Evaluating a games console means judging a constantly changing combination of hardware, interface, software and price. We'll be updating this review as the PS4 evolves
Six years and eight months after the PS3 European launch, and with 80m consoles sold worldwide in the interim, the new PlayStation is finally here. Sony has positioned the angular new PS4 as a purebred gaming machine, with a powerful hardware specification and no multimedia fripperies to be seen.
Open the box and its clear that the vast majority of your £349 has been spent inside the casing. There's no camera peripheral, only the bare minimum of ports on the back, and even the power brick has been integrated inside the chassis. It's neat, compact and powerful-looking, but can it deliver on Sony's promises to take gaming to the next-gen?
The PS4 is an incredibly sleek piece of kit. The raked front and back make it seem like a solid slab of technology hewn from a larger piece. The mix of matt and gloss areas succeeds in looking classier than an either an all-matt or all-gloss finish would have. As plastic boxes go, this is among the best looking we've seen.
A recessed central gully contains the slot-loading drive and twin front USB3 ports, while a line bisecting the console the other way integrates the power and eject buttons and a strip of light that lets you know the console's power status and can provide notifications. Around the back is the HDMI output, Ethernet port, S/PDIF output and an AUX port for the PlayStation Camera peripheral. Power is provided by plugging in a typical figure-eight power lead and it draws from 80W idling, up to 140W in game.
Placed horizontally it's practically silent when idling, which is good for Blu-ray playback or streaming TV. However, it does pick up considerably when playing a game, and even more so when navigating the main menu while a game ran in the background. It's notably louder than the Xbox One and we couldn't help but be a little disappointed, you'll want to keep it as far away from you as possible when gaming. Position it upright and the fan noise increases further still, so best to keep it lying down somewhere with good air flow.
Inside the console Sony has used similar components to Microsoft, with a powerful AMD chip at its heart. For the PS4 this single integrated chip contains both an eight-core CPU and a GPU with 18 compute units. That's 50% more compute units than the Xbox One, providing a significant advantage in graphical horsepower, which can also be turned to use in special effects and advanced physics simulation if preferred.
The PS4's memory system consists of a single large pool of 8GB of super-fast GDDR5 memory - more than we've seen on even the most expensive PC graphics cards. The Xbox One by comparison uses the same amount of slower DDR3 memory, with a super-fast 32MB cache to help make up the difference.
At present, the PS4's simpler memory architecture and superior GPU has proved easier for developers to get to grips with. The PS4 has smoother frame rates and higher resolutions in the demanding multi-platform shooter such as Battlefield 4 and Call of Duty: Ghosts. With time, the Xbox One may be able to close some of this disparity, but the PS4 is undoubtedly the more powerful console.
The DualShock 4 is a huge improvement over its predecessor, and it needed to be. Though still recognisably a PlayStation controller the new controller is larger and more comfortably rounded. The back has a non-slip micro-texture and the front is dominated by a light that reacts to in-game events and allows the PS4 camera peripheral to track its movements accurately.
It has a built-in 800mAh battery that charges over a micro USB connection. It's very convenient but it's limited battery life of around eight hours means you'll want to leave on charge whenever you're not playing. Thankfully you can set the PS4's USB port to output power while the console is in standby.
The analogue sticks have more resistance and very little deadzone before they react to your inputs; they're also further apart, so you thumbs never touch, and are very precise. The d-pad is responsive with good feedback, though the face buttons could have clicked a little more positively. The triggers are good too, though they lack the vibration feedback of the Xbox One's.
The new gamepad also adds a touchpad, so you can execute swipes and other gesture-based commands. This also clicks in to provide a way to select options from onscreen menus. Less obvious is the built-in motion controls which are beautifully refined, giving you instinctive input in supporting games.
One feature we love on the DualShock 4 is its microphone port. As well as being used to add a chat headset for multiplayer games (a basic one comes bundled), you can also output full stereo audio from the PS4 (game, movie, TV catch-up, anything) through it. It's brilliant for late night sessions with headphones without disturbing anyone else or running cables across your living room. There's a crisp mono speaker too for up-close sound effects and you can talk back thanks to a microphone.
For its controls alone, we narrowly prefer the offset stick layout of the Xbox One's controller, but as a complete package the DualShock 4 feels more next-gen.
PS4 GRAPHICS AND GAMES
Playing Killzone Shadow Fall it was immediately apparent that this was a next-gen game. It easily matches the best the PC has to offer: there was complex geometry, with trees blowing softly in the wind; high-resolution textures, which made rocks and the forest floor look photo realistic; volumetric lighting with rays of sunshine filtered by the canopy above. The shooter itself is solid stuff, with far more tactical variation and space to manoeuvre than Call of Duty and its ilk. The plot starts strongly and though it's no classic, this is a technically-capable game you'll want to see through to the end.
This is a good thing as the only other full-priced PS4 exclusive is Knack, a promising-looking platform game, which turns into a bit of a trudge. It does however showcase the PS4's flexibility, using the GPU to great effect in realising the titular character, who is made up of numerous shards of material. Also of note is the exclusive arcade-shooter Resogun with its razor sharp graphics and frenetic pace its become an instant favourite - plus it's free with your PS+ subscription.
Resogun is a great graphical demo for the PS4 - it uses fancy-schmancy Voxels that we haven't seen since the nineties
Multi-platform games shine on the PS4, bringing high-end PC versions of games to your TV without the fuss of maintaining a gaming PC in your living room. Playing either Call of Duty: Ghosts or Assassins Creed 4: Black Flag, you get Full HD resolution and a silky smooth frame rate. Black Flag in particular looks superb on the PS4, with its epic seafaring adventure bursting to life with the added power of the new console.
PS4 PS+ AND DOWNLOAD-ONLY TITLES
The current thin line-up of exclusive titles on the PS4 has been rounded out somewhat by some excellent smaller, less expensive, download only titles. Here's our top picks from such titles, with links through to the Sony Entertainment Store if you want to buy them. It's worth noting that most of these games are, or have been, available for free as part of the PlayStation Plus Instant Game Collection.
Buy it from the Sony Entertainment Store
Outlast is a serious survival horror that's only suitable for those over 18. We don't have an age-rating gate on our site so we won't be posting the trailer up here. If you don't like scary, gory games that set out to make you jump one minute and then try and gross you out the next, then you won't like Outlast. Set in an asylum, one packed with former patients that have been twisted into monstrous forms, you are a journalist who is trying to find out what's going on. In a change from the usual genre rules, here you have no weapons, so you must run and hide from the creatures instead of shooting them dead. It's all terrifyingly effective and well worth signing up to PlayStation Plus to play for free.
DON'T STARVE: CONSOLE EDITION
Buy it from the Sony Entertainment Store
Don't starve is another game where survival is a big part, you'll fear for your life at times but it couldn't be more different to Outlast. This charmingly rendered game drops you into a quaint but slightly hostile world and all you have to do is survive. That's not as easy as it seems though, as you have only the most basic tools, a big appetite and the night brings greater terrors. However, you'll quickly craft the items you need and start exploring your new world and uncovering its secrets.
TRINE 2: COMPLETE STORY
Buy it from the Sony Entertainment Store
Aside from sports, there aren't many games on the PS4 that let two people play together on one screen. Trine 2 does though and it's also one of the only games to support 3D on the console too. So if you have a friend and two DualShock 4 controller (and optionally a 3D TV) then this action-platform-fantasy romp is a must buy.
PS4 UPCOMING GAMES
Aside from such download titles there's been little new on either next-gen console since launch, the only notable PS4 release has been indie-survival game Don't Starve, a top-down adventure in which you have to survive in a hostile world, it's free on PlayStation Plus at present and well worth a look, though it's hardly the reason you bought a new £349 console.
Looking a little bit further into the future, there's not much in the way of next-gen exclusives coming your way anytime unfortunately, and even cross-generation games such as Bungie's much-anticipated Destiny have been put back till later this year.
On the more positive side, DriveClub, the socially-engineered racing game should have its mid-2014 release date announced shortly. The game will have a cut-down version that will be freely available to PS+ subscribers, so everyone should get some racing action in come launch day.
The next true next-gen game to be certain to bother your disc tray will be Infamous: Second Son – on March 21st. The super-powered, third-person, freedom fighter looks to be shaping up well and the video below should give you a strong idea of whether it's your cup of tea, or your flaming chain attack in this case.
In terms of the competition, titles on the Xbox One have been equally sparse to date, so it's not like you'd be missing out. The release of Titanfall in mid-march on that console (as well as Xbox 360 and PC) will certainly be a big blow for Microsoft though, and should leave PS4 owners pining for a while at least.
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