The Xbox One looks like it might have something of an identity problem, wanting to rule the living room and be a hardcore gaming console at the same time. But the PlayStation 4 has no such dilemma; it's a machine for playing video games. That's really all it is. And that's totally OK.
Sure, the PS4 has some entertainment apps, like Hulu, Netflix and Crackle. And it's sure to get many more over its lifespan. It has an internet browser too, of course. But you won't be plugging your cable box into the back of the PS4, or calling out the names of Skype contacts. On PS4, you'll be playing video games.
The PS4 is a sleek if oddly proportioned little black box. Unlike the PS3, Sony's new console was clearly designed to blend nicely with the rest of your living room electronics (from a hardware perspective, at least).
Its odd angles and lines feel strange when you're holding it, but on a shelf under a TV the quirkiness of the console's design disappears. Its slanted facade looks great lying flat facing forward, though standing it up feels a bit too wobbly, even with a stand.
In an effort to keep that facade clean-looking, Sony made the eject and power buttons all but invisible. They're tiny! That's OK, because for the most part you'll be doing those things with the controller anyway.
The PS4 controller is a massive improvement over the PS3's gamepad. The handles are longer and the sticks are no longer convex, so your thumbs won't slip off of them so easily. The new touchpad nestled in its center presents some interesting opportunities, though few games really use it at this point. And the bright color-changing light bar lets the PlayStation Camera easily track it (if you have one) and flashes red when the battery is low.
The PS4 runs quiet and is clearly capable of producing insane graphics. It also comes with a nifty little single-earbud headset for voice communications.
If there's one thing you can say about the PS4's user interface and operating system, it's that it's simple. But this early in the console's life you're bound to run into some problems.
As of launch, you can't change the theme or background, so you're stuck with blue for now. And unlike the Xbox's smart multi-page system, which shows recently used items but also lets you pin up to 25 items to the home screen, there's zero customization in the PS4's UI. In one long, horizontal line of tiles, it shows recently used apps, Sony services like Music and Video Unlimited (whether you've signed up for them or not), and a single folder containing all of your apps and games.
The interface's single other layer is accessed by moving up from the home screen, and it contains notifications, settings, trophies, etc. This system actually works fine for now, but once you've downloaded dozens of games it's not going to be fun to dig them out of that folder. Hopefully there will be a significant redesign by then, because for now the PS4's UI is far too simple.
It's great that you can begin playing games while they download or install (inserting a disc causes the game to begin installing immediately—you'll still need the disc, but at least it's much faster than on PS3). Loading times overall range from surprisingly quick to agonizingly slow, depending on the game and how many things the system is doing at once. There are some more serious issues—attempting to sign in to Netflix might cause your system to become a brick, for example, requiring you to unplug its power cord to reset it.
At least pressing the PS button brings you back to the home screen very quickly, and pressing it again sends you back to whatever you were doing. It's convenient and far better than the PS3's clunky navigation. And the controller's new "Share" button lets you clip gameplay footage or take screenshots on the fly, any time.
Sony's been courting indie game developers and beefing up its own internal development studios, and the PS4's strong launch lineup shows it.
In particular, Sony's own Killzone: Shadow Fall is extremely impressive for a day-one console launch game, which traditionally are rather subpar (anyone remember Perfect Dark Zero?). Like other Killzone games, Shadow Fall has weighty, realistic-feeling shooting mechanics, but breathtaking and heart-wrenching sci-fi environments. You almost won't mind how often it makes you stand around looking at stuff, because the graphics and art design are truly awe-inspiring. Forgive the cheese, but this is really what next-gen gaming looks like.
Knack, the kid-friendly Sony title starring a creature who starts out cute but absorbs "relics" to become more formidable, is less impressive. But it should still please the little ones, and it's not bad by any stretch; just boring.
The PS4 wants to be the home for indie games going forward, and it's off to a good start. Resogun is a circular side-scrolling shooter that combines elements of classic arcade games like Galaga with more difficult "bullet hell" games (the name should be self-explanatory) and truly impressive graphics. It's fast-paced and addictive, but far from mindless. And as a digital title free to PlayStation Plus subscribers, you'll download it on day one and keep going back to it.
(Speaking of which—getting a PlayStation Plus membership is totally worth it now, especially since you need it for online multiplayer.)
Another new indie game on PS4 is Contrast, an oddball title with a French twist in which your long-legged acrobatic protagonist uses shadows (and turns into one) to solve puzzles and reach new areas. It's rough around the edges but has potential, and is quite charming.
This console launch is unique in that the PS4 and Xbox One are so close in graphical prowess to the PS3 and Xbox 360 that many games are launching simultaneously on both generations of hardware right now. That's never happened before, but it's created an interesting dynamic. Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag and Call of Duty: Ghosts are both available on PS4, for example, but they're more or less identical to their PS3/Xbox 360 versions. And while the PS4 isn't backward compatible with PS3 games (boo), a few older titles—including the must-play music deconstruction game Sound Shapes—have been ported up to the new system. (Seriously, get Sound Shapes immediately!)
There are free-to-play games like DC Universe Online and Blacklight Retribution. EA has a full slate of sports games, including Madden 25, FIFA 14, and the newly returned NBA Live 14, plus Need for Speed Rivals and Battlefield 4. A lot of those are available on other systems, but they're just as good on PS4 and they really round out the launch slate.
At launch the PS4 has a $59.99 PlayStation Camera accessory, but at this point it's not worth getting one. Few games use it; The Playroom, which is installed on every PS4 automatically, requires it, but although the game is entertaining for a few minutes it's nothing more than a tech demo for the Camera itself. And although the PS Camera can automatically log you in using facial recognition, it makes you hold up a controller and line up your picture on the screen to do so, so it's much faster to simply select your profile manually. And there are minimal voice commands and no gesture controls. So unless you're a massive Just Dance 2014 fan there's literally no reason to own the PlayStation Camera yet.
There are a number of entertainment apps available at launch, though Sony is definitely giving its own services priority, regardless of how users feel. And some important ones, like HBO Go and any music apps (Spotify or Pandora would have been nice), aren't present. Sony's services (Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited) don't even come free with PlayStation Plus—they require their own subscriptions. That said, get a PS Plus membership if you get a PS4. It's worth it for the free games alone and you need it for online multiplayer.
The console features Remote Play with the PS Vita, though it remains to be seen how widely developers will choose to implement second-screen functions considering not everyone who has a PS4 has a Vita as well. Fingers crossed on that though, as it's a great feature. Similarly, a PlayStation app for smartphones lets you type and move the cursor with a phone, among other things, which is convenient for web browsing but doesn't work reliably.
When the PS3 launched it was ugly, massive and incredibly expensive. A lot of gamers, even PS2 diehards, switched to the Xbox 360 and never looked back. But while the Xbox One surely looks impressive so far, those gamers will definitely want to consider the PlayStation 4.
The launch lineup is incredibly solid. The price is right—even if you opt for the PlayStation Camera, perhaps in the hope that early sales will encourage developers to use it more, it's cheaper than the Xbox One. The UI is far too simple, but that is almost guaranteed to change later on. There are some impressive new features, like the Share button and play-as-you-download capabilities. And the controller is an astronomical improvement over past PlayStation gamepads.
From the console's announcement earlier this year and through Sony's crowd-pleasing E3 presentation, the company's mission with the PS4 has been clear: to once again ingratiate the PlayStation brand with hardcore gamers. The PS4 might once again make PlayStation synonymous with video games, like it was during the PS2 glory days. Of course, that remains to be seen, but the outlook is good.