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My Two Cents On: Sony’s Playstation 4

Sony officially announced the Playstation 4 at a business conference in New York today. They spent roughly three hours showing what the new console’s hardware was capable of and unveiling certain projects in the works by various developers. So, for those who didn’t have the time to watch the live stream of the event, I will attempt to give a summary of what was revealed and what was implied to be the future for Sony’s next generation console, followed by my personal take on proceedings. Starting with….

Hardware

The Playstation 4 seems to be a bit of a paradox. Under the hood is a lot of enhanced hardware. There is a more advanced chipset, more RAM, and a higher quality processor. All of these technological marvels, and yet not once was the official model shown. Hopefully it is still going through various approval phases, but the lack of a physical console makes one very skeptical.

What was revealed was the Dualshock 4 Controller. On the whole, it appears to be relatively the same controller design as previous Playstation controllers. What has been added is a rear touch pad, the design appears similar to what was used on the Playstation Vita, an extra Share button which will make the PS4 upload a clip of gameplay or a screenshot to the Playstation Network (and by extension Facebook), and a light censor that ties to a sensor bar that appears similar to the one found on the Wii.

If there is an issue I have with the controller, it seems a bit much. The width of the controller appears to have been extended by an inch or so to implement the light censor technology, and the long black bar at the top of the whole thing breaks what is an otherwise basic yet functional design. Also, the inclusion of a rear touch screen feels like shoehorning in a feature from the Playstation Vita onto the new hardware. Whereas the Vita has used this form of input to compensate for lack of buttons in certain games that may require it, the PS4 controller has plenty of input; adding another form is overkill.

Going back to the Share function highlights another feature that was surprisingly prominent in the presentation. The Playstation 4 in addition to boasting higher internet speed, doubling down on Remote Play with the Playstation Vita, and the ability to share clips of gameplay with other players online, a major feature of the PS4 seems to be the cloud gaming hardware. In association with Gaikai, Sony appears to be getting past the rumors of no backwards compatibility in the current PS4 specs by having the ability to stream old PS3 games online onto the console. The conference boasted the ability to eventually stream all previous Playstation games from PS1 to PS2 to PS3 using this service.

As well-intentioned as this seems, I still stand behind my No Looking Back article from before. While Gaikai’s streaming service is impressive, there is still the matter of quality, the availability of servers, how many titles in question will be successfully backed up, and the cost of using the service. The fact that the PS4 won’t recognize PS3 discs also holds up the possibility of the PS4 not being able to play Blu-Ray or DVD movies also comes into question. There is also the problem that when the announcement came, it said it would happen in phases. This carries the inherent possibility of outright cancellation of the service at the first sight of diminishing returns. It won’t be the first time it has happened to Sony’s hardware despite being advertised as a promised guarantee.

Video streaming by Ustream

Software

The launch line-up for the PS4 is a bit disheartening from where I sit, but not necessarily disappointing. There were some interesting projects on display, most of them from developers that have been silent for a while. Mark Cerny’s latest adventure game, Knack, looks like great fun with the novel idea of being a creature that can change size and physical property by absorbing things nearby. Also featured was Jonathan Blow, the creative director behind Braid, and his latest opus The Witness. Footage from Mr. Blow’s game evokes memories of Unfinished Swan and the visual flair and mystique of Myst.

Juxtaposing this breath of intrigue is the return of several well-established IP and more conventional titles. Guerilla unveiled Killzone: Shadow Fall, complete with footage showing off the PS4′s new hardware, which made the whole thing look like something CryTek would have put out this generation. Sucker Punch pulled the sheets off of InFAMOUS: Second Son, a continuation of their InFAMOUS series focusing on a new main character with superpowers fighting against some nebulous government threat. Not much else can be said about this title since all that was revealed was a pre-rendered CG trailer. Evolution Games also showed off Drive Club, a racing game that barely showed any gameplay but promoted the idea of creating your own Club of drivers, similar to a Clan, and the level of detail put into each vehicle. All well and good, but unless that detail persists during high speed turns and close collisions, it’s only so much high-polygon count wallpaper. Capcom’s working title, Deep Down, also sported a mostly CGI trailer, featuring a medieval knight deep in a cavern being menaced by a large dragon. What was interesting about the presentation here was the ability to ask for help online by other players. A more personal version of From Software’s Dark Souls perhaps?

One of the more major announcements of course came from Bungie. Footage was finally revealed of Destiny, a project the creators of Halo have been working on in collaboration with Activision for well over a decade. The results are aesthetically similar to Halo, lots of light bloom, heavily detailed armored soldiers of marginal individual appearance, and lots of sci-fi trappings combined with industrial environments all with much higher fidelity. But, the one feature that made some take notice was Destiny being a Shared World Experience. Dissecting the buzzword seems to imply that Destiny may be a massive online open-world first-person shooter with real-time and asynchronous multiplayer elements. It’s too early to tell for sure but the prospect does hold lots of great possibilities.

So, why am I disheartened? Sony made it very clear that the PS4′s specs were made by taking into account input by various game developers, and went on about how creating games on the development side would be cheaper and easier. Yet, when given this much freedom to create, what was advertised felt like more of the same. Specifically, it like more of the same we have been getting this console generation. Killzone: Shadow Fall looks really good, make no mistake, but when the gameplay footage started, it felt like more of the same with a fresh coat of paint. Also, as a fan of Sucker Punch’s InFAMOUS games, the very idea of Second Son feels like putting a safe bet on something with a brand name as opposed to something more creatively fulfilling, especially considering how the original series ended. For all the talk of artistic expression and for all the graphical potential, only a few projects dared to be different.

Overall Impression

I like the idea of the Playstation 4. Despite gameplay footage looking only marginally better than current generation console games, its the secondary features that stand out. The ability to watch someone else playing a game and talking to them while they’re playing. Remote Play of any PS4 game on the Playstation Vita. The idea of Gaikai streaming service opening the doors to all Playstation titles past and present. The ability to stream a chunk of a game to try it before you buy it. All of these features seem great. Yet, the majority of the presentation seemed to focus on the graphical hardware. Media Molecule’s Alex Evans showed off an advance level creation tool using the PS4, showing the idea of personal expression. Quantic Dream’s David Cage showcased an advanced modeling program rendering hitherto untouched graphical detail saying how now we can truly make emotional gaming experiences in the future. The tools being shown kept talking about potential, so why were the games showcased felt like potential squandered?

The PS4′s hardware from a cursory everyman perspective looks about the same compared to current generation hardware from a visual fidelity perspective. That single fact can only mean that the level of graphical capability has hit its zenith and the natural response should be to spread out to other areas other than visual detail. Even though the PS4 is advertised to have something other than sharper images, the majority of Sony’s unveiling seemed to focus just on that.

So how much will this new console set you back and when can you see if all the hype was worth it? Well, that’s the gag. In addition to no official unveiling of what Sony’s newest machine will look like, there is no talk about a standard price, model types, and the release date is set for Christmas 2013.

With only a small handful of launch titles, a lot of features promising things that might be great in the long term, and an unknown amount of financial investment, the PS4 ultimately leaves me skeptical overall. Like watching a juggler perform with chainsaws, I can’t tell whether or not to be concerned or keep watching to see if everything plays out. Unless these woes are put to bed at this year’s E3, the PS4 still has a way to go to earn my money.

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