(USA TODAY) -- The PlayStation 3 era represented a role reversal of sorts for Sony. Once the king of home video games with its PS2, the electronics giant took a small step back last generation, as rivals including the red-hot Nintendo Wii and Microsoft's Xbox 360 snagged a larger piece of the spotlight.
With the PlayStation 4, it's clear Sony wants that top spot back. Badly. Its latest video game console, available Friday, represents an impressive package for video game players, with significant improvements to the controller and menus, and fresh features such as game sharing. It's especially intriguing at $399, which is $100 less than the Xbox One out one week later, and well below the $500-$600 launch price of PS3.
A lot has changed since the PS3 made its debut in 2006. The only smartphone familiar to consumers was BlackBerry; Twitter and Instagram did not exist. Sharing content digitally has blossomed since then, as have devices with snappier interfaces that allow for more instant access.
Those concepts are central to using the PS4, starting with the device's controller. It's shaped similarly to the PS3 controller, but with additions that include a speaker and touchpad that can also be pressed like a large button. Surprisingly, the PS3 controller feels bulky compared with the thinner, comfier option for PS4. The top back buttons, L2 and R2, stick out a bit more to resemble triggers, making them easier to use. Battery life lasts roughly four to six hours before recharge.The Start button has been replaced by Options, while the Select button is now Share. Let's say you play Madden NFL, and you pull off an incredible scoring play. You can hit Share and hop into the menu to either edit and upload a video clip, take a screenshot or broadcast gameplay using Twitch or Ustream. Once clips or screenshots are edited, you can share them to connected Facebook and Twitter accounts.
What makes the feature so attractive is how quickly players can move back and forth between games and uploading. It's a seamless interaction, and once players are done they can quickly hop back into their game. Overall, switching between games, apps and other options is faster.
As for the hardware, the PS4 boasts fewer curves than its predecessor. It's slightly larger than the slim PS3, but far smaller than the original PS3 behemoth launched seven years ago. Inside the box, players get a 500 GB console, DualShock 4 controller, HDMI cable, USB cable for connecting and charging the controller and vouchers for the PlayStation Plus online service, PlayStation Network and Music Unlimited.
The front of the device features two USB ports for connecting and recharging controllers, while the back includes HDMI, optical and LAN inputs. When first turning on PS4, players plug in a controller then start a basic set-up process.
PS4 also marks the makeover of the PlayStation's XrossMediaBar (XMB) interface, the complex system for navigating games and other content on PS3. It's replaced by a simpler, more intuitive design that displays options on two levels. The top level is your primary menu for Notifications, Settings, Friends Lists, Messages and your Profile. Tap down to review content, broken down by games, TV and video for apps such as Netflix and Amazon Instant Video, separate options for Sony's Video Unlimited and Music Unlimited services and a Web browser. It's easier to navigate and looks a lot cleaner. There's also a What's New section to view recent activity.Owners of the Sony handheld PlayStation Vita can use that device as a second screen for PS4 experiences or for the attractive Remote Play. Once the device is paired with PS4, players can control the console through Vita and even play games.
To enjoy these features, owners must download a day-one update. Once that's ready, users can sign into PlayStation Network and begin a quick set-up process.
More than 20 games will be available at launch, including the intense first-person shooter Killzone: Shadow Fall, the adventure game Knack and stylish retro shooter Resogun. Staples such as Battlefield, Call of Duty and Madden will also be available. The titles make solid use of the PS4's new features, such as audiologs piping through the controller in Killzone. It's a nice mix of titles for all age ranges, but the first-party selection could be a lot more robust. That should likely improve over the next few months.
There are still other concerns that need to be sorted out - among them, how Sony's PlayStation Network will fare on PS4, between the influx of players trying to update their system and its overall performance down the road. Also, more consumers are using their video game consoles for general entertainment, an area Microsoft has clearly focused on with Xbox One. Will Sony have enough of the appropriate apps and other content to entice casual consumers?
For Sony, the message it sends to competitors through the powerful PS4 is simple: Game on.
Score: 3.5 stars (out of 4)