PlayStation 4 Report Card 2017

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Following up on 2016 was always going to be difficult for Sony, but it was crucial that the platform holder maintain its momentum, especially with its competitors both launching new hardware. With the launch of the PlayStation 4 Pro and PlayStation VR behind it, its focus fell squarely on new games. But was that enough, and is the PS4 heading in the right direction? Let’s look back at the year that was for Sony’s console.

Exclusives Aplenty

Last year brought what was, at the time, arguably the best exclusive game of the generation so far. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End dragged the Uncharted series into the PS4 era, matured Nate and co. into fuller characters, and came very close to winning our Best Game of 2016 award. Just a year later, we had another new Uncharted game in The Lost Legacy, which ditched our intrepid adventurer and pushed two of the series’ supporting characters into the spotlight. And although this expansion-turned-full-release perhaps didn’t move the franchise forward as much as its progenitor, it did show that the Uncharted series can survive away from the Drake estate.

Sony’s other big exclusive this year brought the return of Guerrilla, the Killzone developer that has for much of its life been criticized for making games that arguably look better than they play. Horizon Zero Dawn, however, at last harnessed the company’s outstanding technical and graphical capabilities, and painted them on a distinguished underlying game. Let’s hope this is a turning point for Guerrilla and it continues to defy expectations. With an outstanding, non-Killzone game finally under its belt and an owner in Sony known for encouraging development of unique first-party titles, the Dutch company could become the developer of exceptional games it should always have been, and we–the audience–will hopefully reap the rewards in years to come.

The remainder of PS4’s exclusive lineup in 2017 was one of the most diverse third-party selections in recent memory. Nier: Automata, Nioh, Yakuza 0 (and Kiwami), Persona 5, and Hellblade (if we’re counting console exclusives) were all niche, but superb examples of a platform broadening its appeal. That’s in addition to a healthy collection of console-exclusive indie games, which expanded this year with games such as Matterfall, Pyre, and Nidhogg 2. Not only that, but Sony continues to aggressively tie up exclusive content for some of the biggest games around. Resident Evil 7’s VR edition, early Call of Duty DLC, and exclusive Destiny 2 maps and gear often make PlayStation the obvious platform to play your games if you own multiple consoles.

All Sony needed was a big hitter for the end of the year to reinforce that PS4 really is “the best place to play.” It’s a shame, then, that the holiday period has been so disappointing for the platform: the only notable exclusive to launch in the most important season of the year was GT Sport. While by no means panned–it currently holds a 75 rating on Metacritic and earned an 8/10 in GameSpot’s GT Sport review–the first PS4 Gran Turismo game launched with little fanfare, especially for a series which was once one of PlayStation’s premiere titles. The smaller car roster, heavy-handed approach to online racing, and less-than-perfect reception might be the confirmation that Gran Turismo has been overtaken by Microsoft’s more exuberant Forza series.

PSVR Is Under-Supported

GT Sport’s lukewarm launch is doubly disappointing for Sony, as Polyphony’s racer was billed to moonlight as PlayStation VR’s big game for the end of the year. Unfortunately, the virtual reality platform is still awaiting the fabled “killer app.” Between Resident Evil 7 in January and GT Sport in October, few big titles launched for PSVR, two promising PSVR games–The Inpatient and Bravo Team–were recently delayed to 2018, and the picture looks bare in 2018. Doom VFR and Skyrim VR help, but will ports of years-old games satisfy those who shelled out $400 / £350 / AU $550 for a then-seemingly groundbreaking new gizmo? More to the point, will they–in the absence of more big, high-profile titles–convince people who haven’t yet invested to get out their wallets? This year has been a disappointing one for PSVR, which–if not supported better with landmark releases next year–is in danger of going the way of Kinect.

Nostalgia Is A Powerful Tool, But It Can Only Go So Far

In the gaps between big 2017’s releases, especially during the arid summer months, Sony attempted to satisfy gamers with repackaged, repolished versions of older games. We received PS4 remasters of Patapon, LocoRoco, Parappa the Rapper, Wipeout, and the meme-spawning Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy, in addition to the announcement of a Shadow of the Colossus remake, coming next year. Sony has realized that many PlayStation gamers–whether lapsed or loyal–who owned and loved that grey brick in the late ’90s suddenly, in 2017, find themselves with disposable income, and they’re an audience that is a ready-made nostalgia sponge. It was this susceptibility to childhood games being reborn that made the Crash Bandicoot remaster one of the best-selling games of the year, and it’s surely a note Sony will play once again next year, especially with PSX just around the corner.

However, the company can only rely on nostalgia for so long. The original Xbox was only a few years behind the first PlayStation, so Microsoft’s nostalgia push surely won’t be far away–in fact, it might have already begun. For those already wearing green-tinted spectacles, Xbox is doing a more consumer-friendly job at harnessing the power of our childhood memories than Sony with its backwards compatibility program. PlayStation Now allows you to play PS3 games on your PS4, but you have to pay extra for the privilege, and it’s no good at all if you have a dodgy internet connection or don’t live in a handful of specific countries. Microsoft, on the other hand, allows hundreds of past games available to play for no extra cost on Xbox One, thereby expanding its game library and winning favor with its audience. It’s time Sony started doing the same–properly.

If Sony’s reluctance to make PS1, PS2, and PS3 games playable on PS4 is a potential sign of arrogance, then its refusal to allow cross-play with Xbox is a definite one. Microsoft wants cross-play to happen, but Sony says it’s a “commercial discussion” as to why it won’t allow it at present. It’s an unfortunate, but understandable decision: in this generation, Sony is on top, so why would it throw its primary rival a lifeline?

Other Matters, In Brief

  • PS4’s 5.0 update arrived this year, in case you’d forgotten. You’d be forgiven for not remembering, too, since so few meaningful changes came out of what was hoped to be a big update. Parental controls aside, the patch failed to address a concern that lingers more than a decade after PSN’s launch: why can we still not change our usernames?
  • 2017 appeared to be the year the PS Vita finally died. The underappreciated handheld saw few new games this year, as Sony eventually threw in the towel with first-party support and publishers moved on to bigger and more powerful machines. Rest in peace, my little Spelunky machine.
  • E3 2017 was disappointing for Sony. The biggest game show of the year brought few genuinely exciting announcements (including, crucially, any update on The Last of Us: Part II).
  • Following North America last year, Europe and Australia saw their PS Plus prices increase in 2017, despite the output of monthly games showing little improvement in number, stature, or quality.

Verdict

Last year, the good ship PlayStation sailed into the distance as Sony launched an affordable virtual reality platform, a new, upgraded console, and some of this generation’s finest games. In 2017, the company has by no means undone all that hard work, but it has perhaps allowed the ship to coast slightly too far. A continued lack of backwards compatibility and cross play, a PS Plus price increase in some territories, half-hearted PSVR support, and a mediocre E3 showing signify a platform holder that may be a little too comfortable in the lead, and it’s a small, but worrying step towards Sony’s arrogance we saw post-PS2.

That said, exclusives like Horizon Zero Dawn, Persona 5, and Uncharted: The Lost Legacy don’t come along every week, and they exceed anything Microsoft has been able to muster in the past 12 months. So despite a number of stumbling blocks this year, Sony is–for now, at least–proving it’s the games that matter.

The Good The Bad
  • A broad range of exclusive games, headlined by the impressive Horizon Zero Dawn and Uncharted: The Lost Legacy.
  • Many third-party games still receive exclusive content on PS4.
  • Nostalgia-fueled games brought the PS1-era memories flooding back.
  • Lack of backwards compatibility and cross-play.
  • PS4 Pro’s graphical capabilities have been surpassed by Xbox One X, which has stolen Sony’s “most powerful console in the world” claim to fame.
  • PSVR has received few quality games.
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