After a confident launch event in New York on 20 February, Sony's PlayStation 4 seems set to win the console market back with its neat design and focus on developers.
CEO and President of Sony Computer Entertainment launches the PlayStation 4 in New York. (Credit: Reuters)
Throughout the late nineties and early noughties, Sony was king, commanding the console space with its superlative machines the PlayStation and PlayStation 2. Then the PS3 came along, with its vague promises and lacklustre game catalogue, and Sony's credibility amongst console owners slipped considerably. For the first half of the seventh console generation, the PlayStation 3 was a rank outsider, besieged on both sides by the superior core games of the Xbox 360, and the more accessible, more fun casual offering of Nintendo's Wii.
Watching last night's PlayStation 4 reveal, it felt like Sony was reasserting its dominance, like that scene in The Sopranos where Tony beats on the biggest guy in the room just to show everyone who's boss. By vouching second screen gaming via the Vita and selected smartphones, Sony has swept the Wii U's key gimmick right out from under it. By wheeling Bungie out late in the show to talk up Destiny, the company has sent a message, that this console is the one that all developers, even the guys that made Xbox-exclusive Halo, want to work with.
And then there were the minor optimisations which, if implemented right, could wrongfoot Valve and its impervious Steam platform. The plan to let players play digitally bought games as they are downloading, or stream demos directly, with no loading required, undermines even Xi3's Piston and the slick Big Picture mode. If Sony can shore up its software range on the PlayStation Network to something comparable to Steam (a big ask, but since Gaikai is planning to stream PS1, PS2 and PS3 games, not impossible) then why would players wait for a download when they could play it instantly?
There's a devout PC market that Sony is never going to be able to woo, but in terms of retaining consumers who might have been swayed by the attractive digital prospect of a Steambox, the Cloud service Sony has promised would do more than guarantee their loyalty.
The new Share button on the DualShock 4 is a smart move. Besides the apparent market of competitive gamers who have sweet moves and high scores to upload, but not the tech nous to upload them, the Share button will also strike a chord with the gaming press, eliminating the need for cumbersome video set-ups to record in-game footage.
Knowingly or not, Sony has created a feature which means game journalists are going to be spending more time with, and relying more on the PS4, and that's a wonderfully sly way of currying media favour.
Less convincing are the bolstered social features which, although tinselly and very "in" are not really what people want from a new PlayStation. The overwhelming success of something like Facebook is, naturally, an inspiration for any tech developer, but this push towards connectivity, towards sharing your data and swapping pictures and such is not, despite Mark Cerny's earnest presentation, really that important. There was talk of a feature whereby players could control their friend's games directly via the web to guide them past tricky parts which, although noble in spirit, is not something that will catch on.
Most game players value the achievement of solving something for themselves, the rest just use walkthroughs. Having a bespoke social network in place for PlayStation 4 users to trade pics, send messages and compare achievements might seem valuable on paper, but in reality, people prefer Facebook and can just use that to interact with each other.
Lead system architect Mark Cerny unveils the PlayStation 4's DualShock 4 controller, including front-facing touch panel. (Credit: Reuters)
The game line-up, too, or at least, the game line-up as presented in Manhattan, is not particularly inspiring. There was much talk from Andrew House, Cerny and the other PlayStation reps about the PS4 presenting players with new experiences, new ideas. But on show last night from Sony were a first-person shooter, a racing game, a puzzle platformer and an open-world superhero sim - with two of the games being sequels to PS3 franchises. The titles didn't show off so much a fresh range of game experiences, but a slightly optimised version of existing ones.
If the PS4 is going to really build up a mob of consumers pre-launch, we need to see a more inspiring parade of IPs.
Even Media Molecule, the ostensible "creative" wing of the AAA industry, didnt shine in Manhattan. It's unnamed, upcoming project, which utilises PlayStation Move to let users create and animate their own characters and levels, was vague and glitzy. Alex Evans talked some infantile marketing speak about "making dreams" but all that was on show was an unclear and bewildering tech demo, ostensibly showing some MM devs making and moving their own creations, but giving no insight into exactly how that will be done.
And even if it does work fine and the game, whatever it's called, will let you "make your dreams" in a simple and intuitive way, then it will still be banging the same drum as Molecule's other games, LittleBigPlanet and Tearaway, and not, as advertised, using the PS4 to make genuinely new experiences.
Credit: Game Informer
Two things were promising on the game side. One was Ubisoft's Watch Dogs, which was shown off in another gameplay demo and is starting to look like one of the most promising games of the near future, and the other was the sheer amount of developers on-stage. What the PS3 lacked was coherence; what should have been another, more powerful game chugger became a gaseous cloud of borrowed features and marketing buzz phrases with no delivery.
With the PS4, Sony seems to be more focused, and has a real dedication to its developers. Launch events that wheel out devs to talk up the new software are ten a penny, but last night, at least, it seemed like Sony was really pushing the gaming side of the PlayStation 4 more than any of its other bells and whistles.
Divisive indie deity Jonathan Blow did a turn on the centre stage, implying, if a little ham-handedly, that Sony has a real interest in low-budget games. His latest project The Witness will premiere exclusively on the PS4, hopefully signalling to other independents that the PlayStation Store is a platform they can work with. The central gaming side of the PlayStation 4 also received nods from Quantic Dream's David Cage, who demoed the latest and greatest in facial animation, and Capcom, which brought in a demo of an in-progress IP that a lot of people would agree stole the evening.
Despite Sony's bewildering decision to not unveil the console itself, there are plenty of reasons to get interested in the PS4. The games from last night weren't particularly revolutionary, but Sony's dedication to studios seems genuine. As the seventh generation draws to a close, it feels like Sony has won the software war, consistently putting out acclaimed, meaningful first-party games like Uncharted and Journey, and the company's reputation as a mainstream distributor for more left-field games seems like it will only solidify going forward.
Gaikai is a smart move, too, guarenteeing a backlog of old PlayStation games while opening the path to a range of streaming possibilites on smartphones and Vita. If CEO David Perry's idealistic vision of running PS4 games through a Sony smartphone comes good, and PlayStation Cloud is all it's being cracked up to be, then Sony will have a foothold in mobile, digital, casual and hardcore games to rival Nintendo, Xbox or upcoming micro-consoles like the Piston and Ouya.
It's a big if, but based on the language being chucked around in New York last night, Sony is up to the task.
The social stuff is redundant and, in the long term, of little interest. The Share button is a neat feature, especially as YouTube channels like Machinima swell in popularity, but no social network Sony introduces will unseat or even complement Facebook. If people want to swap messages or pictures, or get someone to help them with a game, they'll do it via their desktop or their mobile. Social connectivity is a popular idea right now but it won't shift any more PS4s.
DAvid Perry, CEO of streaming company Gaikai which Sony bought last year, talks about playing PlayStation 4 games on your PS Vita. (Credit:Reuters)
Nevertheless, this was a solid unveiling for Sony's latest console. At times it felt more like a pitch than a true premiere, but the ideas are there and so, seemingly, are the tools and the talent to see them through. A healthier line-up of games is needed before the Christmas 2013 launch period, but the tech seems like it's there, and unlike in the past, when it felt like Sony was throwing mud to see what sticks, the PlayStation 4 is much better targeted.
A streamlined and more faithful gaming console, the PS4 could be top dog during the next generation.
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