Posted on November 27, 2013, Phil Hornshaw Playstation 4 Review: An Upgrade You Can Wait On
You get home from your neighborhood retail video game emporium with a big blue box and that palpable excitement that only comes from a big new console release. And when you finally get your Playstation 4 hooked up and running, when you play with it for a few hours, you wonder to yourself, “How did I ever get by with a Playstation 3?”
At least, that’s the feeling I had, and continue to have, with my Playstation 4. After having used the device as basically the center of my entertainment universe for the last week, I honestly can’t imagine the hell of returning to my Playstation 3 as a primary source of either gaming or video streaming. Many of the little adjustments and improvements to the PS4 seem like no-brainers, and yet they improve the experience to such a degree that it’s hard to quantify.
But there are other times, when I’m not streaming Netflix movies, that I feel the pangs of buyer’s remorse for my PS4. Having finished Knack and hit a wall in Killzone: Shadow Fall, having replayed the same levels over and over again in Resogun, having reached the end of Contrast — there’s just not a lot I want to do with the thing (and that I couldn’t do with the console I already had). For all the PS4′s nifty conveniences, the more than $400 I dropped on the system is catching up with me. The truth is that the next generation of Sony consoles is a lot like the last one, and without a killer slate of games to play yet, it’s hard to justify the cost of the machine.
Overall, the Playstation 4 is less impressive than it sounded in all those months running up to its release. Part of that is because of a paltry offering of games and other content to use with the thing, and part of it is a grouping of restrictions and launch issues that make things like streaming and social interaction a little less amazing than Sony might have led us to believe. It’s probable that these issues will be improved in the future, but at the moment, a lot of them are pretty frustrating.
The Playstation 4 Console
By this point the innards of the Playstation 4 have been laid bare time and time again — you know it has a 500GB hard drive and packs 8GB of RAM, for instance. But how the console actually fits into your life, as a physical object, is another matter.
For starters, if you’re packing an old Playstation 3, PS4 is an improvement in your entertainment center. It’s shorter and less wide than older Playstation 3 units, (making it more comparable to the Playstation 3 Slim), and it’s deeper. It’s also flat, which is nice given the design aesthetics of the last generation. That makes stacking easy, although you’re probably going to want to be careful about that, because it’s very likely heat may become an issue with the PS4.
The PS4 is simple, sleek, and most of all, unobtrusive
Though the fan and disc drive in the console are both pretty quiet in the horizontal position, the PS4 kicks out a lot of heat from the long vent located on its rear panel. There are also vents along the sides, set in the trench that runs around the edge of the system. Given what a problem heat exchange was in the last generation (though never confirmed by console makers, I’d hazard a guess that system failures like the Xbox 360′s Red Ring of Death were all overheat-related), proper venting for the PS4 is obviously a must, and certainly a concern wherever you choose to set it up. It’s possible to use the console vertically (a sold-separately stand is all but required to do so, though, as it’s not very stable in that position), but I wouldn’t recommend it for that same heat exchange issue. Vertical consoles seem like they’re inviting disaster.
It’s nice to see Sony underplaying design of the console, rather than overplaying it as in the last generation. The PS4 is simple and sleek, and most of all, unobtrusive. It’s easier to fit in a given entertainment center and it’s not an eye sore — and that’s pretty much exactly what most people want and need out of a gaming console.
What’s in the Box?
Along with the console itself, there are a few items boxed with the PS4:
- HDMI cable
- DualShock 4 controller
- USB charge cable for DualShock 4
- Pin jack mono earphone and microphone
Most of those items are pretty bog-standard. The HDMI cable itself is about 6 feet long, and the controller charger cable is micro-USB — meaning the USB cables you used for your Playstation 3 controllers are no good for the new system.
One interesting inclusion is the mono headset and mic, in that it looks to be, by far, the lowest-quality component in the box. With a single ear bud, a mic that clips to the user’s shirt and a gauge of wire that’s one step up from hair, the multiplayer microphone looks as though Sony is intentionally trolling potential online players. In practice, though, we found the headset (if you can call it that) to be decent. It’s not a high-quality audio experience when listening to other players talking during online games, but it’ll do if you have nothing better sitting around the house. The mic also is a workable option for adding voice commentary to the Playstation 4′s streaming functionality.
In shorter terms, the headset will work. You’ll also want to invest in something better if you intend to do much that requires a microphone, including online gaming, although you’re going to have to wait for Sony to make some alternative headsets available — right now, there aren’t really any designed specifically to work with the DS4 controller.
Sony’s revamp of its classic Playstation controller design, which we’ve been playing with for basically an eternity at this point, has been much lauded, and with good reason: This might be the best controller ever, and it certainly ranks in the top five. I’ve always hated the Playstation controller with a fiery passion, and that controller is probably a strong reason why I’ve gravitated to Microsoft consoles in the last two generations, particularly when it comes to shooters. The DualShock 4, however, is a huge step forward.
For one, Sony has adjusted the grip and size of the controller to fit adult hands, and the placement of its joysticks and buttons feels much more intuitive, for the most part, than the previous design. The triggers, too, are a huge improvement. They’ve been redesigned with curvatures to make the feel more differentiated and more intuitive for gaming contexts: namely, representing the triggers on guns. Especially when playing titles like Killzone: Shadow Fall, the changes to how the triggers feel and their responsiveness can’t be overstated.
Other buttons aren’t placed quite so well, however. Replacing “Start” and “Select” are “Options” and “Share,” and neither of which is a particularly convenient button in the heat of the moment. Both are placed high on the controller toward its center, near the new touchpad area of the controller. And both are nearly flush with the controller housing, which is of particular issue when it comes to the Share button. This is your direct link to some of the Playstation 4′s most intriguing new features — the ability to snap screen grabs, start broadcasts and make short, shareable gameplay videos anytime — and the Share button itself isn’t really all that conducive to making those things happen. If you change the PS4′s settings to “Easy” sharing, the button lets you take grabs with a tap and start videos with a double-tap, but the nature of the Share button’s placement makes using the features a little less than fully reliable.
The touchpad itself is an interesting addition, although in some cases it gives the impression of either being in the way or otherwise superfluous. The pad allows for gesture-based controls by swiping your thumb over it; in Killzone: Shadow Fall, for example, swiping in different directions assigns different abilities to your OWL drone, making it function basically like a second D-Pad. You can also click in the entire touchpad as if it were another button.
The placement of the touchpad too close to the Share and Options buttons can mean hitting it by mistake, but I’ve yet to play many games that really utilize the feature fully, so accidentally clicking in the pad isn’t that big of a deal. There is potential in the touchpad much like there is in the Playstation Vita’s touch interface, I think, but I’m still waiting to play games that truly have some good ideas on how to use it. All that said, the pad itself is responsive and smooth in the games it is used, which suggests it could be used in a lot of interesting ways to cool effect.
The DualShock 4 is a huge step forward
The DualShock 4 also includes a small speaker built into the body, which is actually a surprisingly loud piece of hardware. Like the touchpad, it’s another addition whose uses haven’t been fully explored yet. Resogun uses the speaker to give you (somewhat unreliable) updates about the status of the game as you’re playing it, for example; Knack uses it to emphasize when the character on screen is absorbing relics, otherwise known as restoring health.
At the moment, the speaker is little more than an affectation, like the N64′s Rumble Pack — it can potentially help with game immersion, but it’s not a necessity for any game. Hopefully that will change, as its inclusion seems to suggest some interesting gameplay possibilities that haven’t been thought of yet.
Unlike controllers from the previous generation, it seems DualShock 4 controllers just don’t last very long in terms of battery life, and I found myself constantly making sure to charge one controller while using the other, in cycles. Even low-use functions like running Netflix leave your battery to drain, and part of that might be attributed to the large sensor light on each controller that’s made to work with the Playstation Camera peripheral. Even without a camera, there’s no way to turn that light off. You can set controllers to shut down automatically after being idle for 10 minutes (or other increments of time), but that’s not fast enough to save your batteries should you put one down and leave a room.