Sunday, February 24, 2013

The PlayStation 4 is Real (Kind Of). New Toys. New Games. New Everything.

While we may not know what it looks like, we do know it's called PlayStation 4 (not Orbis), and Sony says it's "not just next-gen tech in a box", but it will "reconceptualize how you'll play." Sony is promising a "personalized" experience, while accessing content is going to be easier, with "greater fidelity".

From what Sony has shown, it looks like they're on their way.

The Controller
Hey, look! Another Sony leaked product that was right. Again.

We finally have the first major revision to the controller's exterior since analog sticks were added to the first DualShock. First and foremost, the one revision I'm psyched for is the elongation of the handles; it looks to add about 1" to their lengths. For someone who has goddamned gorilla hands, this is great news, and one reason why I've hated the DualShock controllers all these years. The DualShock 4 includes a touchpad directly on the front, akin to the rear touchpad on the Vita, which is clickable, ala BlackBerry Storm (yes, I know, that is a horrible reference).

The Share button (cornered between the D-Pad and touchpad) allows you to snap photos or upload videos of your gameplay to Facebook (no word on YouTube), as a sort of PVR functionality (more on this later). Opposite of the Share button is the Options button; this is the merging of the Start and Select buttons into one function. The analog sticks have been altered slightly, but still sport their convex appearance, but with a lip around the edge, similar to the Xbox 360's "transforming D-Pad" controller's thumbsticks.

Visible: Light bar, redesigned shoulder buttons, USB mini-B port (below light bar).

The triggers (L2/R2) have been redesigned with an actual trigger in mind; they're concave now, which will help to keep your fingers on the trigger. There is now a headphone jack on the underside of the controller, but has a slender, rectangular port adjacent to it (possibly for higher-end headsets to plug directly into the controller). Atop the controller is a light bar, which appears to be the evolution of the 4 LEDs on the DS3/Sixaxis, which will alert you to notifications, as well as interact with the new stereoscopic Eye camera. Two smaller factors to come out were the inclusion of a mono-speaker, ala Wii Remote, and the ability of the PS4 to charge the controllers while in stand-by. Not sure why it took Sony until a brand new system to do something the 360 has been able to do since launch, way back in 2005.

Unfortunately, the touchpad, while hinted at "offering more ways to interact with games", wasn't really highlighted by Sony. Along with the light bar on the top of the controller, sandwiched between the shoulder buttons, these are two newest pieces of tech on the controller that Sony didn't delve too far into.


Meet the new PlayStation Eye, Sony's (re)interpretation of the Kinect for Xbox 360. It's sports two, 1280 x 800 cameras with four microphones, and an 85-degree field of view. By comparison, the Kinect's two cameras are 640 x 480 resolution, but still has four microphones. Field of view? 57° horizontally and 43° vertically, with a 27° up/down tilt range. Surprisingly, this ships in the box with the PS4.

While Sony couldn't spend an extra 30 seconds to explain what it does, they did explain to Engadget: it's essentially Kinect on crack. It replaces the PS Eye, interacts with Move controllers, and the light bar on the DualShock 4. It's not confirmed to do everything the Kinect does (such as voice commands), but it's damned close.

The System

Notice how incredibly vague their spec sheet is.

Despite being a conference about the PlayStation 4, there was no actual system there. According to Sony, the PS4 has an 8-core x86 "Jaguar" CPU developed by AMD rocking an impressive 8GB of unified GDDR5 RAM, a Radeon GPU at 1.84 teraflops, a Blu-ray drive that runs 6x for games and Blu-rays and 8x for DVDs. 802.11n WiFi, an unidentified amount of USB 3.0 ports, Bluetooth 2.1, optical audio, HDMI and legacy AV connection for composite/component connections. There's the mention of internal storage, but they haven't said what size or what kind (HDD versus SSD). But exactly why didn't we see the PS4 today? Shuhei Yoshida told Kotaku "we have to keep something new for later. Otherwise you'd get bored." Touché. Just don't skimp out at E3 and TGS.

The system has a "secondary chip" that allows you to download virtually anything in the background, while still using the PS4. System updates, title updates, hell, even the games themselves. You can still use the system while it's downloading. If you're perusing the Store and find a game worthy of your monies, you can instantly start playing it while it's downloading. Are you a little hesitant of the game? Fuck it, "press X" and you can instantly play the demo right then and there, in the Store, without having to download it.

Along with the secondary chip, the PS4 will require no boot time, granted you put the thing into sleep mode. While sleeping, the PS4 can pull aforementioned updates for the system or games and install them. With all of this "instant access" going on, you can see how Sony wants you to enjoy everything as soon as possible. Having to wait - a first-world problem - for your system to boot up, select your game, wait for that boot, then select your save file and wait for that to load, it's something that's been an issue this past generation that has been remedied by mobile gaming. When I say "mobile", I mean "cell phone". They're always on (just in sleep mode), and getting to what you want instantly is easy. Sony is solving this problem with console gaming by making everything instantly accessible, no load time required.

Some other good information that's late to the party (read: not talked about during the conference): PS4 will pump out video at 4K resolution (just not games), it will not require an always-on connection (thankfully), and may or may not block used/second-hand games (more on this later, as well). Sadly, Jack Tretton burst everyone's bubble saying the specs are not final:

"We’re certainly capable of showing playable game content, but we don’t have a mass-production box that we can bring out and pull out. That’s still in development in terms of final specs and design."

He did say he wants to price the PS4 less than what the PS3 was when it launched. At least there's that. Even Hiroshi Kawano, President of SCEJ, doesn't even know what it looks like, saying "If I'm being honest, I also haven't seen its final design. Even the controller we showed today, I saw the final design around yesterday or so."

This shit right here? I have no idea where this is at. Is this the Store? Is this the main menu? Sony, what are we looking at? Can we please see the software of the system?

Now, we only caught a brief glimpse, but we have an idea of what the PS4's GUI will look like. Sadly, it's looking like the Xbox Metro interface. You know, the big blocky one that's currently on your 360. Sony hasn't said much about the UI, and briefly showed it during their conference. I think there was a whole 2 seconds dedicated to menu navigation, but mostly existed to showcase instant access of Store content.

The Cloud

Other than staring at your TV, Sony will be launching iOS and Android apps that will allow interaction with your PS4 and PS account (think SmartGlass from Xbox). With the PlayStation App, you'll be able to control your PS4, make purchases in the Store, or use in-game. They've already hinted at using your mobile device as a map system or watch your friend's live-streaming of their gaming session, with implementation dependent on the developer, that is.

Sony briefly touted this about the next evolution of your online identity in the PlayStation realm: your online identity will be attached to your real world name. Known around the world as "xXxcuntdestroyerxXx"? Well, you'll also be known as your real name of "Percival Tanner Cockburn". I mentioned how brief Sony was, because they didn't say exactly what kind of privacy settings you will have in regards to who can see your real name. I'm assuming they'll allow you to only let those on your friends list see your real name, which would be a nice feature to all the Cockburns out there.

With Remote Play in mind - actually playing the game, rather than interacting with it - Sony is actually requesting developers to test the Remote Play of their games before shipping. Considering the touch screen and touchpad of the Vita, developers can utilize this for different functionality, so it's a respectable request from Sony. Also, considering there is no L2/R2 and L3/R3 (clicking the analog sticks) on the Vita, I would hope they would reconfigure controls to accommodate for the lack of physical buttons.

One of the DualShock 4's features is the Share button. This little guy has the ability to share photos and videos of whatever you're doing onto Facebook (and, hopefully, YouTube) at your discretion. Recording a Call of Duty marathon? If you're into that, post it to the webz. Find a sweet glitch? Record it, and upload it.

The Share button idea does have a slight creepy effect - in that, the PS4 is constantly recording what you're doing - but think of it like Theater mode from recent Halo or Call of Duty games. It's keeping a record of your most recent play sessions, and, per your input, can trim the video length down, and immediately upload. It's very similar to a personal video recorder (PVR) like the Hauppauge line, which sits between your system and computer, and pulls live video feed; this is how your video reviews of games using "direct feed" are made. How in-depth this video recording will go has yet to be seen, but Sony just gave you about $150 of video recording equipment for free.

You can also hop in your friends' current gaming sessions and watch them play live, because why go to your friends house and watch them play Skyrim when you can just sit at home and watch them play Skyrim (supplement "Skyrim" with "whatever TES6 is called"). It's not all just "watch them play". You can interact, and even help them play. Do you see them struggling in a fight? Get all sponsor-like and drop in a health item for them.

Except your friends probably don't have ridiculous facial hair.

All of this is made possible by the integration of Facebook (sharing videos) and Ustream (spectating your gaming sessions). However, this does go one level higher: Gaikai. Thanks to Sony's acquisition of them, they've been getting the cloud services ready for the PS4's launch. One of the greater aspects of Gaikai's services is being able to stream PS1, PS2 and PS3 games to the PS4, and streaming all four generations to the Vita; sadly, they ruined this idea by prefixing the whole thing by saying it's their "goal" to get all PS4 games streaming to the Vita. That's right: it's a "goal". This isn't a concrete feature. It's a wild pipe-dream.

Sony also hinted that all of these features won't hit the PS4 right away at launch. They're telling us what to expect on the system. At some undetermined point during the system's future. Between not showing what the PS4 looks like and unsure as to what it'll be capable out of the box, it's looking like Sony doesn't even know what the PS4 is; they just know what they want it to be.

There is (another) caveat to the streaming: the PS4 is not backwards compatible with the disc-based PlayStation games. There is also no word if your current physical copies of games will grant you a license to the digital, streamable copy. An even bigger blow? Your PlayStation Store purchases will not carry over...yet. Sony originally said it's due to the difference in architecture. They've since backpedaled and said "We could do so if we choose to. We know who purchased what as a record. But we are working on service plans and we haven't decided." I added that extra emphasis. Sony could allow your licenses to transfer over, but only if they chose to do so.

Basically, greed is getting in the way.

The Games

To start off with, CEO Jack Tretton has confirmed the pricing for games will extend from the free-to-play (FTP) model to $60, with a "justification" behind the higher price tags. "We're gonna welcome free-to-play models, games from 99 cents up to those 60 dollar games...we'll justify that $60 price point." I just hope that not all games are $60, and the price point is actually justified, other than having an established name, such as Uncharted or Call of Duty. That's one point I'll hold Sony to when the PS4 launches.

A prediction of mine came true during their conference: a new Infamous game was announced. While not directly Infamous 3, it is a brand new entry in the franchise. Infamous: Second Son takes place 7 years after the ending of Infamous 2 (whether or not they're following the good or evil ending, they've yet to say). You play as Mr. Chain-Bracelet up top - Delsin Rowe - who can manipulate smoke, who discovered his talent while rescuing victims of a burning bus. The DUP (Department of Unified Protection) is actively hunting any person with supernatural abilities (known as Conduits, according to the franchise's lore). No release date, but I'm hoping for that launch window; you can check out the reveal trailer below.

As far as other announcements go, Killzone: Shadow Fall was announced. For those that know, I cannot stand the Killzone series. It's a second rate shooter with awful controls, and a game that puts style over substance. Watching the trailer, the game may look next-gen, but the enemy AI is ages old. Watching the demo that they played - again, a fantastic looking demo - you watch the enemies completely ignore the player.

I want to chalk it up to live demo, just wanting to showcase how it looks, but that's exactly the problem: they're showing how it looks. We're here for a next-gen experience. The visuals look stunning, but the gameplay is the same shit that id started with in Doom. If the Helghast are completely oblivious to the guy flanking them by scaling a wall - who just killed 10 guys in a row without taking damage - I'd make sure my fire was directed to him. Don't believe me? Here's said footage below:

Killzone: Shadow Fall is confirmed as a launch title. They haven't said if it's day-and-date or launch window, but expect to play it soon after you buy the system.

Other big news was Knack, from Mark Cerny. Unfortunately, this game looks forced - much like Little Deviants on the Vita, or Red Steel on the Wii - which acts like nothing more than a glorified tech demo, which is what most launch titles are. Your main character, Knack, is made up of several individual pieces, and can alter his size, which comes with even more pieces, which you'll end up utilizing for combat and puzzle solving.

As to what one would have thought would have been a new Gran Turismo is actually called Driveclub, from Evolution Studios. Responsible for Motorstorm, Evolution is taking their racing chops to a full-on, first-person perspective of the world of racing. Sure, the game looks fantastic, but it's hard to get excited for a racing game's visual prowess of how attuned to detail of the cars in the game when you're playing from inside of one.

Jonathan Blow (Braid) showed off his new game, The Witness. Heavy focus on puzzle solving, and is exclusive to the PS4. That's...pretty much it.

Bungie revealed that Destiny will be coming to the PS4 - don't forget PS3! - and will have exclusive content for the Sony camp. I find it admirable that, since Bungie has been under Microsoft's thumb for nearly a decade, they give Sony something extra. Were they influenced by the PS4? Possibly. Were they paid off? Probably.

There's a small handful of third-party games that are either already announced on other systems, or already released: Watch Dogs will be on the PS4 (not surprising) and also confirmed for Wii U (very surprising), it will be a launch title (confirmed in a press release post-conference), and it's also a timed-exclusive for the system (read: on the PS4 first). A third-party title that may come as a surprise is Blizzard announcing that Diablo III will be on the PS3 and PS4. You're also getting The Witcher 3 for the PS4, as well, but is out sometime next year.

Capcom showed off a new engine called "Panta Rhei," which is powering a new dungeon crawler called Deep Down. Not much is known on how it plays, but just looking at it invokes ideas of The Elder Scrolls meets Dragon's Dogma.

Just Add Water (Oddworld) mentioned, shortly after the conference, they're making a new game, but they didn't say what it was, or if it has any relation to the Oddworld series.

Quantic Dream also showed off what the PS4 is capable of, showing off a demo of an old man's head. While many may hate Heavy Rain for lack of gameplay, they sure know how to make a game look pretty; if this demo is of any indication, this may lead to a breakthrough of photorealism in games.

Above: PC. Below: PS4. Not shown: Mordor.
Image from DSOGaming
Square Enix actually showed up, and you know what they announced? That they're showing off Final Fantasy on the PS4 at E3. It wasn't all for shit with Square. They showed off the same damned tech demo this year, as if it's brand new, hot shit. If you're going to show up just to fuck with us, don't even show up. Fuck you, Square.

Something else that's starting to show some issues is Epic's demo of Unreal 4 engine (to the left) running on PS4 hardware. Remember back to E3 2012, and that awesome tech demo of an armored demon-thing in front of a castle and volcano? Well, Epic decided to show it again, but on the PS4. The results were pretty...bad, actually. Shadows weren't being cast (evidence of lack of real-time lighting), low-res textures all over the castle front, particle effects were dumbed down, and our demon looked shinier and coated in plastic, as opposed to the textured, almost stucco-like appearance on the PC demo. 

Along with the games already announced, there's some mixed feelings about what Sony has said about used games. At first, Sony told Eurogamer they wouldn't block used games from playing on the PS4. Then, as a Sony spokesperson told Game Informer:

"We are just now announcing the basic vision and strategy of PS4 and will have more information to share regarding used games later this year. But PlayStation has a long history of keeping its gamers happy and we won't make decisions that damage our relationship with them."

As you can see, this is not a straight-forward answer, and that scares me, considering I'm a heavy GameFly user. No "yes" or "no" answer. They skirt around the question with a line right out of the PR Bible. Patents left and right show the PS4 may have the ability to block second-hand games, by means of registering the game with your PlayStation account, or some sort of serialization between the game and your actual PS4. However it boils down, Sony is refusing to give an actual answer. It's like the asshole at the playground chanting "nana-nana-I-can't-hear-you-nana-nana" each time you try and reason with them. As Kotaku put it: it's not a manner of if the PS4 can play them, it's a matter of how then play them.

Looking Forward

While most of what we've seen all week is starting to seem like Sony has their heads in the cloud (figuratively, literally, and conceptually), the PS4 does appear to be something of grandeur. During the lead-up to the PS3's launch, Sony promised some big things, but never delivered on them (such as having multiple HDMI outputs to allow for multi-display gaming sessions). Same thing happened with Nintendo recently with the Wii U. Sony is even forewarning everyone that, left and right, something is a "goal" of theirs to have for the system at launch. That's why many gamers and critics aren't holding their breath for an amazing, out-of-the-box experience with the PS4, as am I.

Sony has several gaming conventions and expos to show off more and more concrete functionality. E3, PAX Prime, Gamescom, Tokyo Game many places for Sony to put us in front of the PS4, with DualShock 4 in hand, and experience everything they talked about on Wednesday. I want to see these instantly playable demos without need of downloading. I want to experience the Share button and upload my gaming interactions. I want Sony to sell me something that isn't immediately perceived as a fabrication just to excite my wallet. As the PlayStation 4 currently stands, I'm intrigued. I'm genuinely interested in the system, the experiences, and the possibilities. I've been burned twice by two gaming launches - one of them by the hands of Sony - in the last year. I need not invest $300-400 or more on a system that promises the concept of an amazing experience with only 1-2 games that are fun to play, with the possibility of breaking that experience the moment I want to buy second-hand, or borrow a game.

At this point, the PS4 simply seems like it'll be fun. There are a few games that are currently announced for the system that I want to play, but they're bound to show up on the Wii U - something I already own - or quite possibly existing on the Xbox Durango (with current rumors pointing to an April reveal). There are experiences that are assumed that will show up, and I will want to play those. For the next few months, I'll be waiting with bated breath. Just please, Sony and Microsoft, don't fuck up. Please don't fuck up.