PlayStation 4 review: Not quite yet worth it

The PlayStation 4’s industrial design is an ode to the parallelogram, says Andrew House, President of Sony Computer Entertainment. Source: Sony

FORTUNE — Ask Sony Computer Entertainment President Andrew House about the company’s newest device, the PlayStation 4, and he’ll put it quite simply: “We learned a lot from challenges with PlayStation 3.” The PlayStation 3 was priced higher than its primary competitor, Microsoft’s (MSFT) Xbox 360, and its cutting-edge technology posed, as House puts it, “considerable challenges to a large swath of developers.”

Sony (SNE) has taken those lessons to heart. When the PlayStation 4 arrives in U.S. stores this Friday, the console will be priced at $399 — $100 less than the all-new Xbox One. And, instead of investing heavily in what House calls “bespoke [tech] architecture,” Sony went with internal components that more closely resemble those found in personal computers. For developers, that means making games for the PlayStation 4 should be a smoother process, with the hopes that there will be more hit games that make the PlayStation 4 a must-have item.

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Sony loaned me a PlayStation 4 earlier this week, and since I’ve spent less than two days with it, consider this more of a hands-on than an all-out review. But my time with the console so far has left me with strong impressions:

The hardware. House calls the PlayStation 4 a veritable ode to the parallelogram, and indeed, the inspiration is obvious, with sharp corners, few curves, and slanted angles dominating the plastic black console’s overall design. It’s a lot smaller than its predecessor — a gorgeous, piano-black behemoth that hogged up too much space next to my TV — and for that, I’m grateful. Games on disc are automatically downloaded to the PS4’s 500-gigabyte hard drive, a quick process that only takes a few minutes. But given how many games take up 30-plus gigabytes of space, that hard drive is bound to fill up quickly.

The controller bears a strong resemblance to last generation’s, but it’s been tweaked a lot for comfort: The trigger buttons and controller nubs are concave instead of convex, for instance, and overall, it’s more contoured to the hand, much more so than the giant tablet controller on Nintendo’s Wii U device, which still feels like I’m holding something vaguely resembling a hardcover book. (In fact, the PS4 controller is quickly becoming my favorite game controller to date.) There’s also a tiny speaker on it that pipes out audio to complement whatever’s happening onscreen, and a smooth, responsive touchpad in the middle, which frankly, I barely need to use for the games I played. The controller’s weakness, if anything, would be the four hours of battery life in-between charges. That’s fine, but I’d prefer more time before having to plug back in.

The PlayStation 4 keeps its user interface simple and easy-to-get around. Source: JP Mangalindan/

The software. The PS4 keeps its menu interface simple to get around. Software updates to games download in the background, and access to things like Netflix’s slick, redesigned app are intuitive and easy. Online features were made available just last night, so I’ve yet to perform a deep dive. That said, downloading games like the shoot ‘em up Battlefield 4 took less than an hour and were hassle-free.

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As for the games? I’ve only managed to play with three, two of which Sony provided: the shooter Killzone, a family-friendly platform game called Knack, and Battlefield 4. The PS4 is about 10 times more powerful than the PS3, and while Killzone in particular sports gorgeous, sweeping post-apocalyptic environments through which to mow enemies down, there wasn’t anything gameplay-wise that screamed “next-generation.” (For instance, I rarely needed to use the new controller’s touchpad.) The family-friendly Knack, a game with some Mario-like jumping elements, is more innovative with its gameplay, but less visually impressive than say, Killzone, and looks like it could have been done on the PlayStation 3. Indeed, many of the device’s initial games will also be available for Xbox One when it arrives, and some games like Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, are also already available for older consoles.

The first-person shooter Killzone: Shadow Fall is beautiful at times but doesn’t particularly feel “next-generation.”

The verdict. Think of the PlayStation 4 as a device with great potential, just one that developers haven’t tapped into much yet — at least, based on my limited time with it. There isn’t any one feature or game I’ve played that screams “next generation.” Games I’ve played with run buttery-smooth and sport some great eye candy, but haven’t exactly “wowed” me, and new features like the controller touchpad have yet to be used in an innovative way. That said, it seems like Sony is on the right track, and like any new console, it can take time — sometimes years — before impressive software arrives that really takes advantage of all that technological muscle. It’s up to the developers now to do so and for gamers to buy in. And given the PS4’s cheaper, competitive price tag, that should be less of a challenge than last generation.

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