Sony have gone from strength to strength this generation, with the tens of millions of PlayStation 4 sales giving them a kind of confidence and swagger that was missing for much of the PlayStation 3’s lifespan. Yet the end of 2016 saw them at a crossroads, with a trio of new hardware releases and fresh challenges ahead of them. Here’s what we want to see from Sony over the next 12 months.
A major part of a console manufacturer’s job is to lead the way and create games that manage to get the very most out of the hardware. That’s especially true when a new console with new ideas is just starting out, but it’s something that I’m really not seeing with the PlayStation VR right now. While Sony are content to announce console games years in advance of any possible release – Death Stranding and The Last of Us Part II are prime examples of this – leading to the feeling that there are dozens of first party exclusives on the horizon, the same cannot be said for PSVR.
Farpoint looks like a promising semi-on-the-rails shooter – albeit one that strongly hints that Sony would quite like you to buy that bespoke gun controller – Starblood Arena looks like a fun 6DOF multiplayer shooter, and racing fans are gagging to discover how much of GT Sport will be playable in VR, but there’s precious little else coming out of Sony’s stable of studios. After the way the PlayStation Vita faded from the limelight, Sony need to do more to back their hardware up. There’s more than just PSVR hanging on this, but the entire VR headset market.
Similar things can be said of the PlayStation 4 Pro. It’s priced appealingly and brings the notion of 4K gaming into the mainstream, but it’s also fair to say that it missed having a “killer app” when it launched back in November. Lots of games were updated to support the Pro, but the results have been inconsistent at best. Some of the best examples have 2160p with checkerboarding, others like Uncharted 4 run at 1440p, others simply shore up at 1080p with a few extra effects, and there’s only a tiny handful of games that make use of HDR. None of these are in any way labelled or highlighted in the PlayStation Dynamic Menu, and even diving into patch notes often does little to clear up what game now does what. Just last week, Mafia III was updated with PS4 Pro support, with no real fanfare.
That lack of clarity and varying results from first and third parties both hurt the PS4 Pro’s appeal, but it’s something that should improve through 2017 as games are released with support baked in and have had more development time devoted to supporting HDR and Ultra HD. Here Sony are definitely leading the charge, with the likes of GT Sport and Horizon: Zero Dawn poised to make the very most of this tech.
However, there’s the looming spectre of quality assurance and the increased burden that catering to more and more hardware set ups can have. The rule that Sony stated was the while resolution and effects may increase, performance between PS4 and PS4 Pro should be identical, but Digital Foundry has pointed to numerous instances where that’s not the case. Watch Dogs 2, The Last of Us and others had poorer performance on Pro at launch, while Battlefield 1 and The Last Guardian suffers on the original PS4, and on and on. Getting the best out of the Pro is important, but it’s equally vital that the standard PS4 doesn’t suffer. There’s a real risk that a lot of games are going to get caught in this no man’s land.
Sony do have a vested interest in getting this transition right, beyond just selling millions of new consoles and games. The cynical might suspect that helping to prop up their long struggling TV business was one of the main driving factors behind embracing 4K and HDR so soon, and it probably was a major factor, but it works both ways. Having a PS4 Pro makes getting a 4K HDR TV more desirable, just as much as having a 4K HDR TV makes it more worthwhile having a PS4 Pro.
Sony’s 2017 range of TVs needs to achieve two things: they need to lower the entry point to meaningful HDR that meets and adheres to the Premium UHD specification, and they also need to be vying to be the best HDR gaming TVs going. Somewhat disappointingly, their 2017 range of TVs, the XE series, seems to be more of an incremental improvement over 2016’s XD class, outside of Sony’s new top end OLED TV. Local dimming remains a high end feature, but hopefully the improved chipsets within these TVs can improve upon last year’s middling input lag times.
However, there’s still work to be done on older products and existing infrastructure. The PlayStation Dynamic Menu has matured over time with things like folder support – though folders could still be improved upon – and broader social networking features, but there’s still some silly oversights like the PS4 Pro not being able to play HEVC encoded video files.
The system interactions when using PlayStation VR could also use an overhaul. I’m still baffled that I can happily be spammed by the sounds of notifications, but there’s not even a simple and unobtrusive indication when playing a game as to what this might be, leaving me to pause the game, head right back out to the main menu and puzzle over what’s actually happened. I’d also like for the PSVR to take a leaf out of the HTC Vive’s book and load up a simple environment when viewing the PDM, instead of having you in a plain black void – I know Sony don’t want to split the customer experience too much, but if this is only possible on PS4 Pro, so be it.
Despite the money pouring in from PlayStation Plus subscriptions, the PlayStation Store and PlayStation Network still leave you wanting. PSN has become a lot more stable over the last few years and is now subject to far less maintenance, but when it comes to downloading games – perhaps those Instant Game Collection games everyone loves to complain about – Microsoft, Steam and others run at much higher speeds.
It will soon be a year since Microsoft opened up and decided to allow cross platform play between Xbox and PlayStation, but aside from a terse response, nothing has really happened since. PlayStation to PC multiplayer happens on occasion, most notably with multiplayer VR games like EVE: Valkyrie, Eagle Flight and Werewolves Within, but PS4 to Xbox One remains off limits. Rocket League is in the laughable position of featuring both PS4 to PC and Xbox One to PC multiplayer, but not being able to mix the two. Wouldn’t it be nice to break down those walls further, helping to boost and extend the longevity of countless multiplayer oriented games? Of course, it’s never in the best interests of the market leader at the time to open up in that manner.
Navigating the PlayStation Store is still rather lacklustre as well, not having been improved upon since its 2012 redesign. Search on console uses a long scrolling list of letters that takes much longer to use and is less precise than using an on-screen keyboard, and the web interface is blighted by its bizarre in-page loading system that has you waiting for several seconds to display anything. It’s sluggish compared to Steam or the Microsoft Store. As game purchases gradually shift from physical to digital, it’s also bizarre that you’re unable to gift a game to someone via the PS Store, despite the inclusion of and ability to browse other people’s wishlists.
Finally, it’s been nearly a year since they disappeared from the weekly EU PlayStation Blog, but it’s about time that they reevaluate the utility of posting prices on the PS Store updates, or at the very least show the percentage reductions that games get when going on sale.
Coming into 2017, Sony are in an incredibly strong position, and that’s exactly when you need to push hard to improve yourself and do better, instead of holding back and waiting for others to catch up.