Sony’s PS4 presentation leaves gamers with questions, few answers

Feb. 22, 2013 | 3:40 p.m.

CRITIC’S NOTEBOOK

On Wednesday evening in New York, Sony threw one of the biggest magic shows of the year.

“PlayStation wants to win the war against reality,” the company declared at the start of two-hour press conference to introduce its new video-game console, the PlayStation 4. Moments later, Andrew House, president and group chief executive of Sony Computer Entertainment Inc., declared that the machine “represents a significant shift from thinking of PlayStation as merely a box or console to thinking of PlayStation as a leading authority on play.”

That may very well prove to be the case when the PS4 is released this holiday season. For now, however, it remains an illusion.

The period between the announcement of a new system and its launch is one that typically provides more questions than answers. As it was with Nintendo’s Wii U, the answers likely won’t come until the system is out and in the hands of players. Nintendo waited until September to unveil pricing for its November console, and Sony similarly withheld any pricing info from the budget-conscious on Wednesday.

Sony didn’t bother to show gamers what the system looked like, instead focusing on too-brief-to-analyze clips of upcoming games — games that largely looked an awful lot like current console games. Sony deserves every benefit of the doubt, as speculation over how the system looks, works and plays is just that. For instance, it wasn’t until I had the Wii U and its GamePad in my apartment for a good two weeks that I was fully convinced the system and its new multi-screen control schemes were truly an appealingly different way to play.

So I watched on Wednesday not to pass judgement on Sony’s new system, or to see where it stands on the spectrum between hard-core gamers and casual gamers. The PS4 will in fact be impressive. Its design specifications, described Wednesday as a “supercharged PC,” nearly guarantee it. So instead, I tuned in simply to see if Sony’s new console could excite by teasing new game experiences and fresh, unusual development opportunities.

This is where Sony’s extravagant press conference disappointed.

One by one, the company withheld details on new features and instead highlighted the ever vague — and increasingly dull — social-networking additions. Who knows? I may come to love the fact that the PS4 controller comes with a “share” button, allowing me to instantly record and post snippets of my game online, but chances are I will despise and de-friend anyone on Facebook who considers it worth my time to watch clips of their game playing.

Likewise, the ability to tune in and watch my pals play games, even if I don’t own the games, seems right now like a complete misjudgment of how much time gamers have. Gaming, after all,  is not a spectator sport, but Sony detailed in its press release the appeal of live gaming broadcasts.

As an example, the system will make it a snap for gamers to toss what they’re playing up in real time on a streaming site such as Ustream, and friends watching can then offer “health potions or special weapons when a player needs them most during actual gameplay.” Forget co-op play, maybe the future of gaming is co-op watching. These — as well as the ability for those who own Sony’s $250 handheld machine, the Vita, to play PS4 games divorced from the TV — are nice perks, but not changing the way I experience a game.

Yet there were times Sony hit on something I was genuinely curious to learn more about. For one, the company has revamped its controller. This isn’t a complete re-imagining, a la Nintendo’s tablet-inspired GamePad, but Sony has instead re-made its Dualshock so it has a small touchpad on the top of the controller. Again, Sony promises that this “offers gamers completely new ways to play and interact with games.”

A look at the new controller design for the PS4. (SCEA)

A look at the new controller design for the PS4. (SCEA)

If Sony knows what those ways are, it’s not telling. There was no game showcased Wednesday that made use of the controller’s new touchpad and no live demonstration of its abilities. It raises numerous questions, from the types of hand motions it recognizes to how it will integrate the abundance of buttons on the controller. But with no system on display, the one major design change from the PS3 to the PS4 was oddly downplayed.

The end result was a conference that not only raised questions about Sony’s PS4, but the future of console gaming in general. And they’re coming at the exact moment the PS3 has matured into a rather desirable little system. This year promises multiple reasons to be excited about the PS3, from the already released “Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch,” which is part animated film, part old-school RPG, to the upcoming thriller “The Last of Us,” which based on early play sessions emphasizes character interaction over killing.

With the PS3 exclusive, Ellen Page-starring “Beyond Two Souls” also due this year, I would even have recommended that this would be a fine time for those who waited to buy a PS3 to consider purchasing one. But less so after Wednesday’s conference. That’s because the PS4 does not “natively” support PS3 games. Essentially, PS3 discs won’t be playable on the PS4.

Sony is touting its use of Gaikai Inc’s cloud technology to eventually make all PS3 titles playable, via streaming and/or download, on the PS4. Yet there’s still no word on whether there will be a way for players to register what games they own — or their saved game data — to ensure they don’t have to re-purchase a PS3 game.

The streaming plan is ambitious and worth a closer, more extensive look in a separate piece. Sony promises that the technology will enable gamers to play a title as soon as they purchase it rather than have to wait to download it, and the ability to do so on the PS4 and the Vita would be versatility at its finest. But the gleam of the new bells and whistles will be tarnished slightly if there’s no option for backward compatibility.

Another concern: While the new controller “incorporates a new highly sensitive six-axis sensor” as well as a nifty new light bar that will communicate game data to players, Sony said nothing about whether current PS3 controllers will be recognizable by the PS4, but Polygon later reported that old Dualshock controllers won’t work on the new system. It’s an important point that should have been addressed. Nintendo’s Wii U uses a new control scheme, but old Wii peripherals all work with the system, making an upgrade a more budget-friendly decision.

Now let’s get to the games showcased. Games are always on their best behavior at a conference such as this, but a little more unpredictability rather than a lineup heavy on standard shooting and fantasy fare was in order. Also, some of the titles such as “Diablo III” and “Destiny” will be available for the PS3 and PS4, undercutting the mission of the whole night. I went in looking for glimpses of game experiences I couldn’t achieve on the current generation consoles, a message that’s diluted when two key titles will also work on the older system.

"Knack" is a PS4-exclusive game. (SCEA)

“Knack” is a PS4-exclusive game. (SCEA)

Better was Mark Cerny’s “Knack,” a cartoonish-looking title that aims to merge platforming and puzzle mechanics, complete with references to the weirdly wonderful and experimental “Katamari Damacy.” Better still was Jonathan Blow’s “The Witness,” an abstract, open-world puzzle game. Blow was out of place at the conference for numerous reasons. He himself recognized one.

“I really don’t know what I’m going to do to follow up all those explosions,” he said when he took the stage.

Yet while “The Witness” will debut on the PS4, it won’t be dependent on it. Ultimately, “The Witness” is expected to make its way to Apple’s iOS system as well as the PC. “The Witness” is not a next-gen game, but it happens to play nice with next-gen systems. Simply put, the most fascinating game shown on Wednesday, then, wasn’t one that even needed the PS4.

More out of place were the comments made by David Cage, the founder of the excellent Quantic Games, the studio behind the upcoming “Beyond Two Souls.” He said, “When people ask me what is the feature I want most on future hardware platforms, my answer is always the same: emotion.” Yet there’s plenty of emotion to be had on games that are currently available, if one knows where to look.

Storytelling isn’t constrained by technology. Already in 2013 there have been some wonderful games. I love “The Cave,” “Kentucky Route Zero” and “Fire Emblem: Awakening,” all titles that emphasize story, character and arguably out-of-date gameplay over technology. Great characters can even be found on game machines as simple as the iPhone, as proven by BitMonster’s “Lili.” 

In the six-plus years since the PS3 was released, mobile, downloadable and downright more affordable games have expanded the audience of those who play and have made it easier for developers to take more bite-size risks. Couple that with Nintendo’s bold choice  to essentially pull out of the arms race to create bigger, badder and faster systems, and the biggest lie of the console-era of gaming has been exposed: One doesn’t need more expensive technology to build a better game.

– Todd Martens

Follow us on Twitter: @LATHeroComplex

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