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For the players (and only the game players): Sony’s PlayStation 4 reviewed

By Leigh D. Stark | 2:29 pm 12/12/2013

The next generation of gaming is here. Seven years on from the release of Sony’s third PlayStation, the fourth has made landfall, bringing with it faster insides, more gaming power, and new controllers and accessories. But is it worth owning just yet, or should you wait a bit?

Features

Built from the ground up, very little of the technology used is shared with the predecessor, the PlayStation 3, as the PlayStation 4 has been designed to keep powerful gaming possible on a Sony system for the next few years.

As such, the console features an entirely new combination of processor and graphics, ditching the Cell processor and replacing it with an eight-core AMD processor that integrates the graphics and processing using AMD’s Accelerated Processing Unit technology, also known as an “APU.”

There are eight gigabytes (8GB) of memory complimenting this, with a 500GB hard drive for storing games and files that can be replaced by the user, with solid-state drives supported as well.

A Blu-ray drive is included in the package, with connectivity options handled through 802.11 b/g/n WiFi, Bluetooth, a wired Gigabit Ethernet connection, and two USB 3.0 ports.

Unlike previous PlayStation models, however, there are no analogue video connections, with everything handled through HDMI, though there is an optical audio connection if you want to take the audio straight to a sound device rather than the TV.

These innards are cased in a new body that still sports a slot-loading drive, with a light-up strip making up the slice down the body.

A new controller is also included, now called the DualShock 4, with a slightly different design and a couple of different buttons and a speaker.

A light on the back is also here, and the new controller can be charged with microUSB, rather than the mini-USB used on the PlayStation 3’s controller.

Also of note, PS3 controllers cannot be used on the PS4.

Performance

Out of the box, it’s clear that this is a new PlayStation, and you definitely won’t confuse it for anything else. With a different design, style, and an evolved gamepad, this is a totally new device.

Plugging it into the wall, it’s nice to see Sony has continued with the tradition of putting the power supply directly in the console, meaning it’s just a figure 8 plug that’s needed to power it up, though you will need an HDMI capable TV for this thing, as support for the old AV cables seems to have dried up.

That’s ok, though, as pretty much every TV sold in the past five years has at least one HDMI port, so go and use that.

Switch the console on and there’s a familiar beep, the same one (we think) that Sony used on the PlayStation 3. Adding to this to tell you that the console is on is the white light strip that divides the console into two sections from a design point of view, fading into the distance, and just giving you a subtle hint that “yes, your new console is on.”

Once it switches on (and you create or log in with your PlayStation Network account details), you’ll see an all new menu that feels a touch like the old one, yet split up into two sections.

On the bottom row — the main row — are your apps and shortcuts to things you like, such as the games you’ve been playing recently, multimedia services, and what you’ve been doing in the “What’s New” box, which is the first thing you’ll see every time you load it up. Up above, that’s where the settings and notifications now live, shrinking these things into a less important, but still usable area.

By now, you’ll have already seen the controller — hey, you need it to log into the PS4 — but let’s look at it, as it’s easily Sony’s best version of the all-too familiar DualShock controller design yet.

In this incarnation, Sony has kept the analogue sticks in the centre, easy for thumbs to touch and move as both hands grip the controller, and the forefingers are held in front of the triggers at the back of the controller, with easy access to the rear bumpers.

Somehow, Sony has made the design more comfortable, though, and while this reviewer normally prefers the Xbox 360 controller to his PS3 one (even going out of his way to find Xbox 360-like controllers for the PS3), the PlayStation 4 controller just feels natural.

Of course, you’ll find the regular four buttons here — square, triangle, circle, and X — in their regular spot to the top right above the right-most analogue stick, while the regular directional pad also sits in its regular spot to left above the left analogue stick, but there’s more to this controller than what Sony normally offers.

For instance, the “start” and “select” buttons are gone, replaced with “share” and “options” buttons which more accurately reflect what the new console will do with games (which we’ll get to shortly). The PlayStation button is there too, though, helpful for taking you back to the menu or even switching on the console.

Also new is the touch sensitive pad sitting above the analogue sticks, which also has a button underneath it. No games use this yet, though if it’s anything like what we saw on the PlayStation Vita, developers could pull some interesting ideas out of it.

You’ll also notice a blue light coming out of the back which will change colours when charging, and looks like an extension of what Sony’s Move did on the PlayStation 3, suggesting that when used with Sony’s motion-sensing camera peripheral (which wasn’t included with our review unit), could be used for some titles.

Finally, there’s a change from mini-USB to microUSB as for how this is charged, which is an excellent change, and brings this controller in line with most other devices around the world.

Now that we’ve touched on the controller, it’s time to get stuck into games, because really, that’s what the “play” is all about in the PlayStation.

Our review unit came with five games to play with, but really, there aren’t many you can play at this time because frankly, there aren’t that many out.

Two of the titles were PlayStation exclusives — “Killzone Shadow Fall” and “Knack” — while the other three are cross-platform titles which can be found not just on the PS4’s main competitor that is the Microsoft Xbox One, but also on not-so-next-gen consoles like the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3.

Killzone showed off some impressive visuals, even if the gameplay took a little too long to really start, while Knack was bright, shiny, and offered some decent beat ‘em up action that reminded us of “Crash Bandicoot” mixed with one of the many LEGO titles.

Both looked excellent, and you could tell they were made for the PS4, though there were some graphical slow downs and judder in Killzone as the real-time animatics were playing back, telling us the developers may not have had enough time finessing the title before the console’s release.

Call of Duty: Ghosts

Beyond these two titles were the three other games we had to test at our disposal, which were cross-platform and included “LEGO Marvel Super Heroes,” “Call of Duty: Ghosts,” and “Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.”

These titles were released for the other consoles, and look good on the PlayStation 4 too, though we haven’t seen what they’re like on the Xbox One for comparison’s sake.

In Ghosts, however, the imagery was quite spectacular, and unlike Killzone, we didn’t spot much lag or slowdowns through the scenes, with solid visuals across the board. LEGO Marvel Super Heroes was very pretty too, with shiny LEGO pieces and some quick and frantic gameplay that will keep the kids — big and little — entertained for hours as they try and unlock every Marvel superhero.

Assassin’s Creed was the title that most looked like a direct port. Imagery reminded us of how it would look on the PlayStation 3, rather than 4, and while that’s not bad, it didn’t quite have the same perfect edges we’d spotted on the other PS4 games. Outside of the not-as-remarkable visuals, the game is a lot of fun, though very big, feeling like a mixture of your typical Assassin’s Creed game and “Sid Meier’s Pirates,” though with a futuristic tech friendly story thrown in for good measure.

Also available to PS4 owners is the PlayStation store, which for some reason still seems keen on charging Australians around $100 per title, even though gamers overseas have it for much less.

We checked out one of the more relaxing — and cheap — titles, “Flower,” which has you play a flower petal gliding on the breeze from one flower to another, opening it up as you do. The gameplay here is pretty minimal, but this was the only title we played that actually used the motion controls built into the PS4 gamepad, making it unique, since no other title we played seemed to use this method of control on the PlayStation 4.

Overall, the games are okay at the moment.

Obviously, there’s more to come, and we’re quite excited about “Watch Dogs,” “Driveclub,” “Kingdom Hearts III,” and whatever “Uncharted” title Naughty Dog decides to release to the PlayStation 4 in the next year or two. At the moment, the game supply is usable, but not great, but we’re sure gamers will find playing these titles, as well as grabbing downloadable content (DLC) a lot of fun.

But there should be more to a console than just games these days, and that’s why Sony has made its movie service “Video Unlimited” and music service “Music Unlimited” available to the platform, while also encouraging developers to make apps to access their content networks.

At the moment, there isn’t much to choose from, with only Quickflix, IGN, and Vidzone offering downloads to access services. There isn’t an app for ABC’s iView, Mubi, Channel 7, or SBS at this time, which is disheartening to say the least, especially to Australians who may want to access these services.

There is still an internet browser, though you’re probably better using the one on your smartphone or tablet, and Sony has also added a feature called “Live from PlayStation” which encourages people to share their games using the “Share” button on the controller, which will record what they’ve been playing so that the world can see it. It’s an interesting idea, and one that could lead to a more social style of gaming.

But as promising as some of these features are, we do have some bones to pick with Sony, though, and one of them comes from design.

To Sony’s credit, the PlayStation 4 isn’t a badly designed console at all, and unlike the VCR-looking Xbox One, Sony has taken a chance and made the PlayStation look interesting.

Yet while the front looks clean and modern, and almost evolves the monolith idea that Sony once used in its televisions, the slot-loading drive is in a strange place, and isn’t easy to point out.

It’s on the left side, but crosses over in the right, just beyond the line that splits the design up.

It’s a confusing location, especially since it’s not easily found like it has been on previous slot-loading PlayStation models, and it’s not helped by the fact that it sits in the shorter space of the PlayStation 4, not the longer part, where it looks more like a disc would go.

In the PlayStation 3 — every version of that console, in fact — it was easy to work out, with a section of the console carved out to indicate this was where CDs, DVDs, and Blu-rays went.

In the PS4, however, there’s none of that, and that obviousness is more of a memory, given way to you being forced to remember the silly location Sony has selected.

Maybe it would have made more sense for the optical drive to sit in the longer section, not the USB ports.

Sony has also been silly with the evolutionary options of the PlayStation 4.

Maybe we’re just set in our ways, but the last we checked, evolutionary devices were supposed to include some of the features of the past moving forward, rather than just creating something anew from scratch.

Unfortunately, Sony has done away with nearly everything we loved about our PlayStation 3, reimagining the idea of a games console and turning off some of the beloved features.

Take your old gaming library from the PS3. In fact, take it to the tip, because it is completely unusable on this console.

Microsoft has actually suffered the same fate on its Xbox One, a fact that doesn’t surprise us since both the processor and graphics chip have dramatically changed on both consoles, and would make automatic backwards compatibility damn near impossible.

But there’s more than just that, as your accessories are now useless.

There’s a new controller, which we’re okay with, but there’s also a new camera tracker, and the EyeToy will not work with it. We haven’t tested the Move yet, but Sony says it should work, so at least that’s something.

The menus have changed dramatically, and now remind us of what it’s like to play with a tablet, plus expect lots of installations of games, though to Sony’s credit, you no longer have to wait around and can do other things while the install is taking place.

Just like on the PS Vita, though, installed games stay on the menu screen, even though you still need to pop in the disc to play them. It’s an odd inclusion, and we’ve never quite understood it, especially since most gamers know to grab the disc when they want to play.

Really, though, it’s the lack of media playback that frustrates us.

In the PlayStation 3, we had a proper media playback solution combined with a gaming console. We had Blu-ray and DVD, and we had MP3s on our network, and videos too. At home, we used the PS3 all the time to browse files we stored on our network drives, and watched what we wanted when we wanted.

But in the PlayStation 4, there’s none of that, and it’s clear that Sony is doing this to push its own services.

Want to playback videos from your network? Too bad, because Sony has a video store that you can pay for.

Care to throw a CD in the PS4 and listen to some tunes? No luck here, as audio CD functionality has been removed, but don’t worry, because you can sign up to Sony’s Music Unlimited service and listen once you pay.

And what about if you want to play a 3D Blu-ray? The PS3 had no problems with this, and was one of the most upgradeable Blu-ray players out there, impressing many. In the PS4, however, 3D Blu-ray support is gone, confusing us greatly.

Those are just three examples we’ve found that have frustrated us, key features we used on the PlayStation 3 because it was a solid media solution, and yet in the PS4, they’re gone, without so much as an explanation.

It’s possible we’ll see them return at one point, but really, we’d like to know why a modern gaming console that is taking over from a once modern gaming console that had these features, and the new modern one does not.

Why, Sony? Why?!

Early stages

It needs to be acknowledged that the PlayStation 4 is very new, and it can take some time to develop a game.

With development cycles stretching from several months to several years, it’s clear that the launch titles haven’t exactly been developed to demonstrate the best of what the PlayStation 4 has to offer.

Like all gaming systems, you’ll find the better titles comes along at least a few years into the life of the console. Sony’s “Heavy Rain,” “Uncharted 3,” and “LittleBigPlanet” are all fantastic examples of PlayStation 3 brilliance, and these all came along a few years after the PS3 was first introduced, while third-party titles such as “Portal 2″ and “Mass Effect 3″ (both of which graced multiple platforms) all demonstrate what developers later learned to take advantage of in the gaming platforms to make the titles better.

Ultimately, this is just the beginning of the PlayStation 4, and there will be better titles coming.

It’s also highly likely we’ll see some cooperation from Sony later on to remove some of the locks that have made it into the new model, such as the removal of networked media playback, and even that of its inability to play audio CDs and 3D Blu-ray titles.

We still find it silly that Sony disabled these features to begin with, especially when the PS4 should have been an evolution of the PS3, not a redrafting that removes functionality that people used, but that’s Sony’s call.

Hopefully the company will talk to its community and find a solution that makes the PS4 better than ever, rather than a compromise.

Games like "Call of Duty: Ghosts" can look amazing, but not all ports will look like they were made for the PlayStation 4.

Conclusion

It’s early days for the console that Sony will carry through for the next five to ten years, and while there’s a lot that it has going for it in the gaming world, it’s in the multimedia side of things that it feels Sony has failed to carry the torch left from the PlayStation 3.

Early adopters will love it, as will big-time gamers and PlayStation fanboys, but right now, this isn’t a console for everyone, and with most games coming out for the slightly older consoles — Xbox 360 and PS3 — there’s no real reason to buy a PS4 yet unless you class as one of the above, or you have to have the latest and greatest thing right right now.

There are few titles for this console that are exclusive and excellent, and some of the ports coming from third-party developers are just that: ports, with little to no advantage taken with the higher graphics and processing power.

In six months, we expect this to change, and the PlayStation 4 could certainly be a force to be reckoned with.

The controller is certainly an improvement, and is now much more comfortable to hold and use, with some advanced functionality that developers don’t seem to have taken advantage of yet. The console looks better than the black basic VCR-like box that is the Xbox One, and there appears to be a lot of nice sharing and social features that Sony is keen to get people using.

But there aren’t many titles, there’s no backwards compatibility and it cannot play PS3 titles at all, the media playback is practically shut off, and Sony has even disabled audio CD playback in what looks like an attempt to get more people to sign up to its Music Unlimited service.

From our time with it, the PlayStation 4 is, as Sony puts it, “for the players,” but if you’re thinking of buying one for the holiday season, we’d probably say to wait until more games for these gamers come out. If you’re thinking of buying it for multimedia, though, wait until Sony fixes everything, because right now, your PlayStation 3 is more capable.

 

Price (RRP)

$549.95

Pros & Cons

Product Pros

The latest version of the DualShock controller feels excellent and is very responsive; Controller is charged over microUSB; Still plays Blu-rays and DVDs!; Graphics look excellent on titles developed for the console;

Product Cons

Menu system tries to look modern, but really feels clumsy; Will not let you access content from your network; Design is kind of misleading, and throws the first-time user a curve when trying to load discs; No backwards compatibility; No audio CD support; 3D Blu-rays don't work yet;

Ratings

Overall

Features

Value for money

Performance

Ease of Use

Design

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