PlayStation 4: Greatness A Step Away

December 3, 2013Blog

Ten days from beginning to write this post—I am well aware of my tardiness in finishing posts—I received my PlayStation 4 on launch day. No, I did not pre-order it. For me, acquiring a PS4 on launch was a good bit of luck. A friend texted me on the Tuesday before release to inquire if I would like his PS4 from Amazon, as he had purchased two pre-orders. I have been an Xbox man for the last fourteen years and switching sides left me with a lot of consternation. However, I have been unhappy with Microsoft’s business practices vis-a-vis its Xbox business, and Sony made a compelling case in the last few months. I made up my mind and asked Camille, she said no. So, I resigned myself to waiting and making a more informed decision next summer. Fortunately, Camille is awesome to me. She contacted my friend on the sly and arranged with him to have the PS4 shipped to us. When I arrived home on Friday, November 15, I was greeted by an Amazon box containing my next generation console. Camille was not at home, and I do not think I need to tell you whether I waited for her. By the time she was home, the PS4 had replaced the Xbox 360 in our entertainment console, and Killzone had finished installing.

Playstation 4

The Hardware

The PlayStation box struck me as rather tiny, but I was ill-prepared for how small the PlayStation 4 actually is. Compared to the Xbox 360 and the Xbox One, this thing is lilliputian. Sharp angles meet in just the right places, and the light bar that runs down the top of the PS4 is a nice touch. There are two problems with the design I would like to highlight. First, the angled back makes it difficult to plug cables in sight unseen. With rumors of bad HDMI ports, I was very worried (and careful) in plugging in the necessary cables. Two, the light bar is surprisingly informative for how understated it is. However, it can be a little bright in a darkened room, especially when watching movies. Both of these quibbles should, however, not take away from the fact that the PS4 is both asthetically pleasing and absurdly small. In a revision or two, I wonder if the PS4 will be nothing more than the size of an AppleTV.

The DualShock 3

DualShock 4The PS4 itself was less of a concern to me than the accompanying controller. I have not hidden my utter contempt for the DualShock, which is an affront to usability and design. A controller that sits in your hands all day is the last place for sharp angles and cheap plastic. This got only worse with the removal of rumble at the start of the PS3 generation. It is no wonder that the Xbox 360 controller is widely considered the pinnacle of the modern console controller. So, I hope it comes as a surprise that I think the PS4 controller is pretty great. Sony had a lot of ground to cover and they managed to do so in spades. The controller no longer feels cheap, and the added size and curves position it comfortably in one’s palms. The triggers are concave, providing a place to rest sweaty fingers, and the top of the thumbsticks are no longer convex. These may all seem minor, but they add up in prolonged use. After finishing Killzone: Shadow Fall and playing a good bit of Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, the PS4 controller has held up well. The biggest negative is the absurdly short battery life. At 7-8 hours I can barely get through a day-long gaming session. Having to stop gaming to recharge your controller should not be what Sony intended.

So, the new PS4 controller has made up all of the lost ground against the Xbox, but what is new this generation? The biggest addition is a trackpad on the front of the screen, and unfortunately the response leaves something to be desired. Quick flicks that require little-to-no precision work fine, like in Killzone. However, finer control, for example moving around the map in Assassin’s Creed, is more difficult to achieve. The trackpad will respond intermittently and functions like pinch-to-zoom are missing. For a generaton bred on touchscreens this is going to be an odd disconnect. The added lightbar has little use as well, and it would be nice to disable this for some added battery life if the PlayStation Eye is not attached. The PS4 controller definitely has some forward thinking parts, and Sony’s engineers have finally managed to create a controller that is usable, but the laggard battery life is dissapointing.

The Games

I suppose I should discuss why I jumped ship. Microsoft’s messaging for the last few months turned from ignoring gamers to one giant mea culpa. I have nothing against owning up to mistakes, as I believe that is what made Sony create the almost single-minded PlayStation 4. However, Microsoft has demonstrated an attitude of fleecing its most dedicated customers. For one, Sony has offered upgradeable hard drives on its consoles, something Microsoft has used as an opportunity for a cheap swindle. I also did not mind paying for Xbox Live Gold when it was clearly a service superior in every conceivable way to the Sony offering. However, much like with the controller, Sony has closed the gap to a point where giving $60 a year to Microsoft is no longer justifiable. In addition, Sony has chosen to incentivize its PSN subscription. Good free games have been available to PSN subscribers for years. Microsoft responded earlier this year, and the stable of games have been old fare. Lastly, Sony has chosen to not hide its video apps behind a paywall, a Microsoft practice that has infuriated me. As I grow older and find myself only having time for singleplayer games, the ability to not have to pay for a subscription service is greatly appreciated.

PS4 vs. Xbox One Die

I believe these different approaches translated clearly into the next generation. Sony and Microsoft’s consoles demonstrate whom they are intended to serve. In Sony’s case, the ease of development coupled with the better—I leave the question of how much better aside—hardware is intended to produce the best looking games. I do not deny being shallow. The fact that, as it was later revealed, Sony increased the PS4’s RAM to 8 GB of DDR5 won me over as well. In contrast, Microsoft has consistently demonstrated a conservative approach to the Xbox One that does not seem to maximize value for the consumer. Sure, the Xbox One is relatively easy to develop for like the PS4. However, the bespoke implementation of ESRAM and the desire to continuously push an under-performing Kinect on Xbox users is rankling. These “conservative” decisions extend to the Xbox One’s case, a behemoth that rivals the original Xbox, and somehow fails to incorporate a power supply of similarly gargantuan size. I suppose, in detailing how I arrived at a PS4 in my entertainment center, it is fit to say that Microsoft drove me into Sony’s arms.

The difference in hardware translates into games that are slightly better on the PS4 at this time. However, I strongly believe that this is a delta that will continue to grow and expand as the next generation matures. Killzone looks amazing at 1080p, with a lighting system that shines littles touches and details. Similarly, Assassin’s Creed shows a substantial improvement with remarkable draw distances and picturesques vistas while out on the sea. The leaves rustling as prey is stalked or seeing cities fully rendered from a bird’s-eye view truly demonstrate where the next generation can go.

The User Interface

For all the plaudits I placed upon the PS4 hardware design, the PS4 user interface (UI) leaves much to be desired. There are a lot of issues that make the PS4 UI cumbersome when added together. When logged in, the PS4 UI presents a horizontal row of recently used applications. Unfortunately, applications never fall off this list and are at times illogically grouped. For example, every game played is put in this list. However, this includes even disc based games where the disc is not present. This leads to the awkward proposition of attempting to play a game only to be told that the wrong disc is inserted. Moreover, frequently used video applications are grouped together and hidden. Thus, accessing them takes an extra step. The warning displayed each time the console is turned on is another dated splash screen annoyance that seems placed on us by a poor legal department.

PS4 UI

There are a number of good points, but I fear these are not exclusive to the PS4. Tapping the “PS” button brings up the dashboard (for lack of a better term). The screens are very responsive and making changes to settings is easily accomplished. In addition, double-tapping the “PS” button switches between two active applications. It is easy to have the game running while looking up a strategy guide on GameFAQs. These are all small and appreciated touches. However, the PS4 takes it upon itself to inform me when an application will be suspended. I understand when it wants to close an application, but without any context as to the repercussions of “suspension” I simply hit OK and move on. That perfectly elucidates a consistent problem with the PS4 interface. Sony, there are simply too many dialog boxes for something running on my television and most steps (like checking notifications) always seem to require an extra step. The PS4 does make some important strides with “social.” A friend feed displays much like its Facebook counterpart, though it also suffers from the similar problem of overwhelming the user with information. It is a nice touch though, and paired with the iPhone app it is a helpful way to keep up on my friends’ gaming activities. It is also extremely easy to share screenshots and videos from the console, though I believe the Xbox One once again beats the PS4 with its streamlined UI. One place the PS4 has improved, and where the Xbox One has regressed, is party chat. Party chat is easy to setup and is consistent throughout the experience, very much reminiscent of the Xbox 360.

PlayStation 4 - Cross-Media Bar

Then there is the lack of DLNA and MP3 support, which Sony promises to rectify in short order. I am sure that will be taken care of in due course, but until that happens I cannot play my vast selection of Trance music while being entranced by the bright colors of Resogun. In a side-by-side comparison, the PS4 also lacks “true” multi-tasking that the Xbox One seems to possess, though I question the efficacy of the “Snap” on a day-to-day basis. This is purely subjective, but the Xbox One’s Metro interface is more aesthetically pleasing in conclusion and it feels like Sony has something to make up—though I cannot always place my finger on what exactly.

Conclusion

With the PS4 Sony seems to be engaging in a giant mea culpa. Unlike Microsoft, Sony does not seem to treat its paying consumer as a product. I think that was one of the most galing parts of the Xbox 360’s NXE, large ads adorning a product I paid for (and continued to pay for through a Live subscription). The PS4 hardware is a step ahead of the Xbox One, and I believe the gulf in resolution and effects will only widen. The lack of certain hardware and features—Kinect and TV—is something I do not think I will miss, and the compromises Microsoft made to achieve those takes away from the Xbox One’s bonafides as a game console. The software missteps are fixable and Sony has given itself the necessary breathing room for (hopefully) continuous updates. The next generation looks pretty good and I cannot wait for the graphical leap that awaits us in the next few years.