Nov. 13, 2013 at 5:09 PM ET
Gamers still have to wait until midnight Thursday to get their hands on the PlayStation 4, but the tastemakers of the tech press are already weighing in on Sony's next-generation video game console.
The verdict? Critics nearly unanimously agree that the PS4 is a machine with enormous potential. What that potential will bring in the next few months and years, however, is not as clear. The overriding message so far is: yes, the PS4 is good. Essential? Not so much.
Overwhelmingly, critics agree that the PlayStation 4 arrives with more promise than did its predecessor, the PlayStation 3, back in 2006. Even the wariest members of the press admitted that Sony did itself a huge favor by shaving off some extra weight — in the system's $400 starting price and in its sleek, compact design.
"In a world full of square black boxes, it really stands out," Joystiq's Richard Mitchell wrote. Kotaku's Stephen Totilo was delighted to discover that the PS4 is so tiny that it could be easily transported through the chaotic streets of New York City in a backpack — although Joystiq did warn frequent travelers that the console's outer casing felt surprisingly fragile.
Popular Science's Colin Lecher, meanwhile, had the most biting criticism of the box I read, saying that all the cleverness of the PS4's swept-back form factor undermined what should, presumably, be its most basic function: turning the darn thing on.
Despite the PS4's diminutive stature and price, critics were in agreement that, spec-wise, the console is a heavyweight. As CNET put it: "Despite its smallish size — at least compared with an Xbox One — the PS4 packs a lot of power under the hood," adding that the devices "innards are in line with a mid- to high-end gaming PC."
Evolution, not revolution
Reviewers saved their most glowing hyperboles for the revamped DualShock controller. There was a lot of pent-up speculation about the DualShock 4 simply because, compared to the chaotic experimentation that Microsoft and Nintendo have brought to each successive generation of their game consoles, Sony hasn't done much to its controller since it first debuted with the original PlayStation in 1994. Now that they have it in their hands, critics are thrilled with the update. In one way or another, many reviews called it the best controller Sony has made to date.
The only major criticism of the controller I could find was from the gaming website Polygon, which noted that the DualShock 4's battery life (calculated to be around seven to eight hours) is a steep drop from the current-generation DualShock 3's 30-plus hours of juice. But should you really be playing video games for more than eight hours without pausing to recharge your own batteries, let alone those of the DualShock 4?
Reactions to the software, meanwhile, were far more muted. Ars Technica hasn't posted one of its legendary tome-length reviews of the new console yet, but the site's games editor Kyle Orland identified a number of functional issues with the voice-activated commands that Sony has promised will finally bring its new system in line with the Xbox's Kinect. Other, more positive write-ups all said that the PlayStation 4's new interface is clean and easily accessible, comparing the new sharing features to popular social media services like Facebook.
Love the player, hate the game(s)
For all of the praise that Sony has already won for the PS4, critics weren't sure what kind of verdict to give the new console. This is a machine that's meant to play video games, after all. And as many a reviewer noted, there's not much there to identify a "killer app" for the device yet.
"At launch, the PS4 has failed to muster a software library that sells that hardware," Polygon noted.
Seasoned critics such as Time's Matt Peckham were willing to give Sony the benefit of the doubt. "You’re still buying a promise," Peckham noted, "but for once it feels like a promise made on solid, well-trodden ground."
Given that this is Sony's fourth time around the track, many other reviewers were also willing to trust Sony — to a point. But at such an early stage, most still think it best to remain wary.
"How good is the PlayStation 4?" Kotaku's Stephen Totilo wrote in the opening of his review. "Ask me in five years."
But will gamers stick around that long, or migrate over to Microsoft's Xbox One console set to launch next Friday? We'll just have to wait and see.
You can read our review of the PlayStation 4 here.
Yannick LeJacq is a contributing writer for NBC News who has also covered technology and games for Kill Screen, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter at @YannickLeJacq and reach him by email at: Yannick.LeJacq@nbcuni.com