• Sat. Oct 24th, 2020

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Technology

The Best And Worst Uses Of PlayStation 4 Hardware

The eight generation of home consoles was a strange time for video games. There were a lot of big ideas at play at Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo, as each tried to capitalize on a number of developing and receding trends. All three platform holders were trying to set themselves apart, keep up with one another, and determine what might be the next piece of technology that took off among gamers the way motion control had for the Wii. It was a time that led to a lot of gimmicks and ideas that slowly fizzled over the life of the consoles–and others that appeared midway to become pretty successful.

Ahead of the PlayStation 5 and the next generation of game consoles, we’re looking back at some of the best and worst tech ideas of the Playstation 4–from the capabilities of the DualShock 4 controller, to the advent of PlayStation VR. Over the years, there have been some things that worked, plenty that didn’t, and many that were either abandoned or iterated upon.

Sharing And Streaming Become Quick And Easy

If there’s one idea that made sense from the start with the PS4, it’s the console’s simple, easy-to-use sharing controls. Using the DualShock 4 controller’s dedicated Share button, you can snap screenshots while playing, make a recording of whatever just happened in-game, start or stop a recording, and stream to services such as Twitch pretty much instantly. Sony recognized how big a deal streaming games had become in the PS3 era, and included robust, extremely useful content-sharing capabilities for the PS4 in response.

The PS4’s Share options made streaming easy for a lot of players who might not have considered it before, and while the quality was a little hinky at launch (I remember my Twitch test streams looking pretty awful in 2013), it still helped open up the streaming space to a lot of people. It also made it easier for the gaming community to create memes, show off big plays, share them on Twitter, and otherwise be more social with one another. The Share features on the PS4 did a lot of work expanding the world of gaming and making it a more social and vibrant place–just like online gaming had done in the generation before.

The Motion Controls That Always Feel Weird

The DualShock 4’s controller has a lot of weird little gimmicks that have gotten various degrees of use over the system’s life. A holdover from the PlayStation 3 is Sixaxis, a motion control gyroscope inside the controller that would allow players to move, twist, or rock it to perform certain functions. For the PS3, Sixaxis felt like a motion control gimmick Sony threw in so that it could chase the popularity of the Nintendo Wii (the PS Move peripheral was an even clearer attempt at motion control games, of course); in the PS4, the functionality never really found a home.

A few games found ways to work in a bit of motion control into their designs, but there are few uses for Sixaxis in the vast majority of titles. Recently, both The Last of Us Part 2 and Death Stranding made use of your ability to control the game by moving the entire controller, but pretty minimally. In The Last of Us 2, you can shake the controller to recharge your flashlight’s batteries. The game even has more options for gyro controls in its menus, if you want them. In Death Stranding, you could move your controller in order to sooth your BB when it gets upset, mimicking the sense of cradling and rocking the baby.

But if you’re having trouble thinking of other notable motion-sensing moments in PS4 gaming, that’s because there aren’t that many of them. A lot of the time when they do come up, the Sixaxis controls just don’t feel responsive enough, especially when they require you to turn the controller or execute anything like a complex motion. It just never felt good to use, which is probably why very few games actually employ the option. And of course, the Xbox One doesn’t have comparable tech in its controllers–so for the most part, any game that’s not PS4-exclusive skipped the option to utilize Sixaxis.

Maybe the best use of motion control as it stands now is for aiming, although it doesn’t come up very often as a function. You see this capability in Dreams, which allows you to move the controller around to guide your Imp cursor on the screen. It’s pretty intuitive and fluid, which shows how useful Sixaxis could have been with the right ideas behind it. You can also use motion control for text input menus, which makes entering passwords when signing into things like the PlayStation store or streaming services super quick and easy. Too bad we didn’t find more opportunities for motion control aiming in PS4 games.

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Adding Swipe Controls With The Dualshock Touchpad

Motion controls were one gimmick in the Dualshock 4 that never really took off; another was the touchpad. The big trend throughout the tech world during the PS4 generation was the rise of smartphones and touch technology, and the touchpad felt like Sony’s attempt to try to bottle some of that lightning for the PS4. (The Vita had much the same vibe, pulling a bunch of smartphone technology into a dedicated gaming device.) The big black rectangle in the center of your PS4 controller actually supports touch controls like gestures and swipes, but you wouldn’t know it in the case of most games. Though a few launch titles used the touchpad for various gestures, in the end, it mostly became a giant button in the middle of your controller.

Launch games tended to go with touch controls using the touchpad–Killzone: Shadowfall supported various gestures to do things like throw grenades, for instance–but the idea never saw widespread adoption. As with motion controls, you can probably chalk some of that up to cross-platform gaming, but it’s also true that the touchpad rarely felt especially responsive. Unlike pressing a solid button, it was easy to try to execute one specific movement and accidentally activating another. That made gestures get more and more simplified, so that controls rarely seemed to go past things like a vertical or horizontal swipe. When they’re straightforward, they’re pretty effective–Ghost of Tsushima uses the touchpad for a few simple swipe functions, taking advantage to add a few extra controls that otherwise wouldn’t fit on the controller’s button layout.

More often than not, though, the touchpad gets used for its button-press capability; it basically functions as one big extra button, usually to pull up a map or pause menu. As a button, the touchpad is pretty damn useful, and easy to reach with either thumb thanks to its enormous size. But it feels like a largely unrealized idea, and a big chunk of controller real estate that could have been used in other, more interesting ways. The touchpad is back with the DualSense controller, though, so one wonders if Sony is hoping to help developers find more use for the technology in the future.

Your Controller Is Now A Light Show

Apart from the big black space of the touchpad, the most unique thing about the DualShock 4 controller is the giant light on its back side. It’s hard to say whether this one is a good idea on Sony’s part or a bad one, because it has so little major impact on gameplay–and yet adds some cool touches.

Essentially, the light brightens, changes colors, and reacts to what you’re doing in some games. The lights are at their most useful in multiplayer games, because the colors correspond to which player number each controller represents–so you can easily see which controller belongs to what player if you set them down. The light is also used to convey some gameplay information in certain titles. In Destiny 2, for example, the light changes to yellow when your Super is fully charged. But that’s usually just a way for you to pick up peripherally what you’re already seeing on screen, like in Grand Theft Auto 5, when the controller flashes red and blue as you’re being chased by the cops.

Where the light excels is in helping create ambiance and add to the feeling of immersion in the game by reacting without being important. The Super light and cop flashers are two good examples, and color changes that react to the time of day (like in Fez) or beep along with the motion tracker (as in Alien: Isolation) are nice for making PS4 games feel like they’re not just happening on your screen.

The trouble with the light is that you can’t turn it off. Sony eventually released a firmware patch that let you turn down the light’s intensity, but it’s always on–and anecdotally, it feels like a battery hog, snarfing up your controller’s charge faster than it ought to. With the light adding little to gameplay experiences, one wonders why you can’t just turn it off. It seemed as though the light was intended for additional PS Camera integration, making it easier for the camera to see in the same way lights on the PS Move controllers do, but there was never a lot going on there. So in most cases, the DualShock controller light is just a minor annoyance or a fun novelty, and oftentimes, it’s both.

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The Vita: Your Second Screen Controller

The PlayStation Vita has slowly faded into obscurity over the course of the last generation, which is a shame–it was a neat, smart little machine, and worthy of praise if only because of its ability to download and play Chrono Cross, Vagrant Story, and bygone games of PlayStations past. But at the launch of the PlayStation 4, the Vita was a bigger part of Sony’s overall strategy. If you never owned one of the handhelds or you haven’t touched it in a while, you might have forgotten just how much of a companion it was to the PS4.

Before Sony started to phase the Vita out, it played with the idea of integrating the machine as a second-screen option and a spiffed-up controller. The idea wasn’t too different from the way Nintendo’s Wii U gamepad worked: with the Vita’s extra screen and touch capabilities, you could display additional information or provide different input capabilities.

It’s tough to find a list of games that support the Vita’s second-screen capabilities, but the ones that did often provided some useful, if a bit pedestrian, additions to the experience. In Wolfenstein: The New Order, the Vita displays the level map and your health. You can also use the Vita for a handy map in Metal Gear Solid V. The second screen usually seems to be the place for menu information you’d normally have to stop playing to access–but you get the occasional demonstration of what the tech could have been used to do. Tearaway Unfolded, a game ported to the PS4 from the Vita, makes use of the second screen and Vita touch controls to expand the experience (which actually makes it a lot more similar to the Vita version).

While the idea of two screens to play one game seems like it could have engendered a lot of potentially cool ideas from developers, it never really took off–likely because of the cost required for consumers to access the feature.

Playing PS4–On Everything Else

Another of the Vita’s PS4-aligned capabilities was its Remote Play option. The little device can sync up with your PS4 over WiFi, allowing you to play any PS4 games on the handheld via streaming. It’s the same sort of tech at play with PlayStation Now, Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass cloud gaming, or Google Stadia: the game is running on the PS4 but the output and input data are sent over a WiFi connection to your handheld.

Remote Play is actually a long-running idea in the PlayStation ecosystem. The Vita’s predecessor, the PlayStation Portable, carried the feature with the PlayStation 3.. Though the Vita never caught on, Sony has continued to expand Remote Play to bring your PS4 to lots of other devices. There are now mobile apps that let you link to your console and play games either with connected controllers or with on-screen touch controls. You can also download Remote Play apps to your PC or Mac to play your PS4 on your computer.

As tech abilities with the PS4 go, Remote Play is pretty damn handy, and reliably stable. The only requirement is a strong internet connection, and it’s nice to fire up Spelunky or Marvel’s Spider-Man and continue playing on another device, even if you’re not sitting in front of your TV. There has been more than one occasion that I fired up a Vita or smartphone from across the country to update my PS4 at home, download new games, and give them a whirl.

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Companion Apps (Kind Of) Expanded Casual Gaming

As smartphones became a ubiquitous part of the social landscape, they inevitably started to pop up in video games. There was a while there that lots of big new games had companion apps to go with them, and several games touted possibilities that never really came to fruition. By way of example, The Division was originally set to have a companion app that would allow you to interact with players on console, piloting a drone around to aid in their game–or mess them up. It never made it to release, though. Other companion apps did the second-screen thing of allowing you to see a map while you played or gave you other menu-type functionality. For instance, Fallout 4’s companion app allowed you to access your PipBoy without opening the in-game menu.

Sony’s companion app plans went a little farther, and they’re actually pretty cool, if a little underused. The system is called PlayLink, and the app lets you control various games that use it over WiFi. The idea here is to basically let you use your phone as a controller for multiplayer games on the more casual end of the spectrum, where you don’t need a lot of precision. It’s a great idea for party games in particular, or games that can feel party-like. Maybe the most interesting implementation was in Hidden Agenda, a game from Until Dawn developer Supermassive Games. In a similar way to Until Dawn, Hidden Agenda feels like an interactive movie, and the controls focus on scouring crime scenes for clues and voting on choices that access branching story paths as the protagonists hunt a serial killer. There’s also the ability to make some players of the game double-agents working on behalf of the bad guys–hence the Hidden Agenda name.

A few other games have cropped up here and there with smartphone controls, including Erica, an FMV game with branching choices similar to Hidden Agenda. The smartphone control idea seems like a pretty great one for casual games–the Jackbox titles use this option to great effect–but PlayLink has a pretty slim library of supported titles. It’s a shame, because the smartphone app idea works to make games very accessible for people who don’t necessarily play a lot of games, so hopefully this is an idea that finds more traction in the future.

The PlayStation Camera Returns For Some Reason

Like the DualShock’s Sixaxis controls, the PlayStation Camera felt like a holdover from the PS3 era. After the Nintendo Wii became a breakout hit with its motion controls, Sony and Microsoft looked to create contenders. Microsoft developed the Kinect, a powerful camera that ditched the need for controllers by just mapping your movements onto the screen. And Sony released the PlayStation Move, which used the combination of a camera and special motion controllers for more precise tracking than the Wii. When the PS4 released, Sony created a better version of the camera, but initially, it didn’t really have a lot of clear uses for games.

Partially, the PlayStation Camera felt like the continuation of the console maker keeping up with the motion control trend even as it was dwindling. But the real upshot of the camera at launch was to interact with the PS4’s built-in sharing and streaming capabilities. Where most streamers at the time had to build custom broadcasting setups on their PCs, Sony’s version worked as an entry level streaming kit. The Kinect offered the same functionality on the Xbox One and was required with that console at launch, so the PlayStation Camera also helped Sony keep parity with its competitor.

But the camera didn’t have a ton of gameplay uses. Like the Kinect, it included a built-in microphone that was usable for games that supported voice controls in games and for the PS4’s menus. And it worked for games like The Playroom, EyeToy: Play, and Just Dance. But even though both Sony and Microsoft had consoles with cameras that sported a lot of the same features, not a lot of developers made a ton of use out of them.

It wasn’t until 2016 that the true potential of the PlayStation Camera became apparent, though.

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PlayStation VR Becomes The Affordable Version of Virtual Reality

As Oculus Rift created a big resurgence in interest in virtual reality, Sony jumped on the trend with PlayStation VR, and offered a version of the tech that was actually pretty laudable. PSVR was affordable in comparison to the offerings of Oculus and HTC, and while it wasn’t as powerful or high-res a headset, that lowered the barrier of entry on VR significantly.

Sony also made the smart move of utilizing existing peripherals with PSVR. You can play a lot of games with just a headset and a DualShock controller, but if you want the more immersive, motion-tracking experiences, you can get those too with the PlayStation Camera. Suddenly, a peripheral that didn’t seem to have much application if you weren’t a streamer or a dance game fan got a second life. PSVR also makes use of PS Move controllers, which are still compatible with PS4 from the PS3 era. So if you happened to be a motion control fan or an early adopter, you didn’t have to buy a bunch of new peripherals to access VR.

It’s true that Sony’s VR tech doesn’t look quite as good in motion as higher-end headsets from Oculus or HTC, but PSVR is still very impressive. Its controls are solid and responsive in all games, and the inclusion of the headset in Sony’s stable of peripherals has led to some games including VR support–like Resident Evil VII, which is terrifying in VR. Sony has a slate of VR exclusives at this point that’s pretty solid, and for a long time, Sony offered the most convenient and affordable doorway into VR for most players. Oculus is starting to cut in on that space with its Quest headset line, so it’ll be interesting to see how Sony stays competitive. But while VR remains a niche space in gaming as we go into the next console generation, a lot of the success it has enjoyed is thanks to Sony and PSVR, and that makes the headset probably Sony’s best tech idea of the generation.

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