PlayLink turns the PS4 into a Christmas party machine

Inevitably, at some point this Christmas, your family gathering will involve playing group games. But if you’re sick of your eccentric uncle’s bumbling efforts at charades, or fed up with losing to your dad at Trivial Pursuit, fear not: Sony’s PlayStation 4 has a new feature that can revitalise the annual post-turkey shenanigans.

Called PlayLink, it was released last month, with surprisingly little fanfare. But it adds an intriguing trick to the PlayStation 4’s capabilities, which should prove very handy indeed as you catch up with your family this Christmas. In a nutshell, PlayLink allows you to control certain PS4 games (that is, those specifically created for the PlayLink system) with mobile phones, as opposed to DualShock 4 controllers.

knowledge is power

Knowledge is Power brings the game show format to your living room.

Martin Alltimes, CEO of The Imaginati Studio, which has created a PlayLink game called Planet of the Apes: Last Frontier, highlights aspects of PlayLink that attracted him to the system: “Think about how many PlayStations are sitting in people’s homes, but are only played by one person in that house.  What’s brilliant about PlayLink is that everyone’s got a mobile phone, so there is no need to buy that £50 controller or gadget. There used to be a whole category of on-the-couch multiplayer that has pretty much disappeared because of mobile phones and online connectivity. But what’s also nice is to have these experiences that you share in a room with someone with whom you can also share conversation.”

It’s additionally worth pointing out that because PlayLink games run on the PS4 – with control duties plus, sometimes, phone-specific abilities like using the camera or microphone assigned to participating mobile phones – they can be much more visually ambitious than any games you will ever have seen running on a mobile. And already, developers are using PlayLink to exercise their more experimental creative juices.

By their very nature, PlayLink games are trickier to set up than normal PlayStation games, but not annoyingly so. First, you must purchase and download whatever PlayLink game takes your fancy (happily, they tend to cost significantly less than what full-blown PS4 games will set you back). Then, you have to download a free app (from Google Play or Apple’s App Store) specific to each PlayLink game, to every player’s mobile phone. Launch the game on the PS4, follow the prompts and everyone will be able to join the game via their handsets.

This could lead to an unwanted plethora of apps on your mobile, and the size of the mobile apps tends to vary wildly, so if you become a PlayLink enthusiast, it might be advisable to invest in a high-capacity MicroSD card. But that won’t be a problem if you’re just downloading the odd game to play with the relatives while the turkey and sprouts are being digested. Note that older relatives will require at least some basic form of smartphone with a touch-screen and camera if they want to take part. 

It’s early days yet – PlayLink only launched on 21 November. But encouragingly, the games already released for it are using the technology in diverse ways. Currently, they mostly fall into two broad categories: party-games and interactive-movie games, in the general vein of Heavy Rain or Until Dawn. But PlayLink developers are beginning to dream up clever ways of using features which mobile phones have, but DualShock 4 controllers don’t.

Warn the neighbours: Singstar's at home karaoke rocks

Warn the neighbours: Singstar's at home karaoke rocks

The Imaginati’s Martin Alltimes points out that, with a phone, “You’ve got a device that can see you, hear you and has multiple ways in which you can interact with it.” Thus, for example, SingStar Celebration uses your phone as a microphone, That’s You makes extensive use of its camera, Hidden Agenda lets you swipe around your screen as if wielding a mouse (which is near-impossible with a conventional game controller) and the forthcoming Erica employs gestures which are well known to mobile phone users, in order to bring an unprecedented level of tactility to its control system.

In Erica, an interactive movie-style game due next year, you find yourself rubbing the screen to dislodge dust, or swiping carefully in order to uncrumple a ball of paper, and the overall effect is to create the impression that you’re somehow able to touch the game-world, which is deeply immersive. It won’t be a party-game, but it will offer a completely fresh-feeling gameplay experience.

But let’s have a closer look at the PlayLink games which are currently available.

That's You

That’s You is precisely the sort of game which should go down with hilarity at the family Christmas get-together. 

It kicks off by getting (two to six) participants to take selfies and rotates between three types of activities: answering questions about what the other players would do in certain situations, taking selfies in which you’re trying to get something across like a particular pose, and drawing on the screen, Pictionary-style.

At the end of each round, everyone has to vote on whose contribution was the best, and in the event of a stalemate, players can tip the result in a particular direction by employing a joker, of which there are a limited amount. 

The final round sees everyone taking a selfie, then drawing on top of it to transform themselves into a specified person, monster or animal; those selfies are subsequently passed around the group for further additions. That’s You is fluff, for sure, but is nevertheless a great party ice-breaker. It also has a two-player mode, concerning how intimate your knowledge of the other person is, which operates independently of the PS4, although that’s a bit perfunctory.

Knowledge is Power

Knowledge is Power has also been designed to take place in a party environment. Playable by between one and six people, it’s a pretty typical quiz game, with a couple of PlayLink-enabled twists added. 

Before it starts firing questions at you, every player must vote on a category, then decide which Power Play to use. Power Plays offer a means of sticking a spanner in your opponents’ works: if you use the gunk one on an opponent, for example, they will have to wipe it off their screen before the selection of answers is revealed. The principle is that, if someone is running away with the game, the other players can gang up, fire their Power Plays at that player and bring them to heel.

A game of Knowledge is Power lasts about half an hour, and involves answering roughly 15 questions. Which demonstrates that it involves a bit more fannying around choosing categories and so on than would be ideal. But nevertheless, it’s decent party fodder, and it also has a two-team mode that operates without a PS4 and involves passing the phone around between questions; the Power Plays still feature.

Planet of the Apes: Last Frontier

Although it’s playable by between one and four people, Planet of the Apes: Last Frontier can’t be described as a party-game. But it is still suitable for a Christmas gathering, particularly if everyone is in a more serious mood which might, say, make it a worthy replacement for hunkering down to watch a movie.

That's because it is essentially an interactive movie, with impeccable credentials: it was created by The Imaginati, sister company to The Imaginarium, Andy Serkis’s company, which was responsible for the performance-capture that featured in the recent Planet of the Apes films. It’s pretty much a whole new Planet of the Apes film – with a separate storyline from anything you’ve seen in the cinema – except that you and your relatives get to interact with it.

In terms of production-values, including plot, dialogue and visuals, it’s impeccable, as you would expect. But as games go, it’s experimentally minimal. There’s no navigation, which makes sense for a PlayLink game which you control via a mobile phone, but instead you’re constantly bombarded with the need to take moral decisions (and sometimes to trigger actions). There are three potential outcomes to shoot for, broadly characterised as apes win, humans win or peace is achieved.

Where the multiplayer comes in is that everyone chooses their option and the game follows the majority decision – as in That’s You, you can occasionally employ a joker to swing hung decisions your way. The overall effect is surprisingly akin to Gogglebox, in that you’re essentially watching a film and debating it rather hotly, all the way through. 

The split outcomes offer plenty of replay value – each play-through takes between two and three hours, and there’s a gruesome sense of fun to be had by, for example, forcing the humans to  be as nasty to the apes as possible. One of those rare games that really gets you thinking, and the quality of the action and dialogue is such that it leaves you fantastically immersed in what is going on. Planet of the Apes fans will love it; definitely one for the more cerebral family gathering, however.

Hidden Agenda

Hidden Agenda was developed by Supermassive Games, of Until Dawn fame, and like Until Dawn, it’s essentially a point-and-click adventure. It, too, boasts slick production values, and the use of PlayLink to bring phone-control adds some novelty. But overall, we weren’t entirely convinced by it.

Part of the problem is that it’s a police-procedural, yet like Planet of the Apes: Last Frontier, it has different potential outcomes. The trouble with police procedurals is that they are all about finding the definitive solution to a crime, so you would expect them to have precisely one outcome each.

When you play it with more than one person (it’s playable solo, or with up to five others), everyone has to perform its timed actions (usually swiping up the screen and into a box) in time; where there are choices to be made, once again the majority decision prevails. The trouble is that with the timed actions, you can decide to perform them or ignore them, and there’s a reflex action whenever you see an action-box appearing on-screen to swipe up to it, come what may. So you often find yourself acting without considering the consequences, which rather negates the point of the game.

There’s also some detective-style work to perform, which is decent, and Hidden Agenda should be commended for the way it lets you look at the consequences of your actions after you perform them. It’s by no means tiresome to play (although we much preferred playing it solo), but it just doesn’t seem particularly well suited to the PlayLink blueprint – it feels as though it would have been improved with a conventional DualShock 4 control system.

SingStar Celebration

Ah, SingStar. Sony’s karaoke game has become something of an institution, and you always know what you’re going to get with it. 

In recent years, that has meant an increasingly millennial-focused playlist, with the majority of artists a mystery to those over the age of 30, and that holds true for Celebration, so that when you do find one of the smattering of old classics, it’s a source of huge relief.

The problem with the PlayLink version of SingStar Celebration is that previous versions of the game allowed you to use your mobile phone as a microphone anyway (indeed, that may be where Sony first developed the idea that became PlayLink). But PlayLink offers pretty much nothing to the game, beyond the ability for four people to vote on the next song in the playlist.

The game only allows two people to sing at the same time, so the four-player PlayLink implementation feels underused. Still, it might keep the younger generation amused at your Christmas family gathering, while the oldies retire for port and cigars or the like.