Dazzling games carry PS4 players to new worlds
First impression is strong for PlayStation 4 — buyers will need to have faith that Sony will continue improving it and producing great games for this platform.
Seattle Times technology columnist
It’s expensive and not fully baked yet, but I fell for Sony’s PlayStation 4 after it carried me away on a gaming binge last week.
Maybe I’m still in a haze after rappelling off skyscrapers and leaping onto light-rail cars above a dazzling metropolis overrun with bad guys in “Killzone: Shadow Fall.”
Or perhaps I spent too much time in a wizard cloak, hopping over magic mushrooms and chasing sparkly gems in the ancient forest of “Trine 2.”
What really sealed it, though, was the relatively simple “Playroom” demo game bundled with the PS4 that virtually filled my living room with crazy little robots.
If Sony continues producing dazzling games that transport PS4 players to fantastic new worlds — and expands on the system’s meager collection of nongaming apps — the platform will help revive Sony and the game industry.
Sony also added new capabilities to the PS4 that indicate directions it expects gaming to head during the seven- to 10-year life span of the new platform.
“Playroom” shows how developers can build augmented reality games for the PS4, making robots, monsters and who knows what else appear in the room. For now the effect works when you view the room on the TV screen. It will be even better viewed through goggles, glasses or other wearable displays that are just around the corner.
Meanwhile, there are at least 20 games available now for the $399 console that went on sale Friday, and an enticing lineup ahead, including a new superhero game set in Seattle that a Bellevue-based Sony studio is now finishing up. More than 180 PS4 games are now in development, according to Sony.
For $399 you get one controller, an HDMI cable and the console — a DVR-sized black box with beveled corners, Blu-ray drive, Wi-Fi, 8 gigabytes of RAM and a 500 gig hard-drive that owners can swap out for a larger drive. Most PS4 games and additional controllers cost $60 apiece. Online multiplayer games mostly require a $50 per year network subscription.
Nodding to competition from cheaper games for tablets, phones and PCs, Sony is experimenting with free games that are upgraded with microtransactions, such as the PC action game “Blacklight Retribution,” which is among the PS4 launch titles.
The new PlayStation controller has a handy touch screen that lets you do things like draw magic boxes in “Trine 2” and select whether your “Killzone” drone will blast foes or set a zip line.
Controllers have improved feedback and better feeling handles. They also have a “share” button that lets you upload and share screenshots and game clips on social networks.
If you really like sharing, you can broadcast game sessions online and chat and exchange messages with your online audience.
Compared with its chief rival, the Xbox One, which Microsoft begins selling Nov. 22 for $499, the PS4 is less of a digital media hub.
Xbox One vs. PS4
Both consoles have similar architecture, with 8-core AMD processors and supercomputer-like graphics systems. Both add a new level of realism and vividness to games, plus additional features for sharing game activity online.
Each has the standard streaming video suite, including Netflix, Hulu and a video rental store.
Microsoft bundles its Kinect sensor system with the Xbox One, while Sony charges an extra $60 for a PS4 camera unit that enables voice commands, facial recognition and some gesture recognition.
The Xbox One has a TV guide that could make the console more central to media consumption. For now, Sony offers the PS4 as primarily for games.
Game pundits praised Sony for focusing just on games, but I think it’s more complicated. Unlike Microsoft, Sony already has a big presence in the TV and home entertainment space. It’s likely to add broadband TV capabilities to the PS4 as they emerge. During this console generation, video will increasingly be delivered over the Internet, including cable via broadband.
Microsoft has put more effort into advancing software interfaces. Sony has a lead in other areas, such as its global retail channels.
Of more interest to console buyers, though, is Sony’s work to give PlayStation games a distinctly cinematic touch that narrows the gap between interactive and filmed entertainment.
Movielike scenes are expected in all top-tier video games nowadays, but Sony has a knack for it, perhaps because it also makes movies and funnels much of its game development through a studio in Santa Monica, Calif.
Within a week of testing the console, I encountered a few hiccups on the PS4. “Call of Duty: Ghosts” looked more vivid, but at one point the system failed to save my progress through the campaign.
The PlayStation store has a handy left-column directory. But the column isn’t spaced quite right, so the topmost entry touches the horizontal control menu. It’s not a big deal and will likely be fixed by a software update, but it was still surprising.
The nifty LED light bar on top of the PS4 Sony loaned me was flashing yellow one morning, after a long night of play. I was concerned because I had a PS3 fail after showing a yellow caution light. Fortunately, the PS4 worked fine after I fired it up.
It turns out the yellow color — technically orange — means the PS4 is in standby mode. The light glows blue when powering on and white when the system’s running. The time to be concerned is when it glows red; this means it’s overheating.
Vents encircle the PS4, which has hard-to-distinguish buttons on the front panel for power and eject. It felt warm but ran quiet.
Several times downloaded games hung on the system. One failed to install. Another froze during loading, forcing me to unplug the console to force a restart. A Sony spokeswoman said its network “has had heavy volume since launch” and the company is “actively working to resolve the issue.”
Perhaps I was in a forgiving mood because Sony is giving PS4 users a free copy of “Flower,” a favorite on the PS3, in which you twist the controller to help flower petals catch the wind and spread flora across the countryside.
“Flower” is an exception because the PS4 doesn’t otherwise play PS3 games. This is a tough break for those considering an upgrade. It’s also a shame because great PS3 games such as the treasure-hunting “Uncharted” franchise deserve to live on. Sony will stream older games to the PS4 starting next year but isn’t sharing details yet.
Now that the PlayStation and Xbox share a similar PC architecture, it would be relatively easy for Sony and Microsoft to publish games for each other’s platforms.
Jack Tretton, chief executive of the North American PlayStation business, told me he’s open to the idea and has “great respect” for a lot of Xbox franchises.
“I would welcome ‘Halo’ on our platform,” he said.
I’d be happy if Sony would give the PS4 an app to access Microsoft’s SkyDrive or photos stored on my home PC. The PS3 could access photos and music stored on a home network but the PS4 cannot. Nor does it offer any photo-sharing apps.
Once again, Sony said to stay tuned. Buyers will need to have faith that Sony will continue improving the PS4 and producing great games for the platform in the coming years. But there are plenty of ways to have fun with the system along the way.
Brier Dudley’s column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or firstname.lastname@example.org
About Brier Dudley
Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
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