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Review: Sony hits reset with PlayStation 4

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PlayStation 4

The 2006 launch of the PlayStation 3 didn’t exactly go smoothly. The launch games were tepid. The controller sacrificed beloved features for new ones no one wanted. And system setup was overly complicated.

This Friday, Sony hits the reset button with the launch of the PlayStation 4. It’s a notable improvement over the early days of its predecessor - one that’s likely to satisfy most players. But for nearly every step the PS4 takes forward, it takes a half step back. It’s a healthy start to the next generation, but it’s not the decisive victory some fans were hoping to see.

Before we dive too deep, some disclosure: Sony only made the PS4 available for unsupervised testing for a short period before reviews were permitted. And some of the most important elements of the system – including sharing and other online modes - were not available during that period (and won’t be available to early buyers until they download a 500 MB day one patch).

(UPDATE: We've had a chance to review the online features, and have included our thoughts further down this review.)

One thing is clear from the minute you push the power button, though. Sony clearly listened to both the game development community and players as it put together the PS4. The $400 system deftly blends crisp 1080p gameplay with innovative social features and non-gaming entertainment offerings.

Sony has been very careful to keep the focus of the PS4 on gaming – versus Microsoft’s larger entertainment focus. And the launch lineup is a very solid one this go ‘round.

Killzone: Shadow Fall shows what first party developers can do with the system’s computational power – though EA takes the graphical crown with Battlefield 4. Toss in Call of Duty: Ghosts and action fans will have plenty to keep them busy for a while.

Knack is a charming platform/action game sure to appeal to both kids – and even core gamers (though they might be a bit more reticent to confess to that). Meanwhile, Contrast – a noir 2D/3D platform jazz-infused title that will be available for free to PlayStation Plus members – will easily scratch the indie game itch.

[ Slideshow: PlayStation 4 Launch Lineup ]

Accompanying the new suite of games is a redesigned DualShock controller. And while the PS3’s Sixaxis was a jarring shift for players, the DualShock 4 is surprisingly familiar. Despite the addition of a touchpad and the removal of the familiar start and system buttons, it takes virtually no time to adjust to those. Within a day, the DualShock 3 will feel slightly alien, in fact.

It’s a solid but fairly lightweight controller with a satisfying rumble effect. And, most importantly, the new features don’t get in the way of gameplay. The touchpad, in fact, is a terrific addition, opening up new gameplay options that feel very natural.

[ Related: DualShock 4 controller images ]

So far, so good. But when you begin to dig deeper into the PS4, the imperfections start to become clearer.

For instance: Want to play online multiplayer? That’s no longer free. You’re going to need a PlayStation Plus account – which will run $50 per year. There is one upside to that: you’ll also have access to 1 gigabyte worth of cloud saves for your games. And that could come in handy before you expect it to.

Games must be installed to the PS4’s hard drive. That makes gameplay more fluid, eliminating level loading screens – which is a welcome relief to anyone who has been forced to re-read tips again and again as the game catches up with them.

But the PS4 ‘s hard drive has just 500 GB of storage – a fairly minimal amount these days, given how low memory costs have fallen. (Dish Network, to put things in perspective, offers a 2 terabyte hard drive on its DVR.)

Triple-A game installations typically range between 20 GB to 50GB, so avid gamers -- the demographic Sony is chasing with the PS4 -- will quickly fill up the drive. Sony has already made it clear that the console does not support external hard drives – meaning players will eventually have to delete games from their PS4 before they can load another. (Save games, Sony says, can be stored on the PS4 even with the game removed – though, not surprisingly, they’re recommending the PlayStation Plus cloud save system.)

Owners can swap out the PS4’s hard drive for a larger one if they’d like – something experienced gamers might attempt – but that’s a task that will be too daunting for the average user.

One of the more innovative features you'll find gameplay-wise on the PS4 is remote play. Fans who want to take their games on the go (or keep playing and use their TV to watch a show) can pull out their PS Vita and transfer the game there.

If you've got WiFi, you can head to the closest room - maybe. The range doesn't extend too far. But if you've got a cellular connection on their Vita, you can play anywhere. Sony has made this functionality easy for developers - and no game shows it off better than Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag. While you'll have to make some mental readjustments for the controls, it's a quick process.

The social aspects of the PS4 – one of the system’s other big focuses – are again something of a mixed bag. As users turn on their system, they’ll see a news wall of sorts, where they can see in-game videos and screenshots their friends have shared – along with notifications about the games and video those friends have played/viewed. That shows what’s cool among friends – and in a way that’s prominent but not obtrusive.

The ability to share big in-game moments (or other items, like walkthroughs) via screenshots or video may not be embraced by all players – but there’s a larger passive online audience that’s hungry for those offerings.

Here’s the rub, though. If you’d like to post a video outside of the PS4, you’ll have to do so on Facebook. Want to post it on YouTube, where there is a ravenous audience for these sorts of gameplay videos? You’re out of luck.

While this could be corrected in a later system update, you have to wonder why the company didn’t lock this deal into place long ago.

There's also one other thing about video sharing that doesn't quite work. The PS4 records the previous 15 minutes of gameplay automatically. That's good - especially if you have one of those gaming moments where you pull off a spectacular move without meaning to.

But if you want to show off that feat, you'll have to pull yourself out of the game, and most likely will want to go into the system's editing feature to share your accomplishments. Editing is very easily done, but it still takes a few minutes.

The problem there is you're pulled out of your game. The immersion you felt vanishes. It would be nice, instead, to see a tagging system, where you can tell the PS4 "I want to share this later - so save the last few minutes until I exit the game - but for now I want to keep playing". (Of course, whether that's technically doable, we can't say.)

The rest of the PS4's online functionality works fairly well. While there are some clear organizational issues that still need to be ironed out (i.e. being able to have 2,000 friends is great, but if you can't categorize them, it quickly becomes a mess), it's still a big improvement from the PS3.

The PlayStation Store, a critical component as the company pushes into digital distribution, isn't vastly different from what PS3 users see, but it's fairly well organized. Like any digital store, though, it helps to know what you're looking for before you wander in. Discoverability is still just so-so.

One big difference between the PS4 and the Xbox One, which ships on Nov. 22, is Microsoft’s decision to include the Kinect sensor, something that helped boost that system’s price to $500.

Sony opted to make the PlayStation camera an optional accessory, which carries a $60 price tag. It’s hard to argue with that decision, since Sony’s experiments with camera-based games have largely left players unimpressed. Should you pick one up, though, it will add some nifty functionality – including facial recognition when you log on to the system, and limited voice commands. (You can turn your PS4 off with your voice, though not on.)

It’s entertaining, but if you’ve got an extra $60 burning a hole in your pocket, grab an extra controller instead.

The PS4 is bound to be one of the holiday season’s hottest gadgets – and the geek bragging rights that will come with owning one are undeniable. Ultimately, it’s a system that feels almost - but not entirely – finished. There’s no one major flaw to point to, but a number of small ones start to add up.

Fortunately, they’re all fixable – and Sony is well aware of them. Even better, the game lineup for the foreseeable future is a solid one. Once the launch madness ends, there are Infamous: Second Son, Watch Dogs, and Destiny waiting in the wings – proof positive that Sony learned not only from its own missteps seven years ago, but from the mistakes Nintendo made with the Wii U. And that could be a big factor in the PS4’s success for months and years to come.

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