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PS4 – what Sony got right.. and what it didn’t.

The PS4 is finally here. Well, ok it isn’t HERE as such. Sony never actually pulled back a dust sheet and showed us a real PS4. The only evidence we have that it even exists as an object was some possibly-pre-rendered game demo footage, a supposedly ‘live’ playthrough of a Killzone: Shadow Fall and that new controller – which we must assume must connect to something.

(It may be worth pointing out at this point that TrustedReviews is NOT claiming the whole PS4 reveal was a bigger fake than the Moon landings. We are at least 90 per cent sure it is a real console. We want to believe.)

Nevertheless, over the course of two hours on Wednesday evening we learned a lot about the next-generation PlayStation and it is clear that Sony has been listening to both gamers and developers – and not just because they kept telling us that is what they have been doing. The PS4 has a new internal architecture that will be familiar to most devs, and gamers can look forward to some retina-searing graphics as well as a raft of new features like dual-screen play and an emphasis on social networking.

But has Sony done enough? The PS4 is never going to live up to everyone’s expectations but will it do enough, well enough to merit its next-generation label? Let’s look at the what Sony has got right.. and what it perhaps has not.

What the PS4 gets right:

It’s a PC, and that’s a good thing!
The PS4 uses an x86 architecture. When PS4 lead systems architect Mark Cerny revealed this fact he remarked that the PS4 “is like a PC in many ways.” Well, yes, it is. Cerny suggested that the GPU architecture is somewhat enhanced compared to that found in the average gaming PC but that might be like the difference between a low and high end graphics card.

One of the unfortunate truisms about gaming is that console launch titles are rarely all that. The games available at launch come from developers who have spent the previous few months feeling their way around a new system architecture and experimenting with new hardware features. It isn’t until later on in the console’s life cycle that developers really get a feel for what it can do and learn how to code around its quirks or take advantage of its strengths to squeeze out more performance or graphical flair.

The x86, however, is already tried and tested. Developers already now how to make an x86 processor sing, which ought to give them a leg up when it comes to creating a impressive crop of launch games.

Memories are made of this
Even as Cerny told us that the PS4 would have 8 gigabytes of unified memory there were sourpusses on Twitter whining that this meant it would be obsolete by 2015. What this ignores, however, is that the PS3 had just half a gigabyte split between video and system RAM. 8GB ought to be enough to be getting on with.

Wired for sound

Headphone jack on the controller. Yes. Full marks for this Sony. Cue ticker tape parade.

A hectic social whirl
The ‘Share’ button on the DualShock 4 is a great idea. One click sharing of screen grabs and video clips of your exploits together with a networking back end geared towards allowing spectators and co-op play. Supposedly, you will be able to ask a mate for help if you get stuck. Expect someone to try and monetise this by offering themselves as a gun for hire.

You can even play on the toilet
One of the stand-out features of the PS4 must be Sony’s embrace of streamed gaming. Using streaming tech from Gaikai, Sony is proposing to let you try games before you buy not by downloading a feature-crippled demo but by letting you play the full game over the internet.

This, Sony says, will change the way you buy games by letting you truly try before you buy. The PS4 will also learn your preferences and silently download games it thinks you might WANT to buy. This may feel slightly creepy, but if it works and stops agonisingly long download times then it could prove a killer feature.

You will also be able to stream to portable devices. Sony showed off someone playing a game on a PS Vita that had until moments earlier been running on a PS4. The processing was still being done by the new console but the results were being streamed across the local network, allowing play to continue even after the gamer had been kicked off the family flatscreen.

What the PS4 does wrong:

It’s a PC, and that’s a bad thing!
The x86 architecture ought to make porting PS4 games to PC and vice-versa much easier than with older consoles. The trouble is that the PS4 will be frozen at launch whereas the PC platform will continue to evolve. It may be trivial to code a game for both PS4 and regular PC but in a relatively short time the PC will begin to pull away and leave the PS4 versions of the latest games looking like the poor relation.

Conversely, the similarities in architecture could end up helping PC gaming (and, in particular Valve’s rival ‘Steam Box’ meta-console) at the PS4’s expense. Could this prove a double-edged sword for Sony?

Mobile muddle
We love the sound of Sony’s plans for mobile and second screen gaming but at the moment that is all they are. We may have seen a brief look at a game being paused on the PS4 and resumed on the PS Vita handheld but we will need to have this feature confirmed as standard for all PS4 games before we allow ourselves to get too excited.

The other problem here is the Vita itself. This may be an innovative and forward thinking use of streaming and remote play but Sony seems to be tying a lot of this to the PS Vita, a console widely regarded as a flop. Do we have to go out and buy a Vita now while they are all reduced to fire sale prices or can we assume that iOS and Android apps will offer as much functionality?

Don’t look back
Streaming is also Sony’s answer to the problem of backwards compatibility, something which Sony managed to royally mess up on the PS3. Early PS3 models could run PlayStation 2 games (initially via actual PS2 hardware, later via emulation) but Sony removed this ability in later models to the consternation of many PS2 fans.

The PS4 won’t even pretend to be compatible with the PS3 at launch. This isn’t really surprising given the change in architecture but it is something that many gamers care about. To solve this problem, Sony is proposing to let you stream PS3 games across the internet and play them on your PS4.

If this ‘solution’ has left you pulling a bit of a “Hmm.” face then, frankly, join the club.

She’s out of control
For once, the mock-ups of the DualShock 4 controller were right, but is that a good thing? The addition of a touchpad could lead to some exciting new gaming experiences but to us the aspect ratio of the thing looks a bit wrong. Does it map to the average screen dimensions? Either way, it seems like an afterthought, grafted on to the top of the DualShock in a position that seems designed to be hard to reach.

The new controller will come with a ‘mood light’ panel to identify the controller by colour. This will also be picked up by the PS4 Eye camera to give depth cues to motion sensing. In other words, the whole DualShock will work like the PlayStation Move. Putting aside the merits of Move, did anyone enjoy using the DualShock 3 as a motion controller in the games which supported it? It is a controller designed to be gripped with both hands, not waggled around so you look like you are about to lob a fat Batarang.

It’s only brilliant. Pfft.
There is no denying that the PlayStation 4 looks like a brilliant games console. The demos and gameplay teasers Sony showed us were incredibly detailed with long draw-distances and finely-grained textures smeared across dizzying numbers of polygons.

Unfortunately – and this may seem an odd criticism of a games machine – that is all it was. It is only a brilliant games console.

Microsoft’s strategy for the Xbox appears to be looking beyond the hardcore, triple-A games launches that keep some members of the family glued to the sofa, and is casting its gaze around the rest of the room. The next-gen Xbox is intended to be part of a wider power grab for the whole family’s attention combining hardcore console gaming with casual and social games,network services and music, streaming video from your personal library, network TV and the web.

In short, Microsoft aims to capture the living room by any means necessary. What Sony showed us on Wednesday still seems stuck in the world of the die-hard gamer who will always be first in line for the latest first-person shooter or blockbuster sports game.

There was a brief nod at the console’s other capabilities in the form of a single slide showing the likes of Hulu, Netflix and YouTube and some talk of more details being revealed later in the year. Again though, this had the feel of an afterthought. This console is about games, for better or worse.

The full story

What Sony showed us is only part of the PS4 story. Over the next few months we will find out if the PS4 has any more suprises for us. Sadly, we have an inkling that some of those surprises might include features mentioned here being quietly sidelined (gun to our heads? Backward-copmpatability streaming and full-game previews will be ‘de-prioritised’ before launch. We hope we are wrong.)

Gaming is changing, is the PS4 enough of a leap forwards to allow Sony to change with it? We don’t know, but Microsoft has everything to play for.

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