Sunday, November 17, 2013

Critic’s Notebook: Sizing Up the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One

Tony Cenicola/The New York TimesThe multipurpose concept advances: the Sony PlayStation 4, left, and the Microsoft Xbox One.

THE video game console is dead, and the body has been cold for a long time. Sure, Sony and Microsoft are releasing what everyone describes as new game consoles, but the term is a misnomer. The Sony PlayStation 4, released on Friday, and Microsoft’s Xbox One, due next Friday, are game consoles in the same way that the iPhone is a telephone.

Arts & Entertainment GuideA sortable calendar of noteworthy cultural events in the New York region, selected by Times critics.

Games first: the Sony PlayStation 4.

There hasn’t been a true game console under most TV sets for almost a decade, maybe longer. The aging Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, which begin their descent into obsolescence this week, do a lot more than play games. So does Nintendo’s high-definition Wii U, which was released a year ago.

You could watch National Football League and Major League Baseball games on the PlayStation 3. You could watch ESPN and HBO Go on the Xbox 360. You could surf the Internet, listen to music, connect with friends and feast on a buffet of streaming-video options — YouTube, Amazon, Hulu, Vudu and more — on both. Even the original Wii played Netflix.

The new machines — especially the Xbox One — accelerate this multipurpose evolution. They will compete with products like Roku and Apple TV in addition to the Wii U and the personal computer. Yet consoles face new competitors, too. There are now more places to play games than ever before: hand-held devices, computers, smartphones and tablets. New entrants like the independent console Ouya arrived this year, and Valve’s Steam Machines, living-room versions of the dominant PC gaming marketplace, are expected in 2014.

With this uncertain environment in mind, we put our hands on the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One this week. What follows is a preview of what they offer.


In a world of Swiss Army entertainment devices, Sony is promoting the PlayStation 4 as something closer to a Swiss clock, elegantly designed for a single use. From the start, granted, its new console will include 11 entertainment applications — Amazon Instant Video, Redbox Instant, Netflix, Hulu and the like — with more to come. But Sony has pushed the new PlayStation as a games-first console that, at $399, is $100 cheaper than its rival.

The breadth of the price difference is deceptive. You have to buy a $60 camera to enable voice and facial recognition, or even just to play the three free mini-games that come bundled as the Playroom, a technical demonstration of how game designers might use two new features on the PlayStation 4 controller — a touch pad and a light bar that can change colors — to create new forms of play.

In one demo, a player can swipe the touch pad to make it appear on screen as if a small army of robots is being flicked out of the controller and into the living room. The camera acts as a sort of mirror, reflecting back an animated-robot-augmented version of the actual room. The robots waved back to a friendly hand gesture and were comically toppled by the cord from a set of headphones.

The PlayStation 4 controller is a significant improvement over the PlayStation 3’s, which had mushy bumpers instead of triggers on the back, making it inferior to the Xbox 360 controller for shooting games.

The importance of a controller to interactive entertainment is one way that new consoles are not quite the equivalent of innovations in movie theaters, like cup holders or stadium seating. A movie may be more enjoyable in a more comfortable theater, but the essential nature of the film doesn’t change with such perks. By contrast, the player’s relationship to the controller is at the very heart of interactivity.

Perhaps the most visible change on the PlayStation 4 controller is the removal of the “start” and “select” buttons that have been with us since the introduction of the Nintendo Entertainment System in the 1980s, in favor of buttons labeled “options” and “share.” Press share, and you can upload a screen shot of your game play to Facebook or Twitter, or a video to Facebook. (The system is perpetually recording the last 15 minutes of play. You can post the whole thing or quickly edit a snippet.) The PlayStation 4 also makes it simple to broadcast your play live on the services Twitch and Ustream.

The share button is part of a shift toward consoles as social networks, a transformation that began years ago with Microsoft’s Xbox Live and its friends list. More so than Xbox One, the PlayStation 4 is constantly notifying you what your friends have been doing with their consoles. And if players consent, the system will use their real names instead of the anonymous CB-style handles that, perhaps, encourage the culture of harassment and bullying that afflicts online play. In a notable change, the PlayStation 4, following the Xbox model, requires a subscription to compete with others over the Internet.

Chris Suellentrop, a former editor for The Times, and Stephen Totilo, the editor in chief of, write about video games.

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