Beyond the Hype

Sony’s Playstation Meeting 2013 opened in reflective form, bombarding viewers with imagery from almost two decades of Playstation highlights.

Mixed in with the contemporary and upcoming fare like God of War and The Last of Us were watershed PS1 and PS2 titles like Final Fantasy VII, Grand Theft Auto San Andreas, and the original Gran Turismo, in all its quaint blockiness. Even the quirky TV ads from the mid 90s were dropped in, guaranteeing that some kind of nostalgic response was being pinged. As the montage rose to a heart-stirring crescendo, words clanked onscreen referencing Playstation’s underdog past and persistent mantra, “Push the boundaries of play.”

The tech demos were encouraging, throwing around plenty of particles and physics objects, but anyone who has been around for a few console launches is aware that these canned examples rarely reflect the realities of interactive gameplay. It seemed like a return to form; Sony’s hubris when launching the PS3 cost them dearly, and here we were seeing some of that scrappy form on the eve of their foray into their fourth generation of consoles. The opening remarks from Andrew House were promising, reaffirming that the focus was back on the joy of play, and that the platform was being attuned to the changing behaviour of consumers and their play needs. After the briefest preamble that included some euphemistic nods to ways that the PS3 fell short, the PS4’s existence was outed matter of factly, along with the promise that for two hours, we’d hear about why Sony’s latest console is the “multi-dimensional experience” that gamers not only expected, but “deserved”. Even though it was being parsed in odious marketing buzzwords, it seemed like Sony were back with a clearer focus on why they were successful in the first place.

That Sony didn’t jerk its core demographic around by making them sit through a shareholder-pleasing trumpet blowing introduction centred around graphs and sales figures was canny, but their commitment to this consumer focus waned as the event dragged on. System Architect Mark Cerny talked about how nowadays there’s “less value in exotic Cell style technology” - a nod to the PS3’s notoriously challenging hardware for cross-platform development. The switch to a ‘supercharged’ PC architecture is a major about-face in Sony’s design philosophy, but one that should make developers of all stripes happy. It was an implicit promise to gamers that the phrase ‘crappy Playstation port’ will be a thing of the past.

The tech demos were encouraging, throwing around plenty of particles and physics objects, but anyone who has been around for a few console launches is aware that these canned examples rarely reflect the realities of interactive gameplay. Puzzlingly, the first official PS4 game that the world would see was Knack. As lovely as the cartoony cinematic sequences were, gameplay is the only thing worth getting excited over, and the few glimpses showed a tarted up version of Crash Bandicoot style action platforming that’s been around since 1995.

It continued to get worse from there. A slickly produced video of talking heads from the biggest developers was oppressively on-message. Countless promises of “depth,” “immediacy,” greater “personalization”, and a more “social” experience abounded, but each vague promise only served to dilute the impact of the next one, and amplified the lack of specificity on display.

The Games

When Killzone Shadowfall was trotted out to showcase what the PS4 was all about, the audience was ready to be blown away. The sheer scale and fidelity of the world was unquestionably astonishing, with a cityscape spanning off into the horizon, and every next-gen trick in the book pulverizing the senses: reflections, refractions, volumetric depth of field, incredible lighting and shadows, and even some lens flare for good effect. It was gorgeous, but when the gameplay kicked off proper, it was utterly underwhelming, providing the exact same malaise-inducing run and gun gameplay and barely interactive bombastic sequences that the Call of Duty games have been proffering since 2007 (if not earlier).

When Drive Club was being talked up, the same nonsense applied. The graphics were stunning, but the whiff of hyperbole was impossible to ignore. The hook is that the game can be played in real time and asynchronously by ‘car clubs’ who lay down challenges for one another. The microscopic detail that has gone into each car recreation is commendable, but having to endure pablum about “suede and fabric simulation” grates when when one just wants to know how this is a revolution when EA’s Autolog has been around since 2010.

The insultingly slipshod messaging continued with Nate Sliver’s reveal of Infamous: Second Son - what started off as a stark look at the realities of real-life governments encroaching on personal liberties drunkenly swerved into some inane guff about superheroes fighting for our freedom. The trailer was perfectly acceptable as a means of introducing us to the world and unlikeable douchebag we’d be controlling in the next Sucker Punch adventure, but there were no experiences even hinted at that previous consoles couldn’t have brought us.

Jonathan Blow’s appearance on stage was a welcome surprise, but as endearing as the style and mantra of The Witness’ dense open world were, his declaration that it would be a timed exclusive, coupled with its unremarkable graphics, made his presence somewhat pointless. It’s as if Sony were so desperate to cash in on the indie-cred that Journey and The Unfinished Swan brought them that they were willing to roll out a high-profile developer and hope that nobody paid too much attention to what he said.

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David Cage’s appearance was another exercise in empty rhetoric.David Cage’s appearance was another exercise in empty rhetoric. He reflected back on how technological advances in the film industry allowed acting to evolve past broad pantomime, and into subtle, emotionally evocative performances. He then declared that with PS4, “games have finally reached that stage,” and he rattled off the ever-increasing polygon count in his character models, as if it was some kind of objective metric of storytelling prowess. An impressively modelled head of an old man appeared on screen behind him, with perfectly rendered skin and dead fish-eyes, and Cage boasted “now we are only limited by our imagination.” The short-sightedness and stupidity of Cage’s remarks will only be fully revealed with the passage of time, but dismissing the current-hardware as a crippling limitation flies in the face of the reverence for Playstation that framed the evening, particularly when Cage’s next title, Beyond: Two Souls, is mere months away from release on PS3.

 The presentation from Media Molecule certainly was something new and different, and even though it used this generation’s Move tech, they’re leveraging the sheer horsepower of the PS4 to enable a “freeform creative journey”. Even though there was no name applied to it (I overheard insiders referring to it as ‘Dream’), no user-interface, or even the promise of a final product, it was absolutely the most exciting demonstration of the evening, as it was unlike anything console gamers have ever experienced.

Sony have asserted that every major publisher in the business is still on board for Playstation 4, which is obviously what gamers want to hear, but none of them love Sony enough to commit to an exclusive relationship. Square Enix bored journalists with the same engine demo that they saw at E3 2012, and casually mentioned that they’re “targeting this level of fidelity” for Sony’s box, and it’s not actually running on their hardware yet. Capcom’s demo representing an upcoming new IP was a little more immediate, but their follow-up to this generation’s MT Framework engine is going to be platform-agnostic. Ubisoft’s demo of Watch_Dogs was exciting, but it’s a release that will straddle current and next gen systems this fall, further undermining the ‘revolutionary’ claims from Sony.

Bungie’s appearance was another damp squib: not only were we supposed to be excited by a few fleeting glimpses of first-person reloading and Halo-esque vistas, but the game will also be coming out on PS3 - which you may remember is considered incapable of granting gamers the kind of experiences worth investing in.

Playstation_2_Still_by_nove.jpgHalf-Baked

What’s apparent is that this was an early reveal intended to get mindshare ahead of Microsoft’s new console announcement; one that resulted in Sony ploughing ahead with half-baked rhetoric that they couldn’t back up, and promised features to which they couldn’t fully commit. The Dualshock 4 has a touchpad that served no purpose during the two hour event. A stereo-camera peripheral was introduced, but then seemingly forgotten about. The sensitive matter of no backwards-compatibility was shrugged off as an impossibility, but Sony are ‘challenging’ themselves to offer some kind of streaming service that might fill in the gaps - who knows what that means? They have “long term visions” that involve downloading your games before you know you want them because Sony know you so well - what bloody good is a promise like that?

So, from this vantage point, how does the next-generation look? Sony’s efforts to create a developer-friendly console is a concession to the expensive rigors of multi-platform development, so the coming cycle will likely see a lot of uniformity of cross-platform ports. Since the gaming landscape is going to be somewhat more homogenous, Sony are banking on the wider social net they’re casting to give Playstation an edge. Companion apps, seamless streaming, and some killer streaming / playable partial downloads are a major coup for Sony’s strategy, since they provide a value-added incentive to buy into Sony’s ecosystem.

For all the criticism I’m throwing at Sony, I do consider this to be the best console reveal the industry has seen yet. We got the name, the controller, the specs, and much more than just some misleading tech demos, but actual games that we’ll be experiencing when the system hits the market. Sony went from invincible champion to battered runner-up in the last generation, and they’re putting top dollar into ameliorating the numerous ways that PS3’s user-interface fell short, from dedicated chips for background downloads, to acquiring Gaikai and their streaming technology for $380m. Meanwhile, their celebrated hospitality for indies and comparatively-lax network restrictions means that Playstation will continue to be a viable avenue for major PC players like Valve and Bilzzard to host their in-game stores free from meddling. My concern is that over the course of two hours, the only ten minute stretch that demonstrated anything remarkable was Media Molecule’s Dream (and that was a prepared demonstration with no live components).

Regardless of how much faith one has in Sony’s ability to deliver on their lofty promises, hardcore gamers can take solace in knowing that they’ll be getting a powerful piece of hardware that’s developer-friendly, paired with an input device that builds on the tried-and-true rather than aiming for mass-market whizz-bangery. If Microsoft decide to take a stab at reinventing the wheel and somehow alienate the core demographic, it’s good to know that there’s now going to be at least one option worth getting excited over in the next generation of consoles.