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Posted by Chuck Corbin on Nov 18, 2013

Review – Sony PS4

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From 1994 all the way up to 2006 Sony has dominated the console landscape. It all started with the PlayStation, a console developed by Sony which had never been in the console business unlike Sega or Nintendo. Yet still they managed to come out on top because of easy to use hardware, a good relationship they built up with the gaming industry, and the fact that unlike the N64 it didn’t use cartridges but rather discs to store games. That allowed developers to fit a lot more information into a game, making the PlayStation an instant success.

The PlayStation 2 did even better things for Sony. While the PlayStation was a hit, the PS2 was a complete superstar. It became the greatest selling console of all time, easily beating out its main competition thanks in part to the PlayStation brand, but also because unlike the Gamecube and the Xbox, it came out a full year earlier giving folks the opportunity to get a “next-gen” console a year earlier than if they waited for venerable Nintendo or upstart Microsoft to get their machines out to market. The PS2 would probably be considered to be Sony’s greatest video gaming achievement.

Once 2006 hit, however, Sony had gotten drunk power and decided to release the PlayStation 3. It’s not a bad system, but there’s a reason why it hasn’t dominated the gaming landscape like its older brothers. For one, instead of using a more conventional architecture for its insides, Sony decided to use a Cell processor for the PS3. It’s powerful, for sure, but the difficulty of using it has doomed the otherwise stronger PS3 to be the target of ports for 3rd party games, and not the genesis for those games. What’s more the console was expensive at launch, coming in at a price of $600! Couple that with the fact that the console came out a year later than the Xbox 360 and it’s actually a surprise that the consoles both have similar sales numbers 7 years after the PS3’s release. After all, the thing that probably saved the PS3 from being an abject failure was the fact that it had a built in Blu-Ray player at a time when Blu-Ray players were going for a thousand dollars. Early adopters of Blu-Ray probably saved the PS3 for a time until great 1st party games came about.

It’s now 2013, and just this past Friday Sony has released their latest console, the PlayStation 4. How does it stack up? Will it take Sony back to the heights of the PS2? Or is the system a dud, hard to use and finicky? Over the weekend we bought a PS4 and played with it the entire time, and we’re ready to give our assessment. Spoiler alert: it’s good.

The System

Each PlayStation over the years has had their own distinct look: the PlayStation was grey with a CD-ROM tray right in the middle, the PS2 was black and a bit bulky until the redesign which made it quite light and portable, the PS3 was even bulkier and full of curves until its Slim design came about and made the console quite handsome. The PS4 continues that trend, but instead of going with curves it’s doing something different: the PS4 is a rhombus, all in black, with a line on the top that separates a glossy and matte finish into two distinct panels, and all around the edge halfway around the console is a much bigger groove that separates the top from the bottom. The line on the top of the console is the light for console, turning blue when it turns on, white for when the system is completely on, and orange when it is in standby mode. It’s not a solid light either, but rather as the line goes towards the back of the console it starts to fade away. The line also goes down the front of the console, where the touch-sensitive power and eject buttons are placed in the recess. The grove in the middle serves a more practical purpose. For one, besides just giving a place to put the disc and for putting 2 USB 3.0 ports on the front it also provides air intakes on the sides to get cool air in to blow through the console before pushing it out in the back. It looks sleek sitting in the entertainment center, but at the same time it isn’t completely distracting either. What’s more, unlike the launch PS2 and PS3 the PS4 doesn’t look absolutely bloated. Despite being quite a bit more powerful than an Xbox 360 the console is actually smaller than it.

Of course, you can’t mention an Xbox 360 without talking about heat, a problem many folks are wary about with this new generation of consoles. Even though we may have only been using the console for a weekend, I can say that the PS4 does put off a bit of heat through the back. And despite the good amount of heat it’s throwing out, the system is about as quiet as can be! In fact, the noisiest I ever hear it is when it spins up the Blu Ray drive to check that the game you’re trying to play is in the system. I feel like over time things will be OK with the PS4 when it comes to problems with heat, but with that being said make sure you put your PS4 in a well-ventilated area and do a little bit of dusting every once in awhile. If you do that, you’ll likely not have to worry about any heat issues with the system.

The back of the console contains your connections. You’ve got a specialized port for a PS Camera back there, an HDMI slot, an optical audio slot, an ethernet port, and the place to put your power cable in. That’s it. If you for some reason don’t have an HD tv with an HDMI connection then you won’t be playing a PS4, because HDMI is the only port available for the system. The power cable, however, is the same power cable that Sony has used since the original PlayStation. That’s because Sony has placed the power brick inside the console, saving some room outside, but if there turns out to be an overheating issue a year down the road then that will be the first thing to go in a redesign.

The User Interface

If there’s a weak spot to the PS4, I’d have to argue that it’s the user interface on the main menu. While it’s generally easy enough to get around, you’ll find that Sony has placed all the settings in a ton of different menus that are not always clear about what they are for. This leads to some frustration when I tried to change what the Share button does on my controller, only to find out that it wasn’t in the settings menu but rather I had to change it by pressing the button while on the main menu.

The way games are placed on the main menu bar is even worse. Games are placed to the left in the order they’re played, without rhyme or reason. At launch time this isn’t such a big deal as you might only have 3 or 4 games to start out with, but over time as your collection grows it’s going to get increasingly frustrating as the bar gets longer. All in all, it seems to me that Sony merely adapted the PS3 main menu for the PS4, and I’m expecting that after some time Sony will end up doing a major UI renovation to clean it up a bit. The UI isn’t the worst thing in the world, and luckily calling it up from the middle of the game is rather painless, but you’ll undoubtedly find yourself cursing at it from time to time when you have to make some changes. For instance, I’ve found that merely plugging in an ethernet cord when you had been on a Wi-Fi signal won’t just automatically switch you to using the wired connection: you actually have to go into the settings and tell it to use the wired connection. What’s more, it’s the same thing the other way: if you go from a wired to a wireless you already have stored you have to actually set the system to use the wireless. Luckily, since the information is store you just have to press “Connect via Wi-Fi” and that’s it, but undoubtedly it’ll be a bit of a chore for less tech-savvy folks who might take the PS4 from place to place. And if you’re planning on watching Netflix for awhile, I hope your controller is charged or you don’t mind leaving it hooked to the PS4: right now there’s no way to turn off the controller while video is being watched like you could with the Xbox 360, meaning you’ll have to leave it on even for those times it’s not doing anything.

If the UI ends up being the worst thing about the system, however, I think it’s easy to say that the PS4 is going to be fine.

Performance

In the end, though, you’re not going to buy a PS4 to just look at the menus and the box! You’re here to play it, to feel the rumble in the controller as you powerslide into a corner, to watch alien ships blow up in all their glory. The PS4 is the most powerful console to date, with an 8 core 1.60 GHz processor, 8 GBs of RAM, and a GPU that’s out of this world. And let me tell you, everything looks amazing on this system!

Need for Speed: Rivals

The first game I ended up playing was Need for Speed: Rivals. Rendering at 1080p at 30 frames per second (fps), you can really tell just how powerful the system is in the reflections, the weather effects, the crashes, everything. All of this is happening while you’re driving in a car at over 200 mph, and with no slow down or stuttering by the system as it’s cranking out all the smoke and debris that comes after you take a corner way too fast and smash into a poor civilian.

The game itself is pretty simple: you’re either a racer or a cop, and you’re given a set of tasks to progress in your “profession”. Those tasks might be to get a gold in an event, or to rack up so many points in a single game session. The Alldrive feature is pretty nice, as you’ll get matched up with other folks nearby when you start the game. It’s not quite a seamless as EA suggested earlier in the year, however. When you are placed in the game you can see definitely who is in the game with you, and where exactly they are. It’s possible for you to play a session without seeing another actual human being, but if you feel like going after the deadliest game of all, Man, then you can just pull up your map and see where they are at.

Overall, if you like racing games, and you like a little bit of chaos in your experience then you might just want to pick up NFS: Rivals. You’ll be glad you did!

Resogun

Resogun is simple little side-scrolling shooter. Basically, you’re a pilot and you’re trying to save the last humans, all the while you need to destroy the aliens that are coming about to wreck your stuff. You’ve got bombs, and overdrive, and you can get upgrades to your weapons by destroying these containers containing power ups. It’s not a big game, after all there are only 5 levels, but for PS+ members it’s free and what’s more it will show up off the power of your console. Huge explosions filled ripple across the whole level, destroying tons of enemy ships in a single devastating blow, all of this in glorious 1080p without any hint of slowdown by the system. It’s an arcade shooter, the kind of game you can gather a bunch of friends around and try to top each others high scores. If you end up getting a PS4, make sure you use that 30 PS+ trial and pick this game up!

Battlefield 4

The last game we played on the PS4 was Battlefield 4, and it really looks good when it worked. I say that because there is a major issue going around with BF4 in particular where once it gets to the main menu the game crashes, with the error CE-34878-0. By most accounts it appears to be a problem with the game, and not the system and should hopefully be patched before too long. We were able to get a comparison shot between the PS4 and the PS3 versions of the game, and the results, while not damning, still paint the PS4 in a good light. We’ve shot some footage side by side between the different versions, and you can tell that the PS4 definitely has an advantage. We’ll have that video up in the coming days.

As for the game itself, it’s Battlefield! There are plenty of multiplayer modes available, and with the “levolution” feature anything and everything can be blown up into smithereens. To get a good idea of what the game is capable of, you should check out the training map and start blowing some stuff up. That being said, I wouldn’t bother going into the single player story yet. Because of that crashing issue, the game’s save data will end up being corrupted and you’ll be stuck having to start from the beginning. As nice as BF4 looks, this is probably the one game you might want to wait on for a little bit until the next patch is out to fix it.

Netflix

Unlike in days past, consoles these days are used for more than just games. One of the biggest bonuses to Sony systems over Microsoft’s is the fact that Sony doesn’t hide services like Netflix behind a pay wall. After installing Netflix I have to say that the PS4 is the best Netflix machine I’ve ever seen. The program is fast and responsive, and accessing things like subtitles and checking how much time left in a program is easier than other. It certainly beats the crap out of my old $20 Black Friday Blu Ray player!

Controller

Since the introduction of the DualShock back in 1997 Sony has been relying on what is essentially the same controller design for all of those years. Sure, there have been some various changes here and there, but for the most part it’s been same. And while that design was good for the PlayStation and PlayStation 2, the revision for the PlayStation 3 ended up falling a bit flat. The sticks were a bit too close together, and the newly-introduced triggers on the back were just awful, and as a result the controller was panned by gamers and critics alike. It wasn’t all bad, though. It did feature a built in battery unlike the 360’s controller, but otherwise it was the same controller from its predecessors.

The PS4 controller is by far the most radical change in the controller since the introduction of the DualShock. Gone are the Start and Select buttons, instead replaced with a clickable touchpad as well as an Options and Share button. The sticks are now a bit tougher than in the past, and the middles are now recessed, giving your thumbs a little well to settle in. The triggers have been redesigned and are now a comfortable concave shape that your fingers rest in instead of the horrible convex shape of the PS3 controller. The controller also features a little speaker in it, just like the Wii Remote, and there’s a 3.5 mm stereo headset jack as well so you can game without disturbing your roommate. This is nice, because you can use any pair of headphones with a standard stereo jack. One of the most notable features is the light bar on the top of the controller which can be used for a myriad of different features. The one you’ll notice most often is that it signifies what player you are, but different games can make use of the light bar any way they want to. For instance, in NFS: Rivals the light bar will change to red if you’re doing racer missions, or blue if you’re doing cop missions. Killzone uses the light bar to signify how much health you have left. The light bar is also used by the PlayStation Camera to track the controllers for different games.

When it comes to the controller I can’t say enough good things about it. It fits in your hands quite well, and unlike other games I’ve played in the past I don’t find my hands cramping up after hours of play. The triggers are as responsive as could be, with practically no dead zone that I could tell. That made games like NFS: Rivals play really well as I could feather the throttle in a way I could never do on the original PlayStation. If there’s a complaint I have about the controller, it’s the fact that the charging cord for it is awfully short, which can be a pain if you’re about to run out of juice in the battery and you’re in the middle of something, and sadly the DualShock 4 doesn’t have near the battery life of its predecessor. Luckily, the PS4 will charge your battery in standby mode, definitely an improvement to the PS3.

Social Media, aka the Share Button

One of the most touted features of the PS4 and its new controller is the Share button. By pressing one button you can capture screen shots, take footage of game play, and upload it to your Facebook account in just a matter of seconds. I played around with the Share button a little bit, and despite some quirks it actually works quite well.

As lackluster as the UI is, the ability to Share screenshots and gameplay footage has been done pretty well. I’ve got it set up so that pressing the button takes a screenshot, and holding it down will open up the Sharing menu. Because the PS4 constantly records the last 15 minutes of gameplay I can at any time look at the footage taken, make a start point, an end point, and trim the footage down and post it on Facebook. Once it’s on there the footage isn’t at the same level as it was when I was playing it, but if you turn HD on it still looks pretty decent. Now you can show off that sweet pit maneuver you did, and have proof that you really did pull off that 1-in-a-million headshot.

Streaming works well enough as well, though it appears with Twitch that I can’t actually capture the footage which is a bit of a bummer. If you have the PS Camera you can also stream footage of yourself with the game, which is pretty cool if you’re into that sort of narcissism. Unfortunately when I streamed my gameplay, the quality of the stream wasn’t the highest. But overall, I was impressed with the buttons features, though we’ll see how much it gets used over the lifetime of the console.

PS Vita Remote Play

I’ve got good news and bad news about using the Vita’s Remote Play feature with the PS4. The good news is that it works, and when it works it’ll work well. The bad news is that to get it to work it cost me a pretty penny.

First, the good news. By hooking up the Vita using Remote Play you can stream the PS4 through your network to the Vita and control it through the Vita. I’m happy to report that for the most part there is very little lag here, and the controls mostly map to similar way as on the DualShock 4. Obviously the Vita is missing a few buttons compared to the DualShock 4, but games use the back touchpad to compensate. It’s not perfect: for example, Battlefield 4 used the touchpad on the controller to bring up the Battlelog, and when using the Remote play the screen of the Vita does the same thing. It happened way too often that my thumb would brush up against the edge of the screen, bringing up the Battlelog at a moment I didn’t want it to come up. But, that being said, what are you doing playing BF4 on the Vita anyway? You can even use the Vita as a second screen, which can give you extra information about a game you’re playing like a minimap or inventory screen, or it can even be used as a keyboard whenever you have to type something into the PS4. In the next few days we’ll have some footage of Remote Play in action so you can see for yourself how it works. Overall, when Remote Play works, it works well. And that there is the problem.

The fact is, Remote Play requires a really good network to work well. If you’re living out by yourself in the middle of nowhere, with no other networks around you’d probably find that your simple, cheap wireless router will work well with connecting the PS4 and the Vita together. If you’re like me, however, you live in an apartment complex surrounded by tons of different people, all with their own wireless network. The cheap, $60 router I bought in 2010 wasn’t cutting it, and I ended up having to throw down $150 on a much more robust wireless router in order to get the proper coverage and speed necessary. Just keep that in mind when you’re thinking of getting a Vita for Remote Play: it might end up costing you a lot more than what you thought it might cost.

Conclusion

In the end, the PS4 really is a heck of a machine. If there’s a weakness with the machine, it lies with the somewhat frustrating UI as well as the fact that there just isn’t a huge amount of games available for it. Over time that will change as games like Destiny and Watch Dogs come out next year, but for now things are going to be a little bare for a little while. Still, you can bet that over the next few years you’re going to see developers really take full advantage of the PS4s capabilities, and that games from today are going to look absolutely like crap compared to games that come out in 4 or 5 years time.

So, should you go out and get the system? At $400 you’re not really going to be breaking the bank, and if you want to have the latest in console technology then I say yes, go ahead and pick up a PS4. But, with that being said, if you want to wait to get one then by all means do that. There’s a lot to be discovered on the PS4, but you can afford to wait for awhile. The PS3 and Xbox 360 aren’t going anywhere for at least a couple of years.

The Good

  • Sleek, easy to set up
  • Very powerful, very quiet
  • Remote Play works well as long as you have a good network

The Not-So-Good

  • User interface can be frustrating
  • Small launch library
  • Controller’s battery life isn’t stellar

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