Playstation 4 Hands-On Preview

The fourth Playstation, we don’t have four hands. 

This weekend we’re taking a more general look at the consoles based on what we know so far and our experiences playing with them at Gamescom. For the sake of transparency, we are buying both consoles at launch with our own money (we don’t get them free) but have preferred the Xbox 360 this past generation largely due to the controller and lack of ridiculously long patch times.

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The Playstation 4 has been revealed across the year with very few surprises, and that has worked well for them in the hearts and minds of many gamers. It’s based on PC x86 architecture meaning the problems that faced the cell processors are a thing of the past, it’s not got any different kinds of DRM that we know about, it doesn’t ship with any crazy peripherals. It is a true sequel to the Playstation 3, providing more power with increased media capabilities and a few new features such as the Twitch.tv intergration that gamers will be demanding and expecting this generation. We know the release date, November 29th in Europe, and we know the price, £349.99 or £29.99 in a recently-announced bundle where you get Killzone, two controllers and the Playstation Camera bundled in for the price of the basic Xbox One bundle that comes with Kinect, Fifa and a single controller. We’ve got pre-orders down for both consoles but after spending a lot of time with the console at Gamescom, what do we think about our future purchase?

First of all in terms of hardware, the PS4 looks positively tiny compared to the Xbox One. At Gamescom they had every PS4 in a weird set up with the top side facing you and angled bits of plastic covering the front and back, meaning you could never get a good look at the console. It was only later when we stopped by a few private showings of games that we could get a closer look at it. In terms of aesthetics it’s very business-like and clearly aimed at an older market than the Wii U, going for sharp edges and matt finishes rather than gloss and curves. The disc slot blend into the seam that runs around the perimeter of the console and the only thing distinctive about the design is the odd slant that stops it from being a rectangular box. It’s not massively appealing and definitely not as exciting as the Xbox One, but then again the Xbox has to make a visual statement because it’s so large, the PS4 seems designed to blend in to your home entertainment system without standing out.

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The back of the console features much the same ports as you’d expect to find, with no HDMI in or dedicated port for the camera – that appears to just run on the USB port. There is no power brick, just a lead running to a plug meaning the PS4 will take up even less space in your home.

The camera is unfortunately quite ugly and doesn’t fit with the style of the console or the controller at all, they all seem like three distinct designs with nothing other than the colour to tie them together. There’s also a ‘headset’ in the box that is simply a single earpiece with a microphone along the cable. We haven’t tried this out yet but it doesn’t seem like it would lead to great audio quality but who knows, Sony might have managed to do something amazing with it. From appearances alone it looks cheap and will be quickly replaced with a proper bluetooth or USB headset.

The controller is quite a departure from the Dualshock 3. The two level analog sticks still feature but the whole controller is wider with more comfortable grips and triggers making it a little easier for those of us with bigger hands to hold. The triggers themselves are much improved over the Dualshock 3’s, with a more rounded back allowing your finger to get a good grip while you pull them. On the face of the controller there’s a touchscreen which also clicks in and can be used for a variety of different things. In Assassin’s Creed IV it allows you to do your taunt, in other games it’s used to swipe through the inventory. You can’t use it without taking a hand off another part of the controller but it’ll be interesting to see how much use developers can get out of it. Our only real problem with the Dualshock 4 is the light bar. A bright glowing light on the top of the controller changes colour and is illuminated with such intensity you can easily see the reflect when in a slightly dark room. We were told by a number of developers as far as they know you cannot turn it off (this includes Killzone, Knack and Blacklight) because it is used to track where the controller is. But it can’t do that if you don’t have the camera, and the camera doesn’t come with the PS4, so lots of people are going to have these bright annoying lights for no reason at all. In Killzone it was used as a health bar, turning from green to pinkish-red as you took damage. This strikes us as a gimmick, it’s not hard to tell your health status in FPS games and it’s rarely obtrusive, you actually have to look down at the controller to notice it. It doesn’t replace the reddening of the screen, but it feels like a useless addition. For people who sit opposite a glossy TV screen, this light will be a real problem and hopefully Sony will allow users to disable it at will before too long. The idea of swapping sides depending on who has which controller is neat, but how often does that problem occur compared to the inconvenience of constantly having a brightly coloured light reflecting in your screen at all times?

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The launch lineup is sadly disappointing for the PS4, to the point where we’re not sure what we’ll be picking up on launch day. Knack looked awful and there was no other way to describe it. Countless people who got to play were disappointed in the hour or so we were in the Sony booth, due to an abundance of clipping, unstable framerates and bland textures. Yes it’s great that Knack is made up of loads of little parts but they don’t interact with the environment, when you attack enemies you go straight through them. The level shown was tedious and the gameplay seemed completely uninspired. It’s a shame that one of the more unique games of the next-gen launches has turned out this way, but perhaps this was an early build and things have tightened up before November, I’d wait for reviews before getting it though.

Killzone looked fine but not as spectacular as the E3 demo. The gameplay is very much typical of the Crysis/Far Cry style of FPS, with a lot of movement options backed up with some heavy weaponry. The use of a drone and grappling hook was cool but got boring in the ten or so minutes we got to watch someone play the game. We didn’t get a chance to try out the multiplayer but we heard it was fantastic so this will be our launch title of choice despite what appears to be a ho-hum single player.

Driveclub was poor with mediocre graphics and possibly accurate but quite dull handling. The social aspects of it could be more interesting and there will be a free version available with Playstation Plus, but the game was much less exciting than the PS3-based Gran Turismo 6 and paled in comparison to Forza over on the Xbox booth. There was no real sense of speed, the cars looked flat and the scenery was bleak and depressing. This is a soulless game that will hopefully have a few hidden tricks up its sleeve.

Sony have been working hard to publicise their indie line-up and this is where some of the real gems will be. Games like Hotline Miami 2 and The Witness will undoubtedly be fun experiences, but they’re hardly what you buy a powerhouse of a system to play. There’s more good games on their way for the PS4 including the spectacular Infamous: Second Son and the interesting sounding ‘The Order’, but as far as exclusives go the launch line-up is quite weak. If you’re only getting one console though, there’ll be a wealth of multiplatform titles like Call of Duty, Battlefield, Watchdogs and Assassin’s Creed to keep you happy so there’s no need to panic just yet. In our situation where many of those games will be bought on our PC and then the consoles are left for their exclusives, Sony aren’t offering much to choose from.

Our favourite feature of the PS4 is the share button. The Xbox One might have something similar but the PS4’s is right there on the front of the controller and while we don’t know all the details yet, the partnership with Twitch and promise of longer game recordings can only be a good thing. The UI that was shown off for this at E3 promised some kind of Miiverse style functionality which can only be a good thing. The ability to pause your game and see where your friends are up to or messages from gamers around the world can be a whole lot of fun on the Wii U, and with recorded game clips and live streaming the PS4’s strength could easily be its community and dedication to making things like this easy to use.

Overall we were disappointed with Sony’s showing at Gamescom. Killzone and Infamous weren’t playable on the show floor, Watchdogs and Need for Speed were actually running on PCs hooked up to PS4 controllers (even for the Watchdogs demonstration in Sony’s own booth!), the controller light is a pain that will be hard to ignore and the new IP launch titles were ultimately dull and uninspired. We’ve no doubt that Sony are along the right track with a lot of concepts for the PS4, but in terms of the launch it’s hard to get excited about what they’re currently offering, perhaps there’s still some surprises to come?

 

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