, and so far, I can safely say that when it works as intended, it’s a system seller. The major issue is that it doesn’t always work as intended. Over my home wifi, as long as I stayed close to the router, I had zero lag issues. However, moving to the other end of the house where the signal is not as strong, and I got some fairly significant frame drops and lag. There is a bit of misinformation floating around that you can only use Remote Play on the same network as your PS4, but this isn’t true at all. To prove it, I took my Vita to a friend’s house, who has 15Mbps fiber internet, booted my PS4 up from standby mode via the Vita, and played FIFA 14 from disc over Remote Play with almost no perceptible lag. To watch it work so seamlessly over the internet was a major nerd out moment, and I’m very happy that Sony has been able to pull off this thin-client functionality so well.
The last thing I’ll touch on are the OS’s voice controls, or as I like to call them, Sony’s Biggest Afterthought. What’s cool? They work! They work really, really well! You don’t even need the (sold separately) camera to use them, any microphone will do! What’s bad? There are almost no voice commands through the OS. You can launch a game (either disc or digital), you can return to the home screen, you can log out, or shut the system down. That’s it. You can’t start a party, you can’t find a friend, you can’t read or compose a message, you can’t pause or fast forward a movie, or a slew of other things we’ve come to expect from this type of technology. Sony’s excuse for this is that “games are the focus at launch”, and that’s great, I applaud that. That’s the main reason I bought a PS4 at launch. At the same time, releasing this feature as half-baked as it is shouldn’t have happened, and in my opinion, the entire idea of voice navigation should have been included in a firmware update with full system integration. Another thing of note is that Sony has said that their partners like Netflix have complained that the voice command API is too rigid to program for. If Sony has any chance of getting third party software developers to use their technologies, they need easy to use APIs. I’m hoping they can react to feedback on voice commands as deftly as they reacted to DRM complaints.
I went into this last weekend with high hopes for Sony’s attempt to win the living room for the next 5-8 years, and came out impressed in many areas, hesitantly optimistic in many more, and disappointed in very few. I think Sony has laid a strong framework for the coming years, but will need to stay as keenly focused on customer feedback as they have been through the last year. Right now, the PS4 has some decent games running at higher resolutions and faster framerates than its competitor, but nothing that truly sticks out and says BUY ME NOW. Does that mean I regret my launch day purchase? Absolutely not. To me, the PS4 is a puppy with huge paws; it’s obvious that it’s got some growing to do, but for the time being, it’s fun just the way it is. I think Sony’s launch lineup could have been stronger, but with the exception of Contrast, all the games I’ve played (and watched others play) have definitely felt next-gen to me. Graphics have gotten massive boosts, framerates in many games are considerably better than last gen, and UI responsiveness is amazingly snappy. The Dualshock 4 controller is an upgrade in every way over the DS3, and accessories like the Playstation Camera, while fairly limited in application now, show great promise if adopted by developers in the future. We’re just at the beginning of a very long journey, and I can’t wait to see where Sony takes us.
Want to read my impressions on the Dualshock 4 controller, and see some gorgeous high res pictures? Check it out over here.
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