Design and build: living life on the wedge
Smaller and lighter than it seems in pictures, the PS4 is not a device that you’re going to have trouble finding a home for. In fact, it’s very close to the PS3 Super Slim in terms of width and height - the 30cm depth does increase its footprint, but only to PS3 Slim levels. It’s a pretty compact device, then, and that’s extra impressive when you realise that the power pack is built in, whereas the Xbox One has a big external unit.
Overall this is a subtle but unique design, with the etched PS4 logo and glossy section (which is actually the removable hard drive cover) adding a touch of class. Only the slot-loader lets the side down in this regard – there’s nothing exactly wrong with it, but it’s got a bit of clunky resistance that the super-smooth Wii U drive doesn’t.
Far more important as far as we’re concerned is the noise a console makes, and the PS4 is a very stealthy device. When idling we recorded 42dB from 14cm in front of the console – just 2dB over the ambient noise in the room. While installing a game disc this rose to 51dB, but once the disc is ripped it settles back down to around 43-44dB. In short, it’s significantly quieter than the most recent versions of the PS3 and Xbox 360, and completely unnoticeable unless the room is all-but silent. Impressive.
The controller: more different than it looks, and all the better for it
For many people (including this reviewer) the DualShock 3 was just too small and light to be very comfortable, and the lack of trigger-like shoulder buttons was an ergonomic issue when it came to shooters and racing games. Thankfully, while the DualShock 4 looks like only a minor departure from its predecessor, it’s a much better pad.
There’s a small increase in weight, slightly larger, rounder handles, and the L2 and R2 buttons have greater surface area and far greater travel. Each individual improvement is a subtle one, but together they’re enough to transform the DualShock into a far more satisfying controller and a worthy rival to the Xbox One pad.
Also in the “subtle changes” category is a shift from mini-USB to micro-USB for the top-mounted charge-and-sync socket. There are also two new sockets below the PS button on the underside of the controller. One is for connecting a wired headset (more on that below), the other – labelled “EXT” – has a purpose not yet revealed by Sony. We love a good mystery, but if it turns out to be for a QWERTY keyboard attachment we’re going to be right miffed.
The Start and Select buttons have now been retired and replaced with Share and Option buttons, the first of which enables easy uploading of the game footage that the PS4 is constantly, automatically capturing, while the latter largely behaves just as Start did during games but reveals more info and options when pressed while an icon on the GUI is highlighted.
Those two new buttons straddle the DualShock 4’s boldest new feature – a clickable, multi-touch-capable touchpad. Unfortunately we’re not completely sold on the usefulness of the touchpad – it does nothing at all when you’re in the PS4’s menus and only serves a purpose in games if developers specifically integrate it. So far that amounts to cute controls in The Playroom and control of the OWL robot in Killzone, which could be operated using the d-pad just as easily. Perhaps developers will come up with brilliant uses for the touchpad, but it’s not a totally convincing addition yet.
We’re similarly underwhelmed by the light bar on the top edge of the controller. We understand that it helps the optional PlayStation Camera to track you and it does look pretty, but the suggestion that it can communicate player status and the like by flashing and changing colour is rather undermined by the fact that you can’t really see the bar when holding the DualShock at a normal gaming angle.
We wouldn’t mind, but the touchpad and light bar are presumably the high-tech elements that most push the cost of a separately bought DualShock 4 up to the hefty sum of £49. We’re not convinced at this stage that that’s worth it.
On the other hand, every expense has been spared on the bundled mono headset. Essentially half of the cheapest-feeling pair of earphones you’ve ever seen, the bud actually does a decent enough job of pumping voice-chat into your lugholes and has a mic and switch at around chin height so that you can spout expletives at your enemies and use voice control for the PS4 UI.
One extra advantage of the headset socket is that it can be set to carry all audio, so any normal pair of headphones can be plugged into it for a spot of private gaming or Blu-ray watching - especially useful as PS3-compatible Bluetooth headsets currently don’t work with PS4.
Finally and unsurprisingly, motion control makes a return in the DualShock 4, and it’s far more accurate than before, as anyone who’s played Flower on the PS3 will notice when they download (for free) and try the PS4 version. It’s just far more responsive, accurate and smooth. The motion control is so much better you can now use it as a way to enter text in the PlayStation’s menus, and it’s much quicker than using the d-pad.
All in all, while we’re not yet convinced by every one of the DualShock 4’s new features, we are very convinced by the overall quality of the new controller. And let’s not forget, those new features are things that Microsoft hasn’t even attempted with the Xbox One’s pad.
Operating system: “PlayStation Dynamic Menu” doesn't do it justice
So you’ve ogled and plugged in the console and fondled the controller so much that it’s already covered in mucky fingerprints, now it’s time to get gaming. Actually, it’s not. At least it’s not if you want to use any of the PS4’s myriad online features or play Blu-rays and DVDs, because they require that you immediately update the firmware to 1.50. At just over 300MB it’s not going to take terribly long to download through most broadband connections. All told it should take around 6 minutes to get from starting the download, through the install and back to the (now more feature-packed) home screen.
Once done you can finally get to know the PlayStation 4 interface, known rather boringly as the PlayStation Dynamic Menu. This row of bold, square icons always contains What’s New, TV & Video, Live from PlayStation, Internet Browser, Video Unlimited, Music Unlimited and Library, with any games you’ve installed slotted in by the order of how recently you played them. This whole section is designed to feed you live information, though, so hover on What’s New and you’ll see news and updates from around the PlayStation Network (now to be known as PSN), and leaving the cursor on a game brings up a row of extra icons that include things such as new content that’s now available, the section that you last reached (so that you can hop straight back to that point), your friends’ recent activity in the game, community videos and the game manual. It’s all genuinely quick, slick and useful.
But don’t mourn the old XrossMediaBar, for it’s just an upwards-press away, and with so much content now having been moved to the PlayStation Dynamic Menu, this is now a clearer and cleaner selection of icons that takes in the likes of the PlayStation Store, Friends, Parties, Trophies and Settings. All are pretty self-explanatory although it’s well worth exploring the Settings menu to ensure all is setup the way you want – we’d definitely recommend enabling standby features so that the PS4 can download software updates and provide power via USB when it’s on standby.
Pop a game disc in and the bad news is that you have to install at least some of it before you can play it – in fact the process starts automagically as soon as you slot the disc in. The good news is that this doesn’t take as long as you might imagine. In fact, we were able to play Call of Duty: Ghosts just 55 seconds after slotting it into the drive. The game continues to install in the background, but the only way to tell is a touch of extra noise from the console – the game itself plays flawlessly.
Using the PS4 is a slick and fast experience all-round, really. Whether from standby or switched off entirely the console takes just 25-30 seconds to boot, and the only stutter we managed to get in our entire time with the system was a momentary pause when we pressed the PS button during a game of Knack and immediately tried to open Killzone. And we struggled to recreate that after the one instance.
There’s a pleasing openness to Sony’s approach, too. Sure, unlike with PS3 a £40 per-year PlayStation Plus subscription is now mandatory if you want to play online, but if one person in the house has subscribed, everyone else who uses that console also gets access. Ditto any games that have been purchased and downloaded.
On the other hand there are a couple of odd omissions. You can’t customise the wallpaper, for example, and the suspend and resume feature isn’t yet available. More annoyingly, the PS4 doesn’t have DLNA built-in and currently won’t play media files over your network or from USB. The backlash at that announcement seemed to take Sony by surprise, though, and the company says it’s “exploring possibilities” – fingers crossed that means we’ll get media streaming in a future update.
Gaming performance: the next-gen promise fulfilled
We demand more than great games from a modern games consoles, but gaming performance still comes first, and once you’ve overcome the disappointment that 4K games are still the exclusive domain of the high-end PC the PS4 is hard to fault in the performance stakes.
The fact that key cross-platform titles such as Call of Duty: Ghosts and Battlefield 4 boast higher resolution graphics on PS4 than Xbox One is a huge boost to Sony’s console, and vindication of its decision to plump for 8GB of expensive and powerful GDDR5 RAM. Developers may well learn how to get more from the Xbox One in the future (it’s not even out yet, for heaven’s sake), and indeed first-party games such as Forza 4 already hit the 1080p/60fps next-gen target figures, but the fact remains that if you want to play the big third-party games at their best, the PS4 is the console to go for on day one.
The launch games
There are going to be 25 PS4 games available on the UK launch date, ranging from first-party tech showcases such as Killzone and Knack, to big-hitting third-party franchises including Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty, Battlefield and FIFA, plus a bunch of indie titles.
It’s a strong line-up overall, but while there’s always a large degree of subjectivity to these things, we can’t help but feel that in terms of exclusives the Xbox One has a slight upper hand – Killzone: Shadow Fall is a cracker, but we’d swap Knack for Forza 4 or Dead Rising 3 in a heartbeat.
The lack of backwards compatibility is also a disappointment, albeit one that’s mitigated a smidge by the fact that some first-party games (Flower, Flow, Escape Plan, etc) bought on PS3 or Vita have enhanced PS4 versions that can be downloaded for free, and that streaming of last-gen games via Gaikai is promised in the future.
For now, though, let’s concentrate on some of the PS4’s big-hitting exclusives.
Killzone: Shadow Fall
Almost unbelievably, this is the sixth game in the Killzone series, which began way back in the days of the PS2. Occasionally accused of a spot of unoriginality and dreariness, the series is under pressure to deliver as the flagship title of the PS4 launch, and it largely does.
There’s a sense of Crysis to the fairly open first-person gameplay and drone helper, which can be commanded to help in ways that make it feel similar to using the famous Nanosuit, but if you’re going to draw your inspiration from anywhere it might as well be the benchmark FPS.
As a technical showcase Killzone is very compelling. Terrifically crisp 1080p visuals, hugely detailed character models, massive explosions and glorious lighting, all running at a silky-smooth 60fps, this is one game that really does deliver on the next-gen promise. There are occasional oddities that hark back to the bad old days – enemies that apparently won’t fire through barbed wire and water that kills upon contact – but all told this is every bit the showpiece it needed to be.
The surprise hit of the launch line-up, Resogun plays like a graphically glorious mashup of Defender and Super Stardust HD. Scrolling around a cylindrical world in a spaceship while shooting waves of evil aliens and rescuing trapped civilians might not sound like anyone’s idea of next-gen gaming, but this is brilliantly fast-paced, colourful and explosive, not to mention addictive. But you don’t have to take our word for it – you can download it for free if you’re a PS Plus subscriber.
More after the break...
Mark Cerny, the man who spearheaded development of the PS4 console, is also the man who brought the Crash Bandicoot, Spyro and Jak and Daxter games to the world, so perhaps it’s no surprise that his contribution to the launch line-up of games is another family-friendly platformer.
By “family-friendly” we don’t mean “easy”. There are sections of Knack that are nails-hard, but thanks to instant reloads and fairly friendly checkpointing it rarely frustrates.
The cartoony graphics look great in super-sharp 1080p, too, but we can’t help but wonder whether it’s going to find an audience. The story isn’t really knowing or funny enough for adults and we suspect many children will find it too difficult. Perhaps we’re underestimating the kids, but we wouldn’t put Knack at the top of our launch day wishlist..
The game that’s replaced the delayed Driveclub as the other free PS Plus game at launch, Contrast is an interesting third-person platformer that revolves around moving from the real, 3D world to the flat realm of shadows, which can be used as platforms to reach otherwise inaccessible places. The character design and noir setting sets it apart, while some of the 3D-to-2D puzzles are fiendishly tricky. It shouldn’t be the first game you play when you get your PS4 out of the box, but it’s worth a look. And it’s free.
Online: living the digital distribution dream
These days a console lives or dies on its online offering, and the PS4 is a very well connected console. The PS Store already has plenty of digital-only games to download, and every disc-based release is also available digitally. Unlike on PS3 you don’t pay a premium for the privilege, either. As discussed at the start, we’re currently looking at the US Store as the UK version isn’t yet live, but even third-party triple-A games such as Assassin’s Creed IV and Battlefield 4 cost $60, the same price as the disc is on Amazon.com.
The UK PS Store is now up, and it's not good news - games cost more here than they do in the States, and more than they do from online retailers such as Amazon.co.uk. Sony's argument is that it doesn't want to kill high street shops by undercutting them, but hasn't yet explained why Sony US has managed to overcome that particular predicament. We're still chasing for a response, but in the meantime the cheapest way to get games is to buy discs from online retailers. Expect to pay £47-50 per game.
We’re also sorry to say that connecting to Video Unlimited and Music Unlimited isn’t currently possible in the UK. The promise of being able to listen to tracks streamed from Music Unlimited while playing games is especially tantalising, but we’ll have to wait until it’s live in the UK before we can test it properly. Ditto Lovefilm and iPlayer, which are also due to be ready for the UK launch on the 29th November.
Thankfully Netflix does work right now, and the PS4 has a new version of the app that’s even quicker and easier to navigate. It’s compatible with the Super HD streams (really just 1080p), which look superb, and outputs audio in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1. Essentially it’s as good as Netflix gets, and that’s very good indeed.
Lovefilm and iPlayer are live and performing very well, as is the Video Unlimited store. In fact, Video Unlimited performs better than Xbox Video, with movies looking sharper and not suffering from the judder that seems to be a problem on the Xbox. The movie and TV show catalogues are impressively broad, and you can rent or buy on a pay-as-you-go basis. Tip: remember to enable 5.1 by opening the info panel if you want surround sound.
There’s also a web browser built-in, and this time it’s less afterthought and more fully featured application. Google results appear rather small and difficult to read from across the room, but actual web pages behave pretty much as they do on computer and most embedded video plays without issue.
And if the only thing you want to watch when you’re not gaming is other people gaming, the Ustream and Twitch channels in the TV & Video section are where you want to be. At the time of writing this area is pretty bare, but given how easy it is to stream your gaming activity (a quick press on the Share button and you can upload your last 15 minutes of gameplay) we expect this section to be rife with ridiculous videos mere moments after the official launch. And if you think some guy’s doing a terrible job with that Resogun boss you can helpfully tell him so in the comments that appear on the right-hand side.
The camera: turn your lounge into The Playroom
Unlike the Xbox One, the PS4 doesn’t come with a camera, but there is one available – the ingeniously named PlayStation Camera. The wee unit, which looks as though it’s been constructed out of cubes, costs £65 and has two lenses on the front so it can gauge depth.
Once connected the camera can scan your features to enable facial recognition for automatic login, which is very quick and reliable. You can also use it for voice control. It’s far more limited than Kinect’s functionality, but the voice recogition is reliable and allows quick navigation between games, as well as hands-free screenshots.
But the best way to show off the PlayStation Camera is to open The Playroom, which is pre-installed on all PS4s. Once it’s talked you through correctly setting up your camera (I’m afraid you’re going to have to move that coffee table) The Playroom gives you access to three activities. AR Hockey is the only real game, as it pitches two players against each other in a game of Air Hockey that involves using the DualShock 4’s motion control to bend and twist the table to your advantage. The other two involve messing around with a floating robot called Asobi and a bunch of delightful little people called AR Bots. The most fun is to be had with the latter, who inhabit your controller until you flick them into your lounge using the touchpad. You can then kick them, make them dance, or throw them objects that you create using a connected tablet. The thrill is relatively short-lived, but as a way to show off the capabilities of your new console The Playroom is absolutely superb.
Remote play: PS4 + Vita is a match made in gaming heaven
And if you want more superb, dig out that old Vita you’ve left gathering dust. Connect Sony’s handheld to your PS4 across your home network and you’ve suddenly got the ability to play next-gen games anywhere in the house. Sony warns that you’ll need to use wired connections and have an amazing router, but we’ve tried Remote Play with both consoles connected via Wi-Fi to a bog-standard router and it worked an absolute treat.
You lose a little graphical fidelity, of course, but PS4 games still look quite astoundingly awesome on the Vita’s 5in screen, and while there’s a touch of input lag that will make it a poor choice for competitive deathmatches, for single-player gaming it’s barely noticeable. Extra buttons are cleverly mapped to the touchscreen and rear touchpad, too, and as everything you see is a mirror of what the PS4 is doing, you can simply use the Vita as a fancy extra control pad for the main console if you so wish.
We’re yet to try accessing the PS4 from a Vita connected to an external Wi-Fi network (we’ll report back when we have) but this is already a superb extra feature that we can see getting a huge amount of use. Find your Vita and get the PS4 Remote Play-enabling new firmware (3.00) downloaded now in preparation.
At UK launch the Vita and PS4 are able to connect to one another directly, as long as you've enabled the setting in the PS Vita Connection menu on the PS4. Providing both consoles are in relative proximity (bedroom to lounge worked just fine in our tests) the connection will be made in about 30secs. The Vita will even turn the PS4 on from standby.
The direct method is best for performance. Lag is minimal and picture quality is very good indeed. Using an external network is a bit more tricky. We've tried three times now, and only once did it work - unsurprisingly that was on a friend's cable broadband connection running at around 20mbps. The coffee shops we tried failed, presumably due to connections that dipped below 2mbps.
One exciting prospect is using your 4G smartphone or tablet as a remote access point for your Vita, but alas, that's something iOS devices can't do due to game-blocking NAT Type 3 settings. We're yet to try using Android but will update again as soon as we have.
PS4 versus Xbox One: still too early to name a winner
We know that some cross-platform games benefit from higher resolutions on PS4 than Xbox One, and we know that it’s £80 cheaper than the Microsoft console, but the new Kinect looks incredibly powerful, you can connect your PVR to the Xbox, and during the last generation Microsoft definitely had the upper hand in terms of online gaming.
Are those features enough to make up for the apparent graphical deficit and extra cost? We’ll have to wait for our Xbox One review sample to find out.
Without a final Xbox One sample it’s impossible to know whether the PS4 is the runaway winner of the next-gen console battle as many are proclaiming. But what we do know now is that it’s an absolutely cracking console.
Delivering on the next-gen promise of 1080p gaming and digital distribution are the core things, but that’s backed up by a super-slick UI that feels ‘live’ and interactive, and delivers the content you want with a degree of snappiness that the previous generation couldn’t get close to.
Add stand-out features such as Remote Play, which really is terrific, and you’ve got a massively strong launch for the PS4. And it will only get better as more games, apps and features are released.
Over to you, Microsoft.
Words: Tom Parsons
Slick, powerful and packed with stand-out features, the PS4 delivers on the next-gen console promise