As we all know, or at least think we know, Sony is all set to unveil PlayStation 4 (or Orbis. Or PlayStation) at a New York press conference on Wednesday, February 20th. As with every console announcement, or indeed major tech announcement these days, the internet is awash with speculation, rumour (both sourced and unsubstantiated), and a torrent of noise and bluster. No surprises there. Perhaps more than any other time though, certainly any other dawn of a new console generation, there’s an air of apathy and malaise creeping its way into the online discussion and social media chit-chat.
One reason – of many – is that the PC has reestablished itself not only as the go-to platform for cerebral, mature, adult gaming experiences, but now also the types of games that had previously been the domain of the consoles. The easiest example here is Far Cry 3 - still a wonderful game on 360 and PS3, but so much better on a decent PC that it really signaled the end for these aging boxes.
So with PlayStation 4 on the horizon, and a list of leaked specs that make the old machine look like a shoebox, clearly consoles will be able to display this sort of now-requisite graphical fidelity, but still there’s apathy. To many, the days of fixed-powered crates of gaming capability feel positively old fashioned, they’re relics, and the PS4 just represents another go-around for an outmoded model. The future is in Steam Box, in iOS, in Google, Facebook and whatever else is around the corner.
I disagree. Hugely. While the specs, on paper, might not match up to the highest of high-end PCs at the moment, and definitely won’t in a few years, specs aren’t and will never be as important as artistry. Would Journey be improved if you were able to toy with the framerate or tweak the Field Of View? While some might argue yes, for me – as a believer in the power of the author and the artist – I say no. Resoundingly so.
There’s merit and truth to the notion that a level-playing field allows artists to express themselves. This is by no means an anti-PC rant - I love the openness of PC gaming, I adore Steam - but by eliminating the variables inherent in different graphics cards, processors and RAM setups, the discussion gets back to where it should be - the games.
That’s always what PlayStation’s represented to me – great games, and a simple gateway to worlds that could be construed as works of art. That's why we need PlayStation 4. The same can be said for other consoles, absolutely, but ever since the talk of the ‘emotion engine’ in the days of the PS2, I’ve bought into that rhetoric. Of course it’s marketing hyperbole, but it comes from the right place, and that’s been proven by a library of games that has tried to push the boundaries of the medium. From critical heavyweights Ico, Heavy Rain and Journey (among many others) to blockbusters such as Uncharted, PlayStation has always been at the forefront of changing what we expect from games.
Remember when this was the most exciting image in the world? Let's hope the PS4 delivers like this machine did
Ostensibly, this is a pro console argument rather than a pro PlayStation specifically, but this first sniff of the next-gen is palpably exciting to me. While we eagerly await the games that will herald the true dawn of PS4, it’s not hard to speculate on a couple of efforts that will more than likely accompany the new console in its launch window.
The impressive-looking Star Wars 1313 may be caught in the crossfire between Lucas and Disney, but its strong showing at E3 2012 suggests that it’s not going anywhere. And it looks the business - spectacular staging, unprecedented effects. It doesn’t look to be doing anything hugely new, though. Cover-shooting, explosions, green and red lasers...
More interesting is Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs, a game that demonstrates the two most tantalising prospects of next gen for me – new IP, and new gameplay. It’s no secret that new consoles bring the possibility and potential for publishers to toy with new ideas, to launch new wannabe-franchises in the hope that hungry early adopters will snap them up to justify their new purchases. It also gives developers and creatives the opportunity to try different things. Watch Dogs is thematically intriguing, and already looks spectacular, but beyond the E3 demo's rather played-out fire fight, there’s a fascinating camera pan up to a second character, who we can only presume is another protagonist. Could this be asynchronous cooperative play in a highly-detailed open world? These are the reasons I get excited about next gen.
Much of the innovation in gaming at the moment comes from the indie space; something I find incredibly, life-affirmingly healthy and positive for the industry. However, the nature of indie means that budgets are tight and production values smaller. The promise of PlayStation 4 means that Triple A is going to be a feeding ground for the innovators once again. If not, quite simply, the machine will not need to exist.
The potential for innovation extends further than the software. The much-touted Share functionality – that it’s suggested will automatically record the last 15 minutes of gameplay at a hardware level – finally gives credence to the YouTube culture that has taken our industry by storm in the past couple of years. While the details are still unclear, the promise of hardware-end video recording is huge for gaming, not only being able to share tactics and secrets, but also to enjoy games in a completely new way creatively. This, combined with the burgeoning relationship with now Sony-owned streaming-service Gaikai (which will surely play a part in Wednesday’s presentation) has far-reaching possibilities, should it be implemented together.
PlayStation 4 is exactly what the video game industry needs right now. The pressure is on Sony to restore the faith its consumers are lacking, and to reaffirm the power of a brand that was once synonymous with the very medium itself. It needs to lead once again. And if it can do that, if PlayStation 4 can get the world excited about video games once more, then everyone wins.