Feature: PS4 – The Next Generation – Part 1

The dust has settled on Sony’s Playstation Event, where the Japanese powerhouse unveiled their Playstation 4 to an eager and excited world-wide audience. In a two part feature, Low Fat Gaming’s Matt Reynolds takes a look at how it went down and what it means for us…

Is it 'Holiday 2013' in Europe too? Sony aren't saying.

Is it ‘Holiday 2013’ in Europe too? Sony aren’t saying.

On Wednesday February 20th 2013, the race for the next generation of games consoles began in earnest with Sony’s ‘Playstation Meeting’ – a mammoth two hour expose on their long rumoured uber-machine. Throughout the week prior to the event, Sony had built the hype by releasing daily retrospectives of their past hardware; starting with the groundbreaking original console through to the massive selling PS2, the cutting edge PS3 and their push into the handheld market. By the time the event rolled around (11pm GMT) anticipation had reached fever pitch, and all eyes in the gaming world were firmly fixed upon the Japanese giant.

Cockteasing

The show opened with a blinding salvo of flashing lights, thunderous subwoofer and the letters ‘PS…’ before cutting the lights in a cockteasing maneuver to rival any Rihanna dance routine. What followed was a somewhat pretentious video filled with meaningless slogans such as ‘The War Against Reality’ – typical PR claptrap. The video screen itself was an impressive sight; a main screen with an extended panoramic view that wrapped around the auditorium. The intro video was a very trendy retrospective but went on just a little too long – people were there to see the future; not the past.

Well-spoken mouthpiece Andrew House then emerged and proceeded to talk about interactivity; ease of use; connectivity; the importance of the player. At the mention of handheld devices and specifically Playstation Vita you could almost hear the feet shuffling in the room – would all this hype just be Sony’s plan for its struggling handheld? As luck would have it the torture was ended as House uttered the words everyone was waiting for – Playstation 4. The speculation was ended not only as to the subject of the conference but also as to the console’s name. Playstation 4 it was; not simply Playstation as some had predicted or even Orbis; the machine’s development codename.

The wait was finally over AND just beginning.

The wait was finally over AND just beginning.

House went on to mention how PS4 would use new business models to give console gamers more choice than ever before, such as episodic and free to play. This was long expected confirmation that F2P would be a focus for consoles in the coming generation. He informed the audience that the conference would be ‘over the next couple of hours’ which was significantly longer than most people were expecting, before going on to introduce (at great, meandering length) Lead System Architect Mark Cerny.

Gladly Get Behind

Softly spoken and bleary eyed; Cerny looked like he’d just woken up to discover an answerphone message asking him to present a massive conference with ten minutes’ notice. Fortunately, he did a fine job of enthusiastically presenting the console’s technical specifications – a dry task at the best of times. Cerny made a tacit admission that the PS3’s architecture had made it difficult to develop for; a brave and honest move from Sony that should be applauded. The company were very keen to stress that the PS4 has been made using extensive communication with the development community to ensure the new machine will be very easy to make games for, news that both gamers and developers alike can gladly get behind.

As to the tech behind the new behemoth, it is based heavily on PC architecture, but ‘supercharged’ to use Cerny’s words. It has an X86 CPU, a highly enhanced PC GPU for graphics processing, and what seems to be their proudest feature – 8GB of unified system memory. Backing this up will be a regular HDD for local storage.

We liked Sony's casual presenters - will Microsoft follow suit?

We liked Sony’s casual presenters – will Microsoft follow suit?

Contrary to internet speculation, upon revealing the new controller Cerny revealed its name to be the Dualshock 4. Unsurprising seeing as its a design that has worked for them over three previous consoles, nonetheless it features some new elements. The analogue sticks, while still parallel appear to be much more solid; it features reinforced shoulder buttons and triggers; and most interestingly of all features a substantial touchpad and a new ‘share’ button. It also features a ‘light bar’ on the top of the controller that appears to work in tandem with a Kinect-like stereo camera.

The first of several tech demos followed – Unreal Engine 4. Cerny manipulated a stunning fantasy setpiece in real time with the Dualshock 4; an undoubtedly impressive display of the console’s raw power. He briefly mentioned the machine uses GDDR5 system memory; incredibly powerful. Havok’s physics engine was then shown manipulating a million objects using the GPU, leaving plenty of processing power for the 8 core CPU.

Knack-ered

At last it was time to see an actual game! In a frankly baffling move on Sony’s part they decided to open with a Pixar-like children’s action game called (ridiculously) Knack. It’s Cerny’s own pet project and the game does look beautiful. Its central character is reminiscent of something from Disney’s Lilo & Stitch; a little guy who is a government-developed weapon. Capable of absorbing objects to enlarge himself exponentially, the game looks great but is a very odd choice to open with. Still, being able to actually play a game that is like a CGI quality animated film will enthrall children and adults alike, and the voice acting was very high quality (was that the voice of ‘FemShep’ Jennifer Hale we heard in there?).

While it could be a fantastic game, we're not sure it's a showstopper.

While it could be a fantastic game, we’re not sure it’s a showstopper.

As brief as that was, we were back to new console features. It would appear that loading and boot up times will be a thing of the past; the PS4 supports a suspend play function similar to Apple devices. Simply press the power button and the console ‘sleeps’ with the game session preserved in RAM, ready for you to instantly resume when the mood takes you. Its something that has long been at odds with increasingly impressive games in the past few years; lengthy load times really take away from the feeling you are playing on the cutting edge and we personally can’t wait. Thanks to the machine’s secondary custom chip you will be able to take care of downloads, uploads and system updates in the background, even with the power off. Another significant feature is the ability to play games as you download them, something we’re sure people will agree is very welcome.

HAL

Next up was an introduction the the PS4 user interface. Perhaps a little too Metro-esque for some; we personally thought it was sexy as hell and easy to understand. Cerny introduced the concept of constantly recording the last few minutes of gameplay ready to be edited and then uploaded in the background while you continue playing. Sharing video, and even spectating other players’ live game sessions is set to be a huge part of PS4 culture. Something that we haven’t seen many news outlets talk about is the brief mention that you can actually take over control of friends’ games remotely to assist them past difficult sections. A little too much like cheating? We’re undecided. Cerny also touched upon how your gaming profile is set to be much more like a social network – no gamertags here; Barry Stainthorpe from Hackney is the new xxXSn1perDud3Xxx.

Part Metro, part Apple - full sexy.

Part Metro, part Apple – full sexy.

In an ominous foreshadowing of a real life 2001: A Space Odyssey; the final word on the UI was how the PS4 will learn your tastes and habits and work to actively download games you might enjoy ready for you to play before you even know you want them. Is this something consumers want or are we just moving one step closer to a HAL/Skynet hybrid machine overlord? Spooky stuff.

Cerny’s final word was to fawningly introduce David Perry; CEO of online streaming service Gaikai who many will know were bought out by Sony last year. It was interesting to hear Perry talk about playing any game on the store for free before you buy and ‘only pay for what you love’. This makes it sound like you could play whole games for free although will more realistically be used to provide timed play experiences, prompting you to cough up the cash when your time is up. What followed were more words on spectating and taking over control of friends’ games. Is spectating something people will really latch on to? Only time will tell, but we’re not convinced and certainly don’t like the idea of friends’ inane comments constantly popping up during important plot points – this will surely be something that can be disabled.

Waxing

We then saw Cerny return for a short demonstration of how PS Vita will be able to stream PS4 games seamlessly from the console in a move clearly designed to ruffle Nintendo’s feathers. Its a feature everyone has been expecting but was exciting to see put into practice nonetheless. Cerny played a short section of Knack running at full capacity on a Vita; an impressive sight. Perry followed up with a short speech on the movie and music streaming services such as Netflix but it was nothing consumers don’t already have access to. The revelation that in the future Gaikai’s proprietary technology will allow the entire PS1, 2, 3 and Mobile catologue of games to be played on ‘any device’ is potentially massive; although the news was presented as a way to gloss over a less welcome nugget of information the Perry slipped in; PS4 will not be backwards compatible.

Look at it all you want - we want to touch it!

Look at it all you want – we want to touch it!

The VT that rolled after Perry’s speech comprised many developers waxing lyrical about the joys of PS4’s ease of use for game makers. Many of the points that had already been revealed were reiterated again; Sony are very keen indeed to drive home the point that the new console is a developer’s dream.

The future is looking very bright for Sony indeed – with an exponentially more powerful machine at the fingertips of the world’s best developers, able to finally work free of architectural constraints and the ability to see their visions realised across a multitude of connected devices; this really is the dawn of a new era. The key thing, though, is the games and there were plenty of those on show…

– Matt Reynolds. Follow him on Twitter @thelostmoment

In Part 2, we take a look at the games that were on show at The Playstation Event – the hits, the misses and the no-shows – and decide if the PS4 is off to a good start. Let us know your thoughts on Twitter @lowfatgaming or on our Facebook page.

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