Slouching Toward the Next Generation: meet the Playstation 4

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I kicked off the Playstation 4 launch just like any other day. I got up and went to work. I didn’t attend any midnight launch events. I didn’t wait in line at my local Best Buy. I preordered the Playstation 4 from Amazon back in June; I just had to wait for delivery. I had hoped the package would be waiting for me when I got home, but it wasn’t. Only later in the evening did I notice the Amazon box on my front porch. I have no idea how long it was sitting there. The UPS guy didn’t even bother to ring the bell.

It’s been seven years since the launch of the Playstation 3 and this banged up box on my front porch was the harbinger of the next generation. From press conferences to preview events, to day one system reviews, the Playstation 4 has been splayed open and laid bare. Before you even open the box you’re probably predisposed one way or another. We know about resolutiongate, firmware updates, network issues, defective HDMI ports, and poorly reviewed launch titles. But regardless of all that, here it was, this box, this new console, this is what I was waiting for.

After the jump, this is what I was waiting for?

In the pre-internet era gaming news was a limited resource. Like most kids I was a dutiful subscriber to Nintendo Power, and now and again I’d pick up a copy of Electronic Gaming Monthly, but the best place to keep your ear to the ground was at the mall. Electronics Boutique was on the ground level (with their much-thumbed pre-order catalogue), Babbage’s was on the second level (with their prominent coming soon wall displaying boxes of upcoming games), and tucked around the back near the Friendly’s was Champions arcade. The evocative titles in the catalogue would spark your imagination, screenshots on the back of boxes could blow you away, but the arcade was where you saw the future.

The Playstation 4 box is smaller than you’d think, slim and with a handle, like something from the Apple store. The machine inside is a rectangular black wedge, smaller than my cable box, and very light; with no external power supply the Playstation 4 takes up very little space. The system booted up quickly and quietly. After a few initial setup options — I opted to display my real name, was pleased at the very clear and concise privacy settings, and declined facebook interaction — you find yourself at the main interface, with an update ready to download. In under 45 minutes I had the system updated and ready to go.

The interface is very similar to the Playstation 3. It loads fast, looks very sparse and uncluttered, and doesn’t have a lot of ads. Streaming video apps like Netflix are preloaded. You can hop back to the home screen from in game very quickly without losing progress or exiting the game.

Everything you’ve heard about the controller is true: it’s heftier and more substantial, with better designed triggers, and high quality analog sticks that feel great. The touchscreen and speaker are somewhat gimmicky at the moment.

The camera (purchased separately) looks like a beefy Wii sensor bar. It’s designed to recognize the face of the user upon startup, but that feature wasn’t working properly on day one. The preloaded program Playroom is the only thing that seems to make use of the camera. Playroom is a juvenile tech demo that lets you muck around with projected robots and play pong.

I purchased physical copies of Knack, Killzone: Shadow Fall, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, and downloaded Need for Speed Rivals in under 20 minutes from the Playstation store. I’ll dig deeper into the games in future posts, but first impressions didn’t knock my socks off. While Killzone clearly looks better than anything on the PS3, it doesn’t seem like a generational leap. Draw distance is the biggest improvement along with smoother textures and increased framerate. Assassin’s Creed basically looks last gen, with muddy colors and blocky textures, on par with the Last of Us. Knack looks like a Wii U title sporting the graphic fidelity of World of Warcraft. Need for Speed Rivals was the best of the bunch, most likely due to the Frostbite engine. It was the only title that impressed. Resogun, the free (for PS Plus members) little indy arcade shmup is the game I kept coming back to. It’s easily the best launch exclusive.

Overall my launch day was pretty disappointing. The Playstation 4 is much smoother and easier to navigate than either the Playstation 3 or Xbox 360, but for a system touted as a game machine primarily for gamers it’s a little underwhelming. There isn’t a game at launch that lights a fire. Maybe in a few months a big next gen exclusive will come out, more indy titles will show up, and we can get a better feel for what this machine can do.

The potential is easy to see, but nothing really excites. As a kid when I walked into an arcade I was walking into the future. Nothing at home could come close.

Today most serious gamers don’t have to leave the house to glimpse the future. All we have to do is turn on our PC. Right now the Playstation 4 is the convenient and relatively affordable equivalent of a gaming PC for your living room. It represents only incremental improvement on what came before, not a generational shift. It’s a nice machine and I’m happy that I own one, but on a day that started with promise and excitement I was left late into the night thinking more of what was, than what could be.

Next time: Playstation 4’s AAA launch lineup.

Scott Dobrosielsky lives in Northport, NY with his wife and dog. When not selling baseball cards to fund the purchase of a SNES, he enjoys playing Wasteland with his friends. He posts to the QT3 forums as Scott Dobros.