Bit-Review: Playstation 4 – Greatness Has (Almost) Arrived

"Sorry, I won't be coming in to work today... or all next week... or the week after that... or... you know what?  I'm sorry, but I'm deathly ill and have to quit..."

“Sorry, I won’t be coming in to work today… or all next week… or the week after that… or… you know what? I’m sorry, but I’m deathly ill and have to quit…”

The Playstation 4 has arrived to usher in the next generation of console gaming, and if you’ve been paying attention to the internet – like, at all – then you know it’s been a rocky start. The big name review sites have been unimpressed with first party and certain third party titles, and everyone’s in a tizzy over what’s become known as the ‘blue pulse of death’. I’m not here to provide opinions on the games just yet – as I’ll cover them in future updates – and I don’t think I need to discuss the blue pulse of death just yet. Is it an issue? Of course, but we really don’t have much statistical data to go on. No, I’m merely here to describe my experience with the PS4 thus far.
For those who don’t want in-depth impressions, here’s the short and thick of it:

PROS:

-The Dualshock 4 is the most comfortable controller I’ve ever used.
-The ‘Options’ button is an effective replacement for ‘start’ and ‘select’… and then some.
-Ability to view detailed list of updates and what they fixed/added is a huge step forward.
-‘Share’ is easily my favorite feature at the moment. Live commentary is fun… even if nobody is watching (I’m a sad, sad man).
-The user interface is simple, and gives you easy access to everything you want/need to know.
-Streaming video and switching between multiple apps has produced zero hiccups… like, at all.
-‘What’s New’ is a brilliant cascade that reminds you of your accomplishments, as well as your friends.
-Games have run with zero lag in my experience.

CONS:

-The included mono headset is functional, but that’s about it. Horrendously cheap addition.
-The charge on the DS4 doesn’t last as long as the DS3.
-There are some easy things that Sony missed – How about the ability to import Facebook friends?
-The UI overall will eventually need a better way to sort your apps.
-Certain features that were advertised are not yet live at launch (‘taking over’ someone’s game, for example).

User Interface:

I pulled my PS4 out of its box around 12:15 am, hooked it up to my A/V receiver and turned it on. The moment I finished setting up the network, it began to download the day 1 patch, and by the time I finished the overall initial setup it was already 1/3 of the way complete. It wasn’t long before I was up and running.

Finally playing around with the user interface, I was pleasantly surprised at how simple it was. I didn’t think I was going to like it at first, but it won me over and then some.

There are two reasons the UI will likely appease the masses – Information and social integration, and there are only two rows for accessing all the PS4 has to offer. That said, I can already foresee a problem looming in the distance based on this two row approach.

The ‘home row’ is made up of large icons that come with their own drop-down menus. The first of which is labeled ‘What’s New’, and gives you a nice and blocky mosaic that details what trophies you’ve earned, the games you’ve downloaded or updated, and what you’ve decided to share on Facebook and/or Twitter. It also shares what your friends have been up to. The following icons in the home row are for games and other apps/services. The drop-downs for games will show you how many trophies you have, how many of your friends have the game, provide a direct link for add-on content, and more. There’s even a ‘like’ button similar to what you’d find on Facebook.

Also in the home row is the ‘Live on Playstation’ icon, and this allows you to browse through live streams and spectate to your heart’s desire. You can also participate in text-based chat. Eventually, you’ll also be able to ‘take over’ someone’s game when they need help, but this feature wasn’t live at the time of launch.

The uppermost row is the stuff we’re already (mostly) accustomed to – The PSN Store, Profile, Friends, Settings, Notifications, etc. The Notifications section is probably the most appealing for me, because it’s more like a hard breakdown of what we’ve done as opposed to the pretty ‘What’s New’ layout. You can see when you’ve earned trophies, when you’ve updated games and when installs are ready, and it’s also where you can check your current upload and download status.

So, what exactly is the downside to this two row approach? Whenever you install a new app or game, it obviously makes the row longer. Any time you use a game or app, it puts it at the beginning of the row. After buying lots of games on disc or PSN, it’s going to end up being a chronological mess. Here’s hoping Sony comes up with some sort of grouping option in the future.

Sony also missed some features which have already been well integrated into other (mostly mobile) platforms. Facebook integration is heavily transparent on the PS4, so why not allow people to import friends from their Facebook profile? It’s small stuff like this that makes it almost painfully obvious that this is ‘just the beginning’… a work in progress. The potential is almost there, but there’s still a lot of stuff they can tweak to make the experience perfect.

Game Installation –

First time you put a game in the PS4, you’ll see its icon pop-up on the home row with a small status bar beneath it. This indicates that the game is currently installing on the hard drive, and the process is surprisingly fast. You’ll also be able to play a game while it installs…

Dualshock 4

This controller is my new favorite. The sticks have convex bowls that are surrounded by a raised circular ridge, which offers a firm grip for our thumbs. Stick movement is somewhat stiffer than those of the DS3, and in-game control is greatly enhanced as a result (no more ‘overshooting’ your target). The top triggers are wide and concave, and are by far the most comfortable fit on a controller to date. All hard buttons (directional and X, O, etc) have eliminated the ‘squishy’ feel from the DS3.

The major draw is going to be the touchpad, and it’s incredibly responsive. Its implementation is disappointingly sparse at the moment, but the promise is there. In Killzone, you have to swipe a certain direction to change the ‘mode’ in which your OWL bot operates (electro-shock, zip cord, attack, shield), and AC IV uses it for map navigation. Knack – as fun as it is – doesn’t use this feature at all. I’m sure other games will get around to it in the not too distant future, but it’s disappointing to see a lack of day 1 support. One thing I was hoping for, was that it would be utilized for mouse functionality in the PS4 web browser, but that’s not the case. You can’t even use the touchpad to navigate the PS4’s UI, despite Sony having showed that off at one time. As with many other things, I’m sure that will change with a future firmware update… which is a wise move on Sony’s behalf (so they can work out the kinks before implementing more features), but it’s still disappointing nonetheless.

And then there’s the light bar – It’s very, very bright, and each player will have a different color assigned – Blue, red, yellow, or pink. The light helps the PS camera identify which player is which, and if players manage to change their seating position, games can switch the split-screen to coincide with where players are sitting. Killzone made terrific use of this light in-game, though – The light indicates health, and changes from green, to yellow, to red. This isn’t much help during the day since you can’t see the light reflected in front of you, but it was helpful at night as I was far better able to gauge when it was time to take cover.

Let’s not forget the in-controller speaker, which I guess takes a cue from the Wii-mote. In Killzone, I picked up audio logs, and I was surprised when they came through the controller for the first time. In Knack, you can hear the blocks mixing together when collected. It’s a neat feature…

But there’s one thing the light and speaker aren’t good for – Battery life. Don’t worry, you can still sit down and marathon for hours at a time, but the charge just doesn’t last as long as the DS3. The upside? The DS4 charges faster than its predecessor. There’s also an aux jack on the bottom for headphones or the included mono headphone with mic, and as wonderful a feature as it can be – it’s awesome to hook some headphones to the controller instead of laying a lengthy cord across the living room from my receiver – I’m sure it doesn’t help matters much, especially when you decide to route all sound to the headphones exclusively.

The ‘Options’ button is a real treat, too. People cried foul when there was no sign of a ‘start’ or ‘select’ button, but this button is pretty much an all-in-one. Press it within a game and it will pull up the game menu. Press it outside of a game, and you’ll see options that are specific for a game or app. One of my favorite features of the ‘options’ button, is that I can pull up a game’s update history… and not just the dates of update, but the specifics as to what each patch fixed/implemented. People will need to remember to start using the ‘options’ button instead of looking for some sort of ‘settings’ menu, but once they do… bliss.

There’s also the ‘Share’ button, but it’s a major software feature and I’ll discuss that in a bit.

Last but not least is the audio jack, which allows you to use any headphones with standard audio plug, even if it has a mic. A nice feature on the PS4 is that you can actually choose to route all in-game audio to the headphones through the DS4. I found this to be preferable to dragging out a long extension cable to plug into my receiver.

All in all, a massive improvement and probably the best controller I’ve ever had the pleasure of using.

Included Mono Earpiece and Mic

It gets the job done, and will do in a pinch for anyone who doesn’t want to scramble and spend money on a better headset with mic… but what the hell was Sony thinking? The hard, rounded ear piece design is terrible and reminds me of the original ipod ‘phones… minus the soft pad. This thing won’t stay in your ear if you’re prone to moving around while you play, and when they do, they can get uncomfortable after a short amount of time. Couldn’t Sony have opted for something that would at least fit in our ear? Would it have been difficult to give us a basic bud with a rubber piece that would keep it in place? You’re going to want to replace this, no questions asked.

Console Design

The PS4 is sleek and surprisingly small. You think people may have lied when they said it wasn’t much bigger than a slim PS3 model… but if you haven’t seen the PS4 in the wild yet, wait until you do – The box is really slender and left me scratching my head. “My PS4 is in there? How in the…” Unlike the Xbox 360 or the upcoming Xbox One, Sony not only squeezed all the pertinent hardware inside the small machine, but the power supply, too.

Anyway, enough of my gawking – Let’s address this ‘wobble’ that everyone has been freaking out over. I’ve decided to use my PS4 in a horizontal position, and the wobble is a non-issue. If I push the front left corner of the machine done, it does have a teeny tiny wobble, but who cares? I won’t be pressing on the top of my console… ever. I put in a disc, the machine doesn’t move. I take out a disc, the machine doesn’t move. I hook a USB cable up so I can charge my controller, and the damn thing STILL doesn’t move. It’s stable, and nobody should listen to the hyperbole on the net.

I love the light that runs down the center of the top of the console (right side if you store it vertically). When the machine is turning on, there’s a blue pulse and when the UI launches, the light turns a solid white. Putting the console in standby – the mode in which USB power still works and will allow the PS4 to gank and install updates from PSN while you’re away – is indicated by a dim yellow light. I think Sony have really outdone themselves with the sleek slanted look, too – This makes the power and eject buttons much easier and natural to use, and it just looks so modern, if not somewhat futuristic. It’s certainly leaps and bounds better than the original, fat PS3 design… and I’m sorry, but the PS3 looked terrible. Major thumbs up to Sony.

Share

I know that sharing video feeds over the net isn’t exactly new, but including such a feature in a game console is something of a revelation. If I sound overly excited about the Share functionality, it’s because I am. It’s another one of those things that I thought I’d never really use, but it’s causing my inner-geek to leap for joy. Any time I’m not using bandwidth on my PC, I’m streaming my gameplay on the PS4… for now and ever more. But I’m getting ahead of myself:

How does sharing content work? Hit the ‘Share’ button.

Once you do, a menu pops up with three options – Share a screenshot, share a video, or stream.

Screenshot is self-explanatory.

When you choose to share a video, you’ll be brought to a screen where you can scroll through your last 15 minutes of gameplay and trim to your heart’s content. If you want to share all 15 minutes, you can. If you only want to share 10 seconds worth, you can. And just as an FYI – People have widely reported that you can’t include commentary over your gameplay for video sharing… but YOU CAN. By default the PS4 doesn’t record mic audio, but if you hit the ‘Options’ button in the Share menu, you can enable this feature. Upload your video – which currently only supports uploads to Facebook – and wallah, there’s your video WITH commentary. Youtube support is supposedly coming in the future… here’s hoping it’s sooner rather than later.

Streaming is also simple. At first you’ll have to setup a Twitch or Ustream account – which you can easily and quickly do from the PS4 – but after? Just tap ‘Share’, select the ‘stream’ icon, and then you’re greeted with a few simple options before telling the PS4 to start your stream. You can actually share a feed link with Facebook and/or Twitter, and you can select whether or not you want to include yourself via the camera or mic audio. Hit the ‘Options’ button and you can even change the quality of the stream.
Honestly, prior to launch, I didn’t see myself using the Share feature much. I figured it would be a hassle… but once I saw how simple and intuitive it was, I was hooked. If I’m playing, I’m streaming. End of story.

App Switching

How many times have we tried to do something on the PS3, only to be told, “Are you sure, because you’ll have to get the hell out of your game if you want to do that, dumbass.” Well, the PS4 hopes to rectify that… and so far, I’m impressed. I’m playing a game, and all of a sudden I randomly decide I need to do something else. I press the ‘PS’ button on the controller and go out to the main menu. Or, I double tap the PS button to immediately switch to the last app I was using. The transition is smooth, and that’s all I can really ask for, isn’t it? There’s no stutter, no slowdown… nothing. Just pure performance.

I’ve probably missed some stuff, but this wasn’t meant to be a full review. These are my initial impressions from the first week, and I only see the PS4’s features improving as time goes on. The fact that they don’t support other multimedia support out of the box (from external hard drives, for example) is really unfortunate, but mp3’s will be supported in the future, and I hope other video files will as well. Outside of that, this console is definitely a sharp contrast from what the Xbox One offers – If you want an all-in-one living room experience, the Xbox One will fulfill that (and reviews in this regard have been good, with the caveat that you should wait until certain kinks are worked out). If you want a pure gaming experience… well, here’s the PS4.

In short? Greatness has arrived… almost. The PS4 is a solid machine and runs as smooth as a baby’s behind, but it still needs a little work from a firmware standpoint. Outside of that, it’s definitely worth picking up now. Enjoy!

By the way – My experience with the games has been pretty stellar thus far. Killzone Shadow Fall isn’t a perfect title, but it’s gorgeous and still a solid Killzone title. Knack has been bashed by reviewers… but it’s a perfectly competent and FUN action platformer. Battlefield 4 has way too many issues to even think about playing at the moment though, unfortunately, but the devs should be issuing a patch early next week. Resogun is a free title on PS+ at the moment, and it’s ADDICTIVE. Think of a Gradius meets Geometry Wars, and you’ve got a grasp on what to expect. There’s also other free to play titles, but I haven’t had a chance to get to them. I’ll update on those in the future.

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