On the 21st of February 2013 the eighth generation of videogame home consoles became a reality. While it ostensibly entered into the gaming dialect with the release of the Wii U last November, the wait for Sony or Microsoft to unveil a truly next generation machine ended at the aptly named PlayStation Meeting 2013 a week ago and signaled the beginning of a new age of competition between the industry’s best and brightest. The smartly-codenamed Orbis became the PlayStation 4, an expected moniker, but one that furthers Sony’s dedication to a brand first established back in 1994 and that has since become synonymous with the ideals of hardware innovation, multimedia integration and diverse, contemporary software from developers at the forefront of the medium.
Of those three principles the PlayStation 4 exemplifies Sony’s implacable dedication to maintaining the latter two. Where the console stands in regard to the first is arguably still under question.
As a frenetic montage of blistering gameplay footage drew to a close a presentation that managed to remain genuinely engaging and compelling despite running over the two hour mark, the time for reflection came for those who had decided that 1am was a decent hour to finishing watching what was essentially an extended, if lavish, press release.
The event was, to my memory at least, possibly the least gaudy, corpulent major reveal of a home console within the annals of videogame history, and to me this was the most telling part of the whole experience. In hindsight, the PS4 doesn’t actually sound like a console of the future. It doesn’t sound like a utopian vision of an unachievable, empyrean hardware experience. To me, the PS4 sounds like a culmination of everything we accept that technology can do today, specifically designed to interact harmoniously with anything the industry’s most creative developers can envision.
The phrase “consumer centric and developer inspired” was repeated ad nauseum throughout the show, so much so that a drinking game involving the phrase could have reduced even those with the strongest constitutions to a paralytic mess.
Nevertheless, the mantra astutely sums up the aim and architecture of Sony’s invention. By packing in an Octa-Core CPU and a confirmed RAM of a whopping 8GB the PS4 is as close to mimicking the internal structure of a high end PC as home consoles have ever come.
This simplicity of design will, according to Sony, allow any developer to adapt quickly to the hardware in the short term, but will guarantee that, much like the PS3, developers will be able to get more out of the system as time goes by. We’ve been promised then that the potential is there for the future, but that the consumers of the here-and-now will also be well and truly catered for.
On the features front the console’s immediate relevance is anchored by its insistence on accommodating ‘the tablet age’ where instantaneous access, uploads and feedback are not just offered, but expected.
It’s here that the PS4 reminds me most of Sony’s latest smartphone the Xperia Z, a device that only the former Chairman of Sony Computer Entertainment and now President and CEO of Sony Corporation, Kaz Hirai, could have helped bring to market.
Like the Xperia Z, the PS4’s specific area of innovation is difficult to pinpoint, but the potential to excel in every existing area of functionality is present and accounted for. The PlayStation 4 seemingly has an answer to everything: continued Move support and the PS4 Eye for the ardent motion control advocates, improved Remote Play and the ability to integrate a smartphone or tablet as a second screen to keep up with the innovations of the Wii U and Xbox SmartGlass and an all-new Dualshock controller complete with a Vita-inspired touchpad and a share button which can upload gameplay footage at the touch of a button.
This is not a console that expects you to wait, with digital games available to play seconds after clicking the download button, instant streaming of gameplay via social networks and the promise that the time between pressing the power button and the actual play part encompassing seconds rather than minutes.
None of the above is really breaking any new ground in isolation, but as a cluster they represent the pinnacle of instant satisfaction from a gaming device. Perhaps the individual innovations - not to mention the reveal of the dimensions and aesthetics of the actual unit itself - are being held back until the infinitely more chaotic gaming-bloodbath that is E3. For now though we have the controller, a mantra and a promise of quality gaming experiences, and on that final, all-important point, Sony excelled.
Whether it was the sea of change ushered in by PC giant Blizzard blasphemously advocating a closed gaming system for the first time by bringing Diablo III to Sony consoles, or the constant stream of support from studios Sony have quietly and caringly ushered into the big leagues like Guerrilla Games, Media Molecule and Sucker Punch Productions, the plethora of compelling continuations of PlayStation’s stalwart franchises and fresh new IP was indicative of the system’s potential to offer premium gameplay experiences.
While the pseudo-intellectual waffle of Jonathan Blow and David Cage brought an air of unwelcome pretentiousness to proceedings, their actual contributions of footage cemented the PlayStation brand’s commitment to offering a platform ripe for independent developers to break open the monopoly of triple-A gaming.
Cage’s presentation of his studio’s latest facial capture technology came close to being the highlight of the event as he showcased how the crevices and arches of an elderly man’s face could now subtly convey emotion and narrative. It was an impressive display of tech that finally suggested that in the near future the facial expressions of videogame characters could teeter away from the precipice of the uncanny valley – an animation hypothesis which holds dodgy human replicas produce feelings of revulsion in real human observers - rather than plunging head-first into it. Unfortunately for Cage there was more from Ubisoft, or to be more specific, more from Watch Dogs and with that the show was truly stolen.
In essence, the PlayStation 4 appears to be a console made first and foremost for the modern videogame enthusiast, and the press conference - a predominantly void-of-fluff celebration of all that makes us pick up a controller in the first place - was surely enough to convince even the most jaded console owner to consider an upgrade when the time comes.
As the dust settled following the event, the omission of pricing details and European release date became the main topics of discussion. The encouraging promises that second hand games wouldn’t be locked out and that a lack of an internet connection wouldn’t render the console useless also came to light and while absorbing this news I found myself reminiscing about the days when a console, a cartridge, a controller and a power supply was all that was needed to ‘pick up and play’.
Thinking about it further I remembered that one particular new feature of the PS4 that allows you to get back into the game you were last playing in a space of seconds after pressing the power button. It seems that beneath all of the new ideas, the new technology and the new games, Sony might well have spent a lot of time thinking about those days too.