The first thing I did on my PlayStation 4 was watch an episode of Barney Miller.
I don’t need a PlayStation 4 to watch Barney Miller, and that wasn’t the first thing I thought I’d do with a brand new $400 game box. After powering up the console and downloading the first mandatory system update (which took far less time than the typical PlayStation 3 download), I sorted through the various game options available. I signed up for the free month of PlayStation Plus that comes with every PlayStation 4 and started downloading Resogun and Flower for free. I slid the copy of Killzone: Shadow Fall that Sony sent with the system into the slot, and it immediately started to install itself onto the 500 GB hard drive. I poked through the various streaming video services, which include all the standards, the Netflix and the Amazon Instant Video and the Hulu. I saw Crackle—a video service available on every gaming console that nobody I know has ever used—and downloaded it, to figure out why it exists. Crackle was the first download to finish, and thus the first program I ran on my PlayStation 4. As I sifted through its relatively slim offerings, I found Barney Miller listed under comedies. I wanted to watchBarney Miller. So I did.
Barney Miller is good.
But the PlayStation 4 isn’t just a Barney Miller machine. It’s the latest console vying for supremacy in your entertainment center, offering up not just state-of-the-art videogame technology but a full suite of entertainment options for the modern day internet household of the future. The PlayStation 4 streams music and movies and TV shows and sports into your living room, as long as you have a reliable internet connection, and all in high definition. You could easily cancel cable and make do with a PlayStation 4 and subscriptions to a few video services, but then you could easily cancel cable and make do with your computer, or your Xbox 360, or your PlayStation 3, or any number of other products you probably already have in your home that offer the same services.
You could make the PlayStation 4 the only box you ever plug into your TV again, but you’re not going to buy one to watch sitcoms from the ‘70s. You’re going to buy one to play games, and then maybe use it to watch TV sometimes. And as a device built to play games, the only opinion you can really have about the PlayStation 4 right now is that it’s way too early to have an opinion.
Killzone: Shadow Fall
I’ve played at least part of eight of the system’s 23 launch titles. As expected, the graphics look better than they do on the PlayStation 3, but it’s not as dramatic a leap forward as when games transitioned from standard definition to HD. Assassin’s Creed IV looks cleaner and crisper than the PlayStation 3 version, with tiny details like pores and arm hair more visible, but that doesn’t enhance or hinder how the game plays or the (considerable) amount of fun I have playing it. Characters look less blocky and two-dimensional in Call of Duty: Ghosts than they do in the surprisingly ugly PlayStation 3 version. The shooter Killzone: Shadow Fall might be the most impressive launch game, visually; like its predecessors, it depicts in pristine and startling detail one of the drabbest and most lifeless aesthetics seen in a genre defined by drab lifelessness.
The best games for the PlayStation 4 wouldn’t work as a flashy tech demo at a Best Buy kiosk. The dual joystick shooter Resogun dug deep into my brain with its arcade action and thorough commitment to sensory overload. It’s the only PS4-exclusive game that I actively want to spend more time with. Flower andSound Shapes, two of the best games for the PlayStation 3, reappear in prettier form. Flower in particular benefits from the transition; the gorgeous environments occasionally approach photorealism, and the new DualShock 4 controller features smoother and more responsive motion controls than the DualShock 3. None of the games most worth playing make the PlayStation 4 look obviously more powerful than the PlayStation 3, though.
That’s what the PlayStation 4 is missing at launch: a game that defines the system and justifies the upgrade for the most dedicated of players. Of course, games like that rarely appear when consoles launch anymore. The days of Super Mario World and Super Mario 64 are gone. (Maybe even the days of Wii Sports, if the Wii U is any indication.) Instead, early adopters will make do with beefed-up versions of games that came out for the last generation of systems just a month ago and a handful of exclusives that could probably run on the PlayStation 3 without really losing anything. Buying a PlayStation 4 in 2013 means you’re either impatient or wealthy enough to not mind that the price will only decrease from here.
Actually, you’d have to be a patient person to buy a PlayStation 4 right now. You know better games are coming. On Thursday, Sony announced an Uncharted game for the new system. Although it’d be nice to see what the developers at Naughty Dog could do with this technology outside the well-plowed turf of the Uncharted world, the fact that Sony’s in-house stable of world-class developers will be releasing games only on the PlayStation 4 will probably impel many to buy a system now in anticipation.
Beyond the games, Sony has gotten a lot right with the PlayStation 4. The new DualShock 4 controller feels great, with longer handles that are easier to clutch and trigger buttons that don’t fire as easily as the DualShock 3’s. I anticipate less haphazard and unintentional grenade tosses or machine gun salvos with these sturdier trigger buttons. There’s a small touch-pad on the face, and it’s easy to swipe quickly when prompted in Killzone. The system’s main menu is easier to navigate than the PlayStation 3’s, defaulting to a list of recently installed programs with a less cluttered equivalent to the XMB, accessible with an upward press on a joystick. The cool blue hue and cleaner layout resembles the PlayStation Vita. The PlayStation Camera, a separately-sold peripheral that acts like a less obtrusive Kinect, didn’t have any major issues with the poor lighting situation in my basement. It did struggle to recognize my face, but like all bearded gentlemen, I am familiar with and resigned to that fate.
Sony trumpets the fact that every PlayStation 4 game will be playable on the Vita through the Remote Play feature. This is similar to how many Wii U games can be played entirely on the GamePad, without need of a TV. Remote Play works reasonably well on the PlayStation 4—I didn’t notice much lag while streaming Assassin’s Creed IV, and although the game didn’t look as vibrant as it does on my TV, it was still beautiful on the smaller screen. The Vita has fewer buttons than the DualShock 4, though, so the L1, R1, L2, R2, L3 and R3 buttons are remapped by each game that uses them. In Creed, I had to tap the rear touchpad for the L1 and R1 buttons, and tap the bottom corners of the main touch screen for the L3 and R3 buttons. It’s not too confusing for this specific game, but games that heavily depend on all four shoulder buttons as well as the L3 and R3 buttons could suffer from poorly remapped controls.
The PlayStation 4’s most forward-thinking feature might also be the most confusing to the average consumer. The “share” button on the controller streams whatever game you’re playing on Twitch or Ustream. I tried it out a few times while playing Resogun and Killzone, and it’s incredibly simple to get started. I just had to create a free Twitch account and then hit that share button to start pumping my gaming incompetence out into the world. If I ever feel comfortable letting strangers see my basement, I can use the PlayStation Camera to pop a live video feed into a picture-in-picture box. I personally don’t feel the urge to watch other people play games on the internet, but it’s a massively popular segment of gaming culture that still has the potential for tremendous growth, and a direction that any gaming site (including this one right here) needs to seriously consider branching into. This partnership between Sony and services like Twitch and Ustream could prove to be a huge boost for all involved, as it emphasizes connectivity among players while also encouraging them to sign up for Twitch or Ustream and inadvertently advertise Sony products.
The PlayStation 4 offers a lot right out of the box, but again, it’s too early to have a strong opinion about the system. Future games will determine the console’s merits, but at the moment the PlayStation 4’s library is understandably not full or diverse enough to recommend. It’s tough to justify buying any console at launch—that’s the most expensive time to buy a system, and with the least amount of games to play. The Wii U’s been out for a year, and it’s only now becoming a worthwhile purchase. If you have the money and the patience, the PlayStation 4 might be a smart buy. Otherwise, don’t rush into anything. There are many ways to watch Barney Miller.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games section and writes about games for the Boston Herald. He’s old enough to remember when the NES launched.