PlayStation 4 review: greatness awaits

"Greatness Awaits." Sony's marketing campaign for PS4 uses the slogan as a call to arms to hardcore gamers. Whereas Sony's competitors vie for the casual market, PS4 is designed #4thePlayers--a machine that's meant to be the best gaming console out there. In many ways, it's clear that Sony has delivered upon that promise: PS4's specs advantage is well-documented, as is the love developers have shown for the platform--all while coming at a significant savings over its primary competitor. However, while PS4 has the advantage on paper, it's clear that we'll have to wait for greatness, as many PS4 features aren't quite mature yet. Design While PS4 may be "just another black box," it still makes quite the impression when you first see it. It is a tiny system, about the same as Sony's revised PS3 Slim. In fact, it even uses the same power cable as the PS3 Slim, meaning many current PlayStation users will simply be able to swap the cords from the back of their PS3 and plug them directly into PS4. Once again, there's no external power brick to deal with, either. The system is quite elegant, with the sloped design effective at hiding its two front USB ports and slot-loading disc drive. The way the light bar on the console illuminates--from blue to white when turning on--is a nice touch. It's also a quiet system, with perhaps the loudest part being the Blu-ray drive. You'll be able hear the Blu-ray drive while installing games to the console. Of course, that's a one-time procedure for every game, meaning the system will remain rather quiet once installation is complete. Small in size, quiet, and cool to the touch, PS4 is quite the engineering marvel.

The lightbar is surprisingly useful, the touchpad not so much

DualShock 4 Sony showed off DualShock 4 before it ever did the console--and for good reason, too. While it may look largely unchanged from previous iterations of DualShock controllers, Sony's made a tremendous leap for PS4. Immediately, you'll appreciate the wider, longer handles, and the concave thumbsticks, which offer a much better grip. The increased resistance of the sticks makes it far more ideal for shooters, as do the redesigned triggers. This is unquestionably the best DualShock controller Sony has ever designed. The built-in headphone jack is a nice touch, especially as it is compatible with most generic headsets. (A flimsy mono headset is included with the system.) However, more profound is the built-in speaker. Like Wii U, games can have a separate channel just for the controller. While it may seem gimmicky at first, it does add an extra layer of immersion. In Killzone: Shadow Fall, for example, you'll hear audiologs directly from the controller. To my surprise, this audio is loud, crisp, and clear. While Sony's unquestionably improved the fundamentals of their controller, DualShock 4 also features two rather unique gimmicks: the touchpad and lightbar. Surprisingly, I found only one of these features useful--and probably not the one you'd expect. The lightbar gives DualShock 4 a rather distinctive look, but it also does communicate some subtle information. In Killzone, for example, the controller would start flashing red when low on health. In Thief, the controller will glow white when no longer hiding in shadows. When playing in a dark room, the illumination of the controller actually added to the immersion, while communicating a little bit of information that wouldn't need to take up space on the HUD. However, I'm completely unimpressed by the trackpad. While it works, it's reminiscent of the rear trackpad on Vita. It seems to exist to exist, and no game convinced me that swiping or tapping was somehow better than simply using analog sticks. It is a giant button, however, so not much is lost.

Goodbye XMB, hello PlayStation Dynamic Menu

PlayStation Dynamic Menu Booting up PS4 will take you the PlayStation Dynamic Menu. Gone is the XMB, for better and for worse. Smartly, the new UI makes it easy to access "system features," like Friends, Notifications, Settings, etc. By pressing up from the home screen, you'll be able to quickly access any of these features--even while in the middle of a game. In fact, PS4 is quite excellent about multitasking, ensuring that games remain in memory regardless of what app you use. For example, I was able to start The Playroom, switch to the video editor, watch the first half of a show on Netflix, go back to the game, and then finally finish the show on Netflix--all without the game or Netflix moving from where I had left it last. You can also quickly switch from your previously-used app and game by double-tapping the PlayStation button. It may not be as convenient as "Snap" on Xbox One, but the instantaneous ability to switch between apps should suffice for most. PlayStation Dynamic Menu actually shares a lot in common with the Xbox One Dashboard. The "What's New" panel is pinned to the left, letting you see your friend activity in one Facebook-esque feed. Then, you get a chronological list of the content available on your system, with the most recently used app on the left. (Xbox One also has a Facebook-esque feed and also sorts your content by most recently used.) This way of sorting content makes your most-used content surface the fastest. However, it's easy to see the system become cluttered incredibly quickly, especially if you own multiple games. Even at launch, I felt my home screen was becoming cumbersome, as there's no way to separate games from apps from services. Here is my home screen, from left to right: What's New, Music Unlimited, TV & Video, The Playroom, Resogun, Video Unlimited, Knack, Killzone: Shadow Fall, Internet Browser, Live from PlayStation, Library. Imagine how much lengthier that list will be as time goes by.

Kevin Butler would be sad

It Only Did Everything... The move away from XMB highlights how Sony's priorities have changed for PS4. PS3 "only did everything," and the UI reflected that. You knew the system could play photos, music, videos, and games because everything was dumped into those categories. PlayStation Dynamic Menu obfuscates what PS4 can and cannot do. And it seems PS4 cannot do much. There's no video player, for example, meaning you won't be able to stick in a USB drive and watch MP4 videos on your system. There's no support for MP3 playback, and there's no visualizers to use--an odd decision, given how lovely PS3's visualizers were. The app selection at launch is also quite limited. Crucially, there's no YouTube app, although the internet browser does support streaming video. In terms of media support, PS4 is clearly a step backwards from PS3--disappointing, considering the $400 investment you'll have to make to jump generations.

Voice commands don't require a camera; you can use the headset

Voice Recognition One way to sort through your PS4 content easily is through voice recognition, which works with or without PlayStation Camera. (You can use the included headset instead.) To use voice commands, you must first say "PlayStation," much like you would say "Xbox" to Kinect. Remarkably, it works incredibly well, with PS4 able to detect phrases like "Killzone Shadow Fall" instantly. However, there aren't enough commands recognized by PS4 for voice recognition to be viable. Only apps that are on the PlayStation Dynamic Menu are recognized. Frustratingly, that means you can't say "PlayStation, go to Netflix," as that lives one level too deep for voice commands. You also can't say things like "PlayStation, show my trophies." You can say "PlayStation, turn off," and then confirm it with two more voice commands afterwards. However, it would simply be faster to use the controller. In fact, it's often easier just to use the controller for tasks. For example, "PlayStation, Home Screen" takes much longer than simply pressing the PS button. You can't search the PlayStation Store through voice commands and you can't navigate with voice in most apps, making voice recognition half-assed and largely useless for now.

Remote Play almost works as advertised

Remote Play Perhaps one of the coolest and most unique features of PS4 is Remote Play which lets you use a Vita handheld to stream PS4 games and content. Sony attempted to implement the same feature on PS3 via PSP, but it was clearly ahead of its time: many games were too laggy to be played with any semblance of enjoyment. Remarkably, Remote Play works better on PS4 and Vita, although it still isn't an entirely lag-free experience. Knack looks gorgeous on Vita's OLED screen, and there's no discernible lag in the video on Vita and on the TV whilst playing co-op. However, I found that double-jumping became quite difficult in Remote Play, likely due to some kind of input lag. Playing locally with a DualShock 4, I wasn't able to replicate my inability to double jump, proving that Remote Play had something to do with it. It's clear that Remote Play works, and we're glad that Sony is requiring support of the feature--although it may be best suited to games that aren't incredibly action-heavy.

Sharing content is easy, but the tools leave a lot to be desired

Sharing "Sharing" is so important to PS4 that there's a button dedicated to it on the controller. As you play, PS4 is recording the last 15 minutes of gameplay in the background automatically. Remarkably, it simply works. By hitting "Share," you'll instantly take a screenshot and be able to edit the last 15 minutes of video however you'd like--all without closing the game. It works as expected, although the feature is a bit bare-bones at launch. You can only trim clips, choosing a start point and end point. You can't splice together multiple scenes or add narration to your clips. You can only export to Facebook, which wouldn't be too bad if Facebook didn't compress what's originally a 100MB video into 35MB. Obviously, this feature needs to be enhanced with the ability to export to YouTube (and better yet, give users direct access to the MP4 files). Value At the end of the day, perhaps none of Sony's efforts matter more than this: value. Coming in $100 cheaper than Xbox One, it's undeniable that PS4 should be the next-gen console of choice for gamers that are mindful of their budget. The savings are immediate and ongoing. If you don't care for online gaming, you won't need a PlayStation Plus account to do most of what PS4 offers. The same cannot be said of Xbox One, which requires a Gold account for most all of its media functionality. However, Plus has proven itself to be one of gaming's greatest values. Instant Game Collection is already promising to be worthwhile on PS4, with two games immediately available at system launch. A 30-day Plus trial is included in the box (in addition to $10 of PSN credit). That means out of the box, someone will be able to get a next-gen console, two games, and a few movie rentals--all for $100 cheaper than the competition. Conclusion At launch, PS4 lays the foundation for a potentially great video game console. And given how lengthy these cycles tend to be, it's only a matter of time before PS4 hits its stride. Crucially, PS4 is a powerful system with a terrific controller. For gamers, that's all that matters. The OS is fast and supports multitasking just like Xbox One. However, it's clear that many other features need to be improved upon. Voice recognition is an afterthought, and sharing needs to be fleshed out much more. And while PS4 may be designed for gamers, Sony cannot forget that PlayStation is also an "all-in-one" entertainment destination for most. In terms of media capabilities, PS4 is a huge step backwards from PS3. Given the $400 entry fee, gamers should expect--nay, demand--better out of their next-gen console.
This PlayStation 4 review was based on a 500GB retail system provided by the publisher. Sony also provided Shacknews transportation to New York City for the purpose of picking up the PS4 system.