PlayStation 4 Review: The PS4 and the Gorgeous Next Generation of Gaming

Sony’s new console, a svelte little rhombus known as the PS4, is relatively affordable and extremely powerful. The next generation of gaming has arrived.

Erin Lubin/Bloomberg, via Getty

It has been seven years since the release of the PlayStation 3. To date, over 80 million systems have been sold, making it one of the ten most successful consoles of all time (though it has failed to reach the height of the PlayStation 2, which remained unbeaten at a whopping 157 million systems sold. Hundreds of games have been released and it’s still going strong.

But today marks a new era for Sony’s PlayStation series. That’s right: the PlayStation 4 is here, and it’s pretty awesome.

There is only one version of the PlayStation 4. The buyer confusion caused by the multiple versions of the PlayStation 3 is no more; every feature is standard across all systems. But even with all of its power and features, it is retailing for a surprisingly low $399. At first glance, that may seem like a lot of money, but for comparison the PlayStation 3 launched its most powerful configuration at $599, Microsoft’s Xbox One will be releasing on November 22 at $499, and Ninteno’s Wii U released at $349 last year (it has since dropped to $299.)

Video gaming is an expensive hobby, but Sony has released a console that is relatively affordable, and extremely powerful— the company claims that it is 10x more powerful than its last console. It’s a svelte little rhombus, about the size of the original Xbox 360 but much sleeker. The shell is a combination of matte and shiny plastics, but it still feels like a solid piece of hardware.

In practice, the new power has already created some beautiful games. Side by side comparisons of cross platform games like Battlefield 4 give a sense of how much more capable the system is of producing all kinds of fancy effects, especially with regards to light, but it really takes a game built from the ground up to showcase what the system can do. Guerilla Games' Killzone: Shadow Fall is the best-looking videogame ever released on a home console. It’s gorgeous. I don’t think I’ve ever audibly said “Oh my god” so many times playing a video game. What really shows the power of the PS4 is that game's scale. It's beyond anything the PlayStation 3 could hope to produce.

The DualShock 4, Sony’s new controller, is unquestionably the best they’ve ever released. Almost every aspect of it has been tweaked and most of it has been radically changed. It feels solid and weighty without being heavy; the analog sticks are tighter and flatter, with ridges that make gripping easier; the new triggers (R2 and L2) have been greatly improved and also don’t accidentally depress when the controller is placed on a table; a touch-sensitive, clickable pad has been placed front and center, which has the potential to streamline user interfaces and allow extra navigation options without throwing on more buttons; there is a light bar on the back that contextually changes colors during gameplay.

But the biggest change in the DualShock 4 is one of the least obvious. No longer does the system feature the “Start” and “Select” buttons that have graced nearly every controller since the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System. Instead, it has an “Options” button, which consolidates the duties of the previous two, and a “Share” button. Clicking the Share button, an unassuming little oval on the left side of the touchpad, will instantly pause a game and bring up the option to upload videos or a screenshot of the gameplay.

In the background, the console constantly records the last 15 minutes of gameplay at 720p which can be pulled up at a moment’s notice and then easily edited for posting on the internet. At the moment, video uploading is only possible through Facebook and sharing screenshots is limited to Facebook and Twitter. This is unfortunately limiting, and hopefully a future update will add YouTube support at the very least. It is also possible to broadcast gameplay through either or Ustream, two popular game streaming services. These streams are available to watch either through the PS4 itself (using the PlayStation Live app) or online. There is some serious lag, but for most that won’t be an issue.

One last noteworthy feature: in keeping with Sony’s tradition of aping the competition (Sony’s Sixaxis controller, anyone?), the DualShock 4 also has a speaker like the one found on the Wii U Gamepad (although it lacks a built in volume slider). Though it’s obviously a gimmick, the audio quality is acceptable and it has already seen some interesting uses in the system’s launch lineup (playback of audio logs in Killzone: Shadow Fall, for example).

Also pulling from the competition are half-baked voice controls using the PlayStation 4 Eye, a small camera accessory sold separately from the main console for an extra $59.99. The free “Playroom” tech demo shows off some cute features for the camera and has adorable little robot-things as protagonists, but after the initial “Cool!” factor wears off it is quickly forgotten. The facial recognition for logging in is quite good, although logging out is oddly difficult, and if another player logs in and takes the controller without the main player logging out, the system won’t recognize the switch.

Unlike the Xbox One, which can seamlessly move from one application to another, the PS4’s voice recognition begins and ends on the home screen. In game, saying “PlayStation, home screen” will do just that, but that is the only command. Once at the home screen, there are a few more options, but it is not as simple a system as is found on the Xbox One. It also doesn’t seem to understand natural language, and each word must be enunciated clearly. While potentially cool, it really does seem like a feature that was thrown in to say it exists rather than something seriously important.

The homescreen user interface itself is pretty and functional, with a constantly updating feed of information about you and your PSN friends. Highlighting games will bring up more information about them, and everything is within closer reach than it was on the PS3’s Cross Media Bar. While it doesn’t have the multitasking abilities of the Xbox One, players can still hop around the apps without closing their game.

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As with last generation, big retail releases will cost $59.99, but those won’t be the only games available. The past few years have been great for Sony’s download games service through the PlayStation Network, and the new system will take it further. In a first for a gaming console (though the Xbox One is the same), all games will be available for digital download on the day of their release, and it is possible to start playing the game as it downloads (after an initial period that varies from game to game), so anyone who hated the process of going to the store to pick up games no longer needs to do so. But don’t expect to have massive digital collections on the built in 500 GB hard drive: most of the system’s big launch titles take up around 40 GB of space. Players can replace the internal hard drive at any time, though, to expand that space.

Players with a PlayStation Plus account (a $49.99 per year purchase I highly recommend, and one now required to play multiplayer games online) will receive free games each month for all their modern Sony systems (PS3, PS4, and the PS Vita handheld). At launch, PlayStation 4 owners with PS+ accounts can and should download the indie titles Contrast and Resogun for free. Others will have to pay $14.99 for each. These smaller budget titles are going to be the icing on Sony’s cake, as they have made it easier than ever for independent developers to release games for their system. Even if retail releases see their usual lulls throughout the year, there should be a constant supply of interesting indie games.

Unfortunately, the PlayStation 4 does not have the ability to run PlayStation 3 games, much like later iterations of the PS3 (early models had backwards compatibility with the PlayStation 2, but it was removed as a cost-cutting measure). Whether or not there will be Super-HD remakes of last generation’s games for new generation hardware remains to be seen, but Sony was at the forefront of that trend in the past few years, with HD remakes of numerous franchises, such as God of War, Sly Cooper, and the works of Team Ico (Ico and Shadow of the Collosus). It remains a Blu-ray player, however, and the experience has been streamlined from the PS3. Unfortunately, the disc drive is pretty loud. This is a problem in games as well, but is more noticeable during films.

One of the reasons the PlayStation 2 was so successful was because it was among the first affordable consumer DVD players, and Sony’s decision to make every PlayStation 3 a Blu Ray player (the Blu Ray format was developed by Sony) helped that format beat HD-DVD. There is no new format here, but Sony is pushing in a different direction with two services that are front and center on every new PlayStation 4: Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited. The future is digital, and these services are Sony’s attempts to keep players in its ecosystem. Video Unlimited is just another video service, and despite being its own app on the PlayStation timeline, it is actually a part of the PlayStation Store that sections off once movies/TV have been rented or purchased.

Music Unlimited is its own entity, yet another music subscription service with some cool content discovery features. I like the ability to choose playlists based on mood or other adjectives (that being said, Green Day’s “21 Guns” is a lot of things, but “extreme” is not one of them). The breadth of content is pretty impressive, and it’s worth a trial run at least before plunking down $9.99 a month for a premium subscription. Fortunately, each new PlayStation 4 put out before 2014 will come with a free month of the service packed in, as well as one month of PlayStation Plus and $10 to be used in the PlayStation Store.

Music Unlimited’s best feature is its ability to play music in the background of other applications. Whether it’s browsing through the store or blowing up hundreds of bad guys, everything is better with the Backstreet Boys. Unfortunately, it only works with Music Unlimited; in fact, the system does not even support MP3 playback (although the official FAQ says that possibility is being explored). I have been having some trouble with Music Unlimited (both with playback and the app itself), but I have been told that my case has been the exception rather than the rule. Your mileage may vary.

A system launch is all about potential; very rarely is a console really worth the cost on day one. There are usually not enough games (or in the case of a Wii U an immediate drought after the fact) and brand new hardware is more to fail once it reaches a broad market than an established product. During the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360’s lifetimes, they changed dramatically, adding new features through software updates that changed the way players interacted with them. That will be true with the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, but even more so. As previously mentioned, the giant FAQ Sony has released about the system claims that certain features will “not be available at launch” or are “being explored.” This vague language leaves the door open for some radical and exciting shifts in the PS4’s capabilities. Some of what has been written here may be completely obsolete in just a few years.

That is not the system people are buying now, though, but despite its flaws and less than stellar launch lineup, it is worth the asking price. The PlayStation 4 is Sony’s best video game console, and it is a fine piece of hardware. The coming years will make or break it, but the future looks bright.

Welcome to the next generation.