On Friday, Sony will officially step into the next generation of console gaming with the PlayStation 4. It's the latest — and greatest — installment in the acclaimed line that established the company as the industry heavyweight. But the PS4 arrives in a very different world than the one of 2006, the year the PlayStation 3 first hit the shelves.
Considering how hard it is to pre-order a PlayStation 4 unit at this point, it doesn't seem like Sony has to worry about early sales. But video game consoles are unique in the consumer electronics world for how rarely their creators turn out new models — Sony expects the PS4 to last a decade. And with rival Microsoft's Xbox One releasing just a week later, Sony faces a pressing question: Is the PlayStation 4 enough to carry it through another generation?
If you pay attention to the clamor of many gamers, you might think the answer is simple: Sony has already won the next-generation console war. The August issue of the influential gaming magazine Edge declared the PS4 to be "your next console," and it's not like Microsoft's many controversies with the Xbox One — the "always online" kerfuffle, the emphasis on TV rather than straight-up video games, the many high-level executive shifts — have done the arch-competitor any favors. Seasoned tech critics and industry insiders, meanwhile, have almost unanimously agreed that, when it comes to actual gameplay, the PS4 is the more powerful device.
Having spent the last two days diving headfirst into the PS4, I can happily say that gamers should believe the hype about the console. It's a fantastic machine. But as with any gaming device, it's only as good as the software that appears on it. Sadly, those aren't all there yet. I don't doubt that the future will bring many excellent titles to rival even the best work seen on the PS3, but that is still little more than a promise Sony has made to gamers. If you're still on the fence about whether to choose the Xbox One or the PS4 (or to buy a next-gen system at all), it would be better to hold off for further improvements — a drop in price, firmware updates, and more games that really take advantage of everything the system has to offer.
All you need to do to witness the beefiness of the PlayStation 4's hardware is to play recent games on it and on its predecessor, side by side. The most recent crop of visually stunning blockbusters — "Battlefield 4," "Call of Duty: Ghosts," and "Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag" — had really begun to put a noticeable strain on current-gen systems. You could practically hear gears grinding under the hood.
All of these top current games are markedly improved on the PS4. The visual upgrade is akin to trading in the creaky graphics card you had back in college for a top-of-the-line system — the chunkiness of pixelated textures and lagging performance is replaced with slick, almost lifelike visuals. But more importantly, running all of these games just feels smoother and more responsive on the new console. Exclusive launch titles like "Killzone: Shadowfall" and the kid-friendly "Knack" look even better because they were never made with older tech in mind.
The PS4's hardware is indicative of a company that has learned from its mistakes. PlayStation fans will remember that when the PS3 launched, it was hideously oversized — both in sheer girth and in its $600 price tag. Later models trimmed down both dimensions, but Sony kept the system's awkward rounded shape.
The PS4, by comparison, feels like a breath of fresh air. The slanted form factor is an easy but deceptively elegant way to conceal all the necessary USB ports and slots for power cords and other peripherals behind the nooks and crannies of an ornamental jet-black veneer.
Sometimes, though, it feels like Sony tried a little too hard to conceal the very gadget-ness of this gadget. The two main buttons on the device — the power and disc-eject switches — are so subtly placed that I had a hard time turning the console on and off manually, and swapping between different games. The machine's glossy quadrant gives it a touch of class, but it becomes smudged with fingerprints almost instantly.
But none of the box's improvements can prepare gamers for the best part of the new PlayStation: the controller. The DualShock 4 is the first major reinvention in the controller series since it debuted with the original PlayStation back in 1994, and even the most diehard traditionalist Sony fans will be pleased with the result.
There are a few pragmatic tweaks such as the addition of a "light bar" and a "share" and "options" button in lieu of the traditional "select" and "start," but these are purely functional considerations. The real overhaul of the new controller becomes clear with its look and feel. Compared to the DualShock 3's simple plastic shell, the DualShock 4 is far more tactile, with a rubbery coating that reminds me of the Kevlar that graces Motorola's Droid Razr phones. The concave tips of the joysticks and the slight bend in the shoulder buttons, meanwhile, give the now-wider DualShock a natural fit around your hand. Simply put, a DualShock controller has never felt this good.
Now let us play
But once you get down to it, what is there actually to play on the new PlayStation? As I noted last week, the PlayStation 4's starting lineup is surprisingly sparse for a machine of this caliber. Many of the most entertaining titles such as the new "Battlefield" and "Call of Duty" are already available on current-generation systems, after all. There are a number of charming smaller indie titles in the mix, my favorite being the film noir puzzle game "Contrast." But, again, almost all of these are available for PC and other current-gen systems. And being low-budget indie games, they don't boast the cutting-edge graphics and performance that the PS4 can offer.
The PS4's small handful of truly "exclusive" games feels like a letdown, especially considering all of the sound and fury that's surrounded this device since it was announced just under nine months ago.
"Killzone" is the most generic of generic first-person shooters, an obvious attempt by Sony to create its own version of Microsoft's stellar shooters like "Halo" or "Gears of War." There's nothing wrong with the game exactly, it's just not a great leap forward. Even the most seasoned shooter fans could have just as much fun (if not more so) dusting off an older game like last year's excellent "Far Cry 3" or the critically acclaimed "BioShock Infinite."
"Resogun" is simple arcade-style fun, but as a deliberately retro game that takes its inspiration from titles like "Space Invaders" and "Asteroids," it's not giving a bold vision of the future of gaming over the next decade, either.
"Knack," meanwhile, feels strangely outdated despite its impressive visuals. The kid-friendly title might look charming, but its jumping and brawling mechanics pale in comparison to other great titles already on the market. After testing the game, I was left wondering why the company behind brilliant kids games like "Jak and Daxter" and "Ratchet & Clank" couldn't have brought its A game on this front.
The "PlayRoom," meanwhile, gives an endearing demonstration of some of Sony's new motion-controlled tech — though you'll have to plunk down another $60 for the PlayStation camera to take advantage of it. The game lets you play around with adorable robots, batting them about with your hands, for instance. It's cute, but lightweight — even Sony admits that it's as much a motion-control tech demo for developers as it is a game for the early adopters.
But even if the launch lineup is weak, it's never been easier to actually play games on a PlayStation system before. Switching in and out of games is as simple as pressing the PlayStation button on your PlayStation controller, and games really do pause instantaneously and pick up immediately where you left them upon re-entry.
The entire interface has been refined while still keeping its pared-down horizontal layout, which has always been a thankfully spartan alternative to the colorful jumble of Microsoft and Nintendo's systems. The main aesthetic change comes in the revamping of the "what's new" section of the PlayStation dashboard to emphasize the console's social media-friendly features. I couldn't truly test this without a strong stable of fellow PS4 owners around, but the demos I saw basically made it look like a gaming-centric version of Facebook's newsfeed.
The PS4 still feels decidedly like a video game console, and in this regard it feels incredible. There's a number of entertainment-focused apps for the new device that all perform as well as they need to, but Sony clearly set out to make a high-end gaming machine that was open to activities like Netflix binges and music streaming, not setting out to take over your living room, like Microsoft.
These are all improvements that many PlayStation owners will welcome as they step into the new generation of gaming. But, really, gamers shouldn't just expect incremental adjustments from a developer of this caliber. Which gets us to the essential question of this whole ordeal: Is this $400-plus machine really worth your money right now?
Unfortunately gamers will find the PS4 lacking for the simple fact that there's really not much to do with it yet. You can play a new version of "Battlefield" or "Assassin's Creed" that will look and run better than its counterpart on the PS3, sure. But are these graphics worth an extra $400? I'm not so sure. What's missing from Sony's console right now is a convincing game from one of its legendary first-party studios such as Naughty Dog ("Uncharted," "The Last of Us"), Media Molecule ("Littlebigplanet") or Team Ico ("Ico," "Shadow of the Colossus"). Without anything to show for from its top talent yet, all Sony can really do is ask gamers for their trust with the PS4 right now.
Is another "Killzone" and a slick new controller enough to earn this trust? For Sony's legions of fans that have upgraded at every possible opportunity, clearly the answer is yes. But for everybody else, you'd be better off waiting to see what this new generation of PlayStation can really bring before making an investment.
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