One of the advantages the Playstation 3 has always had over the Xbox was the lack of a subscription in order to play online. If you want to play online on the Xbox 360 (and also on their new console, the Xbox One), or access any of the streaming video services, you had to have an Xbox Live Gold Subscription, which would set you back £40 a year. While the Wii let you play online for free, it didn't really have all that many games that took advantage of the system, as developers instead chose to focus on same-console, split-screen multiplayer - but the Playstation 3 did. While the console let you play online for free, Sony eventually introduced their own subscription system, called Playstation Plus.
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Rather than locking out access to online play for anyone who doesn't have a subscription, Playstation Plus instead gave subscribers access to a number of new features - most significantly, what became known as an "instant game collection", which let subscribers download, and play full games, for free. Giving you access to a library of ten games - most of which were full price retail games when they hit the shelves - completely free of charge, you could download, and play any of the games you wanted, so long as you remained a Plus subscriber, at a cost of £40 a year. With a list that was constantly updated throughout the year, you'd retain access to any games you downloaded as part of your subscription, and could re-download them at any time, meaning your library of free games simply grew and grew.
With the launch of Sony's most recent handheld, the PS Vita, the service's value grew even further, as a single subscription netted you access to free games across both platforms. If you owned both a PS3 and a PS Vita, a Playstation Plus subscription would net you instant access to 13 full games - with many more being added through the year. With a satisfaction rating of over 95%, it may come as no surprise that Sony have big plans for the service on the Playstation 4 - although there's going to be a few changes along the way.
Perhaps the most significant change is that a Playstation Plus subscription will now be required for online play. Moving the service to be on a more level pegging with Xbox Live, if you want to play most games online, you'll have to take out a £40 Playstation Plus subscription. Much like on the Playstation 3, Playstation Plus subscribers will also have access to free games, which, on the PS4, will see new games being added to the service every month. Available on day one as a free download for Playstation Plus subscribers will be brand new racing game, Drive Club PS Plus edition, which will come complete with all the tracks, courses and modes from the game, and a selection of cars. As time goes on, the line-up will be augmented by a new game each month, including several games from smaller studios, such as randomly generated hack and slash game Don't Starve, creepy horror title Outlast, and dual analogue spaghetti western, the Secret Ponchos. And, of course, if you already own a PS3 or PS Vita, you'll be able to take advantage of the free games you can download for those platforms too, all for the cost of a single subscription.
Along with access to a constantly updated library of free games, and online play, Playstation Plus subscribers will also get early access to beta programs, exclusive discounts in Sony's regular (and substantial) sales, and the ability to store your saves online, and access them anywhere. Doing everything Xbox Live does, for the same price, only with a library of free games thrown in for good measure, the ball's now well and truly in Microsoft's court to see how they'll respond.
Meanwhile, Sony also detailed some of the other areas they've upgraded and improved that Playstation 4's online capabilities. One of the biggest upgrades is the addition of cross-game voice chat, which lets two people playing different titles - or doing completely different things - chat together using the console's bundled headset. Along with the new chat features, Sony also reiterated the power of their incredibly handy "share" button, which lets you take screenshots, or edit and share video of your gameplay at the touch of a button. Automatically recording the last several minutes of action, a touch of the button is all it takes to trim, and share the footage with your friends, either across the Playstation Network, or online on Facebook or uStream.
While restricting online play to those who only have a Playstation Plus subscription may be a bit disappointing, it's nice to see Sony making changes everyone wanted to see to their online systems. We're going to be getting a lot of use out of that share button, and the addition of cross-game voice chat brings them up to speed with Xbox Live. When comparing the price of an Xbox Live subscription to a Playstation Plus one, however, it's going to be easier to justify the extra cost when you take into account the free games you'll get in return with Playstation Plus.