If you play video games, you've had November 15 circled on your calendar for months. Today is the launch of Sony's PlayStation 4 (in North America, at least), and the official start of the next generation in gaming.
In a nutshell, the PS4 is an excellent console. It's well designed, has great graphics and gameplay capabilities, the PS Network is exciting, and the possibilities for remote play using the PS Vita are pretty cool. But there are some issues here that you might want to consider when comparing PS4 with Microsoft's forthcoming XBox One (which will be released next Friday).
Let's start with the console itself. It's sleek and noticeably thinner when compared to Microsoft's forthcoming XBox One (which will be released next Friday). It's about the size of a larger Blu-Ray player, and has an angular design to give you easier access to USB ports, the disc slot, and input points for power and video cables. And at 6.1 pounds, PS4 is lighter than PS3. This is one good looking box.
GRAPHICS AND GAMEPLAY
Graphics-wise, this is a sick system. One of Sony's PS4 launch titles, Knack, a fun and challenging adventure game, is full of tiny details, like chunks of rock, shards of metal, and glints of light hitting gems, rendered at exceptional quality. But the big stuff, like environments, are also lush and textured. And it's not just Sony's own games that look good. Third-party titles like EA Sports' FIFA 14 and SK Sports' NBA 2K14 are also amazing. The stadiums and crowds in FIFA are breathtakingly lifelike and dynamic, and the players in NBA 2K14 look so realistic (right down to the beads of sweat and layering in jerseys) that you'd swear LeBron was there in your living room.
The gameplay, too, is also improved. Take Madden 25, for instance. Plays develop much quicker (and collapse much faster) than in previous editions of the game. When you're making a cut, a player's feet moves like they would in real life. Run out of bounds and anyone not wearing pads gets out of the way as quickly as possible, just like in a real game. This is all possible because PS4's improved processors allowed developers to create a dynamic football environment that's more true-to-life than any Madden before it.
The awesome graphics and immersive gameplay is possible because the guts of the console have been improved since PS3. It has 8GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive (which is expandable up to 1.5TB), important for the sophisticated games you're playing, either off disc or that you download from the PlayStation online store. There's also a better CPU and graphics sensor under the hood, which allow developers to go crazy when creating new games.
There are big changes to the controller, too. PS4's DualShock 4 controller looks about the same as previous PlayStation sticks. But there are some notable changes. First, there's a "Share" button on the controller that allows you to take a photo or capture video of a cool moment in a game then post it to your PSN account. The controller also has more vibration motors, which makes it more responsive to in-game action. And there's a built-in speaker to bring action even closer to you.
The most important updates, though, are the touch pad on the front of the controller and light bar on the underside of it. These allow you to interact with certain games in a much more personal way. But in order to use those parts of the controller, you'll need PlayStation Camera. Camera acts sort of like Kinect, in that it gives you greater interactivity with some games and recognizes voices and faces. But unlike Kinect, Camera does not come bundled with the console. (More on that in a minute.)
Broadcasting: One of the coolest features of PS4 is the ability to broadcast your gameplay. By linking your PSN account with Ustream or Twitch, you can share live gaming action with the rest of the world as well as provide commentary for what you're doing on screen.
Remote Play: You can use your PS Vita with the PS4 to never stop playing a game. If you need to let someone else use the TV, or someone wants to play another game, the Vita allows you to continue playing on the handheld device.
Background updates and automatic downloads: If you're in the middle of a game, the last thing you want to do is stop for a system update. This was a problem many users of the PS3 had, and one that Sony tried to eliminate with the PS4. Patches are now downloaded and installed in the background of whatever you're doing, which means you can still play games or watch a movie while the system is updating. The PS4 can also check for updates at nighttime when you might not be using the console. It will turn on automatically, check for needed updates, download and install them, then turn itself off.
It might not be super important to some people, but it should be mentioned: PS4 is not backwards compatible with PS3. So if you're planning on upgrading, you'll have to consider how many games you own and whether you want to start building a whole new library.
That said, one of the biggest problems with PS4 is the Camera. One on hand, it's a cost issue. The review unit Sony provided us came with Camera, but if you go out today to buy the console you'll pay $399.99 for the box and an additional $59.99 for the camera. At the moment, there aren't many titles that make active use of Camera, but that will surely change. And if the only way to get the most out of them will be to spend more money on a peripheral that's standard with PS4's primary competition, that's pretty unfair to the gamer.
More than that, though, Camera is an underachiever when compared to the next-gen Kinect that will come with XBox One. That device can pick up things like heart rate and changes in skin coloration (important for fitness games, potentially scary from an information-gathering point of view). Camera, meanwhile, can detect your face and the controller's light bar and some movement. At the moment, that's about it.
That might not seem like a big deal, but consider that video game consoles like the PS4 are no longer just for video games. Users want to do lots of things with these devices — watch movies and TV shows, go online, connect with friends, and so on — and you can do all those things with PS4, as well as play some really incredible, really sophisticated, really fun games. But Sony had seven years to work on PS4 (PS3 was released in 2006), and Camera is the best the company could come up with? What else might be lacking? To be fair, PS4 and Camera have been available now for, oh, 13 hours or so. Who can say how the technology — especially for peripheral hardware — will develop and improve as more people get their hands on it?
Graphically, gameplay-wise, design and form: Any way you look at it, PlayStation 4 is a great system. It's fast, and pretty user friendly, especially from a memory-upgrade standpoint. But look beyond that and there are some issues that shouldn't be ignored. There's no such thing as a perfect video game console, and that includes PS4. Still, it's a lot of fun and full of really exciting possibilities.
Photos: PS4 product shots, Knack (courtesy Sony), FIFA 14 and Madden 25 (courtesy EA)