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Sunday, November 17, 2013

Some Personal Thoughts on the PS4 Launch

The PlayStation 4 has finally arrived, and I have to say so far it’s been a more enjoyable experience than the PlayStation 3 launch. Since 2006 I’ve moved into the hobbyist game developer realm from the enthusiast game press world, so I followed the console reveal events earlier in 2013 with a more holistic interest than I did for the PS3 and Xbox 360. I was pleased, for instance, that Sony and Microsoft had selected x86 architectures and unified memory paradigms over the exotic custom hardware designs that had characterized the last generation. As for the consumer aspect of both systems: now as a thirty-something gamer, right smack dab in the middle of my "go-go-go!" years, I had been disappointed by Microsoft's initial positioning of the Xbox One. On the other hand, Sony had seemed to have learned from its many mistakes with the PS3 launch, this time around by putting its stakeholders first – i.e., gamers and developers – as opposed to continuing to reach for Total Living Room Domination™ as it appeared Microsoft was doing. I preordered Sony’s console as soon as I was able to and didn’t look back. Now that the PS4 is unboxed, set up, and I’ve spent some time with it I wanted to share my thoughts on this machine.
  
I mentioned that the PS4 launch was "more enjoyable" than the PS3 launch, which is hard to qualify. Last time around, Sony’s system was beset by product shortages, a conspicuous lack of desirable exclusive launch titles (Resistance: Fall of Man, anyone?), and a rather high price tag ($600 USD for the “real” version as my good friend used to say). So, it was hard to get, it didn’t have desirable games, and it was very expensive. Still, at the time I was the erstwhile Editor-in-Chief of my gaming news site, and I felt obligated to get the PS3 at launch to cover it and its games, as uninspiring as the initial offerings were. I will admit that during that time all it actually did was to collect a fair amount of dust, and as for its supposed competitive advantage in being a cheaply available Blu-ray player: the original Talladega Knights pack-in disc still remains in its shipping plastic, unwatched, till this day. Of course later on in its life cycle the PS3 would get some excellent and iconic games, notably for me Metal Gear Solid 4, Uncharted, Heavy Rain, Little Big Planet, The Last of Us - yes, I’m only counting exclusives here, and in a future post I may explain as to why – but as far as its launch goes, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, the hype and expectations surrounding the PS3 were on par with The Phantom Menace.  And I don’t feel out of line saying that just like in the immediate aftermath of the first prequel Star Wars movie, many were left feeling a little let down, and that the delivery had left something to be desired.

In comparison to all that, the PS4 has impressed me to the point that I can say that history is not repeating itself this time. No politicking or bribery was needed to secure a limited spot in a store line; there were some high profile release titles available on day one (albeit third party), and the system had price that I could live with at $400. So far, so good. Upon starting the PS4 up, no lengthy updates were needed just to get anywhere; no unfamiliar operating system interface greeted me with a crescendo of string music, expecting me to know intuitively how to navigate it. In other words, the PS4 got out of my way fairly quickly and let me do what I wanted to do. Within a reasonable amount of time (i.e., 15 minutes), I was playing my first game, having downloaded it from the PlayStation Network.  That’s a lot more than I can say about my first experience with the PlayStation 3.

Putting aside my lingering hard feelings from that mid-autumn day in 2006, here’s a breakdown of how the PS4 is, and if you’re planning on purchasing one for yourself or a loved one this holiday season, here’s what you can expect:

23 Launch Titles

It may not seem like an overly impressive number, but 23 titles is actually a good amount, considering the previous generation had 14. Some of these games represent popular franchises at the moment - Call of Duty: Ghosts, Assassin’s Creed IV, Battlefield 4, and the latest Madden. In the past I would have scoffed at these as cash-in ports, but I can’t deny it is often a good thing to have popular heavy hitters around on day one. These are supplemented by first party offerings in the form of Killzone and Knack. The Killzone franchise, if you recall, was Sony’s answer to Microsoft’s Halo, and Knack is a fantasy action game with the pedigree of Mark Cerny, if nothing else. The available indie titles are strong too and free for download, if you pay the $49.99 USD subscription for PlayStation Plus. In the scheme of things the launch catalog for any game console is usually the bane of early adopters and a hard puzzle for the console makers to solve. They have to sell the system and conventional wisdom says it’s the software that does it – the fabled launch killer app - but at the same time the companies have to reconcile themselves and their mainstream customers to the idea most of the early software are either trial runs for the developer or ports from the previous generation that are already available for the current – and outgoing - generation.

Redesigned DualShock Controller

Beyond the games, the controller is one of the most important facets of a game console. After all, you’re going to be spending a lot of time clutching the thing, so it’s no small thing for a console maker to get this right. This is one area that Sony traditionally has done very well in, having knocked it out of the park more or less with the original DualShock and kept the winning formula ever since. It would have been hard to complain if they had kept things the same, but thankfully the DualShock 4 is a clever redesign that improves on the old model. Gone are the venerable Start and Select buttons that used to occupy the center of the controller, replaced with smaller “Share” and “Options” buttons. New to this controller is a large touch pad which can also be pushed in, a built-in speaker, and a headphone jack. A light sensor occupies the front now, presumably integrating the PlayStation Move functionality in conjunction with the PS camera (sold separately naturally). Ergonomic tweaks to all of the face buttons, the D-pad, the analog sticks, and the shoulder triggers round out a well-conceived upgrade to the total package. In short, the new controller is awesome.    

The System Itself

Finally, there’s the hardware. The PlayStation 4 continues the good trend from the redesigned PS3 slim model: it takes up a lot less real estate than the original "phat" PS3, and it’s virtually silent when compared to the same (to Sony’s credit, mine is still running strong after all these years). Aesthetically I find it to be a throwback to the PS2, with a nice indicator light that bisects the console. Two USB ports are placed intelligently in line with the disc slot. A 500 gig internal hard drive seems ample for the time being, but those who have embraced the death of physical media distribution for games may think otherwise. As far as the internals go, the PS4 has an 8 core AMD processor, 8 gigs of system memory, and developers seem pleased with the set up. I hopefully will get an opportunity to write a thorough post about this in the future as I spin up my own projects. One thing that may or may not be a deal breaker for some: the PS4 is currently not backwards compatible with the PS3 or earlier games. Sony has plans for some kind of cloud solution to this, but until they offer something more concrete, I wouldn’t retire its predecessor if you still are working on your backlog of games. As for the rest, I currently don’t have a PS Vita or the PlayStation camera, so I can’t speak to the integration with those devices. I have not tried some of the other features such as Music Unlimited, because frankly I don’t really care about these add-ons. Kyle Orland gives an excellent overview of the good, the bad, and the ugly of the PS4 in its first 48 hours of life on the market. He’s a little overly negative about certain things (sluggish interface is “unforgiveable”, really?) but overall he’s hit the nail on the head for the discerning consumer. Of course, market success ultimately means more than what the critics or the peanut gallery has to say, and Sony has reported it has already sold over a million consoles on the first day, considerably outpacing the PS3 and even surpassing the PS2, which took a whole 3 days to move the same amount.      

Impressive, Sony. Now let’s see what Microsoft has to offer in return in just a few short days.

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