Couch co-op meets mobile.
E3 2017 was an exciting, tantalising look at new software holding full intention to blow our socks off, new hardware to blast our retinas into a native 4K utopian future. Then – PlayLink, one of the more interesting new features making its way to Playstation 4 consoles by years end. It’s truly an announcement I initially missed, but uncovered just a few months later. The premise behind PlayLink is simple – Playstation 4? Check. Friends? Check. Controllers? Uh, Controllers? Here in lies the problem. You forgot to buy an extra controller for your Nintendo-clad couch buddy, and now he’s left sipping his orange juice and watching you all play Overcooked, while he cowers over his Nintendo Switch for some solo Xenoblade Chronicles 2 at the end of the couch. That’s where PlayLink comes in – a slew of titles released under the PlayLink tree are specifically designed to be played with your friends, wielding only their mobile device. Each player downloads the game-specific PlayLink app directly to their Android or iOS device, and bam, bob’s your sister – your entire couch now has a controller, and the flow of cheesy snacks, beers and couch co-op fun can truly begin.
I’ll be honest – it’s something I’ve truly wanted for quite some time – inviting over a group of friends without the hassle of pre-gaming configuration. You’ve got a mobile device? You’ve got a controller, and you’re suddenly able to wrangle Playstation 4-quality party gaming in minutes. In an alternate scenario, it also serves as a medium to introduce a significant other to the world of gaming, even if video games aren’t often their thing.
I’ve spent some time over the past week getting my hands dirty on Sony’s first rollout of PlayLink titles – Hidden Agenda – a crime thriller from the Until Dawn team at Supermassive Games, Knowledge is Power – an evolution of the classic Buzz! game show series, and SingStar Celebration – Mobile karaoke with an endless library of ballads and rock classics to belt out to. For those who arrive at this review as a PlayLink virgin – you may be pleasantly surprised at the premise PlayLink offers for the future of party gaming.
A chilling crime thriller wrapped in an interactive, mobile-interactive experience, Hidden Agenda presents an incredibly fun single-session play for both a solo or cooperative loadout. Its cinematics will wow you at times, with uber-realistic action and a unique proposition that will no doubt create disparity and debate amongst your friends as you uncover the truth of a brutal serial killing spree. While it’s story is told with conviction and holds its weight, occasional technical glitches with the PlayLink system and a more elegant mobile app experience make a small divot in what is a truly incredible experience and a demonstration of the path that party gaming should definitely be taking in future.
While I’ll cover the mobile app experience a little later in this review, downloading and configuring the app was painless and an easy experience. Download, launch, and you’re ready to play. The mobile app on my Android device came in at around a 100MB download, which should cause little issue on either a mobile network or WiFi connection. Once you’re all configured on the mobile tail-end, you’re presented with a choice of modes once launching the software on your console. Story Mode follows the traditional path of presenting Hidden Agenda’s chilling, secretive plot, while giving you full control of your path in Solo mode, and presenting a ‘panel’ style decision-making mechanism, where the choice of the individual becomes the decision as a collective. While Hidden Agenda at its core is really just some cinematics and Quick Time Events, it’s pacing and presentation makes it feel much more like a A-roll movie where the direction of the story is entirely in the hands of you and your friends – and that alone makes for some edge-of-the-seat unpredictability. Contrastingly, Competitive Mode fits much more into the ‘board game night’ scenario, resembling popular games like Coup and Codenames, where a single player is given a unique task, creating an artificial partition on your couch as one of your friends turns Hidden Agenda’s gripping experience on its head.
While technical issues were few and far between, a minor issue became a major one in fast fashion. It’s still unexplained, but lag spikes between my movement on my device’s touch screen and that of the simulated movement on my TV screen was unbearable in two instances during my playthrough of Hidden Agenda. Despite my WiFi network being more than capable of any kind of network activity, unprecedented lag made its way into my game with no real pattern of its cause. Thankfully, this should be solvable with a software update, along with the app’s barebones featurette – settings and some primitive touch controls is all you’ll be presented with. My only assumption is that the basic app functionality is there for compatibility reasons (and I certainly cannot speak for the iOS app), but better and more consistent performance with the app-TV interaction would make for near-perfect experience.
Knowledge is Power
If you were a Buzz! quiz maestro like myself as a young teen, Knowledge is Power should be at the forefront of your gaming wheelhouse upon your next catch-up with friends or family. With the same style of charm here as seen previously in the aforementioned series of previous generations, Knowledge is Power is a fun, colourful party game that will definitely challenge some players – but with enough variability to be a staple of the PlayLink software library.
While this PlayLink featurette is best played with friends (in fact, you’ll need at least two bodies), you’ll be presented with a cute, charming host, akin to that of a cheesy, quirky UK television host you’ve likely seen countless times before. He’ll add silly comments in between questions, and narrate score updates as you and your friends progress throughout your trivia battles. In a general sense, Knowledge is Power is a standard quiz game, filled to the brim with hundreds of questions and dozens of question categories to choose from. It is, however, ‘Majority Rules’ when selecting your next category, unless you’re personally burning for more Sports questions. At this point, you’ll need to use your Power Pick (of which you’re limited to a select number of picks per game) to overrule your fellow contestants. Once your category is selected, the tux-bearing show host will belt out a slew of questions at your group in a ‘fastest finger first’ play-style.
A quiz mechanic that Wish Studios have labelled ‘Power Play’ allows each player to turn the game in their favour momentarily, in a quiz-equivalent of a Special Attack. You’ll be given the option to freeze other players, award double points to yourself or another player in the next round, or sending a scrambler to delay another player’s ability to select their answer. The Power Play feature is fun, and a great way of giving struggling players an encouraging ‘pat on the back’ or stretching the gap of your lead.
With little to no technical issues here, Knowledge is Power was a surprising take on the party quiz genre, and a title I’ll be reaching for often. Quiz battles are laugh out loud fun, with varying difficulty for all ages. Younger players will certainly have a blast here – but hey, even your grammy or gramps can jump in on this one – just be sure to lend them a hand installing the PlayLink app on their $99 smartphone.
My incredible singing prowess, sent from the angelic heavens, has never made its way past the shower curtain – until now. SingStar Celebration is a tap-and-play, accessible version of the SingStar we know and love, with a sprinkle of new game mechanics and a new Party mode to boot. While it’s a little disheartening to see a heavy pop-centric focus on the song list you’ll get out of the box, the enormous library of songs available for purchase is promising and might be the best way to assemble your next karaoke night.
SingStar Celebration presents overwhelmingly positive accessibility when deciding on play style. Still got those SingStar microphones stashed away in a crate somewhere? You’ll be able to use those. While that’s consistently been the ‘way-to-play’ in past iterations, The PlayLink feature here transforms your smartphone into a virtual microphone by way of the SingStar Celebration app. If you you’re driving a new device, you’re in luck, but if you’re wielding your ‘dropped too many times to keep count’ iPhone 5S, you may struggle to get an accurate experience, or an experience at all. This is no hinderance of SingStar Celebration itself, though, as the virtual microphone worked surprisingly well during my playthrough. Note and pitch accuracy seemed spot-on, and the app didn’t have any hiccups throughout my sessions, which is a confident start to audio interfacing using PlayLink.
You’ll be presented with many familiar modes for past players, including Medley, Freestyle and Solo play. Celebration, however, introduces ‘Party mode’, allowing up to an 8-player party experience, leaving no friends sobbing in the corner, tearing up over their inability to belt out some classic Hoobastank or Britney Spears.
While the actual ‘singing’ works well enough, the tracklist included with the game is abysmal to say the least. You’ll start without around 30 tracks, two-thirds of which are pop songs. You’re a rock-head? You’ll have to pay up. Hip hop and RnB your kind of thing? Prepare your wallet. While there are some classics scattered amongst the starter pack of songs, it would be have been welcoming to see a few different categories with a collection of songs for each. However, at $19 AUD, it’s a relatively inexpensive initial investment, justifying purchase of DLC for future sessions.
It’s an overwhelmingly positive start for PlayLink, and it’s truly caught me by surprise. With a solid offering of both conventional party games and unique, story-driven experiences you can’t find anywhere else, Playstation PlayLink and Hidden Agenda, Knowledge is Power and SingStar Celebration are all worthy recommendations for your next party, or for a night-in of casual gaming on your lonesome. While some technical issues caused some headaches in both Hidden Agenda and SingStar Celebration, a future patch should alleviate these issues and make for an incredibly fun, unique mobile-TV driven experience.
Knowledge is Power
Thank you to Sony for providing Daily Joystick Podcasts with a copy of these games for review.