This generation's console war is still in the arms race phase, but the PlayStation 4 has found its big guns. At Sony's PS4 press conference on Monday, the crowd roared with approval when SCEA President Jack Tretton announced that the new console would allow used games, disc sharing and not require any sort of online check-in.
On the show floor at E3 2013, we had the chance to scope out the PlayStation 4's angular design, put our hands on the redesigned DualShock 4 controller and play some of the titles for Sony's new system.
We'll continue to update this hands-on PS4 review as we spend more time playing games and learning about the new console's features.
Since its initial announcement event, Sony has taken its sweet time showing the PlayStation 4. It took some ribbing when the event turned out to be more of a proof of concept than an actual unveiling of the system.
Now that we've finally laid eyes on the final product, the design smacks of the good old PlayStation 2, and, surprisingly, of its chief rival the Xbox One. Both systems are matte black and composed of hard angles. It's an interesting contrast to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, which both had sloped designs.
The PS4 looks sharp, and we mean that both in the sense that it's attractive, and that it seems as though you could cut yourself on one of its corners. It looks a bit like two separate slabs of plastic fused together asymmetrically.
The system's USB ports, as well as its power and eject switch, are both well disguised. It gives the system a sleek, modernist look.
PlayStation 4 DualShock 4 controller
Personally, we've always considered the Xbox 360's controller to be as close to perfect as we've experienced, and we think Sony would agree. It seems to have taken some cues from Microsoft's in revamping the classic DualShock design.
Like a 360 controller, the new DualShock has handles that are ergonomically curved. It also has a grippy, contoured pattern that makes it easy to hold onto.
Also like a 360 controller, the thumbsticks are dimpled, and feel good under your thumbs. They're responsive, as always, but now even more comfortable. The PS3's DualShock didn't have these depressed thumbsticks, and we imagine these new sticks will be easier to keep a grip on.
Its biggest and most original change has been integrating a touchpad into the design. It's a lot like the one you'd find on your laptop; it even clicks when you press it.
During our play time, we didn't see any games integrating it in truly meaningful ways. Shooters like Warframe and Blacklight: Retribution basically turned it into a D-pad - swiping upwards did one move, swiping down did another, etc. Killzone: Shadow Fall uses the touchpad to deploy various gadgets, like a portable zipline. It feels like Sony put the pad there so it could make use of it down the road, which is not a bad strategy at all.
The console will ship with one controller, and extra controllers will likely cost $59.99, according to Sony spokespeople on the show floor at E3.
PlayStation 4 games
On the E3 show floor, we tried out several of the PlayStation 4's upcoming titles. The first was Blacklight: Retribution, a "free-to-play" first-person shooter with a futuristic cyberpunk look.
Blacklight featured rather run-of-the-mill FPS action, and while its graphics were sharp and clean, they weren't mind-blowingly next gen. That's not surprising, since it's essentially a port of a PC title that's been around since April of last year.
However, the game's frame rate was strikingly smooth. We couldn't confirm that it was 60 frames per second - the ideal promoted by the Call of Duty crowd - but we'd be shocked to hear that it was any less than that.
The next game we tried was Warframe, a third-person action title that felt like Mass Effect 3 with some sci-fi swordplay thrown in. Like Blacklight, it's another free-to-play title being ported from PC.
All these PC ports of "free" titles were surprising, and speak to the different business models being embraced by this console generation. Now even Microsoft, which previously never allowed free titles on its console, is bringing free phenomenon World of Tanks to the 360.
But it's the titles being built specifically for the new console that really impress.
At the top of many players' lists is Killzone: Shadow Fall, the PS4's killer app if it's got one at all. It continues the story of Killzone 3, and in the mission we played at E3 we were dropped behind enemy lines and given a number of objectives to complete in any order we liked. In that way it's different from past Killzone games, and the increased freedom felt good.
The gameplay still has the weight that past entries in the series had, but it's faster-paced as well. The weapons are intriguing; a touch on the DualShock 4's d-pad transformed a midrange assault rifle into a long-range sniper right before our eyes.
On top of that, Killzone: Shadow Fall looks gorgeous, as anyone who's seen it can attest. It's truly a showcase of what the PS4 is capable of at this early stage, and we're glad the drab aesthetic typical of last-gen shooters has been colored in with oranges, greens and blues in Shadow Fall.
The merits of Driveclub, another game Sony showed off at E3, weren't as immediately apparent. Yes, it's gorgeous, but so are Microsoft's Xbox One exclusive Forza Motorsport 5 and even Sony's other big racer Gran Turismo 6. But the developers of Driveclub are stressing accessibility and social play most of all, and the game will take full advantage of the PS4's connected nature.
Before our demo started, we posed for a picture with the new PlayStation Camera, creating an avatar that other racers can see in-game. The game's technical art director, Alex Perkins, said that you'll be able to set challenges for your friends, and that you'll be rewarded no matter how you play; you get points for winning, of course, but spinning out spectacularly pays off as well. It makes the game feel very friendly, despite its sometimes unforgiving driving mechanics.
Slightly less impressive was Knack, a platformer and action game that resembles Ratchet and Clank with a touch of Katamari Damacy. Players take control of Knack, a magical creature who grows larger as he destroys enemies and objects with punches and body slams. In one urban section, Knack eventually grew as big as a house. In a stealthier level he could shed his armor and become camouflaged to infiltrate a secure facility. It looks like a Pixar movie, and it's fun enough, but it doesn't seem to do anything that wouldn't have been possible on the PlayStation 3.
The last PlayStation 4 game we played at E3 was Hohokum, an abstract title that felt as directionless as it was charming. It's like a combination of the PSP's LocoRoco with the classic mobile game Snake. Its visuals and audio drew us in, but without instructions we were left guiding the colorful, serpentine protagonist around aimlessly, followed by fish and stranger creatures.
It was relaxing, to be sure, and it seemed like the kind of unique, artsy game that we've enjoyed before on Sony's PlayStation Network. There's nothing wrong with that, and we look forward to spending more time with it and seeing what it really has to offer. It did nothing to demonstrate the hardware's strengths, though.
With its cheaper price point and less restrictive DRM policies, the PS4 already seems to have the Xbox One on the run. We still think it would be naive to consider Microsoft's system down for the count, though.
Exclusive titles, and maybe even some backpedaling on its internet connectivity demands, could right the Xbox One's ship. A new Halo and the Call of Duty-with-mechs titled Titanfall have already piqued a lot of interest.
Also, Sony's supposed DRM-free policy is not quite as black and white as it seemed during Sony's Tuesday press conference. Yes, it supports used games - theoretically. In reality, third-party publishers can still impose whatever restrictions they want, just like they've always been able to, Sony's spokespeople at E3 revealed. EA's online pass is a good example of what that might entail. Sony has promised that its first-party games will feature no such restrictions at least.
Sony still hasn't given gamers a precise release date or a firm list of launch titles. It's still saying "holiday 2013" and has only confirmed a handful of day one titles, like Warframe, Killzone: Shadow Fall, Knack and Drive Club. Sony did confirm this week that the PlayStation 4 has 30 announced exclusives, 20 of which will launch within the first year. Twelve of those are completely new IPs. Sony spokespeople at E3 said that there are 140 PS4 titles in development total, 100 of which will be released in the first year.
At this point we only know of one launch bundle, which will include the console with a 500GB hard drive (it may be an SSD, but Sony wouldn't say either way this week), one controller, an HDMI cable, and an earbud headset for voice chat. There may also be other SKUs, but Sony hasn't detailed them yet. The PlayStation Camera (don't call it the PlayStation Eye!) will be available at launch for $59.99, spokespeople confirmed.
If the Xbox One and PS4 do end up going toe-to-toe in November, this holiday season will be a battlefield fit for a video game.