Imagine for a moment that you are a food critic. You know the drill; fancy new restaurant opens up in town and you’re sent to sample its wares and tell the world if it’s worth their attention. Now imagine that the meal you were given to form this opinion on consisted of some granary bread, a plate of lettuce, a single cherry and a glass full of grapes. It’s difficult to imagine anyone being blown away by this meal, unless of course they’re some sort of rabbit.
I have it on good authority that rabbits haven’t discovered the internet yet – and even if they had they probably wouldn’t get very good signal in those burrows – so for the sake of this argument I’m going to assume that you, a rational, hungry human being, would be largely disappointed with these offerings. You probably wouldn’t stop to think about the possibility that the chef was forced to serve you an hour before his ingredients even arrived. You probably wouldn’t give him the benefit of the doubt through some paltry rationalization; the bread could have used some butter but was perfectly fine in and of itself, the lettuce was too familiar but could have been used in a flashy duck and hoi sin salad if you’d given him the time, given another few hours the grapes could have become a sultry merlot and the cherry could have been the crown jewel an elaborate ice cream sundae. A food critic would never make these concessions and nor should they have to.
Yet that is exactly the dilemma we game critics face when presented with a new console to discuss. See, consoles, despite what you may have heard, don’t launch. They’re born into the wild. They don’t burst into the world in hails of fireworks and glory. They’re thrown into the wilderness with a set of tools they don’t know how to use and all their parents can do is watch and hope that they don’t wander off a cliff or get eaten by bears before they figure out how to use a spear.
A gaming console is only as good as its games and launch titles NEVER represent the best of the machines they’re designed to sell. This week I got to play a handful of PS4 games on an actual PS4. Some were impressive, some weren’t and not for the reasons you might think. I walked away from the press event on Dublin’s St. Stephen’s Green with a sense of complete and utter conflict and it took me a long walk in the cold to unravel my thoughts.
The first thing I noticed when I took hold of the DualShock 4 was that it was instantly more comfortable than the tried-and-tested DualShock 3 angular shape. It was also, in my opinion, more comfortable than the 360 controller. Its handles are bulbous as opposed to pointed like the previous design.
The face buttons remain unchanged but the trigger buttons are now curved like actual triggers, similar to the 360’s triggers, but wider. The analog sticks have a ridged surface that makes more of a difference than you might think. In almost every game I played, resting my thumb against this ridge felt almost re-assuring.
The lack of a start button is tricky to get used to, its function now delegated to an ‘options’ button to the left of the front touch pad. The touch pad itself remains somewhat of a mystery and I’ll go into my thoughts on that shortly. The infamous ‘share’ button was unfortunately redundant as the PS4’s we were using were not connected to the internet but the interface seemed slick and responsive and was visually pleasing and easy to navigate. I was more impressed by the DualShock 4 than I was expecting to be. It feels like a logical and fruitful evolution from the previous design while retaining just enough familiarity as not to alienate sony fanboys entirely. Count that one as a win, Sony.
The games were a slightly different story. I chose to dive into Killzone: Shadow Fall as my first PS4 experience. Little did I know it would be a solid 10 minutes holding the controller before I’d actually get to attack anyone. The demo opened on what appeared to be a prologue where I was controlling a child as he and his father attempt to escape a war zone. It was a mysteriously long sequence, especially considering that it didn’t even function as a tutorial. The escape attempt didn’t go according to plan, surprising no one, and another 5 minutes of cut scenes later (I figured out how to skip them, it could have been longer), I was finally in control of someone with a knife. I travelled the corridors and killed the things for a while before I was asked to demonstrate that I knew how to use the touch pad. Unfortunately it didn’t seem to like the way I was swiping and despite my best efforts to ‘swipe left for attack mode’ it took multiple attempts for the touch pad to figure out what I was doing. At this point, I realized that I’d been wondering internally why I wasn’t having any fun.
See, I’ve just played Killzone: Mercenary on my PS Vita and while Shadow Fall occasionally wowed me visually, mostly when it was letting me look out into the city which, to its credit, looks incredible, it’s still just Killzone. It’s perfectly fine but it delivers no proof that the future is here. It’s no Super Mario 64.
So I wandered elsewhere in search of the future and I’m dismayed to say I didn’t find it. Not in the way I was expecting anyway. There’s no nice way to say this; Knack, another PS4 launch title, is ugly. Its levels are bland and its characters look like they’ve been lifted from the background of a Shrek film. That might be forgivable if it was fun to play but it isn’t. It’s a lowest common denominator launch title that will be resigned to the scrapheap of history.
The rest of the AAA titles didn’t really fare much better. Driveclub was as underwhelming as I was expecting it to be (read: very) and Call of Duty: Ghosts could have been running on an Xbox 360 and I never would have known the difference. The same can be said for Assassins Creed IV: Black Flag which I was actually really looking forward to. Visually it just didn’t seem that big a leap from the version I’d played on my ps3 a week ago. It did have one nice touch though; in the absence of a select button, pressing down on the touch pad brought up the map which you could also navigate using the touch pad. This didn’t feel like a gimmick; it felt natural and actually made me hopeful that the touch pad could be used for other, more innovative, things in the future.
I’m aware that this all sounds spectacularly negative. I’d love to say I was blown away by Killzone or Knack but I just wasn’t. They didn’t seem like the future to me. However; at the other end of the room, the future was indeed to be found in the form of a selection of ridiculously charming indie games. Hohokum reminded me of LocoRoco in all the right ways; its cartoony art style and simple but addictive gameplay won me over immediately, even if it wasn’t immediately apparent what I was supposed to be doing. Octodad: Dadliest Catch is an absolute blast that had me, and several others, literally laughing out loud. It was Resogun that really stole the show though. You see, Resogun is the long awaited next evolutionary step of the side scrolling shooter. It is as marvelous to watch as it is to play. Sony have said from the beginning that they’re going to be big on indie support this generation and from what I played (and their admittedly stirling reputation in that regard) I have no reason to doubt them.
I’m not really in a position to talk about the box itself as each unit was tucked away in a wooden display case. We could see them, but we couldn’t touch them. It looked cool from behind glass if that means anything to you.
That’s rather apt actually, as Sony have made quite a big deal of their online features and social network integration in the last few months, none of which was available to preview. It really did, and does, feel like so much of this machine – it’s potential, it’s abilities, it’s online functionality – is still a mystery even after two hours in its company. It is, in every sense, locked away behind a glass case.
When I tried out the PS Vita at a similar event a few years back, I left resigned to the fact that I was gonna have to buy one. I was impressed. I was instantly won. Even now in the midst of one of the worst software droughts in history I remain unmoved in my love for the Vita. I did not leave the PS4 even with that feeling. I left feeling like Sony have opened the cage and let the little fella scuttle off into the jungle with a bunch of old weapons, some new ones that don’t do new things, and some small trinkets that are just handy enough to get him out of tricky situations until the care packages arrive. If the PS3 proved anything, it’s that Sony are capable of pulling off the impossible. The PS4 is already more successful than its older brother and I’ve no doubt that we’ll see that killer app, the system seller, the duck and hoi sin salad, sooner rather than later.
It’s just not here yet.