The PlayStation 4: A Review in Four Parts

Sony’s new videogame box, the PlayStation 4, has arrived. You might be wondering, does it meet the lofty expectations that have been thrust upon it? Is it the all-in-one entertainment hub that will reinvigorate the console industry? How much has war changed, really? Upon reflection after spending a week with the machine, the following four major ideas stuck out.

The PS4 is a lot like the PS3.

Functionally, the PS4 and PS3 are near identical. They’re both gaming machines that play Blu-Ray discs and digitally downloaded games. And at this point, the games themselves look pretty similar too. The PS3 was a bit of a monster with all of its feature creep add-ons and embedded menu design, and for better or worse, the PS4 carries over a lot of those traits. Sure, the PS4 runs and switches between apps with snappy, seamless transitions, but how much longer will it be until new, unforeseen technology is bolted onto the PS4 as well and that promptness heads down the tubes?

The PS4 controller feels familiar, but fits more ergonomically in your hands, sporting a soft grippy coating on the handles and concave trigger buttons so your fingers fit comfortably in the grooves. Additionally, if you only have room for one system under the TV at a time, the same power cord and HDMI cable that you use to hook up your PS3 can also be used with PS4, which makes for easy switching in these early, cross-gen months.

The PS4 is sort of like a ninja.

The PS4 may be Sony’s most inconspicuous console to date. The system blends into my black TV stand like a shadow, and unlike every other modern device down there, including the TV itself, it has no red “powered-off” indicator light –nothing to give away its presence. The “Sony” and “PS4” logos on the front of the console are also shades of black, and only readable if you look at them from certain angles.

The PS4 may be Sony’s most inconspicuous console to date. 

Speaking of angles, the PS4 has points(!), making it literally the sharpest console in recent memory. The parallelogrammatic design renders two sub-90 degree vertices (soak it in, math nerds) thrusting forward in front, and an additional two, like hidden daggers, in the back. I’m not saying the PS4 is a weaponized console, but it sticks out beyond the depth of my shelf enough that I’m careful not to shuffle too close to it, shuriken or no.

On the UI side, the PS4 is setup to perform more activities in the background, without you noticing, than the PS3 ever did. Leave the system on standby and it will run updates for you when they’re available. Put a game disc in the system and it automatically runs an install. What’s it installing? Who knows—just let it do its thing and stay out of the way. Later you’ll be playing a game when, all of a sudden, a notification will pop up informing you that a different game has finished downloading a patch that you never knew it started. At this point, I’m surprised Sony hasn’t trademarked the term “stealth convenience.”

The PS4 is optimized for narcissists.

If the phone camera democratized the self-portrait, the PS4 may be the device that does the same for gameplay livestreams. With the controller’s built-in “share” button and both Ustream and Twitch integration, starting a stream of whatever you happen to be playing is easier than it’s ever been. If you have the PlayStation Camera, you can even do a picture-in-picture of yourself up in the corner. I don’t know who in their right mind is going to watch these things, but the point is simply that you can do it.

Starting a stream of whatever you happen to be playing is easier than it’s ever been. 

Elsewhere, the PS4 has a bunch of other social hooks covered, with more to come, no doubt. You can sign in with Facebook to auto-populate your profile, send screenshots to Twitter, and chat with your PSN account’s own multi-tiered friends list. The console subscribes to the general social media mythos that you consider every second of your own life important enough that the entire world just has to know about it. The activity feed on the UI’s home screen is a waterfall of white boxes full of the amazing things you and your friends have accomplished on the PS4.

Trophies return as well, mostly to award you for simply playing through videogames as you normally would. They now have dynamic “rarity” labels that fluctuate based on how many players have achieved them. Again, the point of this is to show off how “good” you are at videogames. As a bonus, you can also hold up the PS4 to your face and use the shiny half as a mirror.

The PS4 is a little like sitting in a waiting room.

Even though I found myself enduring fewer progress bars and “please wait” prompts than on PS3, the PS4 has amped up the general aesthetic of on-hold muzak/airport terminal/doctor’s office reception area. The symphonic warm-up strings that accompanied the PS3 on boot have been replaced with generic synth pad washes that persist throughout the duration of your time in the console’s menu. The background is an aquarium of ephemeral wisps, meant to offer calming ambiance without being particularly notable. Also, everything is colored blue in a way that communicates both a clinical “just chillax” vibe and a wanting, nostalgic “hey, remember the PS2?” sentiment in equal measure.

To purchase the console at launch is to subscribe to a patient stakeout with the promise of payout sometime down the line.  

As of launch, PS4 owners might also find themselves stuck wondering where all of the mind-blowing next-gen games are. Resogun aside, no games in the launch line-up that I’ve played have exceeded my mild quality expectations and in general, they lack the wow-factor that normally comes along with cutting-edge graphics processors. Adding to that, the majority of the most positively received PS4 games are already available on older hardware. To purchase the console at launch is to subscribe to a patient stakeout with the promise of payout sometime down the line. A new Uncharted game has been announced, and both The Witness and the new Infamous game show tremendous potential, but you can’t play them this year. It’s no wonder that devotees are whipped up in a religious fervor about the new “console war” when they’ve chosen sides based mostly on faith.

As it stands (and it does stand, by the way), the PS4 is a powerful, attractive platform for games and the social entertainment culture that exists around them. Here’s hoping that potential is fulfilled by some fantastic games in the near future. Until then, well, how do you feel about your current stock of parallelograms?