I’ve spent the past week jumping between the Xbox Series X and the PlayStation 5 — the two consoles that will officially herald the start of the next video game generation.
After an almost eight-year run, the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One eras are coming to an end, and the timing, for various reasons, could not be better. Many, after all, will no debt relish an escape after monitoring election news this week.
Granted, among the debates and choices that Americans have had to face in recent weeks, the discussion over which piece of video game technology to plug into your TV may seem relatively minor. But while the release of new home game consoles from Microsoft and Sony were destined for this year regardless of the pandemic and the increased political tensions it brought, their arrival as 2020 nears its end feels more than a little serendipitous.
Most mainstream media — our film and television productions, our live theater, our theme parks — have had to pivot or struggle to reach anything approaching normal in 2020, yet video games have continued to thrive.
Evidence: In March, “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” showed the world the power of welcoming, virtual gathering spaces as a place to socialize and share in communal creativity. Soon after, “Minecraft’s educational prowess turned more heads, “The Last of Part II” inspired a broad discourse about narrative and themes, and games such as “Fall Guys” and “Among Us” become such prominent and joyful celebrations that the latter found itself in the midst of this year’s political campaigning.
Microsoft’s next-gen consoles Xbox Series X and Series S arrive next week. I’ve been playing the Series X. Here’s what I learned.
So this is as fine a time as any to get acquainted — or reacquainted — with the medium whose cultural resonance is only getting louder.
As games and updates hit both systems over the coming weeks, I’ll document how the consoles evolve as places to play. My initial impressions of the Xbox Series X can be found here. Below is my early assessment of the PlayStation 5.
What is being released and when can you buy it?
Two editions of PlayStation 5 launch on Nov. 12 — a $500 console with a disc drive that can play games and media and a $400 option without the drive. Technical specs are otherwise identical, with promising graphics that heighten the believability of game universes by emphasizing a greater fidelity with lighting and shadows.
Those who own 4K televisions, especially sets with high refresh rates and HDR compatibility, will experience the greatest boost, one that boasts significant smoothness and sharpness.
Unlike Microsoft’s approach with the new Xbox, in which the company is releasing two consoles on Nov. 10 with different capabilities in the hopes of selling people on its subscription service and setting them on a regular upgrade path, Sony is taking a more old-fashioned route. Sony is betting people want a new console that looks and feels significantly different than the prior generation — and also comes with some nifty tricks in the hopes of increasing immersion.
Nothing has yet matched the augmented reality hit “Pokémon Go.” But watch out, Pikachu! “Mario Kart Live” brings AR home. The wonders are in your living room.
While it blissfully includes backward compatibility with the PS4, PS5 games will require PS5 controllers, and Sony’s subscription endeavors haven’t as yet been as robust as those of Microsoft.
But to those in the market for one, good luck. Sony has said consoles will be available online only, citing the pandemic and alluding to the desire to avoid a crush of people in long lines for a potentially limited supply. They’ll be in high demand. Sony, whose PlayStation 4 led the prior generation with sales topping 100 million worldwide, has stated in interviews that in the United States the company sold as many PS5 units in 12 hours as the PS4 sold in 12 weeks.
The PS5 diverts heavily from the thinner, flatter black look of the PS4. This white curved box is a behemoth. It’s close to 16 inches tall, and its curved design means it won’t disappear into an entertainment center, especially as it glows when turned on. It’s also heavy, at around 14 pounds, meaning you likely won’t be tossing it in a backpack to bring to a friend’s.
But this plays into the console’s ambitions. It’s designed to be a statement piece. While I think Sony was going for something that looked futuristic, I worry it will soon look dated. It wants to be the Frank Gehry of home video game console design, but there’s a sci-fi coldness to it, a box with a bold flair but also one that diverts from any attempt at home comfort. I’ve slotted it between my TV stands and turntable stand, sliding it closer to the wall with each day.
While it’s true that few are buying the PS5 for its design — or conversely not buying it for its look — it’s worth highlighting because the PS5 wants its games to demand attention.
The breakthrough I love
I thought my days of praising a game controller were over. Each generation gets a bit more refined, a bit more ergonomic, but doesn’t really change the way we play. I was wrong. After a week with the PS5 my favorite aspect is the controller. It has gimmicks — you can actually blow into the controller to affect gameplay, which wasn’t fun when Nintendo did it and it isn’t fun when the PS5 does it — but other aspects succeed in pulling you deeper into the game.
51 video games. Made in two weeks. All of them about life in 2020. Trust me, it’s better when it’s a game.
For instance, in “Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales,” when the main character rides a subway, our controller ever-so-slightly vibrates to mimic the forward-moving bumping sensation of a train ride. In “Astro’s Playroom,” a game that comes with the PS5, the controller can mimic the feel of zipping up a spacesuit. By moving your finger along the controller’s touchpad, the controller will sputter and stop as if zipping up a jacket. I probably did this for 20 minutes.
And there are other effects as well. For instance, the left and right triggers are able to adjust to pressure — that is, they can adjust the level of resistance to your fingers.
But there are also less pronounced tweaks that make gaming a little easier. On PS5 games, you can pull up a page from the menu that will show you what missions you’ve completed, what mission is next and how long those tasks are estimated to take. It’s a nice little feature, especially if you’re debating whether you want to take on another chapter before calling it a day. Welcome, too, is the ability to go to specific chapters or missions that have been completed, in case you want to revisit a game or fully complete a section.
The difference in console generations can be profound, and that holds true with this one. But there’s a catch.
Like the Xbox Series X, you’re going to need to upgrade your television if you don’t already have a top-of-the-line 4K model and you want to truly see a difference. Next-generation games also look to be big, and while the PS5 comes with a large internal hard drive (825GB), I have less than a third of it left after installing six games, meaning I’ll likely have to purchase a compatible hard drive, which is another small investment of a hundred or two hundred dollars.
And while PS4 controllers will work with PS4 games, they won’t work with PS5 games, making the PS5 feel more like a closed system than the Xbox universe. That holds true when moving over saved games from your old PS4. While it works, it requires some digging into the console’s system settings rather than everything just syncing like it does on the Xbox Series X. A small thing, but one that makes it clear that the PS5 is designed primarily for PS5 games.
So how fast and pretty is it?
It’s fast. From a cold boot to my saved game in “Miles Morales” it took less than a minute. Once the PS5 was already up and running, I was able to jump among open games in 15 to 20 seconds. Compared to the PS4, launching of “Ghost of Tsushima” took about the same amount of time, but the PS5 allows players to bounce to content that’s already open at a fraction of the speed.
And even if you don’t have a newer 4K TV, games on the PS5 still operate in a more slick manner. In the PS5 version of “Ghost of Tsushima,” for instance, walking around a flame showed the fire flickering in one motion. There’s no break in fidelity regardless of how fast one moves the camera. All told, it’s a more seamless, visually pleasant experience. Also of note, it’s quiet. My PS4 sounds like it’s going to burst when I play “Ghost of Tsushima.” Nary a peep when it runs on the PS5.
What you need to play now
The PlayStation 5 is launching with more next-generation content than the Xbox Series X. It also comes with a pretty swell game in “Astro’s Playroom.” What is technically a game designed to show off the new controller features actually turned out be a strong platformer, and if you’re purchasing a PS5 you immediately have a must-play game. The Astro robot is Sony’s friendly little mascot, and the levels are designed as if one is exploring the innards of a game console, from its hard drives to its cooling fans, although these are abstracted to appear as journeys through space or forest-like settings.
It also provides a surprising challenge, as it switches constantly in how we play, from running and jumping to bouncing with a spring suit to hovering through space. The spring suit allows Sony to show off the controllers — the buttons click as if we’re pushing down a toy.
The sound, too, is worth celebrating. The little speaker in the controller will create a surround-sound effect that will respond to the environments that Astro is in. On ice? The skating effects make it feel like we’re gliding. On a beach? It truly sounds like our little robot is squishing through the landscape.
Marvel fans will no doubt want to soar through New York as Miles Morales, and with plenty of good reason (the game is beautiful), but don’t sleep on “Astro’s Playroom.”
What’s next for the PS5?
Coming with the launch of the PS5 is a remaster of the game “Demon’s Souls,” a challenging nightmare of a fantasy that is beloved among hard-core players. For a tamer, more family-friendly experience there’s “Sackboy: A Big Adventure.” Down the road, look forward to a sequel to “Horizon Zero Dawn,” as well as enhanced audio features for the PS5.