Hands-on with the Playstation 4

We get our hands on Drive Club, and robot platformer Knack

Hands-on with the Playstation 4
1st August, 2013 By Ian Morris

It's always exciting when a new console's announced, with the games, features, and other cool bits-and-bobs that go with it, but it's even more exciting when several come along at once. Launching later this year against Microsoft's Xbox One and going head to head with the Wii U is Sony's latest and greatest console, the Playstation 4. Promising some very powerful hardware under the hood, coupled with some innovative sharing features that let you record video or take screenshots at the touch of a button, the Playstation 4 already has technophiles and developers frothing with anticipation, as it aims to give developers the power to create the games they want to create, without having to worry (as much) about technical constraints, while making it easier for smaller, indie studios to get their games into the hands of consumers. Of course, anything that lets us have more games - and more variety - is good with us, and so, it was with baited breath that we turned up to a rather swanky press event at a rather swanky venue in London, to go hands-on with the equally swanky Playstation 4 for ourselves, along with a selection of the games that'll be available at launch. 

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It looks good and all, but how do you turn it on? The power and eject buttons are recessed? Perhaps we'll just have to grow our nails out...

After peering longingly through the glass at the console itself in the entry way (you could look, but not touch), with its part matt, and part fingerprint-friendly gloss finish looking as impressive as ever (although we wish it was available in something other than monolithic black), we were chauffeured upstairs to where the magic happens. Lined up in the sweltering heat were several Playstation 4s, each strapped to a gigantic TV, where we were to go hands-on with two of the games Sony considers the jewels in the crown of their (currently announced) line-up - the family friendly Pixar-esque platformer Knack, and the social oriented racing game, Drive Club.

Squeezing our way past the dozens of other journalists who similarly decided it was a good idea to jam themselves into a room the size of a corridor on the hottest day of the year along with a few dozen heat producing machines, we happened across a Drive Club booth that had become free, and plonked ourselves down on the abnormally squidgy cushion. With our eyebrows sizzling from the heat being kicked out by the TV we were now merely a few inches away from, and the Playstation Eye camera staring happily out at us, complete with a little red LED in the middle that made it look slightly like a Japanese take on that computer from 2001 A Space Odyssey, but eternally happy and kawaii, we reached for the controller.

Like a cross between Johnny 5 and the Prince of Katamari. And a lot smaller than you'd imagine!

Although the pictures make the new controller, cunningly labelled the Dual Shock 4 look a lot larger than its earlier brethren, the difference isn't all that noticeable when you have it in your mitts. The handles are larger, both in diameter and length, and they certainly feel it, but it's not actually a world away from the current Playstation 3 controller we're all used to. Perhaps the only thing we'd prefer would be ridges on the dual analogue sticks rather than the odd rough-textured rim we have at the moment - it'd be nice to have that little bit of extra traction, especially on a day like today.

Drive Club is one of the more unusual titles amongst Sony's launch line-up, as it'll actually be being given away for free at launch. Available either on a disc for full whack, or as a free, somewhat limited download if you subscribe to the Playstation's online service, Playstation Plus, it's promised the free, downloadable version will contain all the same features as the full game, but a much more limited selection of cars and tracks. If you want to bring the downloadable version up to same package as the retail one, you'll have to buy the extras to go with it - but it does guarantee Drive Club a sizeable collection of players come launch.

Drive Club Screenshot

With a real sense of speed, this is about as terrifying as you'd imagine it would be in real life.

A racing game that's focuses on "social" features, Drive Club is unique in that the focus here is on team based racing, rather than every man or woman for themselves. Rather than everyone lining up at the start in a race to finish in first place, the emphasis in Drive Club instead seems to be split - while you'll come across other people on the race, you'll mostly be racing asynchronously, against "ghosts", or records that other people have set on that track earlier in the day - and while coming in first place will do you no harm, there are more ways of helping your team snatch the victory than earning the pole position.

On certain sections of the track, an objective will trigger that challenges you to beat a *something* set by a member of the other team. Whether you have to register a higher average speed across a certain section, or clock up a higher drift score (which, handily, can also be achieved by driving badly and skidding all over the place as we do), there are several different types of challenge available, meaning everyone, no matter what their ability, will be contributing to their team's score. If you're never one to finish in first place, don't worry - you can just take your time and concentrate on the challenges - especially ones that ask you to stick to the correct racing line as accurately as possible. Favouring careful drivers (at least during our demo), this was a good way for the more cautious to earn some points, which make all the differences in the end. At the end of your race, your position (last) and your challenge points (several) are added together, complete with a mug shot that the camera took at the start of the race, and summed with the rest of your team to show which team is the victor. With the game always seeming to choose challenges that at least feel within your grasp, and the choice of analogue or motion-control (tilting the controller) steering, Drive Club could be one for drivers of all abilities to keep an eye on.

Knack, meanwhile, is a world away from the frenetic pace and social emphasis of Drive Club - a thoroughly traditional (yet still somewhat refreshing) platformer, it's arguably the biggest "family" title in the Playstation 4's line-up, and one that's looking very nice indeed. With the aforementioned Pixar-like visuals providing a stunning backdrop, Knack tells the story of a little robot, who may be the only one who can bring peace in the war between the Goblins and the humans. Although he may be small to begin with, Knack secret ability is that he can absorb pretty much anything he finds in the levels, and use it to make himself stronger. Smashing up barricades, containers, enemies, or giant boulders lets Knack absorb their fractured pieces, making him bigger, stronger, and even granting him special powers.

Oddly, the demo we played of Knack was a lot more challenging than we were expecting, with Knack - at least in his small form - only able to take two or three hits before dying. From what we've heard, the difficulty level may well have been ramped up especially for this event (due to the impression that other journalists tend to look down their nose at things that are considered too easy/for kids), and we're certainly hoping that's true.

Knack Screenshot

Smashy smashy.

That said, Knack certainly has plenty of tricks up his sleeves when it comes to levelling the playing field. Smashing anything yellow in the levels will give you sun stones which, once you've collected a certain amount, can be unleashed as special moves. The more objects (sunstones and otherwise) you collect, the bigger Knack will get, the more health you'll have, and the more damage you'll be able to take. Of course, size isn't everything - and Knack can be quite the stealthy robot too. At several points in the demo, we had to sneak past laser trip wires, which asked you to press Triangle to drop Knack's constituent parts. Turning transparent and glassy, in his new, almost naked form, Knack could then sneak around undetected by lasers - but would also die in a single hit if he got hit by an enemy.

The final part of the demo, though, was arguably the most fun, as it saw Knack go into full on "Hulk smash" mode, and become an absolutely gigantic version of himself. Letting you smash your way through enemy tanks, lob cars at passing Goblin helicopters, and even level entire buildings with your super strength, this was a lot of fun, if only because of the chaos you could dish out. In order to make things easier for younger children (and less than skilled adults), Knack will even auto-target when you're chucking cars, meaning you don't have to worry about aiming precisely at that annoying helicopter. With no camera controls to worry about, Knack looks set to offer something beyond the usual racing/shooting games that have become the norm over the past few years, and gives the PS4 line-up some much needed variety.

While these were but snippets of snippets of games that we played at the event, what we saw was still enough to get us excited for the Playstation 4. While there was nothing revolutionary on show, and arguably nothing that really screamed buy this console now - it is still early days for the software (Drive Club was only 35% complete), and it's the future potential that has us the most excited. With Knack, Drive Club, and Killzone already providing an at least reasonable amount of depth and variety for the PS4's line-up, and Sony actively courting the smaller companies that like to experiment with more original ideas (you only have to look at upcoming downloadable PS4 game Octodad for evidence of how crazy these games can be), it's safe to say the Playstation 4 can only get stronger from here on in. With several games yet to be revealed at the upcoming Gamescom convention in Cologne, and presumably a few more at the Tokyo Game Show in September, it's going to be an interesting few months to launch, as the rest of the console's line-up comes together.

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