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At midnight on Thursday, Sony launched its new video game console, the PlayStation 4, in the United States. The new machine is a very impressive piece of hardware which overcomes many of the problems that plagued its predecessor.
A sleek, minimalist slab, the rakishly designed chassis houses an impressive array of silicon, including an eight-core x86-64 AMD CPU, a 1.8 teraflop GPU (also from AMD) and a 500GB hard drive. The company claims its new box is 10 times more powerful than the PS3.
The external ID feels modern and cool, with a no-nonsense sensibility. Unlike the curves of the PS3 (which was dinged for its unfortunate resemblance to a waffle iron), the PS4 is all angles and straight lines, with a parallelogram profile that leans backwards, making front buttons more accessible, while hiding wires in the back. Where the PS3 seemed to take a kitchen sink approach to its design, the PS4 feels focused. The front edge sports just two USB ports, along with two touch sensitive buttons (power and eject) and a slot for loading optical discs (like the PS3, the PS4 is also a Blu-ray Disc player). The PS4’s USB ports will charge controllers (or any other USB device) while the power is off, something the PS3 famously did not do. Despite its modest size, Sony’s engineers were able to include the power supply inside the box, meaning there is no giant power brick to trip over.
In another triumph over the past, Sony has completely overhauled its user interface. From day one, the PS3’s UI felt clunky and obtuse, and Sony made no significant upgrades or overhauls to it during its 6-year lifespan (unlike Microsoft, which overhauled its dashboard near-annually). The PS4’s interface is far more user-friendly, featuring larger type and more intuitive navigation. It dynamically surfaces content into menus based on recent use or relevance to friends, and puts most common options within 1-3 button presses.
There is a very clear focus throughout the OS on integrating social options. Facebook and Twitter have been integrated directly into the OS, and the controller features a dedicated “Share” button which allows players to instantly capture screenshots or video of the game you’re playing. The console automatically records the last 15 minutes of your gameplay, making it simple to share even the most unexpected moments, which can be trimmed using a basic video editing tool and fed out to Facebook or Twitter. The true exhibitionists can stream their gaming sessions live to their friends via the Twitch TV and Ustream services.
The PS4 ships with a basic headset for voice chat, which has been integrated across all games. Users can chat independent of the game they are (or are not) playing. A Facebook-like timeline alerts you to the past and current exploits of friends you are connected to within the PlayStation Network (PSN).
The fundamental DNA of Sony’s game controller has not shifted significantly since the original PlayStation’s gamepad and the PS4’s controller doesn’t veer too far from the past. The biggest changes are the addition of the Share button, as well as a large clickable touchpad that sits between the thumbsticks. Subtle improvements abound, however, including additional play in the triggers, a tighter, more satisfying feel to the thumbsticks and a generally pleasant rounding of all the controller’s angles.
As a rule the early days of a console’s life are somewhat lonely as developers come up to speed on the new hardware. It often takes a year or more for strong game lineups to emerge. Given that, the PS4 launches with a decent, if not mind-boggling slate of games. Two full-priced games are exclusive to the system: Knack, a new character action game, and Killzone: Shadow Fall, the latest iteration of a long-running PlayStation shooter franchise. In addition there are several other games which will also be available for Xbox One as well as Xbox 360 and PS3. These include Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, Madden 25, Injustice, Need for Speed: Rivals, Battlefield 4 and Just Dance 2014.
Digital-only video games are an increasingly important part of the gaming landscape, and the PS4 launches with several new and existing download-only games, including indie-developed games Contrast and Super Motherload. Resogun is a new title from Sony’s internal studio, which is also rereleasing existing titles Flower and Sound Shapes in PS4 format. Picking up on a trend from mobile gaming, Sony is offering a pair of free-to-play games on day one, Blacklight Retribution (a first-person shooter) and Warframe (an acrobatic ninja-style combat game).
Sony’s excellent PlayStation Plus offering has been moved over to PS4, and current subscribers can use their existing accounts. The $50/year service offers a monthly rotating series of free game downloads and is required for online multiplayer.
The entertainment offerings of modern game consoles go far beyond games, and the PS4 is no exception. The PS4 has apps for the now de rigueur streaming services (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, etc.) as well as Sony’s pay-per-view service Video Unlimited. However, in a strangely ham-fisted move, Sony has only included a single option for music on the system, the Sony-owned Music Unlimited. The choice not to include Pandora, Spotify or Amazon’s music services feels limiting and unnecessary, especially given the plethora of options for TV and movie services. The system includes a web browser, but it lacks support for Flash, which meant our attempts to load streaming music services through the browser were futile. The browser is also unable to play YouTube videos, which are also Flash-based.
In all, the PS4 offers a strong entertainment proposition with several significant advantages over the PS3. But while it has enough power under the hood to wow gamers for years into the future, at the moment it remains a hard console to recommend for existing users given the stronger current game lineups on the 360 and PS3. (This will change over the next year as developers increasingly focus on the next-generation consoles.) Those who do not currently own consoles might consider it, though, for both its gaming and multimedia capabilities.
With the impending launch of Microsoft’s Xbox One console next week, the PlayStation 4 is not the only game in town, and the competition between the two rivals for gamer dollars promises to remain fierce. Both come with Blu-ray drives. The PlayStation 4 costs $400, compared with the Xbox One’s $500. However, the Xbox includes its body-sensing and voice-control Kinect camera in with the system. Sony’s PlayStation Camera offers impressive performance, but must be purchased separately for $60.
The PlayStation 4 launches in Europe on Nov. 29 and in Japan in February 2014.
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