Sony puts their best foot forward at the New York debut of the Playstation 4

“Social” seems to be the biggest buzzword for the Playstation 4, as it is for pretty much any device that connects in any way to the Internet at this point.

Sony held a major press event tonight in New York to officially premiere the next generation console as well as some of the launch titles that will be available for it.  The first one that flabbergasted me was “Driveclub,” which is basically a virtual reality racing game that is based around team-based racing, and the racing footage they showed was so remarkable, so close to photo-real, that it really does feel like a jump forward, something I haven’t felt from gaming in a while.  It’s been incremental steps for the last few years, and that’s fine.  I understand that we live in an age of technical marvels, and I don’t take for granted how spectacular something like “Sleeping Dogs,” which I just finished playing is, even if gamers in general greeted it with a shrug as a knock-off of “Grand Theft Auto.”  That may be true, but it’s still eye-popping and the game play is mind-blowing considering I remember when “Spy Hunter” was the state of the art.

They seemed mighty proud today of the “Share” button that is part of the dash for the new console, allowing you to record and share videos screenshots with your friends, and you’ll be able to stream content live to people on Facebook and other services.  That’s fun, but I’ll admit, for me, it’s all about the games.  I like seeing the new controller, but until I use it to play some of these new titles, I have no idea what I actually think of it.  Aesthetics are far less important to me than function, and while I know I’m in a minority, I prefer the PS3 controller to the XBox controller.  It makes more intuitive sense to me, and it’s more comfortable for me when I’m gaming for a long session.  I think that’s a big factor in which console you prefer, as much as the material that’s available for each of the consoles.

They kicked things off with a game called “Knack” that looks like it’s aimed firmly at the “Ratchet & Clank” audience, I.e. my kids.  It was more cutscene footage than game play, and maybe not the strongest first title to show at an event that is all about kicking off the buzz on what may be the most important moment Sony faces as a company right now.  Making the jump from one generation to the next is a scary moment, and you have to convince gamers that it’s worth it for them to make that next jump.  I thought following it up with “Killzone: Shadow Fall” footage was smart, because right away, it demonstrated how they’ve pushed the world of that game forward visually.

For me, though, it really got underway with the third title of the day.  Sucker Punch’s new “InFamous” game looks incredible, and they did a nice job of managing the drama during the presentation.  It looks like a nice next step in building out the superpowered terrorist notions of the first two games, but also in reflecting how law enforcement and government surveillance might change in that world.  “inFamous: Second Son” has some pretty tremendous graphics, evidently, and like the “Killzone” game they debuted today, it looks like they’re taking a narrative left turn within a larger IP that they’ve already established for the PS3.  That’s obviously a big part of any launch, and I have no doubt XBox is going to do the same thing when they premiere their next machine.

But there was also a noted emphasis today on new titles and indie creators.  Jonathan Blow was brought out, and he mentioned how hard it is to follow up presentations with “all those explosions.”  Blow jumped right in to talk about “The Witness,” his follow-up to the acclaimed “Braid,” and he emphasized how the puzzle-solving of his game is built.  This is a major part of what I get excited about in gaming these days, and I appreciate the indie design world because this is where some of the most ingenious and innovative ideas exist.  My boys and I spent some of last weekend lost in the beautiful world of “The Unfinished Swan,” for example, and if you haven’t seen that one, it’s something that manages to thrill and amaze without any violence or conflict at all.  Blow’s new game “The Witness” looks gorgeous, like a large-scale maze game that is part graphic interface, part walk-through, like a much more sophisticated version of what “MYST” was back in the day.

David Cage was up next, and he talked about how much of a magic trick games are, the use of pixels and code to create emotional reactions and and immersive experience.  He talked about the evolution of film language from “The Great Train Robbery” to today, and it’s a fair comparison.  While it may feel like games have been around forever for someone my age, someone who watched the entire evolution from “Pong” until today, the truth is that it’s still a fairly young art form.  And, yes, I do believe it’s an art, albeit a very young one.  In talking about the way Quantic Dreams is going to try to embrace the tools available with the PS4, he obviously is aiming for something that pushes the envelope in one direction.

Media Molecule, on the other hand, made no smaller a claim than that they were going to offer gamers a way to record their dreams, make new dreams, or even share the dreams of others.  Okay… now we’re clearing in science-fiction territory, and I love the ambition even if I’m skeptical of the ability to quite deliver on it at this point.  They’ve decided to double-down on the idea of the Move controller as the perfect interface to make this ambition a reality.  Seeing how they’ve turned it into a sort of sculpting tool is indeed very promising, something that could well change the way you interact with gaming tools.  I liked the way “Little Big Planet” worked in concept, even if I wasn’t a huge fan of the actual gaming experience.  This looks like the evolution of those same ambitions, and unlike the bombast of some of the other demos, the Media Molecule demo was beautiful, gentle, almost abstract, and it really isn’t like anything else I’ve seen in my history as a gamer.  It’s not often that I can say that, and I’m excited that the PS4 is going to come out swinging, reaching for new experiences instead of just rendering the familiar at a higher resolution.

Capcom’s Yashonori Ono walked people through the way Capcom has embraced each new Sony machine, whether the various Playstations or the PSP or the Vita, all building to the reveal of a new engine that they’ve developed for their PS4 titles, and this engine, code-named Panta Rhei, looks like it’s a monster under the hood, something they’re developing with the long game in mind.  The footage they showed from their first new PS4 IP, “Deep Down,” was exquisite, with remarkable environmental textures and strong, subtle character models, as well as effects work that was visceral and involving.  It looks like a dragon hunting game that takes place in subterranean landscapes, and it looks badass.  It’s a working title, but whatever they end up calling it, it’s beautiful.

And, look, of course, they’re all putting their best feet forward today.  Everyone, like Square ENIX, is heavily invested in making sure this next generation console works, because all of these studios depend on these various consoles.  Yoshihisho Hashamoto made the Square Enix presentation, and he emphasized that what he showed was running on the PS4 in real-time.  And while I don’t really love the games they typically make, that’s just my preferences as a gamer.  I understand how huge the audience is for their “Final Fantasy” titles, and I thought the material they showed was just as stunning in its way as the other presentations for the day.  Shinji Hashimoto came in at he end of the Square Enix slot to talk about the “Final Fantasy” launch title, and he’s the overall brand manager for “FF,” promising that there will be a reveal of some sort at this year’s E3 event.

Ubisoft is a tremendously important partner for Playsation, and I love their work.  Yves Guilliermot brought “Watch Dogs,” which wowed at last year’s E3, and as much as I loved that first presentation, they managed to make me even more excited to get my hands on the game.  It was an actual game play session live in front of the crowd, and it’s another huge world built around really engaging and smart game play ideas, a piece about the way interactivity and surveillance and data mining are creating a world where there is no such thing as privacy, and where knowledge is a weapon, as is the ability to tap into that infrastructure.  Your character can scan passers by and access information about them electronically, he can hack ATMs and security cameras, and the world he’s moving around is as realistically designed and rendered as any I can remember seeing in a game before.  As with earlier demos, it was the way the various problem-solving moments were approached that really knocked me out.  Yes, it looks great, but I love the way it appears to play even more.  We saw more of the action side of the game today, and I loved the way your character could do things like make a power box on the side of a building explode by remote to stop someone or take control of a subway train.  Awesome.

Blizzard also made an appearance today, which surprised me a bit.  I don’t normally think of them as a Playstation partner, and they even commented on that at the start of their segment.  They talked about their history as a console developer, and how they have been looking for a way to return to that even as they’ve been dominating the PC landscape.  Sure, there’s some hype going on there, but it is undeniably big news for the PS4 that they’re going to be launching with “Diablo III” for the PS4, and they’re also going to be bringing it to the PS3, which surprised me somewhat.  There wasn’t a lot of overlap in what they talked about today, and I think it’s flat out insane when Playstation makes these generational jumps without including backwards compatibility, but it happened with the PS3 (for the most part) and it looks like it’s going to happen again with the PS4.  I’ve got enough games for the PS3 here in the house that I won’t be throwing out the system any time soon, but I look forward to including the PS4 in the rotation here at the house.

Finally, Activision wrapped it up with their reveal of just a glimpse at what they’re planning at launch, and the big news here was that Bungie is working with Activision on “Destiny,” the game that Jason Jones has been co-developing with them for something like a decade now.  It sure is pretty in these initial glimpses, a big science-fiction FPS property, and I like that they talk about it as a “persistent online world,” where things unfold over time and the choices you make have long-lasting ramifications.  I would never bet against the creators of “Halo,” especially if they’re hungry to prove something on this new platform, and it looks like there are plans to make sure that there are things they do for “Destiny” that are specifically PS4 focused, which is smart.  When you specifically service one of these platforms, it creates loyalty, and it’s something that XBox has beaten Playstation at consistently in this previous generation.

“Coming Holiday 2013,” eh?  I look forward to seeing if they hit that date and what else they’ve be baiting the hook with between now and then.