The Sony PS4 is here to wage war with Xbox One for next-gen supremacy. Is this the future of gaming? Here's our Sony PS4 review
The Sony PlayStation 4 finally arrives to take on the Microsoft's Xbox One in a next-gen gaming war more drawn out than any product launch we've seen. But in a console battle often fought more on ethics than specs, with the hardware now in our hands, what does it all add up to?
Launched in New York back in February, the PS4 hits the US on 15 November 2013, with the UK having to wait till 29 November to get its game on. But T3's been following it all year, demoing its games for months and have had a retail unit for a few days, with access to the US networks, so we've been putting it through its paces…
Sony PS4: Size and build
The Sony PS4 is surprisingly svelte for such a serious games machine at 2.8kg, its 275 x 53 x 305mm frame both smaller and lighter than the original PS3 and even its PS3 Slim follow-up. Somehow, there's no unsightly power block to hide either. Next to the Xbox One, it's the clear aesthetic top dog, you'll feel proud to have this in your living room, and it's easily ported around the house.
Looking like a suitably futuristic if unassuming black monoltih, with all vents and most ports hidden round back, the matte/gloss aesthetic is divided by a glowing power line that glows blue at boot up before giving way to a more living room-friendly white.
WATCH: Sony PS4 unboxing video:
It looks good beneath or beside your telly, whether laying down or, as we prefer, upright (the horizontal-only Xbox One is going to require a bit of under-TV rearranging). It is, however, a little on the vulnerable side – drop one and we don't reckon it will survive.
The connections at the back are now all digital, with an aux port for the optional PlayStation Camera, Ethernet for wired online connections, an HDMI port to hook up to the telly and Optical Audio out, too.
Up front there are two discrete USB 3.0 ports to charge the wireless controllers, beneath the on/off and eject buttons that sit either side of the disc port (6 x Blu-ray, 8 x DVD). It also has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, the latter syncing the controllers.
Despite the more power-packed eight-core Jaguar x86-64 processor and 1.84 TFLOPS AMD Radeon GPU, the console's innards are noticeably much quieter than the current-gen machines. While we're still not talking silent running, a very light hum when games boot up and get overly busy is about as active as it gets.
Sony PS4: Controller
The PS4 comes packed with one DualShock 4, though additional controllers are available at £50 a throw (the console supports up to four). It's a massive improvement on the last iteration and the best pad PlayStation's produced. Sturdy and reassuringly weighty in the palm compared to the always-a-bit-light-for-us DualShock 3, its surprising sleekness is married to a textured coating on the base and dual sticks that aid grip.
The button configuration is, at first, as you'd expect – two analogue control sticks, a bumper and trigger button on each side, and four shape-marked action buttons on the front. The dual sticks mfeel stiffer compared to the PS3's, which we've found can help accuracy, though it takes some acclimatising.
The triggers are now very trigger-like indeed, more flush than before, and their close placement to the shoulder buttons is a good design move that aids quick changes. The improved motor rumble andm added speaker, which throws out in-game orders if required, also give you more immersive, contextual feedback.
However, where there was once Select and Start, there are a raft of new options there place. The first, called, well, Options, is a surrogate pause button that also brings up contextual info when in the main interface and lets you delete items in the menu.
Share, on the other side of the pad, is the one-stop media shop that lets you put image stills or video of your game on to social networks, or even stream direct once you've set up an account.
A quick click of the button automatically takes a screenshot and saves the last 15 minutes of your gameplay to your hard drive (the PS4 has already been recording you, see?), and takes you to a sharing menu; a longer held click just takes an on-the-fly screen grab.
On Call of Duty Ghosts, an image was 250KB and a video 792MB locally, which you can then share out to Facebook or Twitter if you wish. Video sharing requires a Facebook log-in to function, for some reason, with no inbuilt YouTube sync as yet and no ability to port any of your footage out on to an external drive either. There's also no editing suite at present, unlike the Xbox One's excellent Upload Studio.
If you want to broadcast your efforts of gaming prowess on to the internet, you can choose either Twitch and Ustream, but you'll need an account with them directly before you can activate and the PS4 just sends you off to their websites.
Neither of the new buttons is particularly elegantly placed or of a large enough size for quick, mid-game use – there's still that unfamiliar fumble each time, leading to the odd eyes-off-screen death – but we suspect we'll get used to them. Their multi-functionality makes them a real boon.
In the middle is the Touch Panel, a tactile interface based around the PS Vita's rear input. It's not textured at all, smooth to the fingertip, but is fairly responsive when navigating menus and can also act as surrogate buttons, with two click points like a mouse.
The 'slide for weapon' functionality has been tried in Killzone Shadow Fall, but it will be interesting to see how indies embrace touch and whether the trackpad-esque qualities will suit PC-centric strategy/adventure fare.
Below this and the speaker is the PS button, which acts like an iPad's Home button (as well as logging users on multiple controllers in and out) and the headset port (although the provided one-bud earpiece is a bit cheap and smartphoney).
Sixaxis remains inside, with you able to use the combined gyrometer and accelerometer to navigate on-screen keyboards more swiftly, while the light bar on the reverse acts like a mini PlayStation Move if you're Camera'd up. This also signifies players by colour and flashes in some games when you're hit – though since you can't see it yourself, this is presumably only helpful to others.
Battery life for the controller is a decent if not spectacular seven hours, which is a fair bit less than the DualShock 3's, though with the amount of new tech on board, was to be expected. It's charged, handily, via micro-USB to USB rather than a proprietary connection from the front of the console, so you're sure to have a spare cable knocking around if you lose this one.
Sony PS4: Features
Out of the box, you'll need to do the PS4's 1.5 firmware update, as seems to be the case with all consoles nowadays, before you can get many of the features working. We set ours up as all the US accounts went live and it took us a while, but it's only 323MB so at UK launch we don't see this being an issue.
Once into the new PS4 interface, you notice how quick and smooth the whole experience is, the most palpable effect of owning a new piece of gaming hardware after a six-year wait (and a not-yet-taxed 8GB of GDDR5 RAM). Going back to current gen after a few hours in its company is like trading broadband in for dial-up. Check out our PS4 UI run-through video.
But while it makes the last gen feel archaic when you return, there's a familiarity here. Sure, the visually striking dynamic window tiles may fill the screen and a 'What's New' social feed of you and friends' movements hang below, but a tweaked XMB bar sits just above it for more in-depth settings, while the classical audio strains and floaty background wallpaper remain almost identical.
Breezing along the menus, in and out of apps in a flash, is a revelatory experience, but its design can sometimes feel almost too unstructured. If you're a bit OCD like us, it's slightly annoying you can't reorganise the dynamic tiles as you can on Xbox One (they're shown in order of use).
Similarly the social functions lack organising tools and the browser, as is becoming the norm with PlayStation, is not up to much.
The controller's PS button acts as a handy default pause and home key to suspend whatever you're doing in one touch. It sounds basic but the ability to alter settings on the fly, without having to log out and boot up again, is something smartphones and tablets have been doing for years, but consoles are finally there. Multi-tasking is go (though only one game can run at a time still).
System updates are a thing of the past, as they now update in the background, while the promise of being able to play a game as you download it is only part fulfilled. We had to wait for Warframe to part-download from PSN before we could play, although this is on online-only game. But discs seemed to play instantly despite clearly shifting data over to the hard drive, which they did with no noticeable issues.
Sony PS4: Content
All PS4 titles are now available for digital download from the PSN Store, though with some next-gen triple-A games clocking in at up to 40GB a go, we're not sure the same-sized 500GB hard drive as our old PS3 is going to last long (which is actually nearer 400GB of free space after OS software).
Maybe we'll be streaming games over Gaikai by the time it fills up, who knows, but Sony's ambitious cloud gaming service doesn't even start trialling in the US till some time next year, with no UK date announced, so perhaps not. External hard drives are not supported at launch, though you can swap the internal one if you have the desire and the know how.
With so much focus on gaming, media has been something of an afterthought for Sony. MP3 and local digital media aren't currently supported, though are rumoured to be coming in a future update, while after some confusion 3D Blu-rays are rumoured to be supported by a firmware fix that will land at some point after launch day.
On the services front, we're promised Netflix and BBC iPlayer to tick the boxes in the UK, but even in the US there's not a huge selection (the usual Hulu and Crackle), with Sony focusing its music and video efforts very much on its good if restrictive Music and Video Unlimited subscription streaming hubs (from £4.99 a month for the first and pay per view from £2.50 on the latter).
Where media does get the upper hand is in 4K playback, which is supported in a non-gaming capacity only, although without any 4K media in reach or a 4K telly to try it on, this remains untested by us.
Sony PS4: Peripherals
Control can be expanded beyond the included set-up with a variety of optional extras. The PlayStation Camera (£45), which adds Kinect-esque motion-sensing to the gaming mix as well as, more usefully, voice-controlled menus (with a simple 'PlayStation…' order) is a nice, inessential piece of kit.
While not as uniformly integrated or perhaps technologically advanced as the new Kinect, it does individual tasks very well indeed. Voice pick-up is much better than current-gen Kinect, while we set multiple log-ins to face recognition and it got us all every time, even in a crowd.
It also makes use of the pre-loaded Playroom demo compendium at present, though the excellent two-player air hockey aside – an ace, touch-panelled pong that uses Sixaxis to morph the play area with the Camera films your reaction – this is a one-time family party trick.
The PS Vita handheld (£170), if you haven't already taken the jump, is an excellent gaming portable in its own right. With a selection of very good games at reasonable prices, it now joins in with the PS4 as part of the Remote Play functionality (download 3.00 firmware on to your Vita to join them up).
Paring is simple with a code system, but as we're having to use a US account to trial the console, we couldn't sync to our UK Vita (both devices have to be tied to the same PSN log-in). We tried a Remote Play-enabled Vita at a game show earlier in the year and while there was minimal lag, this will inevitably vary depending on location.
There's also PlayStation App, available for iOS and Google Plays smartphones and tablets, which takes the PS4's UI to your phone or tablet. As well as managing your account and chatting to PSN friends on the go, you can also line up purchases and even interact with games and media as a second-screen input or output. Alas, this wasn't live in the UK at our time of testing either.
Sony PS4: Games
It might be obvious to some but it's worth pointing out that the PS4 only plays PS4 games – it is not backwards compatible with PS3 physical discs. Also while your PSN and PS+ accounts will crossover and films port across, any digital games from PSN won't run on the new machine either.
However, all of this applies to Xbox One, too, and what both do is usher in the proposed new generation of full 1080p, 60 frames per second gaming.
The 19-strong PS4 launch line-up sounds initially like a good haul, but a bit of delving shows that there are relatively few exclusive and next gen-only titles to play right now. That said, the PS4 offers the highest definition console version of Call of Duty Ghosts (1080p after a launch-day update, with Xbox One at 720p) and the much-improved Ignite engine version of FIFA 14.
Similarly spruced up interpretations of Battlefield 4 and Assassin's Creed 4 Black Flag (with extra content just for PS4) fill out the £50-a-go triple-A stable nicely, too. You may well have these already on your current-gen console, but these are the definitive versions and pack a suitable wow factor – on some you can unlock a digital PS4 upgrade for $9.99 in the US (UK pricing TBC). The console promised land of full 1080p, 60 frames per second gaming isn't quite fulfilled yet, though, with most developers seemingly choosing between 720p at 60fps or 1080p at 30fps at present.
If you're talking gameplay over grunt, our picks of the slate are actually two of the indie offerings, Resogun and Contrast, the first a PS4-only pulsating, retro-tinged twin-stick shooter, the latter an art-house puzzler, both with great soundtracks.
WATCH: Resogun PS4 gameplay video:
Each are under $15 (UK price TBC) or free if you hook your new console up to PS+, the subscription service that adds online multiplayer as well as a stream of very good ongoing freebies across all your PlayStation devices (£12 for 90 days, £40 for the year). We really recommend it.
WATCH: Killzone Shadow Fall PS4 gameplay video:
For those not sure indie subtlety warrants a hardware upgrade in search of some exclusive excess to show off their system, Killzone Shadow Fall offers some of the finest visuals and lens-flare use we've seen, even if the trad shooter underneath isn't much to write home about. Similarly, PS4 chief architect Mark Cerny's Knack is a fairly formulaic platform-brawler with a nice paint job that should please youngsters.
WATCH: Knack PS4 gameplay video:
Elsewhere, the not radically redesigned PSN Store is mainly chock full of remakes of (it's worth pointing out, very good) PS3 and PS Vita indies – Flower, Flow, Sound Shapes and Escape Plan are all worth a dabble if they've eluded you – and some American sports titles.
However, it's good to see PlayStation's Cross Play initiative continued on PS4, meaning some titles are available for one price across PS3, PS Vita and the new console.
Of course, history tells us there's usually a sharp quality spike in the year after launch, as developers get used to the hardware and install base numbers make development financially viable.
Other exclusive games on the roster for 2014 include third-person action titles like Infamous Second Son in March, The Order 1886 and, of course, Uncharted 4, as well as promising indies like Rime, Octodad and Everything's Gone to the Rapture.
Cross-platform persistent online world juggernauts such as Destiny (with the beta debuting on PS4 next year), The Division, The Crew and The Witcher 3 will also head PS4's way, as well as a raft of titles of all shapes and sizes thanks to PlayStation's open self-publishing policies.
The huge effort to build a platform that's easy for games development after the PS3's complex infrastructurem makes us fairly confident that the quality will flow.
Sony PS4: Verdict
The PlayStation 4 is a fast, great-looking, powerful console at a not-silly price that also packs the best controller that's adorned a PlayStation so far. It has a fair amount of good games of all sizes and price points to play from the off, although not as many exclusive must-haves as we'd haveliked and it's not backward compatible with PS3 titles.
While Sony's focus on gaming has left the PS4 a bit light on the entertainment end, it covers off the streaming and on-demand basics. The Xbox One's media focus has certainly given it a lead on this front, though at launch its UK-centric offerings are similarly underwhelming and we expect both to address this through firmware updates, which now thankfully all download quietly and effortlessly.
As is common in tech now, the PS4 is a line in the sand rather than the finished article, the investment in a new ongoing service rather than a standalone product, with improvements and tweaks happening daily. While this long-term investment very much puts it up against the Xbox One for your attention, this prevents either from being a direct replacement for anyone's current-gen set-top.
Other than a handful of Full-HD titles and a very swish and speedy interface, there's little this can functionally do right now that demands an upgrade.
Because of this, the idea of dishing out full marks to any games console at launch is slightly ridiculous, when you consider the always-light initial game selection, untestable factors like long-term online services (multiplayer needs more thorough usage to pass judgment) and the simple fact that it takes time for game makers to get the best out of new platforms.
But we think the PS4 is set up well to evolve – its developer-friendly spec, social integration steps, commitment to Cross Play and mobile extensions to the ecosystem across PS Vita, tablets and smartphones, not to mention future Gaikai-powered cloud gaming plans, giving it space to expand and be flexible as gamer requirements shift in years to come.
With the PS3 and Xbox 360 producing some of the finest games of the moment and acting as fully operational media hubs while they do it, a new console is undoubtedly a want rather than a need right now. But through its super-fast UI, noticeable graphical jump and expansion plans, PS4 looks like one worth buying into in the long run.
Sony PS4 release date: Out now (US), 29 November 2013 (UK)
Sony PS4 price: £350