Impressions: PlayStation 4 -- "It's Lonely Out There"

It's nearly three months after the U.S. release of Sony's flagship next-generation platform. By now there are countless unboxing videos of the PlayStation 4, and just as many hardware reviews from major gaming outlets. This post isn't meant to replace the meticulous work of YouTubers or journalists, but rather compliment their initial impressions with a "State of the System" report, 90-days removed from the hype.

What does the PlayStation 4 offer an average consumer? To find out, I'll provide an overview of the initial setup and a generalization of the console's out-of-box experience, from updates to the marketplace, and from PlayStation Plus to the initial setup.

How I Got Here

To be honest, I had no interest in the PlayStation 4. Even the Xbox One, despite my very loose, very secretive ties (full disclosure: NDA-level stuff) to Microsoft, was a passing blip on my radar. Last November I accepted that these two new consoles were out, and in some distant future I might just own one or both. My solution to the next generation question was an investment in PC hardware: a GeForce GTX 760 4 GB video card and a 250 GB Samsung 840 Evo SSD.

Then, two weeks ago, Best Buy replenished its online stock of consoles. It was good timing: I had recently received a bonus at work and, uncharacteristically, had money to blow. Within 10 minutes a PlayStation 4 was on its way to my house, a journey that was slightly delayed four days by that damn Polar Vortex.

But that doesn't answer the question of "Why?" If anything, my purchase of a PlayStation 4 is an investment (albeit one with no monetary return). Sony, better than Microsoft, has sold the idea of the PlayStation 4's ecosystem. Through marketing and the positive word-of-mouth from developers, I believe the next five years will see the PS4 hosting more unique gaming experiences than the Xbox One. Do I have evidence of that, 90-days in? No. If anything, turning on the console finds me staring blankly at the screen wondering what to do.


Getting Started

Before I jump ahead, what's it like to unpack and plug-in the PlayStation 4? The word "effortless" comes to mind.

Cardboard isn't sexy, but the minimalist packaging is a welcome alternative to hard plastic and a dozen tiny bags separating everything. The system is gorgeous to look at despite the glossy, circa-2005 piano finish of its left half. The angled design looks great in real life, and I expect to continue gawking at the PS4 as an entertainment centerpiece years from now.

The controller bears a brief mention: Just as I experienced at PAX 2013, it's the best controller Sony has ever made. It's light, comfortable and responsive.

Initial setup, from powering on to reaching the home screen, takes less than 10 minutes. In my case I had a firmware update to install, which last generation would have elicited a sigh of frustration. Thankfully Sony has overcome the PlayStation 3's atrocious update process -- update 1.52 at 323 MB finished downloading and installation within the quoted three minutes. Fellow new owners have nothing to fear regarding updates. Sony appears to care that our time is precious, and worked hard to make updates more efficient, and pleasant, experiences.


Coming Home

Brutal gut-check time: It's hard to recommend the PlayStation 4 as it stands today due to a small software catalog. Consider the entertainment options: ports of last-gen indie games (Don't Starve: Console Edition), higher-fidelity AAA blockbusters (Call of Duty: Ghosts,Battlefield 4Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flagand Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition) and lackluster exclusives (Knack). No offense to the aforementioned games, but they aren't reasons to buy a PlayStation 4. And sadly, that fact hasn't changed in the last three months. This is one area that, despite the pervasive sameness of its lineup (shooting, slashing, racing), the Xbox One has an advantage over the PlayStation 4.

In reality, I hadn't intended to purchase a PS4 until reviews of Infamous: Second Son hit, a game which isn't even out until March 21st. But if you're a consumer like me who made an impulse buy, what would you want to play on your PlayStation 4?

The only game worth mentioning is Resogun, which is free for PlayStation Plus subscribers through the first week of February. It's a formulaic shoot-'em-up by Housemarque, the team behind the last-gen classic PS3 exclusive Super Stardust HD. It's bright, beautiful and sets a high standard for future downloadable games on the platform. If you miss the PS+ offer, the game only costs $14.99 and is totally worth the price tag.

It’s hard to recommend the PlayStation 4 as it stands today.

I hate to say this, but my PS4 is getting more use as a Netflix and Blu-ray device, which my PS3 did just fine. Apps like Netflix and Hulu are at least easy to install and download (unfortunately no HBO Go support yet), and the PlayStation Store, while barren, is a continuation of the redesign first seen last year on the PS3. Shopping is formatted as a clean, visual experience that emphasizes presentation over marketing bullet points. It's nice.

The new XrossMediaBar, called the "PlayStation Dynamic Menu," is reminiscent of the XMB , but focuses on user actions and recently played content more than system icons. It's deceivingly simple, and it exists as the complete opposite from the visual Tetris that makes up the Xbox One dashboard.

That said, the new menu is only as useful as there are activities, and considering the lack of things to do right now the PlayStation 4 seems very...quiet. A PS4 owner not playing Battlefield will be a pretty lonely person. Even with a superb launch title like Resogun (which, considering its status as the only worthwhile launch title for a new system, calls to mind the Xbox 360 and Geometry Wars) it's crushingly sad, boring and quiet to turn on a PS4 right now, three months after its launch.

At least the LEDs are pretty.


Moving On

I can't recommend the PlayStation 4 on good conscience. It's a beautiful product that's simultaneously functional and well-designed. Its potential is vast, and its ecosystem seems poised to give Microsoft a very difficult time. And yet, when considering the day-to-day experience of the console, it's a crushingly lonely place to play games. The much-touted social features, from Twitch to Ustream, are only useful if you're already into game streaming. The system doesn't encourage you to be social, which could be seen as intentional. I'm tempted to pull my PS3 out of its drawer and catch up on old games until Infamous comes out.

The fact is the PlayStation 4 is a work-in-progress. We expect the first year of a console to be tumultuous at worst, unremarkable at best. However, I can confidently state that it's the best console Sony has ever made, even after owning it for just two days. But as Nintendo found out with the Wii U, a console is only as good as its software.

So, should you buy a PlayStation 4 90-days after its launch? No.

But if you, like I, throw caution to the wind, then please add me to your friends list -- it's lonely out there.

You can find Aaron on PSN under the handle "a-thay."