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First Look: PlayStation 4

Ah the next-gen “console wars”. It’s been a while since we’ve had the deep-seated fear we may be spending hundreds of hard-earned dollars on a product that isn’t as good as the other one, leaving us open to online ridicule … not to mention a life of loneliness as our console is lacking that “one key feature.”

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I received a retail version of the new console from Sony along with a set of 5 games and the PlayStation Eye camera. (Note: I used the console with my 65” Sony 4K TV, so any graphics issues were instantly noticeable, but good graphics looked amazing.)

The PS4 unboxed

The number one best thing about the PS4 is that it uses the same cables as the PS3. When I opened the box all I had to take out was the unit itself, the controller and (annoyingly) the controller’s charging cable. And I didn’t have to spend an eternity behind my entertainment unit weaving power cables.

The camera required a little more setting up. While it’s a useful tool, it assumes you have a regular set-up in your house and a TV that’s easy to put something in front of. The camera’s not the prettiest of devices, but at least it’s fairly small.

The PS4 itself is sexy and super light. I know you don’t really care about weight once the thing is sitting on a shelf, but I was shocked at how small and light it was considering how powerful it is in comparison to the PS3.

Setting it all up took a bit longer than expected, but once done I was right into it.

The menu

If you're a PS3 user, the menu system will throw you at first. The Xross Media Bar (XMB) is gone; all your games and media are displayed as large tiles in a row (the most recently used tiles are shown first). Above these are smaller icons to access settings and PSN options (friends, notifications, achievements etc).

If you rest on one of the large icons, options are shown underneath with your activity displayed below that. If it’s a game, your friends’ activity in the game is shown too. For example, when I highlighted Knack, I saw all of my work and NZGamer.com’s Matthew Codd’s impressive gem farming operation. There are also links to buy DLC (downloadable content) or even just ads. Assassin’s Creed, for example, had a large number of options underneath it along these lines.

Voice control

If you have the Eye camera (or you have a headset plugged into your controller, including the simple one that comes with the console), you can use the PS4’s voice control system. “PlayStation, home screen” gets you home, while “PlayStation, [name of game]” takes you to that particular game; “play” then starts it up.

What’s cool is that you don’t need to say the exact game title. For example, I got to Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag by saying “Assassin’s Creed”, “AC4”, “AC", “Assassins” and “Creed 4”. Annoyingly “Black Flag” didn’t work; neither did “Ghosts” for Call of Duty.

You don’t have to shout, and the Kiwi accent didn’t faze it. It was incredibly useful after an evening’s gaming to just say “PlayStation, power, enter standby mode” while tidying up the controller and not even looking at the screen.

The controller

The new DualShock controller is a thing of beauty. I really do love it. While the basic design is roughly the same as on the PlayStation 3 (2 thumbsticks, 4 trigger buttons, a d-pad, and 4 face buttons) the rest of it has had an upgrade.

Gone is the “Select” button, which makes a lot of sense as it never really selected anything and was usually just the “different menu” or “map” button. On the new controller all that is done with the touchpad.

Unlike a number of PS Vita titles, none of the games I played made you do busy-work with the touchpad. Instead the touchpad was really useful. For example, in AC4 and LEGO Marvel Super Heroes, pressing it brought up the map, then you could use the touchpad to move the cursor, pinch to zoom, and so on. I’m looking forward to seeing what interesting things developers do with it.

The “Share” button is where the “Select” button used to be. Pressing this in-game brings up options to share things with your friends, including screenshots, video, and live streaming (don’t ask how the HD live streaming will affect your data cap). I found it to be a cool feature, if a little unintuitive. PS4 is also really keen on you sharing to Facebook – so if you like spamming your friends with your achievements, go right ahead.

In the front of the controller is a light bar. This is used to differentiate players in the same room (when the camera is active) and can also be used to show things like your player’s health (in Killzone: Shadow Fall, the bar is green and changes slowly to red the more damage you take).

Also in front is the new charging-cable port. I found the swap from mini USB to micro USB for charging annoying, but only because I now have a bunch of cables I can’t use.

Where the controller faces you, you'll find the best thing ever: a headphone port! Not only that, but if you plug in your headphones or headset, the sound through the TV is instantly muted. I call this the “lifesaver” as you will no longer annoy sleeping partners, children, neighbours, flatmates, or anyone else who doesn’t want to hear you shooting bad guys.

Facial recognition

The PlayStation Eye can detect your face and log you in automatically. Sort of. It takes a little while to find you, and you need to hold the controller in your hands at the same time – you can’t just sit down and be logged in. It also suffers from the usual issues of needing particular lighting (harsh lighting from behind is no good).

Generally if you’re already holding the controller it’s much faster to just tap the X button to enter the menu.

Better graphics?

Yeah the graphics are pretty awesome. I mean this is what we wanted from the next-gen, right? Better graphics delivered faster.

I spent a good deal of my time in AC4 just admiring the scenery – especially the water. Seeing the dust motes in the air and the dappled lighting on my character as I walked through a forest was astounding. The rendering of hundreds of individual particles was incredibly cool. It was most noticeable in Knack and the LEGO game, where bits of things were constantly flying around.

However, I felt it wasn’t a huge step up from the PS3. The last series of games released for the PS3 were graphically awesome; the PS4 was better but not fantastically so. It’s only a small let down – I think the games we’ll see this time next year will blow our socks off, but right now we just have to put up with “looks much better than the last one”.

Loading times are good once you’re in the game. Before you’re in it takes about the usual time. I thought standby mode might allow for the game-state to be recalled faster, but no dice. What we can expect more of are games where transitions between areas take no time – like AC4, where jumping on your boat and sailing away doesn’t trigger a loading screen.

Accessing external drives

Remember the slogan, “It only does everything”? The PS3 really did it all, so I was sad to discover the PS4 wouldn’t read my USB hard drive when I plugged it in, nor the numerous thumbdrives I tried. My Catwoman mimobot thumb drive wouldn’t even fit in the port as the PS4’s sloped front butted against the USB’s casing.

I understand wireless streaming is the way of the future and the PS4 can connect to your phone via an app (similar to Xbox’s Smartglass), but there's still a lot of content I want to watch on my PS4 that’s easier to transport via sneakernet.

In summary

I really like the PS4. I love the size of it and the simplicity of the new menu system. I love the clarity and complexity of the new graphics it achieves and I enjoyed playing around with the voice controls.

This is a system, though, that’s clearly in its infancy. Give it a few more months and the PS4 will be tearing along at a healthy pace but right now it feels like it’s still jogging.

RRP $649

First Looks are trials of new or interesting products from the perspective of our product experts. Our lab-based tests offer truly objective product comparisons.

By Hadyn Green.

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