Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Initial Thoughts on the PS4

I've talked a number of times about my history with Sony in regards to video games. I had never owned a PlayStation until college and the PS3 was the very last console from the previous generation that I purchased, and I mostly only did it because a friend of mine got me hooked on the "Metal Gear" games. And after using it for a while and warming up to it, I ultimately decided that I should have purchased the PS3 in the first place.

The PS3 was the best system of the previous generation, at least for me. I'm not big on online multiplayer, which I think the Xbox 360 clearly did better, but pretty much everything else the PS3 did much better. I've gone over this before. Better media sharing, better hardware stability, better exclusive games, better indie support, better controller (I'm sorry, I'm not a huge fan of the 360 controller), better digital game support, easier to upgrade the HDD, better paid subscription service, better interface... Honestly, the only reason I still have my 360 is because that's where all of my "Rock Band" DLC lives and it has a Blip and HBOGo app. That's basically it.

So my decision to get a PS4 wasn't born entirely out of the fact that Microsoft completely screwed the pooch on their initial console announcement. And while we're on the subject, yes, I know they've recanted most of the things that made people edgy, but based a recent statement from Albert Penello, it's pretty clear that Microsoft is probably hoping to go back to their original plans later on:

"We just think that's the way the future's gonna go... We may have been right. What we were wrong about was that it's just too soon. People just weren't ready to make that leap right away."

But no, I didn't just get a PS4 because it cost less, lacked an online requirement, and had a lot of support from indie devs. No, I also got it because in spite of my own admitted biases, Sony won me over last generation and I felt like I kind of owed them the benefit of the doubt. I regretted not buying a PS3 sooner last generation, so I felt it made sense to get a PS4 right out of the gate this time around.

So on Friday, my PS4 arrived, I got it set up, and I gave it a whirl. I didn't play with it excessively over the weekend, but I do think I've had enough time to give my initial impressions.

The Setup

Unboxing it was fairly painless. It comes with an HDMI cable, which, yeah, I think this is the first system to do that. Hope Best Buy doesn't mind. The first problem I ran into was... well, finding the power button.

Seriously, because of the way this thing is designed it took me about 5 minutes before I could find the "On" switch. I had to point my lit-up phone at it to see the tiny power and disc ejection buttons sitting wedged in the middle of the front face. Say what you will about the PS3's weird-looking design, at least you could tell how to turn it on and eject a disc.

Once I got it to turn on and connected it to my WiFi, it started downloading the initial Day One update almost immediately. I was actually pleasantly surprised by that. I had heard that the network was really congested, so I actually came prepared to load the initial update manually. Turns out I didn't need to. The update downloaded and installed pretty quickly. I think the whole process took about 5 minutes. Perfectly painless.

Then I tried to log into my PSN account. That... was less smooth. I had to go at it for roughly an hour, sometimes getting errors, sometimes just seeing it spin its wheels for about 10 minutes before backing out and trying again. Eventually, though, it let me through. I still got warnings periodically about PSN Maintenance the whole time, but my connection seemed more or less stable for the rest of the night.

I thought it was a bit strange that the initial update was fine, but logging into my PSN account was a nightmare.

In any case, I needed to connect to my PSN account before I could play any games.

The Games

I was initially going to purchase "Knack", since I kinda liked the colorful design and unique mechanics, but pretty much all of the reviews I've read have panned it, so I decided to cancel that order.

But that wasn't too much of a problem, thankfully. Since I have a PlayStation Plus account (which has more than paid for itself several times over in free games and discounts), I decided to go all-digital this launch. It was a bit of a problem due to the whole PSN Maintenance debacle, but once I got through, it was less of an issue.

On day one, I was able to get "RESOGUN", "Contrast", "Warframe", and "Blacklight Retribution" all for free.


"RESOGUN" is a fun little game. It kind of feels like a hybrid of "Gradius" and "Missile Command". It's a side-scrolling shoot-'em-up, but you are confined to a single circular area and you have to defend and save 10 humans in the map while simultaneously avoiding getting killed yourself.

It's a really well-designed game and I enjoyed playing it, but I think my only problem with it is that it's not terribly addicting, which is kind of a death-knell for a shmup. I played the first couple levels, had a pretty good time, failed on the third one and then just kind of moved on to other games.

I think part of the problem is that each level feels sort of self-contained. In "Galaga" or something like that, even if I die right out of the gate, I still might feel the urge to keep trying in spite of myself. In "RESOGUN", however, if I lose a life early on or a human dies early on, I feel less inclined to keep going since surviving ten waves of Keepers, which are green, glowing smaller fleets of ships that have to be destroyed to free one of the humans. If they are not destroyed quickly enough, the human just dies. If you destroy them, the human is freed from its cage and you have to fly over to it, pick it up, and bring it to an evacuation point.

Let me just say that this very critical aspect of the game took me way too long to figure out. I knew I had to "save the last humans" as the game tells you at the beginning of every level, but I had no idea how to. I couldn't figure out who the Keepers are, what I was supposed to do to them, and how their deaths affected the humans.

All that was probably my own fault for not paying as much attention as I should have, but I'm just saying the game isn't necessarily terribly intuitive. Also, I still don't quite get why letting the Keepers live causes the humans to die. I would think it would make more sense if the humans got captured or directly attacked, but it seems like the humans just die as a result of the Keepers existing. And when the Keepers are destroyed, the human it frees could be anywhere on the map, often causing a rather intense mad dash to the other side of the map to find them before they get killed, and rushing in this game can be tricky since, like any decent shmup, touching another ship will kill you.

All in all, though, I liked "RESOGUN", I just don't think I'm crazy about it. It certainly is the prettiest game of the bunch.


"Contrast" is probably my favorite game of the bunch. I haven't beaten it yet, but I really enjoy playing it.

I'm not 100% sure what exactly is going on (again, haven't finished it yet), but it seems that you play as Dawn, an imaginary friend to a girl named Didi, who lives in a noir-style world. Didi is the only character you can actually see. Everyone else in the game is shown only in shadow. Similarly, it seems no one else other than Didi can see you, though it seems they can see your shadow (though they most seem not to notice you at all). Also, the rest of the world seems very... unfinished. It's unclear whether or not this is just the way the world appears to Dawn, if her ability to interact with the world is limited through Didi, or if the world truly is this collection of concrete islands trapped floating on a void of nothingness.

In any case, the core gameplay of the game is platforming with a slight twist. Dawn has the ability to slip in and out of shadow form, resulting in some very clever level design and puzzles. The puzzles thus far haven't been terribly difficult, but they are still engaging. The platforming itself is a bit flighty and glitchy. Reminds me a lot of "Psychonauts". Clever ideas, but lacking the polish of a platforming game like "Banjo-Kazooie" or a Mario game.

The real highlights of the game, however, are the story and the atmosphere. Didi's story of a girl caught between two parents teetering on the brink of annihilation is a bit cliche, but still engaging. Didi understands more than her parents think, but she also is more concerned with the simpler side of the situation. She understands that her father is in trouble with the wrong sort and she knows that his plans tend to not work out so great, but she just wants her family to stay together and for everyone to stay happy. Her motivations as a character are clear and sympathetic and inform the gameplay by providing simple goals.

The gameplay might be a bit buggy at times, the assets might have needed a bit more polish, and the level design could be tighter and a bit more complex, but the game manages to engage me far more than "RESOGUN". I'd say they are almost complete opposites in that way. While "RESOGUN" has a great deal of polish and balance, it lacks any kind of hook to draw the player in. Meanwhile, "Contrast" probably needed more time for polish and balance, but manages to hook the player in through its unique ideas and compelling story.


"Warfram" is free-to-play game for everyone, not just PlayStation Plus subscribers, but I think you might need PS+ in order to play it online. I could be wrong, I don't know.

In any case, this isn't a new game as it's been out on the PC for close to a year now, but this is the first console port.

It's a cooperative third-person shooter where you play as a sort of cyborg going through and fighting aliens. Part of the gimmick is that it allows for a handful of different play-styles. Some levels can be played with stealth rather than constant running and gunning, though if you're playing in a team, good luck using stealth.

Your characters get a number of abilities and the use of a melee weapon (a sword), which is pretty cool, but the gameplay isn't terribly unique.

For what it is, though, I certainly don't regret playing it and I might go back to it. I'm always a fan of compelling cooperative play and as a free-to-play game, it handles microtransactions responsibly. If you have patience, you can unlock everything in the game without paying a cent, but since a lot of gear is obtained randomly by purchasing blueprints and fusing upgrades, spending real-world money to get a particular piece of gear you want would probably save you time. I personally think that's the best way to handle free-to-play in the current marketplace. Meanwhile, games like the upcoming "Killer Instinct" claim to be free-to-play, but there's no way to get all of the content without paying. Sure, you can play for free if you only want to play as one character, but no one in their right mind would do that.

But I had my problems with it. The art design is way too dark, making it really difficult to spot a lot of enemies. I'm also not crazy about the melee attacks. When you use your sword, you lunge forward, so if you space it improperly or your opponent strafes, you may have to spin around wildly to get your bearings straight again.

Still, I'd say it's worth a go. It is free, after all.

Blacklight Retribution

When I tried to play, there was apparently some server trouble, so I wasn't able to play it. The game is still in Beta anyway, so it probably wouldn't be fair to give it a whole review at this stage.

Back to Games In General

So in spite of the fact that I didn't buy any games at launch, I had a pretty good time with what I was able to get for free. Game installations took a lot less time than they did on the PS3, multiple games could download simultaneously, and once I got PSN to connect properly, the downloads went along pretty quickly. My guess is that they were throttling the number of PSN logins so that the download speeds would remain optimal for update and game downloads. Kind of an irritating trade-off, but I guess it makes sense.

I really do wish that they made an effort to have more PSN games from the previous generation to have some compatibility on the PS4. I've downloaded a lot of PSN titles and it would have been nice to see some of those purchases carry over. Also, yeah, the whole backwards compatibility thing is a bit of a drag, but I understand why it's a problem and I hope that the Gaikai streaming service will prove stable. In the meantime, I still have a perfectly functional PS3.

I will say that I can understand the hesitance regarding the 500 GB HDD. On the PS3, 500 GB was plenty. Even for someone like me who has been binge-downloading games from PSN could fit dozens of games without any problem on a HDD that size. However, I did tend to buy my AAA titles via physical copies just because those sorts of games can take up a lot more space. The PS4, however, will need to install all of your games, in full, no matter what. Again, I understand why. I mean, our PCs already do this. But our PCs aren't limited to one 500 GB HDD. We can have external drives and multiple drives and larger drives. The PS4, however, can only have one 2.5" HDD for game installs, and that's pretty much the largest HDD you'll find that will fit within that form factor.

Honestly, though, it shouldn't be as huge of an issue this generation. The ability to play certain games from only a partial download/install will make it less of a hassle to delete games that you aren't playing anymore. Plus, even though 500 GB is by no means "more than you'll ever need" (which is always a doomed statement to make at any given time period anyway), it should be plenty for about a dozen AAA games, which is certainly more than I can typically juggle at any given time, so I don't really have a problem with this. At least not yet. We'll see how I feel in the future.

In general, though, I feel like the games I got were enough to quench my thirst for at least a weekend, and the fact that I didn't have to pay for any of them makes that even nicer. I would have liked to be able to play "Watch Dogs", but I'm willing to let Ubisoft take their time to get that one polished. It looks great.

The Features

The PS4 is more than just games, though, and people expect more from their video game systems as well. So what else do we got?

Well, the controller is very nice. I haven't had a lot of games that used the touchpad much, but it's easy to reach when I have needed to use it, so I think I'm OK with it so far. The rest of the controller is very ergonomic and comfortable and it has an audio jack port this time, which is probably the only feature from the Xbox 360 controller that I would have liked the DualShock 3 to have. Bluetooth was always a nightmare for chat audio. Also, the controller uses micro USB, so you can charge it with most mobile device charge cables if you don't want to plug your controller into the PS4 itself. Overall, the controller is great. No complaints.

One feature that I had a fair amount of fun with was the built-in Twitch.tv streaming. Without needing to buy anything extra, you can set up any game to stream directly to Twitch.tv for the world to see. It was easy enough to set up and you can share announcements for your streams on Facebook to let people know when you're online by spamming their Facebook timeline (sorry about that). I liked the feature, but I have some minor issues with it. The Twitch.tv overlay takes up about 1/4 of your TV real estate to show you that you're on the air, whether or not your mic is active, how many people are watching, and what people are saying. That's all well and good and I like being able to read the chat as I play, but I really think popup notifications could have been plenty for me. The ability to turn off the overlay would have been nice. Also, while it tells you how many people are connected, I wouldn't mind knowing who is watching, even if it's -- again -- just as a popup notification. It's pretty cool and I think I'll keep using it, but it could be better.

The new interface is fine, though there's really not much to say about it than that.

Not all of the apps that were available in the PS3 are available in the PS4 yet. Most notably the YouTube app, which I thought was a strange omission. Still, I imagine it will be carried over soon. And yeah, I really would like it if they could get apps for Blip and HBOGo so I could stop using my Xbox 360.

Probably my biggest complaint is that there doesn't seem to be any media server support. Look, Sony, I get it, most people watch movies and TV through Netflix and Hulu and stuff these days rather than downloading and streaming locally. But seriously. How hard would it have been to support media streaming? The PS3 has been able to do this since launch. There are $50 devices made by startups probably working out of a garage that can do media server streaming. It's just frustrating, that's all. Thankfully, this can probably be added fairly easily in a software update.

I didn't get the PlayStation Camera, mostly because it's voice control features are severely limited and there aren't really any games that really use it yet. Unless I want to start including my face in my Twitch.tv streams, I don't think I'll be rushing out to get one yet. Maybe if they release a better version in a few years or if more games start supporting it or if Harmonix ports "Dance Central" to the PS4. I could get down with that.

The Takeaway

Here's probably my biggest takeaway from this experience so far:

I still use my PS3.

If I want to watch YouTube? I switch to my PS3. If I want to stream a video from my laptop? I switch to my PS3. If I want to play "XCOM: Enemy Within"? I switch to my PS3.

This is a problem, and it's a problem both new systems share. I understand that the PS3's current incarnation lacks backwards compatibility, but it didn't at launch, and that's probably when you need it the most. Games are still coming out for the PS3 and not all of them will have PS4 versions right away, if ever. Gaikai is still months away at the earliest, and even that is probably optimistic.

The PS4 doesn't feel like a replacement to the PS3 or even a successor and I worry that it might take a very long time before it does.

On the one hand, I guess I'm kind of OK with that since I love my PS3 and I would feel weird disconnecting it and putting it in storage, but my PS3 is also really getting old. I finally got the Yellow Light of Death a number of months ago and had to send it back to Texas (read "Mexico") twice to get it repaired. It's working fine now, but I doubt it will have the same kind of longevity that my N64 has. It won't last forever and I have a terrible sinking feeling that when it dies, I will have to either repair it myself at considerable cost (probably from a third-party) or buy a replacement (which would lack PS1/2 backwards compatibility) in order to be able to play most of the games for it. Maybe I'm underestimating Gaikai or perhaps the PS4 can one day natively support some PS3 games through emulation, but this transition feels rocky at best.

I plan to keep using my PS4, but I feel like I'll still be using my PS3 far more often. I'm hoping that will change in the next year, but I think that's the other problem.

While I don't necessarily regret buying the PS4, I feel like I probably could have waited a year and it wouldn't have bothered me much. In a year, I'll probably be done with most of the PS3 games I'm still playing, most if not all of the new games will be available on the PS4, Gaikai might be working, YouTube might be supported, and maybe media streaming too. But I feel like until that day comes, my interaction with the PS4 will be sporadic at best. I still stand by my initial feelings from long ago that Sony and Microsoft would have been smart to hold off for another year and really come out swinging rather than do the usual "rush it out and fill in the blanks over the next year" that most consoles have done in the past.

Still, it feels like a worthy investment. I think I will get good use out of it, just not right out of the gate. I'm hoping that the somewhat sparse launch line-up leaves some room for indie devs to crash on the scene and build names for themselves. I'm hoping that the new hardware gives devs more freedom to push the boundaries of both visuals and game mechanics, especially when it comes to AI. I'm hoping that the PS4 will eventually be my new media hub that I turn on first thing when I get home from work every day.

So... I'd say my feelings are mixed. If you're reading this hoping to get a fix on whether or not you want one... well, I guess my feelings are that if you already have a PlayStation Plus account and you know you'll probably buy one within the next year or two, you might as well go for it now. It probably won't get any cheaper for another few years and if you've already got a PlayStation Plus subscription, you can take advantage of the free games that will come out in the meantime. Build up your library. If you're debating between getting this and an XBOne, I'd say that if you like to play smaller, indie games and you don't want to always have your system connected to the Internet, you should probably go with the PS4. But honestly? I don't really know if the PS4 is a clear winner yet. I've heard the stories about how devs are saying off the record that the PS4 has more hardware power, which is great, and yeah, while Microsoft has said that they're taking steps to be more indie-friendly and they've taken away their online requirements, I find it difficult to trust them. The reaching out to indie devs feels like little more than a token gesture at this point. They say that indies will get equal treatment, that they'll set their own terms, that the XBOne will work as a complete SDK eventually, and that publishers will no longer be needed, but for now those are only words. I'm hoping they prove me wrong, but they rarely do. As for the recanting of the online requirements, as I said near the beginning of this post, Microsoft rarely truly gives up on anything. If something they create doesn't go over well, they take it away, change it up a bit, rebrand it, and try again (see also Vista, Zune, Windows Phone, Windows 8, Microsoft Surface, etc.). I'm willing to bet that in about a year, they'll try again with the online requirements. Maybe offer a new feature that you can only use if you opt into the always-online feature. Then eventually, if the feature is adopted by a large enough percentage of users, they'll make it a requirement. If they get blasted in PR, they'll probably just cite some metrics saying that the majority of their users are always connected anyway or something like that. The only reason they're recanting now is because they still need people to buy the damn things, but that's a problem that will go away after launch.

But that said, if those things don't really matter to you... If you really only play AAA titles, you always have a stable Internet connection, and you think Kinect is worth $100, then... well, yeah, the XBOne is a pretty comparable choice at this stage. It will probably support most of the same 3rd party games and the graphics probably won't be very different. They've started doing the free games thing that Sony started with PS+, though the selections have been pretty underwhelming so far. The Kinect is undoubtedly better than the PlayStation Camera and the system in general has a lot more app support, even if most of those apps are stuck behind a paywall.

But if you like indie games, you're worried about Microsoft changing their minds again, and/or you really don't care whether or not the Kinect is better than the PlayStation Camera... yeah, the PS4 is probably your best option.

Of course, people like Yahtzee will always say that you don't have to choose between the two and that you can just as easily get a PC. And yeah, that's true, but honestly, while Steam has improved the PC ecosystem dramatically in a short amount of time, I just prefer console gaming. With PC gaming, everything feels a bit like a roll of the dice. Usually everything works the way it should, but every once in a while, something just doesn't and sometimes it can be a nightmare to fix it. Consoles offer consistency. A promise that I will be able to use this hardware to play most of the games that will come out in the next decade or so with no serious game-breaking problems. For example, I just got "XCOM: Enemy Within" on my PS3. My PS3 is over 5 years old. So here's a challenge: find me a 5-year-old PC that can play "XCOM: Enemy Within" as well as my PS3 can. Then tell me how much that PC cost 5 years ago. I'm willing to bet any PC you bought 5 years ago with a graphics card capable of playing the PC version without overheating or significantly reducing the settings probably cost somewhere around two or three times what I paid for my PS3 five years ago.

I like PC gaming, I think it can be a great option for certain types of games and Steam often has great deals. But I don't think I could ever make it my "primary" method of gaming. And the Steam Machine coming out next year isn't really a solution either as far as I'm concerned, but that's a whole other ball of wax.

I feel like the PS4 was a good choice. I might not get a lot out of it for a while, but I stand by it nevertheless. At least for now. Hopefully I'll still feel that way in a year.