The PS4 Launch Journal: Launch Game Gauntlet

It was a relief to see that my launch day PS4 worked just fine, but a system is nothing without its games. Thankfully, I was well prepared; a few last-minute deals left me with disc copies of Killzone: Shadow Fall, Knack and Assassin’s Creed IV, and after PSN finally let me sign in, I immediately downloaded Resogun and Contrast. Even though I only played five of the two dozen games available at launch, I could still see a clear pattern emerging.

Killzone: Shadow Fall

Killzone Shadow FallShadow Fall is one of those games you pop in to effectively showcase your brand-new PS4. It’s an absolutely gorgeous first-person shooter that throws you into setpiece moments like freefalling through a collapsed planet or taking down renegade trains with a mounted turret. Of course, like the other two big shooters this year, the drive to create spectacle over nuanced combat situations feels like it hampered the overall campaign in a negative way. One late-game space mission had me tearing my hair out of frustration, and were it not for the multiplayer, I would have probably given up on the game entirely.

Killzone’s “Warzone” mode remains one of the strongest multiplayer variants around. By cycling through five different randomized rulesets in each match, Guerilla have done an admirable job of keeping everyone from solely existing on the “Team Deathmatch” mode. It may take 25 minutes at most to finish a match, but the shifting objectives make the length worth it.

If you’re looking for a solid multiplayer shooter to christen your new PS4, you could do a whole lot worse than Shadow Fall. Just don’t be surprised if the single-player campaign occasionally compels you to shatter your TV with your controller.

Knack

Knack-Robot-and-manHave you ever watched a movie where you could see what the creators were attempting to make, but none of the pieces felt quite right? Knack tries its hardest to be a lovable, family-friendly romp placed next to the likes of Pixar and Dreamworks, but by aiming for the same beats we’ve come to expect from these entertainment titans, it never manages to come into its own. The titular Knack spits out tired one-liners from an ill-fitting deep voice, characters react to situations in nonsensical ways (an evil doctor attacks Knack four times before the heroes realize he’s bad news), and every plot beat is telegraphed so far in advance that I knew exactly what was going to happen hours into the future. It also absent-mindedly shoots for emotional moments it never bothered to earn, prompting numerous groans before the credits rolled.

Terrible plots in games are nothing new, and they wouldn’t be as much of a problem for Knack if the parts where you play weren’t an absolute slog. Fragile Knack can only take two hits before he’s down for the count, but it isn’t this difficult because the combat is complex or the enemies are smart; there’s only one attack button, your foes all follow an obvious pattern, and it’s all too common to grind through five minutes’ worth of  enemies before reaching a checkpoint. The staleness is only amplified by the same 5-6 music tracks repeating over a 12 hour stretch of time, and hour-long chapters that serve no purpose other than padding an already lengthy experience.

Finishing Knack felt more like an obligation than a desire. Also, the word “Knack” has lost all meaning for me.

Resogun

ResogunOut of the 24 games that launched with the PS4, Resogun easily worms its way to the front of the pack. Being a free pack-in for PlayStation Plus members certainly doesn’t hurt, but Resogun quickly earned a place in my heart by hitting the same notes that made Geometry Wars a smash hit back in 2005. This retro-themed, side-scrolling shooter has you cutting through onslaughts of enemy ships in order to “save the last humans” held captive, and face off against bosses that spew hundreds of projectiles every other second. It’s less of a wringer than the traditional bullet hell shooter, but calling Resogun a slouch would be foolish; as the action heats up, you’re up to your neck in aliens, and flying humans to safety requires a keen trigger finger and split-second reaction times to dodge shot after shot.

The ships and five stages are all built from voxels, which take the form of tiny metallic cubes. If you so much as breathe in their general direction, these intricate constructions shatter at a terrifying speed, filling the screen with a torrential downpour of oversized pixels. This sheer sense of wonder and glee as everything crumbles is palpable, and I soon found myself pumping my fist when the world around me burst into blocky confetti. For once, that puny little ship feels appropriately powerful, easily dispatching enemies with bravado and style.

Resogun might fill that “gorgeous launch game” quota, but it has brains beyond the brawn, and makes it all too easy to sink several hours as you work to save ALL of the last humans.  And since it’s practically a pack-in for anyone interested in multiplayer gaming, your friends list leaderboard will quickly become a heated battleground for the #1 slot. If you’re already buying a PS4, there’s absolutely no reason not to download it.

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

assassinpirateOther than the lowered frame rate and gimmicky touchpad map controls, the PS4 version is nearly identical to its bigger PC brother. That’s far from a deal-breaker; even if it isn’t pushing that next-gen “wow” factor that everyone chases during launch, it’s still a gorgeous game that manages to strut its stuff whenever possible. More importantly, it all but abandons the junk that weighed down Assassin’s Creed III; instead of playing the antihero destined to bring about change in the world and an obnoxious jerk who talks down to everyone he meets, you’re an Animus QA tester working with Edward Kenway, the superior, shiver-me-timbers Kenway. There’s nothing quite like taking the Jackdaw out for a voyage on the high seas, scuttling any cargo-bearing ship that passes your way and singing along with a lively crew of scoundrels and misfits.

Assassin’s Creed IV still feels too bloated for its own good, offering a ridiculous number of collectibles and quests to accomplish, but a change in location and profession makes all the difference. Why waste time hunting down the pages of Ben Franklin’s almanac when you could be analyzing maps to find buried treasure, or teaching the crew a brand-new sea shanty? Instead of shooting for the vague goal of immersing players in the American Revolution, Ubisoft lets us strut around the ocean, chasing our own adventure on numerous islands and ports of call.

It might just be a barebones upgrade to a game that already exists on older hardware, but that just might be what we needed from Assassin’s Creed IV. By ignoring the rush to make the most out of the PS4, we have the pleasure of playing a great game that doesn’t need the “for a launch title” qualification.

Contrast

ContrastBoy, did I want to love Contrast. It was never a looker, but the trailers promised something new and exciting; how often do you play the imaginary friend of a little girl, exploring her world and solving puzzles by jumping along shadows? Unfortunately, it only took me ten minutes to realize that the game sitting in my mind after months of anticipation was far better than the one sitting on my PS4. Contrast is nothing more than a collection of platforming puzzles, saddled with a control scheme that’s anything but precise. It often takes a few seconds to figure out what the game wants you to do, followed by 15 minutes of wrestling with the controller.

Again, its status as a free game for PS+ members makes it relatively risk-free to pop inside and see if anything sticks for you. At $15 on Steam, though, I would stay away.