PS4: Putting PlayStation back on top

With last night’s announcement, Sony has come out into the next generation fighting. Opinion among the assembled hacks in New York was mostly positive. This wasn’t a paper announcement, dashed out with marketing bluff and a few pre-rendered ‘target’ videos, but a statement of intent, backed up by real-time demos, comment from real developers and a little hard information about what we can expect.

We all came away with some pretty big questions. What’s the price? Does Holiday 2013 apply worldwide or just in the US and Japan? Most of all, where’s the box? Yet the surprising thing about the PlayStation 4 announcement was that it was so lengthy and so dense with information. Where previous PlayStations have had a pretty clear selling point, usually focused on the graphical capabilities of the new console architecture, PlayStation 4 comes with a wider message. Sony has realised that the gaming landscape has changed, and it’s building a console and services to match.

The Graphics

Of course, the graphics look amazing. Killzone: Shadow Fall was a hugely impressive reveal, a live demo banishing memories of the infamous E3 Killzone 2 target footage, and dazzling with its vast sci-fi cityscapes, radiant lighting and luxuriant detail. Evolution Studio’s Driveclub was also looking strong, with its car interiors hitting levels of realistic 1080p detail that leaves even the mighty Forza 4 looking slightly flat.

And if Capcom’s new fantasy game, Deep Down, looks as good in the flesh as it did in demo, then we’re all in for a treat. From the realistic facial animation systems to the sumptuous lighting and particle effects, this was everything you would hope a next-generation action RPG might look like. The barriers between what you see in a game and what you see in a Hollywood blockbuster are growing ever more indistinct, and we’re seeing things happen in real-time that we didn’t even see in pre-rendered footage a few years ago,

It’s slightly frustrating that we still don’t know everything about the architecture powering those visuals. It’s confirmed that the PS4 will be based on an x86 APU - presumably an AMD one, and clearly one an order of magnitude more potent than the current high-end A10-5800K. Details on the exact CPU and GPU components, however, remain unknown.

What was revealed, and was surprising, is that the PS4 will have 8GB of GDDR5 RAM, not 4GB as previously mentioned. This is important because the one thing developers keep coming back to about consoles is that RAM limitations are a serious concern, stinting them in building the kinds of world they want to build. With so much high-speed RAM and a GPU architecture that, apparently, has been tuned for general purpose computer functions, the PS4 should open up a lot of possibilities. Bigger worlds, more convincing physics, more effective and intelligent AI; it’s all coming down the line.

Does motion control still have a part to play in PlayStation’s future? Definitely, though the message here seems a little muted. We know that there will be a PlayStation Eye stereoscopic depth camera for PS4, and that it will work with both the existing style of Move controller and with the horizontal glow bar on the back of the Dual Shock 4 controller. At the same time, mention of motion control was limited to Media Molecule’s reveal of its 3D sculpting and world-creation tools; a fascinating technology demo, but not something you can currently visualise as an actual game.

The Social Console

Sony’s vision for PS4 isn’t all about the hardware. The words ‘social’, ‘immediate’ and ‘personalised’ were everywhere last night. PSN might have taken its good sweet time catching up with Xbox Live, but it’s right at the core of PlayStation 4, and titles like Driveclub show that Sony is re-thinking how people play games, and play them together, even if some of it sounds a little similar to the Autolog feature in Need for Speed: Most Wanted and Hot Pursuit.

The new Share button on the Dual Shock 4 controller proves how central Sony sees the social aspects being, and ideas like being able to immediately upload gameplay videos, or take over a friend’s game to help them out using remote play, are very interesting indeed. Nor is Sony trying to keep it all within its own closed ecosystem. Where once talk of social networking was focused entirely on PSN, Sony now talks openly of greater integration with people’s real-life social identities, and specifically Facebook.

Instant Action

Sony has also understood what people expect in a tablet and smartphone-centric world. We don’t want to have to quit the game, switch off, then switch on, load the game and load a save game before we can re-start playing; we want to be able to put the system to sleep and instantly resume. We don’t want to wait while the firmware downloads or games patch before we can start playing, and the new background CPU means these tasks can be running while the rest of the PS4 sleeps.

Most of all, PlayStation 4 is removing the barriers between us and the games we want to play. Not only is there the promise of Gaiki streaming delivering back catalogue PS3 games and free trials to the new console, but the potential to play games while they download. There’s no more waiting now to have fun later; you just choose what you want to play and play.

It’s also good to see Sony refocusing on the concept of remote play. There are some complaints that PS4 will only partner with Vita, with smartphones and tablets relegated to the status of a second screen, but given the synergy between the PS4’s controller and Vita’s controls, it’s perfectly understandable. Should PS4 developers worry about how to make their games work without dual thumbsticks, or with a panoply of third-party controllers? As someone who finds remote play one of the best things about the Wii U, the idea of it working across all PS4 titles on Vita is very enticing.

Sony’s Challenge

The challenge for Sony is going to be how all this stuff will differentiate PlayStation 4 from a new Xbox console. I don’t have any doubts about its vision for next-generation gaming, but putting that vision across to the wider public, and explaining how it’s different from Microsoft’s will be tricky. We’re reasonably sure that both next-gen consoles will have similar architectures, though with various trade-offs in terms of processing power. You can also bet that Microsoft will be working on new features for Xbox Live and social gaming, plus an extension of the smartphone/tablet integration features of SmartGlass.

Finally, It’s almost guaranteed that titles like Watch Dogs, Deep Down and Bungie’s Destiny will appear on both formats, and that Microsoft will match Killzone: Shadow Fall and Drive Club with its own first-party titles. Where the PS3 had the obvious advantage of the Blu-ray drive, the differences between the next-gen Xbox and the PS4 may seem more ephemeral - depending, of course, on what Microsoft actually announces.

This is going to make timing and pricing absolutely crucial. Even in a world of increasingly sophisticated smartphone and tablet gaming, there’s plenty of room for these blockbuster console experiences, but whomever hits first and hits cheapest will likely have the advantage this time around. Hopefully at E3 we’ll have a little more idea who that will be.