What The PS4 Reveal Means For Xbox
Whether you consider Sony the enemy or not, the PlayStation 4 press conference last night made for interesting viewing for Xbox fans. As the first of the two rival companies to blink when it comes to a next-generation machine, it gave clues as to how games on the Xbox 720 will look, feel and play.
While we won't know for sure until Microsoft's own reveal, we can at least make some early predictions as to where PlayStation has put itself at an advantage and where Sony might have dropped the ball. Read on for a guaranteed 98.5% fanboyism-free analysis.
The first thing to recognise is that cross-platform games are probably going to look much more similar this time around. Sony confirmed that this time around the PlayStation will be much closer to PC technology than the bizarre Skynet nonsense they filled the PS3 with. To be clear, PC tech makes it easier for developers to make games for the console, resulting in better optimised games. It's an advantage the Xbox 360 has enjoyed for an entire generation but one that is about to be erased.
The Unreal Engine was bound to make an appearance, and both Sony and Microsoft will be doing their utmost to ensure Epic's dominant technology runs without compromise on the console. Sony's tech bod proudly announced that the console will have 8GB of unified memory, perhaps expecting raucous applause and shirt helicoptering from the audience. While the response was more subdued, it is a big deal for developers.
Both the Xbox 360 and PS3 feature a modest 512MB of RAM, but the PS3 further hamstrung itself by splitting its allocation evenly in half between graphics and other processing. That meant if there was a visually intensive scene the PS3 was unable to 'borrow' memory from, say, the physics engine. Again, that's no longer going to be a problem, so a competitive advantage in the fresh console war is realistically going to come from exclusive games, services and peripherals. Let's be generous and talk about where Sony got it right first.
Arguably Sony's biggest trump card is the Gaikai video streaming technology which seems to form the basis of the new PlayStation Network. It takes the things that were brilliant about OnLive and applies them to the next generation, with none of the things that were faintly rubbish about OnLive. Streaming and sharing video clips are built into the system, every PS4 is capable of broadcasting and it uses the missing-presumed-dead Vita as a Wii U style controller.
Depending on how cloud tech and video streaming is used, it could well be the clearest difference between PlayStation 4 and Xbox Live. Instant demos and downloads, the ability to jump in and control a friend's game and just the creation of a social network rich with entertaining game clips and streams should all be considered a good thing. Again, after years of PlayStation Network being a clunky imitation of Xbox Live, that advantage may well have disappeared entirely.
The addition of real names and faces might well make Playstation Network a more pleasant place to hang out as well. People tend to be less abusive when the cover of anonymity is removed and while there will still be arguments forged in the heat of TDM, we reckon there'll be less open hostility.
A final win for Sony was Jonathan Blow's brief mention of self-publishing for independent developers on PlayStation Network. There were few details about how this will work, but given that Microsoft are shutting down the already-ghettoised Indie Games channel, it suggests that they are moving in the opposite direction towards a more controlled environment. That could be bad news if the PS4 ends up being a place indie developers flock to - remember, this is an easier machine to create games for as well.
So if this all sounds a bit disheartening as an Xbox fan, worry not, these are just the big wins. Besides, while Gakai's cloud technology is a bit of a coup, it's not impossible that Microsoft has its own technology that would offer similar functionality. So let's look to the areas where Xbox 720 remains strong.
Sony certainly didn't smash this one out of the park, mainly because when it came to the games themselves, it was an uninspiring showing. It should have been a bombardment of spectacular exclusives, but in the end it was a cross-platform, third-party game that stole the show. As at E3, Watch Dogs was the most exciting thing there and that is, without a shadow of a doubt, coming to the next Xbox as well.
Exclusives-wise, there was nothing that left us aching for our loss. Sony trotted out a Killzone game - which while impressive in its scale, did nothing to suggest it'll shake itself from the declining reviews the previous games in the series have received - and a new instalment in the Infamous series, which we're given to understand is good, dumb fun.
Gran Turismo was conspicuous in its absence, replaced instead with Evolution Software's DriveClub, a presentation that spent more time talking about carbon fibre weave and metallic paint than why it will be different from any other racing game. Finally there was Knack, a cutesy adventure thing that provoked not even a minor increase in heart rate.
It seems we might have lost Jonathan Blow's The Witness to the competition for a few months, but frankly it looked quite a lot like barely-interactive slideshow Myst, only with some Wicker Man folk music. All that chat about distilling the substance of 'aha' just had us humming Take On Me under our breath. Sorry, Jo-Blo, but we'll need to see more before we're sold.
And while the video streaming technology is rather tasty, Sony steered clear of mentioning other interesting technologies like full body and finger tracking a la Kinect 2.0 and 4K resolution gaming. There were only vague promises about backwards compatibility and even then, only via streaming.
With the huge popularity of the Oculus Rift Kickstarter, it feels like the opportunity to take a proper punt at virtual reality on a home console is still there for the taking too. Whether or not anyone wants to risk the guaranteed meme-fodder that is a VR headset at a console reveal is another question entirely.
As for the Vita/Wii U connection, think of it this way - Microsoft is unburdened by the need to flog a failing handheld device. That's why we expect Microsoft to offer a premium, touchscreen controller much like the Wii U's, which will be available for much cheaper than buying a Vita outright.
What's become clear is that in terms of the hardware under the hood, there's not going to be a great deal to choose between the two machines. By announcing second, Microsoft are now in a position where they can respond to and counter some of Sony's claims with their own tech, while revealing their own new exclusive features and games.
And when it comes down to it, there are a huge number of external factors that will affect who ultimately 'wins' the console war. The most successful console might be the one that is available first or it might be that, because profiles on Xbox Live and PSN are transferred, there's stronger loyalty on both sides than there was at the last generational leap. Whatever happens, these really are exciting times.