PS4's in-house launch games appear to be all guts, not glory

The lineup of first-party games launching alongside the PS4 this holiday is a multi-genre showcase that, while perhaps lacking in innovation, strives to deliver experiences that demonstrate the raw power of Sony's next-generation console. But the aim is clear: the development focus is on promoting the technology, rather than offering completely new, unique adventures.

For Sony's Japan Studio, the day-one buy is Knack, an action title focused on a shape-shifting creature that can not only absorb different energies and elements, but grow and shrink in size with the press of a button. The game is designed by Mark Cerny, industry veteran and lead architect on the PlayStation 4 hardware.

A Million Little Pieces

SCE Japan decided that releasing a new console was the perfect time to launch a new IP, but the desire to create a title that could show off all the console's graphical capabilities in one neat package was a driving force in its decision to make Knack a launch title. The game is reminiscent of Crash Bandicoot, but there is something about the way the titular character explodes, expands and falls apart that is hard not to like.

"It's an idea that's been kicking around for a long time," Sony assistant producer Nicolo Accordino told Polygon during a recent demo event held in New York City. "And the PS4 lets us do some pretty cool things, especially when you see how Knack's body is made up of all these different parts. It's a very nice showcase piece for what the PS4 can do in terms of particle effects.

"It's an idea that's been kicking around for a long time."

"When you take a look at the launch lineup, just knowing what the next generation is, and with lots of games coming out that tend to be more on the violent side — you know there's not much out there for the family, for everybody," he added, motioning to nearby kiosks blaring demos for Killzone: Shadow Fall and Infamous: Second Son. "We're using the [Dualshock controller's] face buttons and the right stick, and that's as complicated as Knack gets. We wanted something everybody could play."

According to Accordino, Cerny has said that Knack is "really meant to be a secondary purchase for the system."

"Your 20 and 30-year-old folks are gonna go out and buy a PS4 because it's awesome, first of all," he said. "But when they're looking for something to bring home for people besides themselves, for their families, to play with their wives or their children or their friends, they're going to want something that everybody can pick up the controller and play."

During a hands-on demo, it took me several tries to get through a particularly slippery ice-coated level strewn with icicles, boulders and arrow-shooting enemies. After several failed attempts to get through without defeat, Accordino noted that the game was designed with multiple difficulty levels for its wide target audience.

"This is not a game you're going to breeze through," he said. "This is actually going to give you a challenge. So if this is your type of game, if you were with us playing Crash Bandicoot in 1996, this will be up your alley. Mark is also designing this for people who have never picked up a controller before."

Knack-1361410552-3

Cerny's background in platformers is why Knack is, at its core, a platformer — Cerny assisted with development on multiple titles in the Crash Bandicoot, Ratchet and Clank and Jak and Daxter series. Knack will be PS4's first-party launch day platformer.

Knack tasks players with punching and slamming their way through levels, with the occasion enemy requiring you to either pick up a truck to toss at them or shrink in size to slip through smaller passageways. This format is not new, and players may quickly settle into a rhythm that platformer fanatics find comfortable and others may call monotonous.

"That's what [players] want us to do, that's what you want out of us," Accordino said. "Since [Cerny] did design the console, you want him to make something that excites him. You know it's about diversity, we want something for everybody. And if I'm a dad or someone who has played games for a long time and I do lean toward the platformer, I'd probably be at home more here than with Assassin's Creed 4 or whatever else."

But statements surrounding the look of Knack himself hold up; as Knack is hit by enemies and changes shape, each tiny fragment in his makeup is visible. One minute he's solid, the next, a cloud of grainy little pieces. While gameplay mechanics aren't anything new, the look of Knack keeps its promise to take advantage of the PS4's graphical power.

As Real As It Gets

Gran Turismo 6, the next installment in the classic racing franchise will launch later this year exclusively for PlayStation 3. But PS4 will get Evolution Studios' Driveclub, a road-racing simulator with a tailored racing model and deep ties to the console's social features. While the graphics still look like they need a bit more polish before its ready to roll, it's commitment to providing realistic controls and an ever-climbing "learning curve" is something racing sim perfectionists will find a hard time ignoring.

"It's not a simulation, and it's not an arcade game either."

"It's not a simulation, and it's not an arcade game either," said design director Paul Rustchynsky. "It's an authentic driving game, where we've gone with real cars, real locations, and we wanted it to feel grounded in real racing. There's a small learning curve to it because we wanted to make sure there was a deep experience as well so that for those players who want to spend time, say, shaving milliseconds off their lap time, they can do that. But players who are new to driving games are still going to have fun."

Rustchynsky noted that Evolution has sought to launch its games close to Sony's newest consoles. WRC: World Rally Championship launched in November 2001, a year and a half after the PlayStation 2's debut in March 2000, while the first MotorStorm launched a month after the PlayStation 3's 2006 launch and four months later in North America. This time around, Evolution will debut its new IP alongside Sony's newest system.

Rustchynsky believes that players will be picking up Driveclub sooner than later because of how it uses PS4's sharing and social features to seamlessly connect players and present different competitive opportunities.

"This experience works in a social way with friends whereby it's not necessarily about just being fastest," he said. "Because the problem with most driving games is that it's about being first. And at any one time there's only one person who's first, and that's a demoralizing experience. You go into an online race, and you spin into a corner, and the race is over. We've tried to make sure that the mechanics and systems keep you engaged at all times.

Driveclub

"So if you're part of a [group] that's part of a race, it doesn't really matter if you come in first or not because you can make [the other players] work towards another objective while you're racing. For example, we can have two different leaderboards going. One's based on time and the other based on score."

The game plays like a standard racing game — you can speed around corners and seriously wreck your car if you drive poorly — and playing alone doesn't present any unique opportunities. The experience Driveclub presents is tethered to the PS4's social features and doesn't give much incentive to play alone. You can race "ghosts" of other players' best scores, but it's not much different than racing against AI in Need for Speed or Forza.

Racers' cornering abilities, top speeds and drifting will all be taken into account and scored while players are on the clock. At the end of the race, all these driving interactions are put into a single score, giving players another way to win besides completing laps in the shortest amount of time. So even if you're in last place, you still have a shot at winning a round.

"In a spectrum of driving games, you have the simulation at one end where it's all about making sure every single thing, from the suspension to the tire physics to the way the differentials sit inside the car, is realistic," Rustchynsky explained. "And then you have arcade games at the other end of the spectrum, which don't care about the real world, and you can do anything and it doesn't really matter.

"We're somewhere in the middle, whereby we've built all the cars from the ground up where we have this realistic simulation in mind, but then we kind of brought it back down to this sweet spot in the middle where you've got the depth of that realism, but you've got the accessibility that you can pick players up from the other end. We want to make sure there's something in there for everyone."

Familiar Territory

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Many players picking up a PS4 will also be looking forward to controlling dog companions and leveling Shanghai with explosions, and won't necessarily be concerned with the color palette of the environment they want to fill with bullets. But Guerrilla Games is hoping players notice the fresh coat of paint they've given the Killzone franchise when they pick up Shadow Fall on launch day. That shiny new coat seems to be the only real new thing we know about the game so far.

"We've always wanted to do a launch title," developer Guerrilla Games' managing director Hermen Hulst said, noting the studio worked closely with Sony during the PS4's design phase. "It's such a big event in the industry. We have been working with PlayStation on a lot of the hardware features, so as a studio we've helped give input into the design of the controller.

"The whole process of not only designing the software but also having a say in the hardware features, for a developer is creatively just the right place to be," he added. "Also we pushed for a lot of the features that are in there now, which seems like an incredibly balanced overall package, from both the hardware side and software side."

Hulst said its a combination of Shadow Fall's open maps and player freedom that will initially bring gamers into its world, but it's the graphics and bright color palette that will keep them there.

This notion of saving your home world, I think, works a lot better if your world is pretty.

"We're not sacrificing the graphical fidelity, or the quality of any of the animations [for the open world]," he said. "And then of course on top of that we're adding share functionality, because the game is so free-flowing and free-forming there will be a lot of unexpected moments that people will want to share.

"At first glance you can immediately see that this game is a lot more colorful than what we've done before," he added. "In Shadow Fall, there's this continuous struggle to protect your home world. This notion of saving your home world, I think, works a lot better if your world is pretty. And to me, that idea really resonated with beauty. You're not living in an ugly, industrial, dilapidated site. Why would you want to protect it? So that prettiness, that utopian feel, that's a big part of it."

While Shadow Fall's maps are standard fare — my demo brought me through a forest studded with hills, rocks, trees and some towers to climb up — there's no denying the game looks good. A blue-lit futuristic city shimmered on the horizon, thin smoke wafted up from the lush green ground and shafts of light pierced my path as I barreled through with my oversized gun. The game is beautiful to look at and Guerrilla Games has worked hard to make even the tiniest detail a piece of art, but players are still pointing, shooting, collecting health packs and running. It's a familiar show on a gussied-up stage.

The opportunity to play with the PS4's graphical capability and be one of the first titles to showcase it ultimately led to the decision to push Killzone: Shadow Fall as a launch title, Hulst said.

"We're big tech-heads at Guerrilla Games, so whenever there's new technology, [we want] to see what we can do with this new powerful technology," he said. "That's just it, curiosity to see what we can do with it.

"And with PS4 we can do so much in terms of lighting and visual effects," he added. "Killzone has always been sort of a showcase for PlayStation platforms. There's nothing wrong with doing stuff just because you can. It's a combination of cause and effect."

Sony's first slate of PS4 games aren't trying to be new from a gameplay standpoint — but in terms of visuals they are gunning to be the best-looking. Sony has lined up what will be the decorative gems of the console's coming-out party, the flashiest graphics with the brightest colors that best represent that next-gen power. Gamers won't be running on untread ground when they fire up the PS4 that first time, but it might be some of the best-looking ground they've ever walked on.

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