PS-PHWOARRR: We review Sony’s next-gen PlayStation 4
Is PS4 the games console giant’s unfinished symphony?
Thankfully, the PS4 supplied has worked as intended from day one, with no sign of either the much-reported HDMI fault, or the so-called blue (or red) light of death that has been highlighted by some buyers in the US.
After booting up the PS4 and logging in – your previous PSN ID will work just fine – the first thing that’s obvious is just how much smoother everything is. Menus flow by with no lag, which is especially noticeable when browsing the PSN Store.
The dashboard can’t be customised, however. All the games you’ve played appear in a big, long and unsightly line from left to right. There are no folder options, there’s no way to order anything and no way to disguise the fact you’ve played Knack.
The PS4’s HDD is very readily replaceable - SSD, anyone?
The 1.50 firmware update, much maligned in the States due to install issues, has been replaced by version 1.51. It weighed in at 323MB and took about four minutes to download, though it did throw a couple of "cannot download" messages my way. But hitting the X button seemed to cajole the process back into motion.
Notably, my 500GB PS4 only had 408GB of free space straight out of the box. Worse, after installing Killzone, Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag and Knack that total was down to 306GB. But you still need the disc in place to play the game.
Installing a game is noticeably faster than it was on the PS3, thanks to the fact that the system can copy from BD to HDD while you play, meaning you only have to wait for a couple of minutes before diving in.
In your hands: the PS4 controller
I timed Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag from disc insertion to the game’s intro on both the PS3 and the PS4. On the old machine, it took a whopping 11 minutes 20 seconds; on the PS4, I was beginning my buccaneering career in three minutes flat. A big improvement.
You’re in control
Another upgrade from PS3 to PS4 can be seen in the controller. The DualShock 4 only adds to the gaming experience. Its analogue sticks are easier to grip, thanks to indents and a rubberised finish, and their more ergonomic spacing makes the new controller more comfortable to use than its predecessor.
My personal favourite extravagance is the built-in speaker, which some games – Resogun in particular – are already putting to good use. Chatty types will enjoy the audio out port that complements the system’s cross-game party chat feature.
Will developers turn the touchpad into something useful?
Slightly more obscure is the touchpad, which works in a similar vein to the PS Vita’s touch sensitive rear. It’s currently being used as a selection wheel – in games such as Killzone – or as a rudimentary mouse substitute, which is how AC4 puts it to use.
Neither application feels particularly useful or natural at this moment in time. Though I abstain from damning it as a gimmick or praising it as a genius innovation until the likes of Naughty Dog have shown what they might do with this input mechanism.
You can also control the PS4 using a PS Vita, with the big machine able to stream any game straight to the handheld’s screen. The Vita will even act as a Wii U-style second screen controller.
Accessing the 4 on the Vita
The only drawback is that using the Vita’s rear touchpad as a substitute for the L2 and R2, and L3 and R3 buttons makes the controls feel cramped. Still, any port in a storm will do, as the old saying goes, and the option for remote play is certainly one worth having.
Finally, there’s the PS Camera, the non-essential peripheral that seems destined for obscurity – no doubt taking up its place alongside the PS Move and Wonderbook. It’s fine for making video calls, limited when it comes to PS4 voice control and, ultimately, both underused and largely pointless at launch.
A set of mini games that take advantage of the PS Camera, Playroom, comes bundled with the PS4 as standard, but it’s little more than a tech demo. There’s scant commitment to the device across the rest of the launch titles – never a good sign.