While scouring the floors of Eurogamer Expo the other week, Gizmag couldn't pass up an opportunity to get hands-on with a PlayStation 4 running a demo of Assassin's Creed 4, which, despite being the fifth Assassin's Creed sequel (don't ask), turned out to be one of the most intriguing games on show at the event. No, really.
You must learn control
Before we get onto the game, I want to mention the bit of the PlayStation 4 I was allowed to get hands-on with: the control pad, unsurprisingly. This is one aspect of the console that I was particularly curious about because, for me at least, it was one of the few* meaningful differentiating factors between the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 that has resulted in my Xbox Live gamerscore rocketing up at the sort of rate I wish my salary had done since it launched in 2005 (the 360, not my career – and yes, now that you mention it, perhaps that's no coincidence.) My PlayStation Network trophy cabinet, on the other hand, is about as populated as Middlesborough FC's. Apologies to our American and Aussie readers, and those from elsewhere. You'll just have to think of a sports team from your own country that is as successful as Middlesborough (i.e. not remotely).
Happily, the PlayStation 4's DualShock 4 controller is a significant improvement from its predecessors, which, except for the addition of the analog thumbsticks to the original PlayStation controller to create the original DualShock, have changed relatively little. This is an altogether meatier, ergonomic, and, dare I say it, Xboxy affair. The buttons all depress pleasingly, and the sticks and triggers feel excellently weighted. Overall, this feels like a gamepad better suited to the predominant genres of the day, which tend to involve making a little man (or very occasionally woman) run around and shoot things.
However, the DualShock 4 fixes only one of two of the DualShock's major failings. Finally, thankfully, the main triggers are concave rather than convex so that your index fingers won't be inclined to slip off them when held down for extended periods (do any Gran Turismo players not know what I'm talking about?).
But, alas, the left analog stick remains in the wrong place, with the d-pad instead positioned under the natural resting place of the left thumb. Clearly this is subjective, but though Sony has claimed that the DualShock 4 has been play tested beyond the nth degree (and doubtless it has), one can't help but wonder if aesthetics, or perhaps branding, has taken precedence over ergonomics. Perhaps I'm in the minority, and more gamers out there use the d-pad more than they do the left analog stick. In the West, I somehow doubt it. However, the fact remains that the controller represents a significant step up, while sacrificing none of the functionality of the DualShock 3.
It's difficult to blur the line between talking about the PlayStation 4 and Assassin's Creed 4. The PS4 remains an unknown quantity, and so a question remains as to whether Assassin's Creed 4's graphics better represent the hardware or the software. In fairness, I'm lumping my overall impressions of the next-gen games on show at Eurogamer Expo together here. For PlayStation 4 read Xbox One too, as at this stage there appears to be very little to choose between them in terms of power.
To my eyes, the demo of Assassin's Creed 4 didn't differentiate itself from the graphics of a capable gaming PC. So, if you're crying out for a new gaming machine, a next-gen console (and the PlayStation 4 especially, thanks to its price advantage) might look like fairly good value for money. But if, like me, you own a fairly decent gaming rig, the value of a new console may be slimmer. You've already paid good money for your PC, and the extra dollars may be better spent on cost-effective upgrades in a year or two – upgrades which might begin to put blue sky between your PC and a console so far as performance is concerned. Almost a year ago, I asked whether buying a Wii U is worth it. I still don't know the answer to that question, but if you own a PC, it's not a bad place to look for games that offer something different.
As for the gameplay, here's where things are a little more intriguing. The demo unveiled to attendees was a naval level, modeled after the famed naval missions of Assassin's Creed 3, in which the player takes control of a galleon, wresting control of the high seas. Assassin's Creed 4 promises an expanded, open-world take on naval missions, and what I saw was encouraging. In fact, I was fairly baffled by it all, which I take as a very good sign. Admittedly, I was attempting to assess the controller, work out the control scheme and take in the graphics, but the fact that I managed to run aground suggests that Assassin's Creed 4 may yet offer more than the bullet-time greasy pole of visceral yet ultimately shallow entertainment. Perhaps it'll even let you alone to work things out for yourself for a while. Games don't leave you alone enough any more.
After a couple of minutes of hapless thumbstick-waggling (turns out you can't three-point-turn a galleon – at least not in AC4) I decided to restart the demo. It was there I found a menu screen of other demo levels, and within minutes I was guiding our protagonist, Edward Kenway, through a lush jungle. But despite the unknown landscape, here I was back in familiar territory, skipping through treetops, stalking through tall grass, and back-stabbing and swashbuckling enemy foes like an old pro … which I am, at this point. Judging by the limited section I witnessed, there may be fewer surprises once Kenway makes it onto dry land, though at least Edward didn't feel compelled to spontaneously leap out of cover, and his grandson Ratonhnhaké:ton did repeatedly (and game-breakingly) in AC3.
As with the Watch Dogs demo, one wonders whether the tantalizing prospect that the next-gen consoles can deliver genuinely new gaming experiences is hampered by the fact developers are currently hedging with cross-generation titles. One suspects that genuinely new ideas and, say, AI innovations, are harder to come by than that. And yet it looks as though Assassin's Creed 4, in its naval sections, will have something new to offer.
The killer question is whether an Xbox One or PlayStation 4 is worth your money. Unfortunately, only you can answer that. And, if your patience allows, I'd urge you to try them out before you make up your mind. I remain very comfortably on the fence.
The even more rambly footnote at the end
*If you're curious, the other main factor that made the 360 console of choice was initial its vastly superior online experience, and later noise. Microsoft doesn't deserve any special credit on the latter score. The only reason that my 360 is significantly quieter than my PS3 is because I'm on my third 360, and in that time the design has improved considerably. My early-model PS3 (60-Gb, no PS2 support, so not that early) still sounds like an F/A-18 taking off from an aircraft carrier when the fan gets going, but then so did my first 360, which fell victim to the infamous red ring of death. We can hardly dock Sony points for building the more reliable machine, can we? Later PS3s are also much quieter. That the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 look set to be much quieter from launch has been vastly undervalued, in my opinion. But the corollary to that is that perhaps these consoles don't represent the generational leap that the 360 and PS3 did at the time. They needed powerful fans to cool their next-gen chips.