Nintendo might have gotten more buzz in 2017, but Sony’s PlayStation 4 just had a quietly excellent year. In fact, it was arguably the system’s best run since it came out.
Throughout 2017, Sony’s approach to the PS4 was a mix of reliable and experimental. That’s a good combination. The company delivered a pile of games, including a trio of first-party over-achievers and a bounty of de facto console exclusives from Japanese developers who couldn’t be bothered to bring their games to Microsoft’s little-in-Japan Xbox One.
This is part of our 2017 State Of series, a look at how the major consoles, PC, and other areas of interest are doing this year.
Sony also ramped up development support for PlayStation VR, their PS4-dependent virtual reality headset. Like it or not, PSVR now appears to be Sony’s second platform of interest, replacing Sony’s ever-more-faded Vita handheld. And because VR wasn’t experimental enough, Sony even tossed out a new line of party-friendly PS4 games called PlayLink that work with cell phones .
It wasn’t all good games and exciting new ideas. Sony slacked in improving the functionality of the PS4 itself and remains largely negligent of its back catalog. It’s also built ample hype for its 2018 slate without it being clear which games will actually come out in the new year. But overall, the PS4 has had a great year.
In 2016, Sony released the PS4 Pro, a more powerful PlayStation 4 that the company swore wouldn’t split the PS4 market. A year later, it still hasn’t. Every PS4 game still runs on the Pro and the original PS4, and most look terrific on both platforms. Gorgeous games such as Horizon Zero Dawn and Assassin’s Creed Origins still look great on the regular PS4. On the Pro, Horizon looks a bit smoother and the action game Nioh can run at higher resolutions. These are welcome enhancements, but nothing that’s rendered the original PS4 models obsolete. (Just make sure, game publishers, that your Pro-enhanced are actually enhanced.)
Outside the PS4 itself, Sony released its VR headset in late 2016 and already released a new version a year later. The new one isn’t all that different, though. Its main improvement is that it has built-in headphones.
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PlayStation owners have long had a love-hate relationship with the system’s firmware updates that were once so abundant and prone to occasionally breaking the system, yet slowly improved how the console worked. The sentiment veered toward hate-hate with October’s 5.0 update that squandered its impressive round number by offering such paltry improvements as customizable friends lists, the ability to disable pop-up messages while watching movies and tweaks to the quick menu.
(Sony did just do what appears to be a meaningful 3.0 update to its video-editing program ShareFactory today, so they’re doing some solid improvement work there.)
PS4 firmware updated 4.5 was better than 5. It added external hard drive support and a “boost” mode for PS4 Pro owners, making it possible for more games to run better on the system. And December brought the most tantalizing of teases when Sony Interactive Entertainment CEO Shawn Layden hinted at this year’s PlayStation expo, PSN name-changing might possibly perhaps maybe be possible in 2018.
Disappointingly, Sony seemed to confirm this year that they’re still the impediment to cross-console play. They’re not even joining in on a Minecraft update set to link Switch, Xbox One, PC and mobile owners.
In late 2016, Sony raised the cost of an annual subscription to PlayStation Plus from $50 to $60. The year that followed didn’t offer any obvious additional value for the price increase. Maybe it’s just more expensive to run PSN now. Or it’s inflation or something. Subscribers still get access to multiplayer gaming, discounts on games, and two free monthly games per Vita, PS3 and PS4. The freebie PS4 games this year have been ok. The most exciting release was October’s Metal Gear Solid V. Sony offered a number of its own best, albeit largely niche games—LittleBigPlanet 3 in February, Tearaway Unfolded in March, Until Dawn in July and Infamous Second Son in September—but rarely had any heavyweight games come to the service (Sony, were you actually serious about the November PS Plus line-up?). It doesn’t help that the PS3 offerings don’t run on the PS4.
Sony did improve its PlayStation Now streaming service, which still costs $20 a month, but as of July supports PS4 games as well as PS3 games.
Is PSX a service, too? Sony’s now-annual PlayStation Experience event ran last weekend and attendees and remote onlookers both seemed a little underwhelmed. After using 2016’s PSX to announce big games like The Last of Us Part II and showcase a slew of upcoming games, Sony instead used October’s Paris Games Week to make its last big game announcements of the year and then ran through PSX with nary a notable release date. The show floor was full of games, though, so attending was likely less frustrating than watching from afar, waiting for mind-blowing news.
Sony really, really wants VR to work. To its credit, it seems to be making a stronger push for it than it did for its Wii-too Move motion controllers a few years ago. It hyped a marquee VR shooter, Farpoint, early in the year, and added updates, including competitive multiplayer, in the months that followed. It snagged support from Ubisoft for mutiplatform VR games like Star Trek Bridge Crew while adding in platform exclusives such as a short, new point and click installment of Double Fine’s Psychonauts and a VR port of Bethesda’s Skyrim.
A lot of the games are rough, demonstrating the limits of the graphical fidelity of the PSVR headset and, worse, the system’s inability to support the kind of room-scale VR that the more expensive competing PC headsets, Facebook’s Oculus Rift and Valve and HTC’s Vive, can do. PSVR games require you to stand or sit in front of your TV, leading to a Final Fantasy exclusive based on that most immobile of pastimes: fishing.
The PSVR games that have worked best include a puzzle game called Statik that presents your Dualshock controller as a series of boxes manacled around your hands that you must figure out how to unlock, and a pair of god games called Dino Frontier and No Heroes Allowed VR that let you orchestrate events on a digital landscape laid out before you. The aforementioned trio are all PSVR-exclusive, and it’s clear that Sony plans to continue to push the system with more first-party published games into the new year. See the Sony-published, Supermassive-developed horror game The Inpatient and the tandem’s military shooter Bravo Team, slated for January and March respectively. They’ll sandwich the February release of Moss, a cute mouse adventure that was the rare VR game to turn heads at last year’s E3. It’s Sony-only, too.
PSVR may not be the world’s most impressive VR experience, but Sony’s consistent support is giving it a chance to succeed. Hell, they even recently offered to send people PSVR headsets for free to try them out.
In terms of regular, non-VR games, the PS4’s 2017 was as impressive as it gets. In the first three months of the year, the PS4 got a slew of immediate contenders for our reviewers’ favorite games of the year, all console-exclusive to PS4: Platinum’s Nier Automata, Tecmo’s Nioh, Atlus’ Persona 5, and Horizon Zero Dawn from Sony’s own Guerilla Games. The last one was expected to be good and turned out to be excellent. It seemed plausible that the studio behind Killzone could stretch themselves into making a fun, beautiful third-person action game featuring a woman who hunts robot dinosaurs, but who knew they’d do it with a memorable, witty script and a stream of unpredictable sidequests?
And who thought they’d be able to add in a large expansion by year’s end? Mix in January’s pretty but flawed Gravity Rush 2, which showed Sony’s admirable willingness to sequelize beloved games, MLB The Show 17, and Sega’s Yakuza 0 and you had probably the strongest first quarter of a calendar year by any console ever.
Sony wasn’t going to be able to keep its early 2017 pace all year, but in late summer it produced a smaller surge again with a new Everybody’s Golf game surrounded by two $40 surprises: Uncharted Lost Legacy, a fat-trimmed 10-hour adventure that stands alongside the best in the series, and Knack II, a pre-release punchline that turned out to be the most impressive improvement upon an original game’s flaws since Assassin’s Creed II. If only October’s Gran Turismo Sport had been as dazzling, but Sony’s once-mighty racing series just seems to be going through the motions these days.
The PlayStation brand was launched with a deference to third-party games. Sony could make cool games, but it also got out of the way of the Resident Evils and Metal Gear Solids. It didn’t quite get out of the way of RE7, which launched in that packed first quarter, but Sony did what’s now become its familiar disappearing act closer to the big holiday season, letting the Call of Dutys, Destinys, Assassin’s Creeds and Battlefronts pull in for attention. Sony’s biggest November release was, arguably, Guerilla’s Frozen Wilds expansion to Horizon.
(It may be good for PS4 owners in the short-term, but timed exclusivity for DLC sucks, and Sony has abused the practice by snagging exclusivity windows for DLC for RE7, Call of Duty and Destiny 2. This is the weakest way to get people to choose your console and it can screw over rival console owners for an absurd amount of time.)
Sony’s penchant for weird games was subdued in 2017. Some of it was channeled into their PSVR line-up and in the new PlayLink line, which got some buzz for the multiplayer game of deception Hidden Agenda. Its incubation of indies saw the release of the intriguing first-person adventure What Remains of Edith Finch a few months before it came out on Xbox, and Sony managed to secure a port of the beloved PC hit Undertale for PS4 and Vita.
Sony is great with new games. Throughout 2017, however, they remained frustratingly reticent to fully support their back catalog. They backed Activision’s 2017 remakes of the original Crash Bandicoot games, keeping them PS4-only for the year, and they’ve slowly brought back older oddball games such as Patapon and LocoRoco with HD versions for PS4.
The well-hidden “PS2 on PS4” section of the PS4’s online store got just 13 new releases in 2017, four of which are Jak & Daxter games and one of which is a bundle of previously-offered Rockstar games. In three years, Sony has added around for dozen games to that corner of the shop, nearly all third-party. At least that’s four dozen games, though, because PS4 owners still can’t buy or download PS One games, which they could on PS3 and Vita. In July, Sony exec Jim Ryan dismissed the appeal of older games. While the man is good for a colorful quote— speaking of older Gran Turismo games, he said, “why would anybody play this?”—the proof is in Sony’s Nintendo-like refusal to just get on with it already and sell your damn back catalog to people who’d gladly pay for it.
Next year could be excellent for Sony. In theory, the PS4 will get a Spider-Man game from Insomniac, an ambitious creativity game called Dreams from Media Molecule, an emotional adventure called Detroit: Become Human and maybe even the new God of War and Last of Us. But not one of those games has a specific release date and some have been shown in such limited fashion that it’s easy to see them holding until 2019.
Then there’s Death Stranding, which will come out Kojima knows when. The only non-VR game from Sony locked for 2018 is the February-slotted HD remake of Shadow of the Colossus.
Japanese third-parties will again boost Sony early in the calendar year. Level 5’s Ni No Kuni II, Square’s Secret of Mana remake, Saga’s Yakuza 6, and Square/Tecmo’s Dissidia Final Fantasy NT will all be out in the first three months of the year, all console-exclusive to PS4. There’s a chance Shenmue III will hit in 2018 as well as well as the first episode of Square’s remake of Fina … oh, forget it.
Sony has a pile of VR projects announced for 2018, so that platform will keep on chugging. It has new PlayLink stuff coming as well. Those sectors of PlayStation gaming will be good for fans of Sony’s weirder side, but so too might one of 2017’s more intriguing announcements, a lovely graffiti-drawing game called Concrete Genie that came out of nowhere and is scheduled, tantalizingly, for next year.
The new year should be good for Sony. PS4 fans should go into it skeptical that all the undated heavyweight games Sony’s been trotting out at the last two E3s will finally show up, but if even half of them do, that’ll be terrific.