PlayStation 4 Review: Sony’s Comeback Console


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Let’s qualify that word, “comeback,” before we dive in, because 80 million PlayStation 3 consoles sold worldwide is hardly a fiasco.

Sure, the PS3 is no PlayStation 2 (over 155 million units sold), or even original PlayStation (over 100 million units sold), but who wouldn’t kill for that figure? Even Nintendo’s Wii, the last generation’s sales darling, just topped 100 million units. And there’s more to gauging a console’s success than unit sales: streaming media partnerships, downloadable content, charter game club subscriptions, social networking cachet – the whole revenue model for gaming’s shifted radically over the past decade.

But yes, for a company that from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s electrified the video games market, Sony’s PS3 felt like a step sideways: a powerhouse machine that cost too much at launch (and for years after), a storied supercomputer-like architecture that baffled developers for years, a system capable of memorable games like The Last of Us, Uncharted 2 and Journey, but also missteps and missed opportunities, from PlayStation Move (critically lauded but quickly relegated to the background — notice its absence from the PS4 launch ballyhoo) to the PlayStation Network hack debacle to the system’s forever teased but ultimately M.I.A. party (cross-game) voice chat albatross.

The PlayStation 4, by contrast, exudes refinement, a system that feels multipurpose-built and confidently purposeful. There’s no one standout feature to talk about this time, no genre-bending gizmo or water-cooler-worthy service to trumpet, and you won’t find an interface-reimagining Wii Remote in the box or a design-upending Super Mario 64 ushering in a new platforming epoch, but then that’s not what this next generation is about.

Instead, you’re looking at a meticulously alloyed platform that’s the sum of many pieces, a kind of Grand Theft Auto V of video game consoles. If the latter represents everything Rockstar’s learned about open-world design — an accumulation of design knowledge implemented with knowing, fastidious precision — the PlayStation 4 is everything Sony’s learned about platform design, honed and polished to something just shy of perfection.

The System

Consider the physical box itself, a sharp-cornered, blade-edged ebony parallelogram that’s roughly 11 inches wide by 2 inches tall by 12 inches deep and weighs just 6 pounds — orientable either horizontally or vertically. The original parabola-shaped PlayStation 3, by comparison, was nearly 13 inches wide by 4 inches tall by 11 inches deep and weighed 11 pounds. The power supply remains internal, leaving you nothing to manage save a modest two-prong power cord. That’s not form hijacking function: Placed in the open, the system warms only a little when playing games, its broad rear-panel ventilation grid (including HDMI out, Ethernet and an auxiliary port for the PlayStation Camera) and cleverly recessed side grilles allowing the system to transfer heat from the internal parts such that the fans remain whisper-quiet in nearly all circumstances.

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Sony

Whether you like the PS4′s backswept look, like the base of a Cylon Black & Decker, is a matter of taste. But what’s striking is how slender the system is, especially when you consider what’s under the hood: a custom eight-core AMD CPU, 8GB of blazing-fast GDDR5 memory, a replaceable 500GB SATA hard drive (though only 409GB is available) and a custom GPU capable of 1.84 teraflops performance — multiply that by two (roughly speaking) and with PS4 architect Mark Cerny’s talk of offloading work to the GPU down the road, you’re looking at a machine with ample crunch-headroom, bar none.

My only quibble with the design is the system’s two-tone veneer: roughly one-third of the exterior is glossy, the other two-thirds matte. You’ll thus notice even trace amounts of dust and fingerprinting on the glossy side (especially contrasted against the matte side).

Make that half-fingerprinting on the system’s front, which is where the sectional split between surface materials occurs and you’ll notice the new power and eject buttons — neither depressible, but touch-sensitive — near dual USB 3.0 ports and a slot-loading Blu-ray drive. Along this furrow, Sony’s placed an illuminated strip that pulses different colors and luminosity gradients as you put the system through its paces; according to Sony, that light’s meant to make the system appear to be breathing, a bit like Apple’s old exterior laptop LEDs (which may require the judicious application of electrical tape if you’re planning to put the system in your bedroom and sleep anywhere near it at night, since you can’t disable the light manually).

The Controller

A moment of silence for the DualShock 1 through 3, each iteration — save for an upgrade to analog thumbsticks — all but identical since Sony’s gamepads debuted in 1997. Not so the PS4′s DualShock 4, which looks only superficially like its predecessors.

For starters, the handlebars are slightly longer, a measure that better stabilizes the controller in the center of your palms. The thumbsticks are a tick further apart, giving your thumbs more flex room, and their spheroid tips — occasional slip hazards — have been replaced with raised-edge circles (still rubber), which feel much more controllable under your thumb-tips.

The gamepad shell feels grippier, too, in part because Sony layered the under-half with a patterned surface — still a hard, smooth plastic, but coarse enough to give your hands better purchase. The revised left and right triggers gain a roughened surface as well, and the lower two triggers — L2 and R2 — feel firmer and have gently out-curved bottoms for more secure placement, remedying a problem with the DualShock 3 where setting the gamepad in your lap or on a flat surface would sometimes register unintended input if the looser triggers collapsed.

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Sony

There’s now an illuminated “Lightbar” between the triggers, faced forward, that can partner with the PlayStation Camera to enhance motion control (Sony’s also improved the SIXAXIS motion sensors and rumble motors, so much so that you can, for instance, tilt the controller to tag letters in an onscreen keyboard, and it’s a lot quicker than cursoring around). The Lightbar’s also capable of feeding back color-based status information, say to indicate a character’s health state, though since you can’t eyeball the strip directly without flipping the gamepad 90 degrees perpendicular, you’re depending on the glow reflected against your fingers (that, or you can always play in front of a mirror!). It’s too bad Sony didn’t think to place a smaller, complementary light across the gamepad’s top.

Just above the thumbsticks, you’ll find a tiny speaker grille, allowing the controller to output sound (like playing the collectible audio logs in Killzone Shadow Fall). The audio quality’s what you’d expect from a tiny speaker, though it’s notably better and bass-ier than the one Nintendo includes with its Wii Remote. Below the grille, there’s a traditional PlayStation button — hold it and you’ll summon master overlays that let you tweak settings, close out apps or power off the system. And on the gamepad’s bottom, between the handlebars, late-night gamers will appreciate the new standard-size headphone jack as well as a connector for the bundled mono headset — a voice chat must, and an alternative to Sony’s new $60 dual-camera PlayStation Camera (not included with the PS4) if you want to operate the console using voice commands.

The most notable change lies (physically) between the traditional d-pad and geometric face buttons: a smooth, dotted, depressible touchpad — a nod to Sony’s touchpad-framed Vita that lets you play a game like, say, Angry Birds the way developer Rovio intended. The launch games make limited, complementary use of the touchpad, as you’d expect, but software like Sony’s clever built-in tutorial app, The Playroom, offers a glimpse of things to come. You rub the touchpad like a Genie’s lamp to wake a lively A.I. bot, or flick your finger forward across the surface to pitch tiny robot-things into your lap, augmented reality-style, vis-a-vis the PlayStation Camera.

Along with Sony’s new “start” and “select” replacements that bracket the touchpad — tiny ovoid “share” and “options” buttons, the former for editing and uploading game videos or screenshots, the latter for invoking context-sensitive menus — round out an array of individually modest but collectively gratifying updates that feel like the smartest updates to a gamepad in years.

The Interface

Sony raved about the PS3′s CrossMenuBar navigation system back in the day — the interface won an Emmy, after all, so every time you heard about the XMB, it was “Emmy-winning this” or “Emmy-winning that.” But when Microsoft overhauled its Xbox Live interface in 2008 with vibrant context-specific squares, colorful images and avatar animations, the XMB felt comparably lifeless, a workmanlike carousel of icons that conjured the sterility of an IKEA furniture sign.

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Sony

Out with Emmy-winning, in with lively images and contextual squares: The PS4′s interface, which Sony simply calls the “PlayStation Dynamic Menu,” builds on the XMB’s potential by subtracting from it, jettisoning all that top-level complexity and adding dollops of style and streamlining. Instead of an icon-flush X-axis with option-choked up or down menu items, Sony’s collapsed everything to a handful of category squares, the default leftmost — and most telling — being a social media-watcher that clues you into friend activity and marketing material when you’re online.

Beside that you’ll find content portals that reshuffle from left to right according to last one accessed: ”Live from PlayStation” lets you view live gameplay broadcasts, “Downloads” collates your purchases and downloads, and the obligatory Internet browser. New games — whether downloaded or accessed from disc — also appear here, the wrinkle being that if you have an Internet connection active, you’ll be drawing from (and feeding into) Sony’s PlayStation Network each time you access an application. You’re not required to access the Internet to play single-player games, but if you don’t want your PS4 reaching out to touch Sony’s servers, you’ll have to force it offline — there’s no “don’t PSN while connected” option.

Cursor up with the d-pad or left thumbstick from the PDM and a more mundane left-right menu appears with icons for system or application settings, your friend list, trophies, notifications and the PlayStation Store. This is where you’ll tweak the system or delve into more nuanced or granular features; Sony’s just pulled it back a level, divvying the PS4′s interface into spotlight and offstage layers.

The Games

At launch, Sony has 23 games on deck and calls it the company’s strongest lineup ever. I have yet to sample (much less complete) many of these, and several won’t be available until launch day, but I can say the ones I have played don’t fall short of that claim (then again, it’s not a high hurdle to clear). Many on the list are recently released last-gen games with visual makeovers, and no one’s going to consider the inclusion of a game like Angry Birds Star Wars a make-or-break purchase, but a few — in particular Knack, Contrast, Resogun and Killzone Shadow Fall — distinguish themselves from the bunch.

Knack

Sony

Knack is Mark Cerny and SCE Japan Studio’s contribution, which makes it the most intriguing of the PS4 launch titles, since Cerny (pronounced SARE-nee) doubled as the PlayStation 4′s lead architect. It’s a bash-and-smash action game about a creature called “Knack” composed of magically animated, reconfigurable bric-a-brac, helping humanity battle goblins who’ve emerged from who-knows-where to overrun the planet.

While Knack stands just a few feet tall by default, he can glom on bits of metal, ice and other odds and ends to transform into a colossal wrecking machine. The framing story feels a little generic here, as if grudgingly tacked on to justify the central game conceit, but that conceit — unleashing a creature who can grow to the height of a three-story building — is deftly executed and beautifully articulated.

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Compulsion Games

I was only able to sample Contrast during a review event hands-on, but it shot to the top of my PlayStation Network must-haves — a 1920s noir-themed action-platformer with a twist: you can shift from colorful 3D heroine to slender 2D silhouette, alighting on lamplit walls, clambering over the shadows of other 3D objects and puzzling your way along surfaces to unlock narrative sequences that gradually describe a young girl’s troubled, Pan’s Labyrinth-ian family history.

One of the levels involved a haunting carousel, the shadows of horses gliding along circling walls, the protagonist leaping from one shadow to another, flipping in and out of the world to maneuver between actual platforms and their flattened contours. In another level, you participate in a kind of theatrical production, flitting Limbo-like through a fantasy story-scape as the metaphorical tale unfurls.

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Housemarque

If you were into Super Stardust HD on the Vita, you’ll probably adore Resogun, another shoot-em-up from developer Housemarque. Here, they’ve opted for a side-scroller, only with the levels folded around until the ends touch, letting you roll backwards or forwards without restrictions. The object of the game is to free and save tiny retro-stick-figure humans, powering up your ship and executing special attacks that include a kind of battle-ram maneuver that lets you arrow through waves of enemies, annihilating them without destroying yourself.

As Housemarque explained during the review event demonstration, one of the twists, since the levels are transparently cylindrical, is that you can see what’s going on on the other side of the level, forcing you to pay attention to keep tabs on what the enemy’s up to over yonder.

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Guerilla Games

And finally, Killzone Shadow Fall is grim, grim stuff — no surprise — but boy is it a looker, packing its dystopian Blade Runner-like vistas with buildings and more buildings and towering waterfalls and skyboxes that no longer feel like Truman Show skyboxes.

As I played through the solo campaign, the game reminded me increasingly of Dishonored, offering ever-widening paths to complete a mission, choosing stealthy or confrontational approaches and dealing with objectives in the order preferred. I can’t vouch for this one unreservedly yet, given how much more of the game there is to see, but it’s a lock for my library.

Sidebar: Game installs are now both compartmentalized and prioritized, allowing you to access different play modes, say the multiplayer facet of a game, without waiting as the single-player component silently stream-loads off the Blu-ray disc in the background. This double-dipping feature never slowed any of the games I tried, though even if had it, the install only occurs once.

That said, disc loading did occasionally cause the PS4′s interface to freeze for several seconds, which may be an argument for eschewing discs and going with direct downloads, since all of these games are obtainable directly through the PlayStation Store (the downside: Sony’s doesn’t support external USB hard drives, meaning you’ll have to upgrade the internal storage if you think you’ll fill that 409GB of accessible space quickly).

The Missing Features

Like Microsoft’s Xbox One, Sony’s PS4 launches with a day-one patch that wasn’t available during the review period. That means most have only seen the new PlayStation Store or online multiplayer or “Share” button functionality in demos.

What you’re not reading about here is considerable, in other words: all of the online features, the revamped PlayStation Network, the new sharing feature, all the new versions of otherwise familiar media apps and the system’s appeal as a multimedia consumption hub, the PS Vita Remote Play link — both on a high-speed LAN or through the cloud (I can say every developer I spoke with warned of latency issues with the latter) and Sony’s new, complementary PlayStation App that lets you control or interact with PS4 games or software using an iOS or Android smartphone or tablet (effectively enabling Wii U-like second-screen gameplay). I’ll circle back in a day or two, once I’ve had time to better absorb and assess the online experience.

 

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PlayStation 3 passes 80 million sales


Over 300 games expected for system this holiday season, says Sony.

Sony’s PlayStation 3 has sold-in over 80 million units worldwide since launching November 2006, according to the company.

In total, 4,332 games have been released for the system in seven years (excluding download only titles), and despite the imminent release of the PlayStation 4, another 300 titles are due for release on the ageing system this holiday season.

According to Sony, there are over 222,000 pieces of digital content on PSN, with 72,000 piece of video game content.

The PlayStation 4 is due for release November 15 in North America and November 29 in Europe.

[source]

November 2013 PlayStation Plus Free Games in North America Include Resogun, Soul Sacrifice, Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen


These games will hit the Instant Game Collection at various times throughout the month, so check back every Monday morning to see all the benefits of your membership.

ResogunContrast

Ibb and ObbDragon's Dogma Dark ArisenBinary Domain

Soul SacrificeOddworld Stranger's Wrath HD

Click here for a list of the latest PlayStation Plus content

November PlayStation Plus Preview

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Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen (PS3)

PS Plus - Dragon's Dogma Dark Arisen

Free for PS Plus members, Regular Price: $39.99
An epitaph speaks of another’s demise…A mysterious island known as Bitterblack Isle appears off the coast of Gransys. Its depths have claimed the lives of many Arisen their voices still haunt the labyrinth that lies deep beneath its surface–a labyrinth ripe with secrets waiting to be discovered. The time to take up arms has come once again. Delve into the isle’s depths and uncover its dark secret!

Ibb & obb (PS3)

PS Plus - Ibb and Obb

Free for PS Plus members, Regular Price: $9.99
ibb & obb is a two player cooperative game set in a puzzle filled world where gravity goes both up and down. You can only succeed by working closely together. Find a friend for some true local cooperative couch fun or match up online. Fall up and jump down through 15 levels filled with double gravity puzzles and discover the 8 hidden worlds that will test your new non-Newtonian skills to the maximum.

Resogun (PS4)

PS Plus - Resogun

Free for PS Plus members
RESOGUN is an intense fast-paced shoot em’ up developed exclusively for the PS4 system. Unleash a diverse array of devastating weapons including lasers, missiles, overdrive, and nova-bombs to blast hordes of enemies and rescue the last survivors from distant galactic colonies that are under ruthless attack from an evil alien invasion force.

Contrast (PS4)

PS Plus - Contrast

Free for PS Plus members
Contrast is a 2D/3D puzzle/platformer, set in a 1920′s vaudevillian, film noir dreamscape, full of cabaret, illusion and performance. You play as Dawn, the imaginary friend of a little girl, Didi, and you have the power to shift from the 3D world into a 2D shadowscape, by becoming your shadow. As Didi’s imaginary best friend, you must use your shadow shifting abilities to solve complex puzzles, in order to help Didi investigate the secrets that lie behind her troubled family.

Binary Domain (PS3)

PS Plus - Binary Domain

Free for PS Plus members, Regular Price: $19.99
Created by Toshihiro Nagoshi, the man behind some of SEGA’s most well-known video game franchises including the critically acclaimed Yakuza series, Binary Domain puts players in the middle of a fast paced and intense battle for humanity in a robot-filled 2080 Tokyo. Fighting through the derelict lower levels of the city, players control an international peace-keeping squad that soon starts to question their surroundings and the choices they make. Are the robots becoming more human, or are humans becoming more like machines?

Oddworld: Strangers Wrath (PS Vita)

PS Plus - Oddworld Stranger's Wrath HD

Free for PS Plus members, Regular Price: $14.99
In the dusty, undeveloped wastelands of Western Mudos, cantankerous townsfolk find their settlements besieged by belligerent outlaws. Along comes Stranger, a tall, dark and enigmatic bounty hunter with a mission to capture troublemakers and scoundrels and return them to civilized townships for incarceration.

Soul Sacrifice (PS Vita)

PS Plus - Soul Sacrifice

Free for PS Plus members, Regular Price: $35.99
Prepare yourself for a brutal combat experience where every decision made will have consequential results. Take on the role of a slave who is about to be sacrificed stumbles upon a forbidden book that allows its readers to relive battles between sorcerers and monsters of the past. In order to use the magic during fierce battles, the player must be willing to make a sacrifice – ranging from personal belongings, a limb, or even a life.

 

[source]

Rockstar Graphics Engineer is Working on the “Next Version of a Famous IP,” According to LinkedIn Profile


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In his (or her) infinite sleuthing, Super Annuation has found that Doron Feinstein, Senior Graphics Engineer at Rockstar New England, posted this on their LinkedIn account:

Currently working on: Next version of a famous IP.

With Doron’s previous work including the now completed Grand Theft Auto V, this means that the “next version of a famous IP” could be anything from a Red Dead Redemption sequel, to a Bully sequel, some sort of DLC for GTA V, or maybe Rockstar decided to skip right over the first Agent and now they’re working on Agent 2.

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Even though Rockstar games use members from all the different teams, the job openings over on Rockstar New England’s website do provide a few vague hints to what they’re working on:

  • Graphics Programmer: “Help us extend the capabilities of our game engine and develop exciting visuals for Rockstar’s next big title.”
  • Physics Programmer: “We’re after a talented coder ready to help push forward technology related to ragdolls, cloth, fragments, collision – amongst others – that make our worlds come alive.”
  • Gameplay Programmer: “Experience in one or more of the following game programming areas:  AI, Animation, Audio, Camera, Gameplay, Physics, PS3 Programming, Systems.”
  • AI Programmer: “Looking to hire an AI programmer to help us create deep, immersive worlds driven by AI systems that engage and interact with the player. We believe strong AI has an unmatched ability to pull the player into the game experience and are on the fore-front of using AI to create believable dynamic worlds.”
  • Network Programmer: “Rockstar New England is currently looking for talented network programmers to help us develop exciting multiplayer experiences using our world class proprietary game engine. Having recently helped contribute to the success of Max Payne 3, we are uniquely positioned to contribute to many of the high profile titles in Rockstar’s exciting upcoming lineup.”

[source]

PlayStation 3 Tops Xbox 360 for the First Time in Nearly Three Years


Sony fans can finally celebrate a triumphant month in the United States, with the PlayStation 3 landing on top of the sales charts.

How would Microsoft PR  handle the Xbox 360 losing a month to the PlayStation 3?  Microsoft’s been sending out a sales report each month since 2011 that goes something like “Xbox 360 maintains its lead in the U.S. console market for the X month in a row…”

Not this time. For September, NPD reports the PlayStation 3 finally pulled ahead of the Xbox 360, thanks in part to a Grand Theft Auto V PS3 system bundle. Microsoft’s email chose instead to highlight an Xbox 360 sales milestone (passing 80 million units sold worldwide) and added that the system “maintained its lead as the number one selling console in the U.S. in 2013.”

Was the latter ever in doubt? The Xbox 360′s been ahead of the PlayStation 3 in North America by millions of units for years; the chances it was going to lose that lead were precisely zero. In any event, it’s testament to the Xbox 360′s appeal (in the U.S., anyway — Sony’s slightly ahead in worldwide console sales) that the console’s held that top sales spot (excluding games handhelds) for 32 months straight.

September was really Nintendo’s month, however: the 3DS outsold everything, hardware-wise, for the fifth consecutive month despite Grand Theft Auto V‘s arrival, and with Pokémon X & Y demolishing sales records, it’s probably safe to assume the 3DS is a lock for October.

What about the Wii U after that $50 price drop on the Deluxe model, which lowered the price to $300? Nintendo says sales of its beleaguered console increased “by more than 200 percent over sales in August,” adding that that’s with just two weeks of data being reported at the new price. NPD says the Wii U The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD bundle helped. October should be telling.

Last but not least, software juggernaut Grand Theft Auto V accounted for fully half of all gaming dollar sales in September, says NPD, and “had the highest first month sales than any other previous launch in the Grand Theft Auto franchise.”