In the last generation, Sony's PlayStation Network, or PSN, was always number two to Xbox Live.
PSN was by no means poor, but it was a get what you pay for situation. Xbox Live Gold was around £30 for a year, got you access to online multiplayer and streaming services (even ones you might already be paying for, like Netflix) and had a robust list of features that made it easy to communicate with friends and join their games.
Sony gave away online multiplayer for free with the PlayStation 3, but you could opt for PlayStation Plus status for digital store discounts and other perks. Now the arrival of the PS4, Sony has given the PSN a major renovation, and introduced a paywall for online multiplayer.
The PSN on the PlayStation 4 has gotten a major renovation. It has new features and benefits, and compelling reasons to spend £40 for a year of PlayStation Plus: it's now required for online multiplayer.
Unlike Xbox One, Sony's console does not need to be connected to the internet for its initial setup. There is a sizeable patch to install when you first set up, but if you live in a lead-lined bunker without a trace of WiFi, you'll still be able to pop in a disc and enjoy some single player without downloading it.
During the initial setup, the PS4 will ask to be connected to internet, like any PC, phone or tablet would do. As we said, you can deny it, and still get some gaming and DVD watching done. However, you'd be missing out on a lot of the fun.
The PSN now supports a party chat function, which lets you group with friends outside of a game for open mic chat. If you do enter a game, you'll be able to communicate privately with each other. The mic quality is clear, but we do suggest investing in something beyond the tinny earbud that comes with your system.
Your PSN profile can now be linked to your Facebook account. It's relatively well executed, but take your time going through the setup menus or you'll end up spamming your friend's news feeds every time you play a game or earn a trophy.
There's an option to make your real name public to everyone yahoo you encounter online. We opted to make it private, meaning that after your friend someone, there's a can send a second request to make your real names visible to each other.
This is a smart, well executed feature. This second request can be sent at any time, allowing for a "getting to know you" period with the people you meet online. Of course, if you're dealing with someone you know in real life, you can go ahead and send the request. Using real names makes it easier to keep track of who exactly HeadShot9999 is, and makes for a much nicer looking friends list.
While the PSN did have some hiccups during the first 24 hours of the system's North American launch, it's smooth sailing now. We've been able to maintain a steady connection with a fast ping on our home internet connection, in both first and third-party games.
On the PlayStation 4, Sony has followed the Xbox Live Gold example and put online multiplayer behind a paywall.
While it's easy to find that disappointing, it was an inevitability, and Plus still comes with all its old benefits, and it's priced a bit less than Xbox Live (£40 versus £32.49 for Live). Also, you can still access services like Netflix without buying into Plus.
If you have an active PS Plus account from your PS3 or PS Vita it'll carry over and apply to all your Sony systems. Benefits like digital store discounts, monthly free games and early DLC access are still part of the package.
You now get multiplayer access and game patches that download and install automatically while in the PS4 is in standby. Firmware and overall system updates will download automatically even if you're not a Plus member.
Plus also gets you 1GB of cloud storage for your saved games. While any PSN member can sign into a friend's PS4 and access their digitally purchased games, only Plus subscribers will be able to yank their progress out of the cloud.
Right now, two of the best benefits of PlayStation Plus are Resogun and Contrast, the games you currently get to download at no extra for charge for subscribing to Plus. It's a rotating selection, so eventually these won't be the freebie games, but those who were subscribed to Plus during their reign will get to keep them as long as they have Plus.
Sony also has a pretty forgiving system for those who let their Plus lapse. Should it lapse, your free games won't be removed from your hard, but they will lock up. Once you buy back in, they be accessible again. It would be pretty draconian of Sony to take away your games just because you're not auto-renewing.
While it is sad to see free PSN multiplayer go the way of the dodo, Sony has done a lot to sweeten the Plus deal. We think it's an essential part of the PS4 experience, and totally worth the price. At the very least, use the free trial that comes with your system and grab Resogun and Contrast before they disappear.
Of all the functionality the PS4 gained in the past year, PlayStation Now is our favorite. PS Now is essentially a digital rental service that allows you to rent games for limited periods.
Instead of downloading a copy of the game that will take up space on your hard drive and time to download, you'll actually stream the game from Sony's servers. It takes about 25-30 seconds to get a game going, but once you do it's relatively smooth sailing.
It's a feature currently only available in the US, but a UK version is thought to be on the cards for 2015. And in just the four months PlayStation Now has been in open beta in the US, we've seen Sony add over a hundred new titles to the service including a number of AAA titles from the PS3's back-catalog.
The only major problems the service faces at this junction are the fact that pricing starts at a ridiculous $3.99 to rent a game for two hours and can skyrocket up to $29.99 to rent a game for 90 days, and the overall experience is entirely dependant on your connection speed.
You're going to have to hardwire your system to a decently fast router (minimum 5 mbps) if you want the best experience. The pricing is something that could change once the service goes live sometime in 2015, but until then we're not holding our breath.
Share Play is Sony's novel concept to bring back local multiplayer to its games. When you load up a particularly tough section in a game, you can invite a more experienced buddy from your friends list to take control of your console remotely and do the dirty work for you. If the game supports local multiplayer, they take over the second controller and play your game with you without ever owning a copy of it themselves.
The downside, however, is that both players will need to be PlayStation Plus subscribers and sessions are limited to an hour each. That doesn't mean that you're limited to one session a day, but it does mean that you'll need to send an invitation to your friend every hour. Your friend - assuming you're the one hosting - will only see the game in 720p and if you're the host, you're the only one who'll get trophies.
Share Play's still a bit too new to really judge how well it works. Initial tests suggest that it could add a new level of social interactivity, but until everyone "gets it," it probably won't see the same amount of prestige that some of the other new features have gotten.