PS4: A peek, not a blatant tell-all

So Sony surprised many and officially announced the PS4 before Microsoft did likewise with their next machine. I wasn’t that surprised myself, Sony needed to take the initiative. Most of the expectation was based on there being successive leaks from Microsoft over a prolonged period and Sony staying quiet for much longer.

The core specs were nice, with no big surprises, the expected off-the-shelf components and PC-esque architecture so there won’t be complaints about it being difficult to develop for.

Not splitting the memory into specific uses will also help in this respect. PS3 game development was arguably hindered more by dedicating half it’s RAM to graphics than the proprietary nature of the Cell chip. Leaving the use of the available memory up to the programmers gives them a lot more flexibility.

Bravely Sony did not to show the PS4 itself, indeed they kept a lot of details close to their chest, but in my opinion it was a smart decision. It cleverly focuses everyone’s attention on a few select aspects of the machine, helping them to understand a few things well rather than bombard their potential customers with everything at once. Holding back also allows Sony to keep the momentum of anticipation going right up until launch with a slow drip feed of information. That their competitors are unable to properly respond is just an added bonus for them. Why show all your best dance moves in the quarter finals?

If Sony had shown the PS4 in the flesh (so to speak) I’m pretty sure it would have taken focus from what the machine can do. I can just imagine the press and internet in general being plastered with photos of a sleek box and comments about how it looks rather than what it does. Sony said they wanted to focus on gaming and they did, surprisingly even with the social functions.

It’s not like gaming machines in general have never been particularly pretty. They generally range from downright ugly to somewhat sleek.

PS4 Dualshock 4 controller - back

What they did show was the new Dualshock 4 and I have to say I’m surprised how virtually no-one has commented about it’s shape, at least not in the way I expected. Virtually all the attention was focussed on two elements: the touchpad and the newly concave thumbsticks. Admittedly there were lots of little things to mention. The new shape L2/R2 triggers, the replacement of the “Start” and “Select” buttons with “Options”, the addition of a “Share” button, the built-in speaker, the headphone jack and the odd PS Move-esque light bar. The glaring omission however was the pad’s new fatter, more voluptuous shape.

The number of comments I’ve seen that have said the Dualshock 4 shape is unchanged from all the previous PlayStation controllers is astounding. Now I’ve read that Sony haven’t been letting the press use them (I’ve no idea whether this is true overall or just for the launch event) but even if this means everyone has been limited to looking at it from afar I think a few eye tests are in order.

From the official images shown so far the DS4 is clearly bigger and curvier. Overall it resembles the offspring of an illicit affair between 360 pad with any of the previous Dualshocks, though admittedly still closer to the latter. In fact I’d say it looked like a third party pad in many respects. Where the 360 and the previous PlayStation pads had very distinctive shapes and an all-round cohesiveness, the DS4 visually looks cobbled together. The design doesn’t flow. Although the touchpad is an obvious aspect of this, the new size and curves have given it a generic look in my opinion.

Just because a device doesn’t look fantastic though doesn’t mean it won’t feel great in the hands, so I think all the doubters should hold their judgement until they’ve used it. I understand many prefer the position of the 360’s left thumbstick and D-pad but I wouldn’t be surprised if there is some legal patent preventing others from copying it so it’s rather unfair to hold this against Sony.

That said I’m not particularly familiar with the third party market so maybe there have been copies. Maybe Microsoft couldn’t be bothered suing. Sony may simply not wanted to copy Microsoft. Not everyone has the same taste in controller layout and so longer a the PS4 still supports third part controllers I can’t see why it really matters, just buy another pad if you don’t like the official one.

The DS4’s light bar looks like a cross between an old-style Cylon visor and the nose of Kitt from Knightrider. According to all the details I’ve seen it will be used to identify players. This doesn’t really seem particular useful for anything core to gameplay but could lead to some nice touches.

Due to the bar’s shape and positioning on the pad I initially thought it might be used similarly to the Six-Axis’ functionality, maybe even as a replacement for the motion control feature introduced with the PS3. However looking through the Sony press releases I see Six-Axis will be returning with better sensors. The light bar obviously shares some similar functionality with the PlayStation Move controller but it was never going to be a complete replacement since you cannot hold a pad like this in the same way.

With all these new features, however small and given the continuing high cost of the existing PS3 official controller I daren’t think how much an extra Dualshock 4 will be.

ps4_logo

Another stand-out was the prominence of the Vita. Given it’s relatively low sales and Sony’s continual comments that it wasn’t particularly worried about their newest handheld console it wasn’t very surprising, more reassuring that it wasn’t being forgotten. I think the second screen will be one of the signatures of this generation. WiiU of course has it as it defining feature and until the new Xbox is announced we won’t know if Microsoft will have a SmartGlass device included in the box, but it’s almost certain to feature prominently.

With Nintendo’s WiiU having a second screen by default and the Vita having been shown to be able to copy it’s core functionality this bodes well for it being used properly. The Vita is clearly not going to be bundled with every PS4 but it is being inserted into the ecosystem from the offset so developers have less excuse for not supporting it when at least two of the three major consoles  have similar features. Where remote play on PS3 has never got the support it deserves it’s prominence on WiiU should mean most PS4 multi-platform titles support it, at least those that are getting a WiiU release.

One factor rarely mentioned with regard to using the Vita for remote play is the   lack of trigger buttons. Some remapping of the buttons to either the rear touchpad and/or the touch screen should get round this but this is one inconvenience to developers and players not often brought up. It will certainly feel a little odd to gamers continuing playing a game on a Vita they have been playing with a Dualshock on their TV when they have to remember the slight control differences.

As a gaming machine I suppose I’d better address the games. Overall I think they were interesting, especially as there was a surprising number of new IPs. I expect the most of the usual suspects to be wheeled out for E3 from all parties.

The first-party games I was rather unsurprised to be a mix of old and new.You can’t expect Sony to dump all their existing franchises for new ones. Although never “system-sellers” the likes of Killzone and Infamous obviously continually sell enough to keep going. Guerrilla have a new IP due so for all the criticism the new Killzone game drew from not being wow-inducing enough this may be due to their resources being applied elsewhere. It may be a similar situation for Sucker Punch, I’ve no idea.

I think the stick about Evolution Studios doing another driving game is unfair, it’s not even the same franchise and the idea is one they have been thinking about on and off for a decade apparently but were waiting for the right technology. They’ve even got some of the former employees of Bizarre Creations (of Project Gotham and Metropolis Street Racer fame) working with them now so potentially (if they weren’t from the marketing dept or work-placement tea boys) they should help bring some of their expertise. The only real problem I had with the Motorstorm games was the rubber band AI was a little annoying and the handling physics was a little off for some of the vehicles, otherwise they were highly competent. Not sure I like the name DriveClub though, even though it probably describes the game very well.

Resistance was never going to turn up as the franchise was already said to be being rested and my impression is sales have been unspectacular for all the iterations that followed the launch title Fall Of Man.

Many are expecting Uncharted to feature soon. I don’t think it will be seen again until next year at the earliest. Recent tweets had suggested The Last Guardian might make an appearance. It didn’t, but I suspect whether it’s for PS3 or PS4 it will make an appearance at E3 2013.

Knack looked good, as did The Witness, but their visual styles though great, make it hard to tell they were emphatically next gen.

The tech demos shown ranged from technically impressive to inventive but given they where from, respectively, Quantic Dream and Media Molecule that was hardly surprising. The latter showed the Move controller was still part of Sony’s plans. Hopefully it’s now bundled as standard so developers know their options and can implement it with the knowledge they aren’t pandering to a small subset of users this time. The new Eye has dual cameras so it should be significantly more accurate and therefore useful.

Although I appreciate technically great graphics, I know I’m not alone in my desire for distinct art-styles and original game concepts. These and better artificial intelligence are what will be required with this new generation of gaming machines. The power should be giving us new experiences not simple glossy retreads of what we’ve seen before.

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