Sony PlayStation 4 Review: The Best PlayStation Yet

Does the PlayStation 4 have what it takes to succeed? Absolutely.

It’s been over seven years since Sony released the PlayStation 3. During that time span, the gaming industry was transformed by the explosive growth of mobile and free-to-play games on phones and tablets. The gaming market is bigger than it’s ever been before, but it is also much more competitive and divided. This is the challenging atmosphere that Sony is facing with the launch of the PlayStation 4; an atmosphere in which the very viability of dedicated gaming consoles has been called into question.

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Does the PlayStation 4 have what it takes to succeed?

Absolutely.

With the PlayStation 4, Sony has managed to significantly improve every aspect of the console experience. These numerous improvements—coupled with some fantastic new features—make the PlayStation 4 truly feel like the next evolution in gaming.

Speaking both literally and figuratively, the PS4 is sharp. A glowing LED light strip compliments the console’s strikingly angled body, and as a whole the console looks distinct futuristic. The light strip changes color to indicate whether the console is on, off, or in standby mode and also disguises the console’s only two buttons: power and eject.

Everything you need to get started comes in the box, including a controller, mono headset, a USB charging cable, an HDMI cable, and a power cable. Interestingly, the PS4 uses the same power cable as the PS3 (with no external power brick). It’s a nice touch, and it makes swapping the consoles a breeze. Unlike the PS3 however, the PS4 is digital-only in terms of video output, so you’ll need an HDTV (or an HDMI-compliant viewing device) in order to play the console.

One of the PS3’s best aspects was its easily upgradeable hard drive, and thankfully Sony has continued to support this feature with the PS4. Although the PS4 comes with a 500 GB hard drive, don’t expect that storage to last very long. Only about 400 GB of the hard drive is actually usable (with the operating system presumably taking up the remaining space), and most disc-based games take about 20-45 GB of mandatory installation space.

Given Sony’s long history in the console business, the build quality of the PS4 is predictably excellent. Even during extended play sessions with demanding games like Killzone: Shadow Fall, the console maintains relatively low temperatures and minimal fan noise. The console is also shockingly small, barely any larger than the slim version of the PS3.

The DualShock 4 is indisputably the best controller that Sony has ever designed. While the new controller may appear similar to PlayStation controllers of the past, enhancements made to the controller’s buttons, analog sticks, triggers and overall ergonomics make it feel better than anything previously available on a PlayStation console. Out of all the controllers I’ve ever used, the DualShock 4 is easily my favorite—it really is that good.

New additions to the controller include a touchpad in the middle of the controller, a headphone jack,  a startlingly loud speaker, and an LED light bar which indicates player status and battery level. The LED is also used to track the controller for motion-gaming functionality in conjunction with the optional PlayStation Camera. The new features work well, but I can’t help but question the overall usefulness of the touchpad. It’s a nifty idea in theory, but few games thus far make use of it in a meaningful way.

The DualShock 4 replaces the customary start and select buttons with the new share and options buttons on each side of the touchpad. The options button works in essentially the same fashion as a traditional start button, while the share button is a useful shortcut to the PS4’s gameplay-capturing and sharing abilities. The placement of the share and options buttons feels awkward at first, but after a few hours of playtime, it begins to feels natural.

The Achilles’ heel of the otherwise-great DualShock 4 is its poor battery life. In my play sessions, the battery only lasted about 8-10 hours per charge. While the controller is rechargeable, this is a downgrade from the battery life of the previous DualShock controller used on the PS3, and it’s hopefully something that Sony can address in the future. In the meantime, I recommend purchasing a charging station or a longer charging cable than the one that comes with the console for your controllers.

*Image owned by Sony

The PS4 can optionally be equipped with the PlayStation Camera, a peripheral which costs $60 and adds several features to the console including video chat and facial recognition. But beyond proof-of-concept software like Sony’s Playroom application, it remains to be seen how the majority of games will (or won’t) make use of the camera. As it stands now, the camera isn’t necessary for the core experience and is a tough purchase to recommend.

The new user interface of the PS4 is called the PlayStation Dynamic Menu and it’s a welcome upgrade over the Xross Media Bar interface used by the PS3. But while the PDM is much faster and much more responsive than the XMB, it isn’t quite as well organized.

The PDM is basically two horizontal menu bars stacked on top of each other. The top bar contains all of the essential system functions, while the lower bar contains all of your games, applications, and media. Unfortunately, the lower bar is devoid of any sorting options. For users with a large amount of games, apps, and media, the lower menu’s lack of organization could prove to be problematic. The lower menu also features a social feed that displays the activities of your PlayStation Network friends (such as obtaining a trophy, launching a game, etc.) as well as your own. It’s a nice feature, but it’s messy and displays almost too much information at times.

These are all minor annoyances though—the PDM is perfectly functional. It doesn’t lag when the PS4 is playing a game, and it adds a number of useful features. You can easily switch between applications by double-pressing the PlayStation button, and the share button universally allows you to save screenshots and videos of your own gameplay. You can also use the share button to easily upload gameplay videos or screenshots to Twitter and Facebook (a feature I used for the images in this review), and you can even stream your live gameplay via Twitch TV and Ustream.

Voice control is partially supported by the PDM, but it doesn’t work quite as well as it should. There simply aren’t very many supported commands, and I often found myself needing to repeat myself in order for my voice to register with the PS4. The feature works best when the room is quiet. When the room is loud, it has a hard time picking out your voice over the rest of the noise. Sony has stated that they will be adding more voice control functionality to the PS4 via firmware updates, so this feature will likely improve over time. In its current state though, it isn’t very useful.

Sony has added several features to the PlayStation Network for the PS4. The most notable addition is cross-game chat, which works very well and allows you talk to up to 8 friends over the network simultaneously. The PSN friend limit has been upped from 100 to 2000, a staggering amount which should satisfy even the most social gamers, and Sony has also upgraded their trophy system to display rarity attributes for individual trophies. This works by measuring trophy obtainment rates across the PSN, and it introduces an interesting layer to trophy collecting.

For the first time ever on Sony console, online multiplayer is not included as a free service. A PlayStation Plus subscription (which costs $50 per year) is required to play PS4 games online. However, all of the other online services available on the PS4 can be used without a PlayStation Plus membership. For those who are unfamiliar with the service, PlayStation Plus offers a host of benefits beyond online play, including free games and frequent discounts on games from the PlayStation Store.

The PlayStation Store works the same way on the PS4 as it does on the PS3, but on the PS4 the store is actually usable. While the store’s design is still frustrating at times, the overall slowness that plagued the PS3 version of the store has been fixed.

Remote Play is one of the most unique features of the PS4. It allows gamers to stream PS4 games to their PlayStation Vita over WiFi, a feature Sony originally tried to implement between the PS3 and the PlayStation Portable with mixed results. Now, with the more powerful PS4 and Vita, Sony has gotten the feature mostly right. The performance of Remote Play is limited by the quality of your internet connection, and when the Vita is on the same WiFi network as the PS4, Remote Play works with almost no noticeable lag. When the devices are on different networks however, the connection isn’t as good, and results will vary depending on the network speed. For more relaxed games such as Knack that don’t require split-second timing, Remote Play is a truly excellent feature, especially for Vita owners who may be looking to expand their library of available titles.

Sony also launched a PlayStation app in for iOS and Android that functions similarly to Remote Play. The app won’t allow you to stream PS4 games, but compatible games can use your phone as second screen. Through the app, you can also browse, purchase and download games from the PlayStation Store to your PS4. You can also access PSN information like messages and trophies.

In general, games look and play great on the PS4, but there isn’t really a must-have title available on the console yet. With that said, many quality games in every major genre are available for the PS4 at launch. Among said games, Killzone: Shadow Fall is perhaps the best showcase of the console’s new features and graphical capabilities. But if first-person shooters aren’t your thing, the old-school platformer Knack is surprisingly fun and could easily be mistaken for a Pixar film.

 The visual upgrade from the PS3 to the PS4 isn’t quite as breathtaking as you might expect, but it’s still very noticeable. Games are crisp, detailed and smooth, and most of them run in full 1080p resolution at 60 frames-per-second. The lighting in games like Battlefield 4 and Killzone: Shadow Fall looks simply phenomenal at times. It’s clear that the PS4’s hardware is very powerful, and considering that the launch titles already look so good, it’s tantalizing to think of what developers will be able to do with the console in the future.

Sadly, the PS4 is not backwards-compatible with PS3 games due to the complicated architecture of the PS3. Although Sony has hinted that PS3 games may one day be able to be streamed to your PS4, for the time being you’re going to have to keep your PS3 around if you want to play your PS3 games.

Quite a few media and streaming applications are available for the PS4 at launch, including Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon, Crackle, NHL, and many more. Strangely, YouTube is not yet supported. I tested the Netflix and the Amazon applications, and both worked flawlessly. Sony has stated that more services will be added over time, but it’s worth noting that the PS4 does not feature the multitude of streaming options that are available on Xbox One.

Blu-ray and DVD playback on the PS4 is very good, but CD and mp3 playback is not supported by the PS4 at launch. In addition, the PS4 will not read files from a USB stick, and it can’t be used as a media server. Sony has made it clear that the primary focus for the PS4 is gaming, but these are still some unexpected omissions from the otherwise multimedia-friendly console. According to Sony, these features will eventually be added via a firmware update.

+ Games look and play great

+ New DualShock 4 controller is fantastic

+ Many good games available at launch

+ Many promising upcoming games

+ Powerful hardware at a great price

+ PlayStation Network continues to improve

+ New user interface is speedy, intuitive and functional

+ Sharing features work very well

+ Lots of video streaming options

– No “killer app” yet

– Camera use is limited

– Voice control needs work

– Some missing functionality at launch (CD/mp3 playback)

– Most PS3 periphals not supported at launch

With powerful new hardware, a fantastically redesigned controller, and a snappy new user interface, the PS4 makes an extremely compelling argument that console gaming is here to stay. And with an asking price $100 less than the Xbox One, Sony has positioned the PS4 as a strong contender in the next-generation console race. While there may not be a must-have title available for the PS4 just yet, a multitude of promising-looking titles such as Infamous: Second Son, DriveClub and The Order: 1886 are on the way. The PS4 is a worthy successor the PS3 and has a very exciting future. It might just be your next game console.

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Sony PlayStation 4 Review: The Best PlayStation Yet
Does the PlayStation 4 have what it takes to succeed? Absolutely.

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Derrick Hunt
Mobile developer in Chicago.