Eight years ago, I sold my PlayStation 2.
I sold it because it was a time suck on my evenings away from work I hated. My life was becoming a blur. Also, I was spending hours each night losing to strangers in a football video game called Madden, and it was making me go to bed angry.
In the years since I sold my PS2, I’ve owned only one game console: a Wii. I played it for a few months before disuse allowed all of the batteries in the controllers to die. Now it’s stuffed in a closet somewhere.
Otherwise, I’ve been console free. I skipped the whole PS3 and Xbox 360 generation.
Then, last weekend, my wife flew out of town on business and my college roommate was coming to town for a visit. He and I used to play a lot of Madden in college, and I thought it would be a fun way to hang out.
I asked Business Insider’s console expert, Kirsten Acuna, if it would be possible for me to buy a PS4 or Xbox One before the weekend.
She laughed at me.
Apparently to get either console, the rule is you have to stand in front of a video game store in cold rain, waiting for delivery trucks to arrive with more stock. Then you get trampled and have to do it again. And it never works.
That sounded terrible.
But then Kirsten made a generous, genius suggestion: Why don’t I borrow her PlayStation 4 for the weekend?
So I spent Saturday and Sunday playing Madden with my college buddy. Then my wife came home, and on Monday night we played Just Dance 2014. Then last night, I spent a couple hours playing a racing game called Need For Speed and a first person shooter called Killzone.
Here’s what I learned playing with the latest Playstation after having been away for years:
The graphics are as incredible as I imagined. When you buy a new game console, you expect the video game animations to look more like the real world than they did in the past — more like live action film. On this count, the PS4 totally delivers. Human faces still look stiff and fake, but objects and limbs are now practically photo-realistic. The realism is enhanced in the football game I played all weekend, Madden, because all its maker, EA, had to do is make it look like you’re watching a telecast. So players helmets go in out of focus. The camera shakes a little. In Killzone, the world look as good or better than what you’d see in a big budget sci-fi movie.
The load times are incredibly long. I use a MacBook air, which boots up in under 20 seconds. The apps I load on my iPhone or iPad just pop open. So I’d forgotten that it can take computers a while to load really complicated programs. That’s the reality you encounter with the PS4. Playing Madden 25, you have to sit there and watch still screens for a few minutes between each game.
Supposedly, the PS4 can be controlled by your voice. I didn’t notice.
Setting up “profiles” and entering any kind of alpha-numeric data takes way too long. One of the cool aspects of the PS4 is that you can set up a profile for every gamer who uses it. This allows you to keep track of your progress in lots of games, share clips from the games online, and play other people over the Internet. The problem is that setting up your profile takes a good half hour if not longer. The reason: typing using a game controller sucks. You mouse over letters and numbers and then click them out. My email address has 28 characters in it. Entering it 3 or four times takes a while. The easy solution for this would be for Sony to have a smartphone app where you can set up your profile, and than have you sync it to your PS4 by scanning a QR code off your TV screen.
I’m still good at beating my friend Zach in Madden. We played 10 games on Saturday on Sunday. I won seven times, lost twice, and tied him once. In other words, I smoked him. In other words, it was like good old times. (Hi, Zach.) The take-away here is that even though these consoles are much fancier than they used to be, the way you hit the buttons to play the actual games hasn’t changed much yet.
The motion-sensing camera/controller broadens the console’s appeal. When my wife, Anna, got back in town on Monday, she wasn’t thrilled that there was a PS4 attached to our TV, and that I was (for work!) going to play it for a couple hours that night. Then I told her that one of the games Kirsten lent me was Just Dance 2014. Just Dance is one of those games where you try to do what dancing figures on the screen are doing. Through a camera, the PS4 sees how close you are and gives you points. Anna and I played it for a two hours or so and we had a lot of fun. Mostly this was because we are excellent dancers. See for yourself.
Here’s us together:
The PS4 is more than just a machine for shooting people on screen or scoring lots of touchdowns on your friend. Thanks to the camera you can buy for it, it has physical, social games that active people will like.
I didn’t use the PS4’s built-in tools for “sharing” clips of your gameplay over the Web, but I can see why they are there. Entering letters and numbers through the controller takes a long time and is very boring to do. So, after I turned on the PS4, I got tired of setting it up, and never got around to hooking it up to my Facebook account. If I had, I would have been able to clip some of my gameplay and share it with my friends as Web video. At first, I thought this was a silly feature. Who wants to watch what I did in a video game? But then my wife and I used Vine and Instagram to record the videos of our excellent dancing, and we got lots of feedback from some very impressed friends. So now I get it.
The storytelling in video games is now a form of art. The last first-person shooter I was really into was the Star Wars computer game Dark Forces from the 1990s. That game did a great job of bring the world of Star Wars to life. But it didn’t’ feel like I was a character living in a story. Playing Killzone for a couple hours last night felt much different. You start the game as a little boy refuge, trying to escape a war zone with your father. You’re creeping through a city being patrolled by enemy soldiers. He runs ahead and tells you to follow him. He tells you to be brave. Then he gets shot, and it’s a painful moment actually — just like it would be in a good movie. Some people say that video games are a higher art form than movies, and I can see why they say that. In a movie, you can’t pull the trigger to take sweet revenge. Also, you can’t walk around the set.
You can use the PS4 as a Web TV box to play Netflix and other video. I didn’t, because I have a Mac Mini hooked up to my TV and, again, setting anything up on the PS4 is a dreadful experience.
I’d forgotten how, unlike TV, gaming requires total focus. Like most people, I watch TV with my iPhone on and in my right hand. I’m looking at Twitter or Instagram the whole time. Or I’m eating. I’d forgotten that you can’t do that with video games. You can’t hold your controller with one hand and pay half attention. Not if you don’t want to keep getting blasted by soldiers with glowing red eyes.
Despite the realistic graphics and sophisticated story-telling, video game “worlds” still seem lonely and creepy. If you take a philosophy course in college, they teach you that you can’t actually prove that other people in the world aren’t robots, or that you’re not living in some sort of computer simulation. It’s a creepy thought, but easily forgotten because other people are so obviously real. In video game worlds, however, the other characters remain very flat and obviously programmed. They are virtual animatronics — as life-less as the robots you glide past on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney. What happens to me when I play games like Killzone is that the graphics look real enough that it feels like I’m in a movie, but the characters are so obviously fake that I feel lonely. What’ll be amazing — and kind of scary — is when, someday, you’ll be able to play a game where the characters seem real. We’re not there yet.
I realised that I actually have owned a game console for the past few years — my iPhone and iPad. When I put in the disc for Need For Speed, I remembered that I spent most of a winter month earlier this year already playing a version of the game for my iPhone on the subway. I actually play a ton of video games on my phone. I love the Infinity Blade series and tower defence games on my iPhone, and games like Pirates! for my iPad. One advantage of iOS gadgets-as-game-consoles is that they don’t take over your TV and make it so your wife can’t watch The Mindy Project.