Sep 21, 2013

Sony PlayStation 4 Snap Review

Launch-day PS4 titles Knack and PlayRoom offer an interesting glimpse into the potential of Sony's new gaming console.

Sony Computer Entertainment offered a small group of international journalists hands on time with the PlayStation 4 this week, with sessions at its Shinagawa office and Tokyo Game Show. One game on show was new Sony title Knack, with game developer Mark Cerny on hand to discuss it and the console in general. As a games developer Cerny has worked on Sonic the Hedgehog, Spyro the Dragon and Crash Bandicoot, but with the PlayStation 4 he is also the console's lead architect.
I'm wondering if the decision to make the PS4 camera an optional extra is a long-term mistake,
Knack is a family-orientated character action game revolving around a main character who battles a goblin invasion and can change size by drawing in materials around him such as fragments of metal, rock and crystals. Knack consists of hundreds of small moving parts and is designed to take advantage of the advanced graphics and physics capabilities of the PlayStation 4. The game is very plot-driven, with a movie-style plot line and extra characters which give it a bit of a TinTin feel.

When you pick up the new wireless DualShock 4 control the 20gm weight gain on the previous version isn't noticeable. It utilises the same basic DualShock design, retaining the dual analogue sticks along with the d-pad on the left and the four coloured actions buttons on the right. The heads of the analogue controllers are slightly smaller but feature rubber tips to help with grip.

The big change with the DualShock 4 is that Sony has moved the Select, Start and PlayStation buttons away from the middle of the controller to make way for a small touchpad. It's designed to recognise two fingers, or more likely thumbs, and is also a button. Knack doesn't utilise the touchpad but it will be used by other launch-day titles such as first-person shooter Killzone and the pre-installed PlayRoom augmented reality suite.

To make way for the touchpad the PlayStation button has moved lower down on the controller, just above the headphone jack and extension port. The Select and Start buttons have been merged into a single Options button on the right of the touchpad, while a new Share button appears on the left.

There's also a small speaker built into the controller, below the touchpad. In Knack it produces background noises, such as pieces of rock shuffling as Knack draws them to his body. The effect is much more subtle than the noises which come from Nintendo's Wii controller, and it's possible to dip into the PS4's menus to adjust the volume. The DualShock 4 can also act as a motion controller, a feature which isn't utilised in Knack but is used by PlayRoom.

Visually Knack is spectacular, relying on a new game engine built from scratch for the PlayStation 4. It takes advantage of the improved tessellation features to produce finer textures including ripples and interference patterns in the water.

A native Full HD 1080p game, something which was rare on the PlayStation 3, Knack also displays fine details in the leaves on the trees and even the shadows of the individual leaves on the ground, which move in real time as branches sway. The shadows are particularly striking as much of the early gameplay is set outdoors in cities and mountainous regions.

Each tiny piece of Knack's body is rendered separately and tracked by the console. He is constantly changing size, ranging from three feet tall to the size of a house, as he acquires more pieces or loses them in battle. Knack can also acquire components and crystal relics to build devices and unlock new forms and moves. Body pieces can also be used as weapons to blast the area around him. Game developer Mark Cerny believes the PlayStation 4's power and flexibility to cope with such a character saved around 12 months of development time compared to the PlayStation 3.

PlayRoom is a collection of Augmented Reality mini-games which comes pre-installed on the PlayStation 4. It relies on the camera to work, even though the camera is an optional extra and isn't included with every PS4 -- unlike the Xbox One which includes the Kinect and its built-in camera with every console.

PlayRoom lets you see yourself sitting on the couch and then generates tiny robots on the screen which you can touch. Around a dozen of them can jump out of the controller and dance around on the floor, where you can knock them around with your hands and feet and even flick them face-first into the camera. Think of them a little like the minions from Despicable Me. Sony's tie-in with mobile devices also shines through here, with the ability to draw objects on the PlayStation smartphone app and then drop them into the screen as three dimensional objects for you and the robots to play with.

PlayRoom isn't really a game, but it's the kind of thing that young children will really love. It also introduces them to some of the new aspects of the PS4. You can use the touchpad to call up the PlayRoom menu, which appears on the television as if it's a hologram projected around you by the controller. You can then flick left or right and use the touchpad as a button to select your mini-game. It's easy to reach the touchpad with your thumbs and flicking it feels very natural and intuitive.

You can have one robot flying around the room, or view them all inside the controller that you're holding. They fall about as you tilt the controller and you can even see the undersides of the buttons light up as you press them. Tap a beat and the little robots start to dance. Another mini-game lets you play air hockey on a holographic field projected around you, using the touchpad to move your piece.

Between Knack and PlayRoom these titles really help show off the power and versatility of the PS4, although I'm wondering if the decision to make the camera an optional extra is a long-term mistake. When you see what's possible with the Xbox One's improved Kinect, including the non-gaming entertainment features, Microsoft may have set itself up with the more powerful platform. It will be interested to see how PS4 developers.embrace the features shown off by PlayRoom.

Sony's PlayStation 4 goes on sale in Australia on November 29, retailing for $549. Microsoft's Xbox One comes out November 22 and sells for $599.


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