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PlayStation 4: The launch unit verdict

By Jonathan Cooper on Wednesday 13th Nov 2013 at 2:31 PM UTC

Sony spent seven years struggling with PlayStation 3, a system cursed from birth due to poor decisions made during those crucial early design meetings. The hardware was notoriously difficult for coders to get to grips with, and gamers still are frustrated by some of its peculiarities (we're still downloading that mandatory language pack update).

Back in 2006, it was hard to shake the feeling that the once-dominant console manufacturer had lost its way when the HD generation arrived. How times change.

Today, Sony is the platform holder that is more in touch with the desires of its market than Microsoft or Nintendo. The PlayStation 4 is relatively cheap, momentously powerful and, across both the hardware and software, carries an underlying sense that the customer experience has dictated design.

But, in focusing on correcting all the problems of its past, the PlayStation 4 becomes a robust machine that nevertheless lacks innovation.

For all of CVG's PlayStation 4 game review coverage:

PlayStation 4 boxed contents 1 x PlayStation 4 System (Jet Black)
1 x DualShock 4 Wireless Controller
1 x HDMI Cable
1 x Power Cable
1 x Wired Mono Headset
1 x USB Charging Cable

The new hardware has a relatively small footprint, sitting only 4.2 inches high and weighing just over nine pounds. A glowing light sits across its middle; one side resplendent with a solid and shiny plastic finish, the other with a more conventional matte texture. Along the perimeter there's a small groove where the slot-loading disc drive lurks, next to a pair of USB drives. It is impressively unobtrusive, though the grooves might prove too narrow for some USB sticks.

"It shouldn't come as a surprise, but games on PS4 look absolutely enthralling."

Sony has opted to use touch-sensitive spots instead of buttons, and this, coupled with the arrangement of the power and eject inputs, makes the hardware fairly tricky to get the hang of. Form factor has taken priority over practical use, meaning it looks sleek but it's easy to hit one button when you meant to touch the other.

Hardware specs

Unit size: 18.8 inches deep x 13.4 inches wide x 4.2 inches high
Unit weight: 6.1 pounds
USB 3.0 ports: Two (in the front)
Ports: HDMI out, optical audio out, power out.
GPU: AMD next-generation Radeon based graphics engine
CPU: x86-64 AMD "Jaguar" single-chip custom processor
Memory: 8GB GDDR5
Video output: Supports 1080p, 1080i, 720p, 480p and 480i.
Audio output: Output via HDMI
Network capabilities: Supports wireless connection (IEEE 802.11b/g/n), Ethernet x1

This shouldn't come as a surprise, but the launch games on the PlayStation 4 look absolutely enthralling. Throw in Killzone Shadow Fall and you'll be greeted by an audiovisual delight unlike anything previously experienced on consoles. Characters look alive, and the environments are absolutely gorgeous. Battlefield 4 also serves as a great example of the system's power when it comes to rendering realistic warzones, and features blisteringly fast multiplayer.

Even Knack, which doesn't focus on the visuals to the same extent as Killzone, has flashes of brilliance in its colorful art design and imaginative world. Third party titles, like EA's Need for Speed Rivals, throws down the graphical gauntlet, achieving a better sense of speed by ramping up the particle effects and throwing as much light and geometry past your eyes as possible.

Actually, let's talk specifically about those particle effects for a minute, because it's likely to be a defining aspect of next-gen visuals. The PSX leapt out from the primordial soup of 2D gaming, the PS2 focused on enhanced realism, while the PS3 was obsessed with being cinematic. The PS4 games, at least so far, is an electric light orchestra of particle effects.

GALLERY: The PlayStation 4 Console

Photography: Tech Radar

For better or worse, it's in those smaller details where next-gen is most apparent. It's in the bullet shells in Killzone that bounce on the ground, the water effects as a ship hits the rocks in Black Flag, the little chunks of Knack that bounce around the world when he's bashed to bits with a hammer.

No game exemplifies this as well as Resogun, which builds an entire world of "voxels" (3D pixels) and lets you open blast them apart in a stunning display of atoms splitting in a shower of colour. It may not be throwing complex polygonal models around, but Resogun is a audacious display of destructive brilliance that runs comfortably thanks to the PS4's pool of GDDR5 memory.

The Controller

If we're being brutally honest, the PlayStation 3 controller was a let down. Though it had the superior D-Pad, that's where the accolades ended. Most of its features, and its overall design, was behind the times. The DualShock 4, however, represents quite a turnaround.

Zoom

It's extremely comfortable, and the shoulder buttons are hooked up perfectly, with a subtle resistance that's comfortable to squeeze. The analogue sticks are slightly further apart than on the DualShock 3, and it makes a huge difference. They also feature a slight contour with a thick outer rim that makes it easier to make precise movements without slipping off.

Swapping the Start and Select buttons for Share and Options seems unconventional, but it doesn't make much of a difference - most things that were usually accomplished by hitting Start on a DualShock 3 can be done by pressing Options on the DualShock 4.

Only a handful of games have made use of the touchpad so far, and the results are mixed. Killzone treats it as a proxy D-Pad, letting you swipe in different directions to issue commands, while Assassin's Creed emulates a laptop touchpad for navigation. Killzone also makes good use of the built-in speaker by playing audio logs found across the game - though it's peculiar at first, it definitely adds to the immersion.

"The inclusion of the light bar so far seems largely irrelevant and occasionally distracting"

The inclusion of the light bar - a multicoloured strip across the roof of the DualShock 4 - so far seems largely irrelevant and occasionally distracting. Though handy in helping identify who is who during multiplayer games, it's not like you couldn't manage this anyway. There are various ideas on how to use it, but since you're never looking at it, you won't notice them.

The only time you'll regularly notice the light bar is when it's light is reflecting on the screen - a sort of multicoloured photobomb. It's a minor grievance, sure, but one you can't avoid without applying thick black tape across your new controller.

GALLERY: DualShock 4

DualShock 4 specs

Unit size:
162 millimeters wide x 52 millimeters high x 98 millimeters deep

Unit weight:
Approximately 201g

Audio:
Two stereo speakers, 3.5 millimeter headphone jack

Buttons:
PS button
Share button,
Options button,
Directional buttons (Up/Down/Left/Right)
Action buttons (Triangle, Circle, Cross, Square)
Shoulder buttons (R1, L1, R2, L2)
Analougue stick buttons (R3, L3)
Touch Pad button

Touch Pad:
Two-point capacitive pad with click mechanism

Motion Sensor:
Six-axis motion sensing system (three-axis gyroscope, three-axis accelerometer)

Audio:
Built-in mono speaker

Ports:
USB micro
3mm headphone jack

Battery:
Built-in lithium-ion rechargeable battery

Console interface

While the Xbox 360's Dashboard became cluttered the more it was updated, the PS3's Cross Media Bar managed to keep applications tidy and organised. The same aesthetic has been carried over to the PlayStation 4, which maintains a relatively light interface, but now puts an emphasis on usability.

Zoom

You're never more than a few swipes away from whatever you want to do, be it changing the resolution, accessing the shop or playing a game. More impressive, though, is its speed. Tap the PlayStation button while in-game and you're viewing the menus near-instantly. Here you can skim around, look at whatever you want, with the game returning to you just as fast if when you hit the button again.

It may not sound like a triumphant addition, but considering how integral multitasking and the social features will be for the PS4 in the future, the slick interface will only become increasingly essential. You'll be able to go from playing a game to streaming video to looking at your friends list without waiting through lengthy load screens.

The Trophy system has been modernised too, with changes that should help make them even more valuable to hunters. Now, each trophy has a ranking (common, rare, very rare, or ultra rare) besides their Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Platinum moniker. Rarity is literal - taken from the number of people who have them online. You'll still level up the way you did before, but collecting individual trophies can be even more satisfying if they happen to be particularly rare.

"You'll be able to go from playing a game, to streaming footage, to accessing your friends list near-instantly"

Paramount in Sony's plans for PlayStation 4 is its connectivity with PlayStation Vita. While Remote Play between the PS3 and PSP was only supported by a smattering of titles, Sony has made it compulsory for PS4 games to be accessible on Vita.

We've tested a handful of games so far, from Battlefield to Knack, and they all ran smoothly over Wi-Fi when in a different room. Due to the differences in control layouts between Vita and PS4, the handheld lacks the second row of shoulder buttons, which will affect each game differently, but it's a small price to pay for being able to play PS4 games from any room in the house.

Some games even allow you to use the Vita as a second controller for multiplayer, turning your handheld into a DualShock 4 in a pinch.

Close Close

The launch unit verdict

This past generation has dragged on too long. Though there were still standout moments, many proven ideas became too relied upon, while graphics hit a ceiling. The PlayStation 4 is a long-overdue leap forward for Sony, but it doesn't take any risks. Sharing features might change how players approach playing and watching games, but it doesn't change the central experience.

The controller will make playing them more comfortable, but it too is merely an advancement on an a controller blueprint that was etched in the mid-nineties.

Zoom
"The PlayStation 4 is a long-overdue leap forward for Sony, but it doesn't take any risks"

Fears that console gaming would buck and bend to the whims of the fickle casual market have proven false - this system is absolutely built for core gamers. And yet, for those expecting to see something that definitively turns a corner, you won't find it here just yet.

There's a good chance that the software platform will allow for greater innovations in the future, such as more streaming options expected to be added later down the line, but for now, Sony is selling a futuristic machine with not many new things to do on it.