Should I buy a PlayStation 4?

Following on from Microsoft’s Xbox One launch last week, Sony’s PlayStation 4 is out in the UK today. And many folks are asking themselves the simple question: Should I buy it? Read on for the (not so simple) answer…

PS4 launch games

No matter what the technical specifications of a game console are, ultimately, long-term success is determined by its library of games. Sure, the PS2 was given a massive initial boost in sales thanks to it being a cheap, reliable DVD player, and the Wii experienced a massive spike thanks to everyone buying the console to try out Wii Sports. The difference between the two is that the PS2 stayed strong throughout its run thanks to an enormous library of games, while the Wii brought up the rear in software sales regardless of the initial rush to buy the hardware.

The PS4, as of launch day, doesn’t have a library which is worth getting all that excited about (see: Why are most of the PlayStation 4’s launch games boring?).

This is true with almost every console launch, though – games get better after developers spend more time with the console. At the moment, the best games to get on the PS4 are not only multiplatform, but multigenerational. You can grab some top-tier games, such as Battlefield 4, Call of Duty: Ghosts, and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, but you can get every one of those on your PS3. The graphics will look better on the PS4, but they won’t look that much better as launch games always look the worst due to developers not yet being comfortable with the hardware.

As far as exclusives go, there’s Killzone: Shadow Fall (pictured below), and it has received a reasonable reception but nothing more. Knack is a fine action-adventure, but it’s rather basic (and has copped a lot of flak from some critics), so the best game right now is the downloadable Resogun. It plays very much like the PS3’s Super Stardust HD, and that’s because it was developed by the same team. Instead of blowing up asteroids on a spherical field of play, you’re blowing up robotic ships on a cylindrical field of play, but also grabbing humans and tossing them into a rescue vehicle. The games are very similar.

As for games you should be able to grab within the launch window (the first handful of months after the console’s release), they’re not too compelling either, although there will be oodles of indie games which are exclusive (regarding game consoles, at least) to the PS4.

The PS4’s user interface

After spending seven years with the PS3’s XrossMediaBar (XMB), loading up the PS4 brings something of a shock. The UI is something of a mix – it has the uneven-boxes layout of the Xbox 360 or Windows 8, with the familiar XMB PS3 scheme sitting above it. However, instead of assaulting you with unaligned squares and rectangles cluttering up your screen, the PS4 now has two rows of expandable icons.

The top row, as mentioned, is the familiar XMB, while the row underneath it is the Windows 8-style tiles, composed mainly of software you can load – games, apps, and so on. Once you navigate to, for example, the tile for Knack, you get a few options that expand in a column underneath it. Once you scroll down to that column, the UI expands with the individual game’s hub (as seen above), which is more or less that Xbox 360 boxes-everywhere aesthetic.

This is a smart and intuitive blend of the best of both console worlds. The XMB was always easy to navigate and didn’t make a mess on the screen, while the Xbox 360′s boxes-on-boxes-on-boxes interface always seemed unorganised, but looked very pretty. With the PS4, the user interface is organised and pretty.

The DualShock 4

Whether you prefer the DualShock design to the Xbox 360 gamepad, Sony’s controllers have always been above par in terms of ergonomics and function, which is why the design has remained nearly unchanged over the years. The DualShock 4 keeps most of the buttons where they’ve always been – face buttons on the right, D-pad on the left, trigger buttons on the shoulder, PS button towards the bottom-middle, analogue sticks towards the bottom flanking the PS button. A clickable touchpad sits at the top-middle of the controller. The Start and Select buttons of controllers past have been replaced by Share and Options buttons, which have been moved to the top left and right of the touchpad.

Although the controller looks a little more bulbous than previous DualShocks, it feels great to hold and use. All of the buttons press very nicely, the fatter handles fit perfectly into your palm, and even the much maligned L2 and R2 triggers from the DualShock 3 feel very good this time around. The controller also sports a little Wiimote-style speaker, and the analogue sticks are now a bit concave so your thumbs don’t slip out.

The back part of the controller that faces the television has a giant light bar attached, which can glow different colours. When combined with the PlayStation Camera, this provides PS Move functionality, and the ability to aim at the screen like a Wiimote. Unfortunately, it appears that there isn’t yet an option to disable the light, as it’s reflective in the display, and quite noticeable. This is perhaps the DualShock 4’s only negative, though the battery life seems to be less than the previous Dualshock 3. That, however, is mitigated by now being able to charge the controller when the PS4 is in standby mode.

Overall, the DualShock 4 is Sony’s best controller to date.

Social media

Twitter, Facebook, and Twitch.tv make a large and welcome contribution to the PS4. Using the Share button on the PS4, you can take screenshots and upload them to Twitter or Facebook with ease. The result is compressed a bit more than a pretty screenshot of an in-game sunset should be, but the file size is quite small, so that’s always the compromise. Smaller files make for a smoother sharing process, after all. (It seems you can’t take a screenshot of the sharing interface, so the quick-and-dirty phone picture above – unavoidable office glare and all – will have to do).

Twitch.tv is also integrated into the experience, as you can set up livestreams of your play sessions right from your console. Users can comment on your streams, effectively creating a chatroom. The resolution on the streams isn’t exactly the best, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a gaming livestream (PC included) that looks beautiful. A streamed game will be easy to follow visually, but on-screen text will often be difficult to read. In the era of YouTube Let’s Plays, Giant Bomb’s Quick Looks, and various MOBA tournament streams, Sony won’t be lagging behind.

The PlayStation Camera

A peripheral which is sold separately, the PS Camera works in conjunction with the DualShock 4’s light bar to create what is essentially a more advanced version of the PS Move. So far, the applications are limited, but the PS4 has a tech demo dubbed The Playroom, where you can mess around in augmented reality. We recorded a quick-and-dirty video of a session with the on-screen floating orb robot ASOBI (as seen above). The Camera appears to track depth and movement easily, and there wasn’t much lag or frame-skipping when interacting with the little bot.

Another demo lets you play a little game of two player Pong, but the length of the play field is determined by the distance between the two DualShock 4s. The on-screen paddles are controlled via the touchpad, and the field length and y-axis are dynamic and can be altered by moving the DualShock 4 around. Another use of the system is for typing in text – you can point the light bar towards the on-screen keyboard, and select individual characters.

PS4 at launch day

The freshly launched PS4 itself is a fine product, but we’re on the eighth generation of game consoles at this point – not including the many, many hardware revisions and updates almost every console has received along the way. Aside from the reflecting light bar, the DualShock 4 feels like Sony’s best controller yet, the PS Camera is an upgrade over the PS3’s PS Eye, and the interface is intuitive and attractive. The social media capabilities are convenient and a savvy move from Sony, and the PS4 is priced at £80 less than Microsoft’s Xbox One.

Most importantly, we’re currently in the launch window of the PS4, which means we won’t have too many compelling games for a while. If you hold off on the PS4, the current game library should be your only reason, but that also holds true for the Xbox One, Wii U, and nearly every other console that ever launched.

For the other side of the coin, check out: Should I buy an Xbox One console? And for more on the PS4, have a read of our PlayStation 4 review.