It's been a whopping seven years since the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One launched. That feels like an eternity, but it was seven years in-between the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 and eight years in-between the Xbox 360 and Xbox One, too. Time is a mysterious beast, and naturally, expectations for the future escalate. Console manufacturers are required to act like a new machine is the second coming of gaming, that we're on the cusp of revolution, in order to generate the necessary hype and interest to pry hundreds of dollars from people.
My time with the PlayStation 5 so far points not to a revolution, but a satisfying evolution.
I've spent the last few weeks with a PS5 in my home, and my honest reaction to its release is that most people should probably wait. There aren't that many games, and heck, several of them are also playable on PS4. That's without noting we're in a global pandemic, and the economy is in turmoil. The prospect of banking away $500 for a rainy day isn't the worst idea in the world! And as I write this, I have not played games like Demon's Souls, and important parts of the interface remain under embargo. Sony will not, for example, let me talk about the store yet. The parts of the interface that I can talk about don't fare much better—it feels like a beta.
The games I have played, though? Pretty good! Miles Morales is very fun and pretty, if a little same-y. Astro's Playroom is a terrific showcase of the DualSense controller, in addition to being a solid platformer with lots of nostalgic goodies to discover. Bugsnax is a pleasant and weird surprise, a game "about" catching creatures that is also "about" the power of community. Absent the controller experimentation in Astro's Playroom, none of the games feel especially next-gen, which is probably because our definition of next-gen is undergoing a huge shift.
I used to spend hours pouring over new issues of Electronic Gaming Monthly, dreaming about the future of video games. This was an era where new consoles were truly a sea change, representing a quantum leap forward in technology and fidelity that was appreciable immediately, whether it was watching blocks of 2D pixels become truly defined worlds, the introduction of another dimension with 3D, or the revelation of detail that was high-definition.
Some of my fondest memories growing up involve waiting outside of a wintery cold Best Buy or Circuit City, hoping to have an opportunity to buy a new game console. The uncomfortably long wait as an employee slowly handed out reservation tickets, based on how many consoles the store had inside, and the poor soul who was told "sorry, we're sold out." Even before I was old enough to camp out overnight, I'd convince my younger brother to combine our Christmas gifts so my parents could buy us a new console. The last time I pulled off this con was the original PlayStation, and after my brother realized we only had one gift to open on Christmas, he slumped into a chair and watched as our cousins ripped through dozens.
Every time, it felt like the future had arrived. The last time I felt that "whoa" vibe was playing Wii Sports for the first time, realizing the possibility space for game design was changing.
But video game generations aren't what they used to be. The improvements are there, yes, but they're increasingly on the margins and focused on quality-of-life changes that are easier to brush off as something you could get eventually, or when the inevitable price cut occurs.
Sony's pitch with the PS5 is that those tiny changes, aimed at both developers and players, will add up over time and eventually start changing how games are made. It's too early to tell.
The PS5's much-hyped hard drive is, in fact, very fast. Loading times are not a thing of the past, but there's less of them and that's nice. 3D audio is a neat idea in theory, but I genuinely can’t tell how much better it is. 4K resolutions, which I've long suspected as not being a big deal and possibly hard to notice, are actually easy to notice and a notable upgrade, even if you'll be happy without it. The DualSense controller, with all its experimental wizardry, is a constant delight in the hands, unlike the DualShock 4, a controller I met with disdain every time I was forced to play a game with it. (This was a constant annoyance for me, because I am often drawn to Sony's story-driven experiences.)
Can we talk about the 4K thing for a second? I've been a 4K skeptic, driven by my larger indifference to the technical elements of video games that others obsess over, like frame rate. I obviously think a faster frame rate is better than a slow one, but I'm also willing to muddle through what others would deem unacceptable or frustrating and be fine with it. Maybe that's long term console player jealousy in me speaking, used to being angry at PC owners who could simply buy a new card or fiddle with options to make games run better.
But I also worried that introducing one 4K display into my house would break the spell, and suddenly I'd be annoyed at the other TVs in the house that weren't 4K. (At the moment, my main screen is a projector, and 4K projectors remain very expensive.) It was a convenient bout of ignorance, but one that I finally decided to break when this new generation arrived.
As such, my first experience with a PS5 was also my first experience with 4K.
To be frank, I didn't notice much at first because the games looked shiny and new in the way you expect them to look while playing them on expensive new gaming hardware. 4K doesn't hit you in the teeth the same way the jump from SD to HD once did. (I think HDR, and how it kicks lighting into another gear, is altogether more impressive.) But at some point I was capturing some footage of Astro's Playroom, I glanced up at the TV, and found myself musing "Huh, doesn't that look fuzzy?" As it turned out, the capture device was forcing the TV to output at 1080p and it finally hit me: ah, shit, I could tell the difference between 1080p and 4K. And I…cared. My ignorance had been met with truth, the clean and high-resolution truth.
A less enjoyable version of this cropped up while playing various PS4 games on the PS5.
God of War, like a lot of games these days, has a "performance" mode, which sacrifices resolution for frame rate—and that mode looks like trash on my 4K TV. The best way I can describe it is that it looks pixelated? But the other mode that renders at 4K has a crap frame rate, so I'm stuck between undesirable worlds. When I connected my PS5 to a 1080p display, God of War looked fine, but the vast majority of my time with a PS5 is likely to be on this new TV, so it's a problem.
This was less of an issue with Days Gone, a game that I didn't like much when first I played it, but developer Sony Bend clearly put a ton of work into making this run excellent on PS5. I'm not Digital Foundry, so I can't speak to what's happening under the hood, but I can confidently say it looks fantastic, as though it's a native PS5 game. I didn't have to make a call between performance and resolution—the game straight up looks gorgeous.
I kept coming back to the PS5 version of Days Gone, wishing others looked this good.
But a PS5 is not like inserting a new graphics card into a PC, where old games magically get better. Bloodborne, for example, does not suddenly run at 60 FPS. I'm aware that's not how a PS5 works, but watching some games, but not others, get first class treatments is perplexing.
I don't think 4K is make or break, and you can get through this coming generation on an older display just fine. The fast hard drive still works. The controller is still cool. The time I spent playing PS5 games on an old 1080p display in my house was perfectly acceptable, they’re exceptionally pretty.
But…it is true the seal has been broken and I'm left wondering how to convert my other TVs when there’s a sale.
The best part of the PS5 is playing games on it, because the moment you decide to start futzing with the user interface, the headaches start. It's suddenly not entirely surprising why Sony took so long to reveal what it's like to navigate the menus governing the PS5, because it's cumbersome, overly complex, and feels like Sony's gonna gut a lot of it in the next year.
There's a small detail that, I think, sums up what I'm talking about here.
One of the most fundamental actions you take while interacting with a gaming console is turning it on and off, and one of the nice but overlooked additions in the past few generations is being able to press a button on the controller and have the machine pop to life. That option still exists on the PS5. The hard part, weirdly, is turning it off. Previously, on both Xbox One and PS4, you held down each controller's central button and got prompts to turn off the machine, rest, etc.
That basic interaction remains true on the new Xbox—but not on PS5. On PS5, tapping the PlayStation button brings up the new activity bar—the spot where you can view trophies or look up hints—and a control center that has a bunch of easily accessible options, like switching games, seeing notifications, your friend list, etc. It's cool! But it's also where you turn the PS5 off—the only way to turn it off. On PS5, if you hold the PlayStation button, it brings you back to the console's main interface, where your media apps and settings live.
Every time you want to turn the PS5 off, you have to tap a button, scroll down, scroll over. This sounds small and petty, but it's a layer of friction where there wasn't one. It's annoying.
It's also indicative of the PS5 interface as a whole, which on the surface looks remarkably familiar to what's come before, but it's the well-intentioned changes that cause problems.
The new hint system, for example, proved useful while cleaning up collectibles in Astro's Playroom, but figuring out exactly how to attach the hint video to the side of the screen while playing, then finding a way to dismiss it when I was done is more cumbersome than necessary. It's not always clear what button does what for the PS5's interconnected layers.
It's a lot of other small things, too. You can no longer look at the patch history for a game. You can look at the patch history for a PS4 game, mind you, but not a PS5 game. There's the problem of accidentally downloading the PS4 version of a game available on both platforms, because for some odd reason the PS5 will let you download the PS4 version. Unlike on Xbox, PlayStation treats these as separate entities, and not the same game.
The weirdness about this goes further, too. With Bugsnax, the interface would regularly swap from the PS5 version I'd downloaded and suggest I download the PS4 version instead. To fix this, I needed to delve into an unidentified menu and force it to display the PS5 version.
It feels like an interface that didn't get enough testing in the real world.
But it's got a lot of really welcome touches, too. It's nice to have a trophy pop while playing a game and quickly see what you'd unlocked by tapping the PlayStation button. You don't leave the game, and watch the trophy information layered over the screen in real-time.
The point at which I'm praising trophy information, as someone who does not spend their time trying to track down trophies, is perhaps a sign that it's time to wrap things up here.
This is a lot of words to dance around a simple question: how does it play video games? Very well. It's a new, more powerful box to play new, more powerful games, and the rest is, to some degree, irrelevant. Maybe nobody else will take advantage of the DualSense, and 3D audio becomes an interesting footnote on Wikipedia. PS5 is an iterative console in a world where consoles are much like phones and laptops—mostly the same, but better.
Flourishes aside, the PS5 would still be a great way to play video games. It already is.