PlayStation 4 review: Strong, but needs time to mature and gain more content

November 15, 2013

Sony has redesigned the PlayStation from stem to stern, seven years after it released its last new console. The PlayStation 4’s makeover brings with it new processors, software and even a total overhaul of its controller.

The result is a stellar new system that takes the PlayStation brand in a good direction. But the PS4 platform still needs time to mature before we can declare a winner in this generation of console wars.

With the PS4, Sony has fixed some problems with its previous console. For example, the system, while far from silent, is much quieter than the PlayStation 3. It also doesn’t get too hot in the course of play. The console can stand horizontally or vertically, though anyone who prefers the latter orientation should probably pick up Sony’s $15 optional stand for peace of mind. Sony has also included an HDMI cord in the box, fixing one of the most annoying parts about the PS3 launch — having to go out and buy an additional part.

The console is sleek and surprisingly light, and it upholds Sony’s reputation for snazzy hardware design. Everything on the PS4 fits within the console’s clean lines, to the extent that it’s actually a little difficult to find the power button. Once you do find it, tucked between the glossy and matte halves of the console, hitting it lights up a thin blue line the width of the console that conveys the feeling of hitting the ignition button on something powerful.

A console, of course, has to do more than just look good on your TV stand. New software revamps the PlayStation’s menu design, allowing it to flow a bit better and making the options easier to read. Sony has also included a number of social features so that players can upload screenshots and video clips to Facebook and opt to stream their games live over UStream or the social gaming community Twitch. You can post your content online with the “Share” button.

That is one of the many changes Sony’s made to its controller, which also sports a large touchpad. Sony has improved the responsiveness of the new controller as well, making for better gameplay. Players also have the option of sending the audio through the controller’s headphone jack, which should be a good option for late-night gamers who don’t want to wake the rest of the household.

Sony has emphasized features that benefit players, such as introducing a much-awaited option for voice-chat regardless of what game they’re playing. It has put less focus on providing other entertainment options that will feature heavily in Microsoft’s Xbox One, which will be released Nov. 22. Sony’s console does support apps for video services such as Netflix and Hulu Plus.It also has an Internet browser, which is good for light Web surfing but definitely won’t become your primary way of looking things up online.

Many additional features, such as online play, require a subscription to Sony’s online service, PlayStation Plus, which costs $5 per month. A free 30-day trial is included with every console and will also give players access to free games, free storage for online game saves and game discounts. While it’s possible to enjoy the console without the subscription, similar to Microsoft’s Xbox Live Gold program, the system will feel a bit incomplete without it.

The review unit Sony provided to The Washington Post included the quirky action platformer “Knack” and “Killzone Shadow Fall,” a first-person shooter. Both games are published by Sony Computer Entertainment and provided good testing grounds for the PlayStation’s slick new graphics and central processing units. There is a marked improvement in the fluidity and quality of how the games look, and that hints at a lot of potential for developers to make complex, visually stunning games down the line.

Still, the game selection at launch is a bit light on blockbuster exclusives. (Unfortunately for gamers who’ve spent the better part of a decade building up their game libraries, similar to the Xbox One, the PS4 will not work with older games.) The lack of big titles will likely be the PS4’s greatest weakness against the Xbox One in the early days of this head-to-head matchup and may even be enough to offset the $100 price advantage it has over Microsoft’s console.

Overall, Sony has 23 games available at launch, but many of its exclusives are offbeat titles such as “Knack,” which may not hold the wide appeal of Xbox One exclusives such as the racing game “Forza 5.” That is, however, something that will fix itself over time as more developers finish their first games for the PS4. In fact, it’s already happening: Late Thursday, game studio Naughty Dog officially announced that the fourth game in its popular “Uncharted” series is in development for the PlayStation 4. That offers a good indication that Sony will be able to pull more of its A-list titles into the mix — and quickly.Right now, the PlayStation 4 is a powerful console but one that needs more content to realize its full potential.

The PlayStation 4 went on sale Friday for $399.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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