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One of Polygon’s PS4 units, showing wear and tear from the past five years.

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PlayStation 4 re-review, five years in

We look at how Sony’s PS4 platform has evolved since launch

It might seem like yesterday, but it’s been five years since Sony leapfrogged Microsoft’s early Xbox One mistakes, established an early lead in this console generation and never looked back.

But the usual console wars horse race isn’t the real story of these machines. Rather, it’s the unprecedented degree to which they’ve been able to evolve with incremental advancements — not just with software updates and new peripherals, but with more powerful versions of the hardware itself.

With that in mind, we decided to take a deeper look at how the PS4 holds up as a platform in 2018, and how it’s evolved since we first reviewed it back in 2013.

Polygon’s PlayStation 4 and Xbox One launch units have taken similar amounts of damage.
Photo: James Bareham/Polygon

The PS4 library: the best since the PS2

The story of the PS4’s success has often been attributed to a handful of critically acclaimed exclusives from Sony’s first-party studios, from 2016’s Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End to 2018’s one-two punch of frosty God of War and sunny Spider-Man. And while these big-ticket games have undoubtedly contributed to the platform’s dominance, the console’s library has filled out across the board from a passable launch lineup into the best catalog since that of the PS2. It’s marked by the glossy, hyper-polished experiences authored by developers such as Naughty Dog and Santa Monica Studio, as well as innovative niche indie fare. And for those who missed out on some of the classics of yesteryear, the platform’s assortment of remasters and re-releases can help you see what all the fuss was about, especially the recent remake of one of the best games of all time, Shadow of the Colossus.

Early in the console’s life cycle, the PS4 had a reputation as the indie-friendly box, bolstered by a crop of unique gems like Hotline Miami and Divekick. Over time, however, other consoles have eroded that advantage, with many indie games hitting all platforms at once these days.

Sony’s box has been the best way to experience this generation’s renaissance of high-profile Japanese games, though, with game of the year candidates like Nioh and Persona 5 never gracing Xbox.

Today, it’s difficult to find any genre or style of popular game that isn’t well-represented in the PS4’s lineup, from rock-hard indie platformers like Hollow Knight and Celeste, to full-fat classic RPGs like Divinity: Original Sin 2, to tactical thrillers like The Banner Saga, to the smooth driving of Gran Turismo Sport. Most of these games are also available on PC, but in terms of an entryway into the full spectrum of what gaming has to offer, the PS4’s library is virtually unmatched, with few notable omissions.

That said, the Xbox still has an edge where shooters are concerned, with Microsoft Studios standouts like the beloved Halo series rolling alongside the meaty chest-thumping of Gears of War. The PS4 also lacks a handful of indie titles that are exclusive to Microsoft’s console, including the frenetic ball-chucking of local multiplayer thriller #IDARB and the charming throwback animation-filled breakout hit Cuphead. And don’t forget Nintendo, which continues to crank out some of the best games each year on Switch, from Mario to Zelda to Smash Bros.

The world of games is too vast for one console to play all the best games released each year, but if you want to get the best sampling, PS4 tends to be the way to go.

PlayStation VR on blue background
Sony’s VR headset remains one of the most comfortable ones on the market, but its abundance of wires still makes it a hassle to set up.

PSVR: wonderful for tech-heads, but maybe just them

In the high-spec world of virtual reality, there was initially a fair amount of skepticism surrounding Sony’s stab in the space, due to the base PS4’s somewhat antiquated system specs. But after two years and with over 3 million units sold, it’s clear that the lower cost and PlayStation ecosystem gave PSVR a big advantage over its higher-end PC competitors.

But while sales have been strong relative to the rest of the VR market, they remain anemic when compared to the larger PS4 world. Three million headsets might seem like quite a haul, but when divided by the 80+ million PS4s that are roaming out in the wild, you end up with an adoption rate of less than 4 percent. For comparison, the PS2’s infamous EyeToy camera peripheral managed about twice that (though it did so at less of an uphill battle, as it cost roughly one-tenth of the price).

The PSVR headset itself remains one of the most comfortable ones to wear on the market, and its technical limitations are still far from obvious to those who don’t pride themselves on refresh rates or resolution, especially with the improved frame rates provided by a PlayStation 4 Pro. There are also highly regarded PSVR games coming out at a rapid clip, from the cutesy puzzle-platformer Astro Bot: Rescue Mission to the fireworks explosion Tetris Effect. And while PSVR isn’t necessarily the best way to play cross-compatible hits like Beat Saber, its raft of exclusives puts it in a competitive position against the other VR lineups, with shooters like Farpoint and the upcoming Blood and Truth making a strong argument for it.

Despite these assets, PSVR remains a captive of the larger VR market, hampered by massive price tags and a deflated hype cycle. The greater sense that any headset is a must-have gadget might have come and gone. But as sales remain steady, you can’t quite count out VR yet, even if it feels more like a creeping climb than an out-and-out revolution. For those already inclined to buy the next big thing, there are more and more reasons to finally bite the bullet and purchase the headset, even though the bundling options remain confusing two years later, with the default option at many online retailers failing to include the all-important PlayStation Move controllers.

It remains to be seen whether Sony will double down on VR for the PlayStation 5. With affordable all-in-one headsets like the $400 Oculus Quest on the horizon, PSVR’s days as the bang-for-your-buck option might be numbered. So if you aren’t immediately itching for a virtual reality fix, it might be worth it to wait and see if Sony leans into the market and unveils a successor with the PS5, or steps away from it entirely. The fact Sony has already upgraded the base headset once suggests that it might not be throwing in the towel just yet.

PS4 Pro, front view on blue background
One of Polygon’s PS4 Pro units, significantly less scratched than our base PS4s.

PS4 Pro: an unnecessary upgrade, but a welcome one

Sony’s announcement of a mid-generation upgrade for its console shocked everyone back in 2016. It hailed an apparent shift in the company’s philosophy, toward a more frequent refresh model reminiscent of the mobile phone market. But while the boost that the PS4 Pro provides compared to its stock counterpart is significant, it’s far from mandatory, especially if you don’t own a 4K display.

For one thing, despite the much-vaunted 4K support, it’s been more of a compromise than a revelation. As exhaustively shown by all sorts of technical breakdowns, these images are often not native, or true 4K; that would take more computing power than the Pro can handle. Instead, they use upscaling to massage a lower-resolution image into 4K, in concert with advanced rendering techniques. The drumbeat of games that harness the console’s pseudo-4K capabilities has remained steady, especially among system showpieces like Horizon Zero Dawn, but the impact on performance remains undetectable to many laypeople. And when it comes to frame rate, the increased resolution can sometimes come at a cost to performance, so it really depends on your preferences as a player. If you’re willing to sacrifice the console’s 4K capabilities, however, the “performance modes” of God of War and Monster Hunter: World can balance some of the frame rate spikes and troughs that might otherwise take you out of the game, resulting in a decidedly smoother experience.

If you’re planning to snatch up a PSVR, the sharper textures and stabilized frame rates that the Pro delivers are more noticeable with the screen so close to your eyes. Still, with the Xbox One X bursting onto the scene with true 4K capability in 2017, the Pro’s technical specs pale in comparison to those of Microsoft’s behemoth.

If you have a 1080p television and you already own a PS4, the Pro’s marginal impact on frame rate makes it a tough sell, especially so close to the end of the console’s stated life span. For those who haven’t bought a box and are looking to catch up on the console’s superb library, though, the extra $100 is more than worth it, provided it won’t break the bank. Be forewarned, however: Sony has already announced a price drop for the PS4 Pro in Japan, which usually means that it’s just around the corner for other territories, so you might want to hold on to your money for now.

PS Now: a solid choice for PS4 games ... if you download

Backward compatibility has been a sore spot for console manufacturers over the past two generations, and Sony is no exception, famously abandoning the PlayStation 3’s built-in PS2 chips for the Slim model due to an apparent lack of consumer interest.

The PlayStation Now streaming service, announced in 2014, seemed like an attempt at a solution to the problem on PS4, offering not only PS4 games, but maybe PS3 and PS2 titles as well. Unfortunately, it came along with its own set of issues. For one thing, while Sony might advertise that a paltry speed of 5 megabits per second is sufficient for smooth play, the realities of internet latency mean that you’re always going to have some form of input lag. Since that largely relies on the user’s physical distance from the server, if it takes Crash Bandicoot 500 milliseconds to jump after you hit a button, there’s not a lot you can do about it. While this sort of small delay is but a minor annoyance in more passive games, such as some puzzle games, it can absolutely ruin more timing-based genres like shooters and platformers. Some gamers even attribute headaches or nausea to the slight disconnect between buttons and movement.

Sony recently addressed these concerns by allowing subscribers to download many of PS Now’s PS4 offerings onto their consoles, as well as the entirety of the remastered PS2 games list. While this certainly helps alleviate the service’s major weakness, it also leaves a vast majority of its supposed “backward-compatible” pool without support.

And putting aside the issue of the limited slate of PS2 games — which omits some of the most highly regarded classics of that era — even if you discount the latency, the PS3 service still fails to include much-requested standouts of that platform, like the genre-breaking Demon’s Souls.

Overall, this new feature takes PS Now from a subpar novelty into a solid choice for experiencing the breadth of the PS4 library for a price of around $15 a month, depending on your plan. In terms of its access to the stellar hits of yesteryear, however, you’re better off hauling your old consoles out of your closet.

DualShock 4 controller on blue background
Sony has taken its first steps toward allowing cross-play with the DualShock 4.

Cross-console play: a weakness partially addressed

For players who focus on single-player games, this might seem like a bizarre bugbear for Sony to grapple with, but it’s been a long-standing issue for the console giant. Microsoft has allowed full cross-platform play on select games for some time, including jaunty pirate simulator Sea of Thieves and multiplayer car-meets-ball powerhouse Rocket League, and Nintendo has done the same on Switch. And until just recently, Sony had refused to play nice with its competitors on this issue, offering boilerplate responses about how it couldn’t guarantee the safety of PlayStation users on other platforms.

This followed a flood of anger from players of the biggest game in the world, Fortnite, when they realized that accounts used on PS4 were effectively locked out of the Nintendo Switch and Xbox One for no apparent reason. While Sony initially fought back against the tide, it eventually acquiesced, launching a beta for cross-platform Fortnite back in September.

There’s no word on whether this indicates a coming breakdown of the long-held divide between PS4 and Xbox players in games like Rocket League, but Sony says it’s reconsidering its policies.

close-up of PlayStation log on PS4 Pro

PlayStation Network and PlayStation Plus: what you expect, with few surprises

The PlayStation Network has come a long way since the near-constant loading bars and befuddling menu choices of the PS3 era. Over the course of the PS4’s life span, the network has stayed mostly constant, with the typical array of streaming services and search options to get you to what you want. The PS4 was the first Sony console to require a PlayStation Plus subscription for online multiplayer support, but judging by the continued popularity of games like Rocket League, Monster Hunter: World and Destiny 2, players seem to be getting their money’s worth.

Sony continues to offer a few free games every month to PS Plus subscribers, and the offerings tend to range from forgettable (Mighty No. 9, in March) to superb (Bloodborne and Ratchet and Clank [2016], also in March).

Over the years, PSN has suffered some high-profile disruptions, but nothing quite as devastating as the 2011 data breach that caused players everywhere to have to change their passwords. The 2014 Christmas DDoS attack brought down both Xbox Live and PSN, much to the chagrin of new console owners, but since then, the service has remained reliable. In October, players reported incidents where griefers sent them malicious PSN messages that sent their consoles into what Sony dubs a “crash loop” by the use of an exploit, but Sony claims to have fixed the problem. Like most online platforms these days, PSN isn’t impervious to hackers, but it’s light years ahead of the PS3’s version of the service.

Firmware and operating system: a gradual improvement

Any dedicated PS4 user has encountered one of its dreaded firmware updates at an unwelcome time, which can sometimes bring a long-awaited gaming session screaming to a halt. Yet Sony has added a suite of interesting features to the console over the course of its life span, and while some of them remain locked behind a PS Plus subscription, they’re worth trying out if you fit the bill.

One of the first features that Sony added to the console remains one of its best: Share Play. It requires PS Plus, but it allows your friends to watch you die over and over in Dark Souls, or try to romance a particularly alluring NPC in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. Better yet, if you can’t quite nail a particular section, or your friend wants to try out your favorite new game, Share Play allows your friend to take over control for you for an hour at a time. You can also forgo the cooperation and go head-to-head in local multiplayer games, engaging in the pinpoint archery of TowerFall Ascension or the frantic fencing of Nidhogg. While it still suffers from the latency issues that can come with a streaming platform, it’s a great way to simulate that same-room experience with friends who live far away.

In 2016, Sony also added Remote Play support for Mac and Windows PC, which finally allows PC die-hards to play their favorite Sony exclusives on their monitors. While it doesn’t allow for ideal resolutions on a stock PS4 — 1080p is only available to Pro owners, due to hardware restrictions — it’s a nice solution for those who can’t always play in front of their big screen without disturbing someone, such as new parents. And in 2017, Sony overhauled the console’s streaming support, finally allowing true 1080p60 on Twitch, generally considered the standard for discerning streamers.

close-up of ‘PS4’ engraving on PlayStation 4
PlayStation 4
close-up of ‘PS4’ engraving on PlayStation 4 Pro
PlayStation 4 Pro

Overall: a console for everyone

In an age of affordable PCs and ubiquitous smartphones, you can certainly argue that dedicated video game consoles have become less relevant. But as a machine for playing the best games, the PlayStation 4 has gotten better and better over the course of the generation, to the point where even PC snobs have to pay attention to its swath of high-quality exclusives.

For someone looking for a bit of everything on a console, PS4 is the best place to find it.

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