Wednesday 20th February, 18:00pm EST marks the start of the Future. Of course, being in the UK, technically I’m already in the future (spoilers: it’s dark). But what the Future is really here to bring us is the Playstation 4, inevitable successor to the Playstation 3. Sony’s not-so-subtle hinting at the nature of their Future conference certainly created buzz. #PlaystationMemories was trending on Twitter for most of the day and it’s perhaps not a coincidence that Google chose to drip-feed a bit more information about Google Glass on the same day
The Playstation 4 is an important launch for Sony and not just because it’s their next home console. The relative failure of the PSP and now the continued apathy towards the PS Vita does little to engender confidence in both their next piece of hardware and their ability to successfully support and market it. While it would be unfair to call the PS3 a failure - it’s managed to pull roughly level with the Xbox 360 in terms of sales - it’s had nowhere near the massive success of the ubiquitous, essential Playstation 2, which has seems to have left Sony on the back-foot for the entire past generation.
The start of each console generation is rather like a hand of poker that’s gone down to the river. The player who shows their hand first puts themselves at the great risk of looking like a fool compared to their opponent. With Microsoft likely not revealing the third iteration of the Xbox until E3 at the earliest, Sony are poised to either set themselves up for great embarrassment come the summer or to force some major panicking over in Seattle.
So what did they have - a royal flush or a pair of twos?
The answer is somewhere in-between. Beneath the reams of empty talk and corporate buzzwords, a modicum of information about the Playstation 4 was revealed. The controller design leaked a week or so back turns out to be completely accurate. An evolution of the Dual Shock, it has slightly redesigned analogue sticks, a touch pad and a new ‘share’ button. Sharing is an important part of the PS4 it seems, as most of the information about the console related to the upgraded iteration of the Playstation Network.
The new PSN will offer greater connectivity and ‘personalisation’. Games can be played almost instantly after you choose to download them, supposedly running from an initial small slice of the download chunk. The console can update games as you play them and while turned off. It’s also able to instantly resume what you were doing when you turn it back on. If these seem somewhat trivial and invasive improvements, then the share button is not for you.
We were proudly informed that using the share button you can create videos on the fly, as the console documents your every move and provides footage of your gaming to ‘share’. Not only that, you can live-stream as you play and look in and observe your friends as they play their games. The ability to offer comments and even take control and play their game (presumably with their consent), makes the voyeurism fully interactive. The system is ‘personalised’, so it can tailor ads and content to your interests and even start downloading games it thinks you’ll like. This all ties into social network integration and cross-platform apps, so you can ‘take the Playstation experience with you, wherever you go’. I already feel smothered.
These new PSN features feel like a misguided sideshow. I don’t want other people watching me as I play a game. I don’t especially want to upload videos of things I’ve just played, nor do I want to watch other people’s. I don’t need Facebook knowing what I’m doing on my Playstation 4. I don’t need to use my phone to browse the PSN store. I certainly don’t want the console deciding what I should be playing and downloading it for me. The practicality of these innovations also seems suspect; they’re all going to require an incredible amount of bandwidth and a very high speed internet connection. Sony couldn’t even get the live-streams of this conference to run smoothly, how are we suppose to expect all of this superfluous sharing to work properly?
Thankfully, Sony also made sure to include actual games in the presentation and, as The Parallax View style video package at the beginning of the presentation suggested, this was very much an attempt to appeal to the traditional core of the Playstation demographic. The Move controller was reduced to a mere footnote, mentioned only as a tool for game artists to use in 3D modelling in a rather pretentious segment by Media Molecule. Similarly there was no mention of stereoscopic 3D, which finally seems to have collapsed under its own hype.
Instead we were shown a range of games covering all the core bases. Killzone: Shadowfall is a visually impressive yet uninspiring looking new entry in the FPS series. Evolution Studios showed off Drive Club, an impressively obsessively detailed collaborative racing sim that’s supposedly been in development for 10 years. (a fact that’s not as encouraging as Evolution seem to think it is)
Second Son from Suckerpunch was almost unparalleled in the irony stakes, as Nate Fox gave a talk about the increasing invasion of privacy in society, seemingly oblivious to that being the PS4’s big selling point. Second Son was shown only as FMV, so there’s little of substance to go on, but it’s reminiscent of Infamous and the more impressive, up-coming Watch Dogs, shown in more detail later in the show.
A lot of effort was gone to make sure we know that the PS4 is not just an endeavour for Sony and its related studios, so a string of third party developers made an appearance. Capcom stopped by to show off their Panty Raid (ok, Panta Rhei if you want to be correct) engine running fantasy title Deep Down (with a small tease of some manner of new Street Fighter). Square Enix showed what seemed to be only a generic sizzle reel, while Bungie rounded off the event with more vague details and art from Destiny.
The real big news was casually mentioned. A new Final Fantasy will be out by the end of the year, but no details were given. Blizzard exec Chris Metzen appeared to break line with the corporate talk, announcing their return to console development. Unfortunately, this is only so far in the form of PS3 and PS4 ports of Diablo III.
That Diablo III (and indeed Destiny) are coming to the PS3 as well does little to sell the importance of the PS4. Two of the biggest launch games are also on the previous generation console? Compounded to this is the feature of being able to move over the game you’re playing on the PS4 onto your PS Vita (you have a Vita, right? No? Don’t worry - nor does anyone else) and carry on with it seamlessly. Impressive? A little. But while this may be occasionally handy, if it’s a standard feature as suggested, it means the PS4 is forever tethered to the capabilities of the PS Vita. The PSVita that’s sinking like a stone.
It’s hard to get too excited about the Playstation 4 from this event. For a start there’s only a vague Holiday 2013 release date and no indication of price. While some of the footage was impressive, not least Quantic Dream’s real time render of a shockingly realistic human head, it’s hard to know what was gameplay and what was carefully rendered FMV, so there’s no way to set the bar of expectation. As photo-realism becomes more attainable, it’s increasingly harder for games to impress us with graphics alone, but that’s what most of the presentations relied on. There was barely any talk of evolution in gameplay or fun, bar Media Molecule’s tech demo. None of the games displayed present any bold innovation or stand out as a killer app for the console, while the new PSN looks to be an over-bearing, bandwidth-killing nightmare. If the only place gaming has left to go is a Skynet-esque, inescapable, consumer-technology net invading all aspects of your life, I’m not sure I want to be involved. With the underwhelming WiiU, it seems it falls to Microsoft to try and make the next generation of consoles feel both worthwhile and alive.
Sony have a long way to go to convince me that I need to own a PS4 as much as I did a PS2.