Where Microsoft has had to radically revise its console software, Sony pretty much got things right first time around. It’s simple and game-focused, and it makes it easy to find the existing games in your library and discover new games in the store. It puts social gaming at the heart of the experience, with What’s New updates dominating the screen when you first boot up, and you can see what your friends are playing, whether they’re online and whether you can join them. The Facebook, Twitter and Twitch integration works brilliantly, and Sony’s simple Capture Gallery app makes sharing clips and screenshots easy. Microsoft is only now catching up with Sony’s smart approach.
What changes Sony have made have been to improve the basic functionality, often adding features that the PS4 promised but didn’t deliver nearer to launch. The system now resumes from standby and takes you straight to your current point in your current game, and you can now start playing many games while they’re installing, with fewer doing the old ‘I’ll launch the title screen then leave you twiddling’ trick too.
The PS4 now has a decent Media Player app, and Sony keeps improving file format support, even covering MKV. You can also customise the UI with different themes and backgrounds, helping make the PS4 feel more your own, while PS2 emulation seems to be rolling out now, though Sony has yet to announce anything official.
While the Xbox One can now stream games to Windows 10 PCs and devices, streaming is still something of a PlayStation forte. You can, of course, stream games through Remote Play, either to a PlayStaton Vita or to a small number of Sony Xperia phones. You can also stream games across the home network to the PlayStation TV, which can now be picked up at the kind of price where it’s almost worth having – should you be happy playing 1080p games compressed at 720p, perhaps on a bedroom TV. Perhaps the PS4’s best streaming feature is Share Play, which lets two PS4 owners play the same copy of a game over the Internet. It’s oft-forgotten and actually blocked by some games, but it’s great for local co-op friendly titles.
The PS4’s app line-up has improved dramatically since launch, with Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube, NowTV, Spotify, iPlayer, Demand 5 and Plex all onboard. It might not have the Xbox One’s TV input, optional Freeview HD module or OneGuide, but it’s a great media streamer for all but broadcast services, lacking only All 4 and ITV Player of the major UK sources.
When it comes to apps and services, though, the PS4 has two jewels in its crown. One is PlayStation Plus, now a requirement for online gaming, but at £40 a year one of gaming’s biggest bargains. Not only do you get money off some of the console’s biggest games, but the fantastic Instant Game Collection, giving you a selection of free titles each and every month. However, Microsoft has been catching up through its own Game with Gold program, and it’s done so with a vengeance. Instant Game Collection has given us games of the calibre of The Unfinished Swan, Broken Age, Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, Apotheon, The Walking Dead Season 2 and Rocket League during this year alone, but Microsoft has also put out some of these titles, gratis, not to mention Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and Tomb Raider: definitive Edition. On Sony’s side, though, it has a good history of giving away older first-party flagship titles, and we’d be surprised if we didn’t see Killzone: Shadow Fall and The Order: 1866 in the Instant Game Collection before too long.
The second is PlayStation Now, Sony’s game-streaming service. You can rent and then stream a growing selection of PS3 games for two-day or 30-day periods, and they all stream smoothly and reasonably lag-free. It’s not a great way to play games you already own on PS3, as you’re paying for the privilege, but it can be a good way to catch up with any PS3 classics that you missed.
Related: Best PS4 Games 2015
We don’t buy consoles because we like the look of the hardware, but because we want to play games. Here the PS4 is a slightly awkward proposition. On the one hand, it’s definitely the best system for cross-platform titles – well, unless you’re willing to splash out more on a decent games PC.
On the other, we’ve seen a tragic dearth of quality exclusives this year, with many of our most anticipated PS4 titles not arriving until the next. So far, the best exclusives have been Bloodborne and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, though DriveClub has improved enough to add it to the must-have list.
All the same, it’s hardly a great sign that Sony’s biggest first-party hit for Christmas is a compilation of remastered PS3 Uncharted games, however brilliant that might be.
Next year looks much better, and hopefully, PS4 owners will be cock-a-hoop when No Man’s Sky, Uncharted 4, Wild, The Witness, Ryme and Horizon: Zero Dawn appear. Even that list leaves out Media Molecule’s brilliant but bonkers Dreams, a new Ratchet and Clank and many, many more.
Related: Best PSN Games 2015
It’s tempting to see the PS4 as a ‘jam tomorrow’ console, with the Xbox One delivering jam today. However, there’s more than enough third-party jam to make you glad you bought one now, while tomorrow’s jam does look very, very tasty indeed.
Sony still has work to do convincing us that it can still knock out big, amazing experiences that you can’t find anywhere else, but we’re quietly confident that it can pull it off, either through games or through pioneering console-based VR.
Microsoft might have dominated this year’s gaming landscape, but Sony still has the hardware and the games to dominate the next.