PlayStation 4: The Good, the Bad, and the Mysterious

On Wednesday Sony announced its next-gen gaming console, the PlayStation 4. Sony expects the new console to be available by the Christmas season of this year and is being coy about the price. When the PS3 arrived, it carried a hefty price tag of about $600, scaring some gamers off for a few months. Rumors are the new console will come in at around $450, but that's just a rumor at this point. That's one of the mysteries surrounding the new box. More about the other mystery later in the article.

The PS4 will not just be another console with beefier hardware. It will have that, with powerful new graphics processors capable of taking the visuals to another level of realism, while not presenting a quantum leap over the current hardware. But it will truly be a next-gen console in the sense that it comes with capabilities that up to now have mainly been available on game streaming sites like OnLive (which I reviewed, here). In fact, the PS4 may kill off the ailing OnLive service.

That's because the PS4 is a social gaming console right out of the box. One of OnLive's chief fun features is its ability to allow gamers to watch and interact with other gamers without being in the game themselves. Gamers can spectate in the Arena, picking up tips and tricks, jeering and cheering and generally checking out games before either buying them or downloading demos. The PS4 allows spectating and, with a push of a button on its new controller, sharing and uploading action clips. Some games currently allow this, but the new hardware makes sharing a universal feature. It also allows demos to be played the instant a gamer chooses them, putting it on par with one of the other great OnLive features. Along with that will come features that already exist, such as Amazon Video, Netflix and Hulu apps and Plex serving that turn the PS into a full home entertainment system. PS3 users can also already control their consoles when surfing YouTube via iPhones and iPods. Expect Sony to build on that capability as well.

The PS4 also builds on a feature currently found on the PS3 and the Wii U, remote play. Currently PS3 can be controlled via a handheld PSVita, while the Wii U can act as a server, with game play actually taking place on the screen in the controller. So it doesn't really need a TV screen. The PS4 allows games hosted on its hardware to be played on the PSVita. So like the Wii U, the PS4 can free up your TV while still delivering the top level gaming experience.

The PS4 controller, the Dualshock 4, also builds on the current competition, adding Move capabilities, the aforementioned social gaming capabilities, and a new touchpad in the middle.

So, there's the controller. But where's the actual PS4? In its entire demo Wednesday, they never showed the PlayStation 4 itself. That has sparked a debate:

There are two rather polarized angles being tossed about this week as the Sony show (or no-show) of the PlayStation 4 was let loose. One side says it’s terrible that Sony made a 2+ hour presentation for the PlayStation 4 without actually showing the hardware, relying instead on the controller and a variety of promises from software developers to do all the talking. The other side says awesome! We know the PlayStation 4 is coming now, and we’ve got confirmation from some of the biggest-name developers that they’re on board, so we’re happy!

My own take is that Sony wants a second bite at the buzz apple, so they're withholding images of the console for a later date, maybe E3 in June or SIGGRAPH in August. If they do that, they get to have another big moment, and may announce the price along with giving us a look at the beast. Sony usually goes the route of making their consoles dark and artistic (or odd, in the case of the PS3s that look like bbq grills). I would expect something smaller and sleeker than the PS3.

The bottom line is that we now have concrete specs on the next-gen system, a catalog of major titles that it will debut with including new material from heavyweights like Blizzard and its own in-house Killzone and InFAMOUS series, and solid information about the new things it will be able to do. And the things it won't do, which brings me to the "bad" part of this article. Sony says that as things stand now, backward compatibility is not built into the PS4. Gamers will not be able to play legacy games on the new system, which may impact some of this year's bigger releases like the Tomb Raider reboot. They say they're working on it. They may be setting up to sell multiple forms of the PS4, some that will include backward compatibility for a price, and some that don't. Backward compatibility can be gotten around via streaming games, but that requires hefty bandwidth that most American households still don't have, or via downloads, which will take up valuable hard drive space and may create other issues. We'll see. But the failure to provide backward compatibility from the get-go is an ominous sign that Sony may be looking to roll out their new box at one stated price, which is not the actual price gamers will end up paying if they want to keep playing their old Call of Duty titles on their shiny new systems.