Nobody should have expected to be blown away by the PlayStation 5, or any new video game system in the foreseeable future — not this year, not this hardware generation, and maybe not this lifetime. Digital technology has advanced to the point where it’s no longer reasonable to ask for quantum leaps between gaming consoles, and the iterative names that Sony has assigned its various PlayStations over the years have been happy to imply as much. Yet the Playstation 5 achieves everything that gamers need from a top-shelf system right now.
And that is not easy to do. Gone are the days of Saturns and Dreamcasts and Neo Geos that seemed to promise something alien or otherworldly inside every box; gone is the shock of firing up “Super Mario 64” for the very first time, and feeling that whoosh of three-dimensional wonder as a quick run around Peach’s castle became enough to make even the most sacred games of the previous era feel like sprite-based cave paintings by comparison. Compare the original “Final Fantasy VII” (1997) to its recent PlayStation 4 remake and it looks like the difference between crude storyboards and a completed shot. But that 23-year gap also reflects the arc of a medium where growth has slowed as it gets closer to the verisimilitude that will always remain just out of reach.
The history (and future) of video games is not a straight line. Many of the “next-gen” titles coming out this fall are being released for current hardware as well, with the biggest difference between playing “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla” on a PlayStation 5 or a PlayStation 4 coming down to load times and frame rates. That also explains why Nintendo forfeited the processing power arms race after the GameCube, and has spent the last 20 years re-imagining the game experience while its competitors have been obsessed with refining it; why the big selling point of the Wii was “you can swing it!,” while the big selling of the PlayStation 2 was “it’s so powerful that Japan is worried other countries might use it as a military weapon!”
As the PlayStation 4 began shifting into the last phase of its lifecycle, it was easy to feel like video game technology was bumping up against the ceiling of what it could do with brute strength alone. Last November’s “Death Stranding” questioned the nature of interactive entertainment while hopping over the uncanny valley better than Hollywood ever has, and this summer’s monumental “The Last of Us Part II” remains the most essential screen experience of any kind I’ve had this year. There will always be room for cleaner textures and crisper resolutions, but it was hard to play those mega-budget games without contemplating where video games could possibly go from there.
To a certain degree they felt like the logical conclusion of an idea that started with the Atari 2600, as they made it hard to imagine that consoles had any room to grow in a world where people are eagerly surrendering their imaginations to the likes of “Fortnite,” VR, live-streaming, and the wide array of decentralized gaming experiences that are coming down the pike. It started to look like the modders and the speed-runners had the right idea, and that future would be focused on how we can mess with or master what we already have.
In the awful months leading up to the release of the PlayStation 5, it seemed futile to imagine what a brighter tomorrow might be like (or to pretend that pandemic-stricken Americans could afford to pay $500 to find out). Plugging in a Playstation 5 sent to select journalists in advance of its release, in the midst of the 2020 election, this writer’s attitude was pretty much: “How could I possibly give a damn about a new video game system right now!?”
Within a few seconds of powering on the machine, it became clear that the PS5 was designed to answer that exact question. Firing this thing up and holding the (familiarly shaped but radically evolved) DualSense controller as it stirred to life in my hands during the first level of “Astro’s Playroom” — the platform game/glorified tech demo that comes pre-installed on the system — was just about all it took to feel like the fog had lifted, and I could see the immediate future of video games, even if just at a distance. Here is a device that’s less interested in reinventing the console experience than it is in proving that we’ve only scratched the surface of what it can be; a device that doesn’t strive to outgrow the traditional idea of video games so much as it strives to mine that idea for new potential. The future of the PS5 will be a long and winding road, but what I’ve seen from it in the last two weeks is already enough for me to feel confident that we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
What’s in the Box?
In light of the national mood right now and the “I guess this is happening?” attitude around the simultaneous launch of two next-gen systems without a single killer app between them, popping open a PS5 is so exhilarating that the whole experience almost seems tone deaf. From the moment you open the box, it’s obvious that the PS5 isn’t content to be a casual half-step up from its predecessor, or leave you with the same kind of shrug that comes from reluctantly buying a new iPhone. No, the PS5 wants to wow you before you even connect it to your television. The first thing you notice is that the system itself is massive: It’s 15.4 inches tall, 10.24 inches deep, 4.09 inches wide, and weighs in at a whopping 14 pounds.
Not only that, but this absolute unit of a console clearly wants to be noticed. Its black slab of a body is winged by two curved sheets of white plastic that make the whole thing look like a monolith in a wedding dress when it’s upright, and an unimpressed opera house when it’s not. It doesn’t make any visual sense no matter how you install it, which might explain why I accidentally played mine upside down for a week before I started wondering why the disc-drive wasn’t working. Regardless, the PS5 is going to be a statement piece in your living room whether you like it or not (most won’t). The design is so loud you might not even notice that the machine itself runs silently.
Games Aren’t Everything
The PS5 is a video game console, but it’s also a quality streaming device and the most cost-effective 4K Blu-ray player on the planet (if you fork over the extra $100 for the version that comes with a disc-drive, as opposed to the strictly digital edition). Cinephiles and others who still hear the holy word of physical media will be happy to hear that the Blu-ray player offers a much less clunky experience than it did on the PS4, if only in small ways; the PS menus are more responsive and discrete, while load times seemed marginally faster than they did before. One added benefit of siloing games and media is that you don’t have to stop yourself from getting trigger-happy and accidentally clicking on a movie as you scroll over to play “Spider-Man: Miles Morales” — the separation allows for the PS5 to feel like a hardcore game console and a do-it-all media center, as opposed to two different things mixed together. And when it comes to a system where the launch titles are already serving up movie-like graphics, it can be surprisingly easy to lose track of whether you’re watching something or playing it.
Are the Graphics Prettier than the Weird-Looking Machine that Produces Them?
Quite. The PS5 is considerably more powerful than even the PS4 Pro in terms of visual horsepower, but gamers won’t be able to enjoy the full benefit of that difference until developers have time to exploit it (the speed advantage of the PS5’s Solid-State Drive, on the other hand, is immediately self-evident in the best of ways, as even open-world games like “Spider-Man: Miles Morales” fire up without any load time whatsoever, and maintain that nirvana-like seamlessness even in full swing). As has become standard protocol with the release of a new system, many of the PS5 launch games will also be available on older consoles, which means that the PS5’s current lineup offers a performance bump that’s shy of a paradigm shift — good news for those of you looking for any excuse not to spend a ton of money on a shiny new toy you don’t need right now.
Nevertheless, the difference is clear, and will only grow more pronounced as time wears on. Much has been made of “ray tracing” — a rendering technique that replaces the rasterization of yore and produces remarkably lifelike lighting effects by converting 3D graphics into 2D pixels — but if your eyes tend to glaze over whenever people talk about tech specs, they’ll bulge out of your head when you see the effect in action. Launch title “Miles Morales” feels like it was designed for the specific purpose of showing this off. As I watched Harlem’s friendly neighborhood Spider-Man ride the A train up to 125th street at the beginning of his first standalone adventure, I wasn’t surprised to find that the environmental textures were buttery smooth and the facial animations exceeded the already-impressive character work in recent PS4 blockbusters. But when night fell on New York and goons from the Underground began wreaking havoc on the city in an electric storm of neon purple, it suddenly felt like I was playing “Into the Spider-Verse” (an effect the game allows you to emphasize later on).
Screenshots might capture the game’s arresting color palette, but ray tracing can only be appreciated in motion, and the dynamic interchange in the light as it radiates from the henchmen and reflects against the city around them is appreciably cinematic in a lizard brain way that your eyes will register even when the brunt of your attention is focused on webbing bad guys. This phenomenon allows for an unusually palpable connection to the action on screen, and it carries over to the story-driven sequences in a way that spirits you inside Miles’ tumultuous move to Harlem and all of the complications that come with it. The nuances of his internal conflict are legible on his face, the spirit of his neighborhood glows from the streets, and the whole of Manhattan feels real even though you can only go inside a handful of its buildings. Strange as it may sound to argue that lighting effects might deepen your investment in Rio Morales’ city council race, the impact such verisimilitude has on a game about impostor syndrome can’t be overstated. Plus, it looks cool as hell — even after swinging between skyscrapers for 10 hours, you’re likely to be screen-shotting each new location like an overeager tourist in Times Square.
The PS5 version of “Miles Morales” is essentially the same game as the one that’s being released on PS4, but it still offers a much richer experience (IndieWire’s full review will be published on Monday). In the age of passive entertainment — an age of mobile games that are meant to be played on the couch while you listen to a TV show like a podcast — it’s remarkable to play something that amazes you into paying full attention, and weaponizes your sense of wonder in a way that no PlayStation launch title ever has. This isn’t a leap on par with the triple jump between “Yoshi’s Island” and “Super Mario 64,” but your brain is quick to forget that when the controller is in your hands.
Does the Controller Have a Stupid Proprietary Name?
Of course it does. When you talk about how the PS5 revitalizes the magic of the classic video game experience, you’re talking about the DualSense™. Sony has been obsessed with beating Nintendo at its own game since the PlayStation 2 started the company’s tradition of giving their console remotes very stupid names, but the rumbling DualShock™ and the motion-sensitive SIXAXIS ™ were silly half-measures that further emphasized the extent to which systems like the Wii and the Switch were designed around their remotes. With the DualSense, Sony has finally discovered a way to split the difference — a way to capture the outside-the-box fun of swinging a Wiimote without diluting the “hardcore” console experience.
The familiar-looking DualSense essentially takes what Sony has done in the past and cranks it all the way up until it transforms into something new. Fiddle around with “Astro’s Playroom” for five minutes and you’ll see what I mean. An onanistic but oddly endearing celebration of all things Sony that lets players jump, roll, climb, and glide through the guts of a PlayStation and rewards them with virtual accessories in lieu of Mario-like stars, this bite-sized platformer was obviously commissioned to show off what developers will be able to do with the DualSense once they start coding for it. It’s one hell of a sales pitch.
Fiddle around with the game for five minutes and you’ll physically be able to feel how the DualSense removes the training wheels from Sony’s previous controllers. It feels alive. Every remote vibrates these days, but the haptic feedback is so intense and specific here that you’ll swear Astro’s buddies — little Eva-like droids, typically found making student films around the game’s levels — are bouncing around the inside of the DualSense like Pikmin. Blow into the area above the microphone jack and you create enough wind in the game to move a giant pinwheel. Draw back Astro’s bow with the adaptive L2 and R2 triggers and the haptic response harmonizes with the controller’s built-in speaker to create a credible sensation of resistance. Zip up Astro’s robot monkey suits with a swipe of the trackpad, tilt the controller to wrench his arm up to the next foothold, and then try not to hurl the DualSense through your television when he fails to grab it for the umpteenth time (Astro is a far cry from Alex Honnold).
“Astro’s Playroom” is not much of a game, and only the most obsessive completists will have any use for it once they beat its five short levels in an hour or two, but its abject lack of ambition underscores the limitless possibility of its design; if the DualSense can make such a routine game seem like a wholly new experience, there’s no telling what serious games will be able to do with these same tricks going forward. There are subtle but immersive enhancements that the DualSense could bring to hardcore titles like the imminent remake of “Demon’s Souls” (a launch title that critics had yet to receive at press time), where players might be able to sense the moribund game world seeping out of the speaker port, and feel the difference between swinging a broadsword and a giant axe in their fingers.
What About the Other Games?
Alas, as is often the case when it comes to a new console launch, a lot of the discussion about the games themselves is purely speculative. “Astro’s Playroom” and “Miles Morales” offer a tantalizing glimpse at what the PS5 can do, but they both exist to serve the occasion, and are only as ambitious as their inflexible release dates allowed. Other launch titles are still under embargo, but they’re mostly third-party remasters like “Devil May Cry 5” (in contrast to a ground-up remake like “Demon’s Souls”), cross-platform blockbusters like “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla,” or indie offerings like Annapurna’s “The Pathless” (mum’s the word at the moment, but anyone fond of enigmatic adventures in the spirit of “Ico” or “Journey” might want to keep an eye on it).
A console is only as good as the games you can play on it, and while people can rest assured that forthcoming killer apps like “Horizon II: Forbidden West,” “Returnal,” and “Final Fantasy XVI” will eventually continue PlayStation’s long history of generation-defining exclusives, no one should feel late to the party if they don’t find a wax-covered PS5 under their menorah this year. Those games are still a ways off, but their inevitability — when considered alongside the launch day lineup — is already enough to cement Sony’s roadmap for the first sprint of this hardware cycle.
So Should I Buy One or Not?
Here’s the deal: Yes, the PS5 can function as the lightning-fast nerve center of your home entertainment setup and do all of the things that have become standard for gaming systems over the last 10 years. And yes, it will be the games themselves that ultimately determine the legacy of Sony’s latest machine, the most important of which may not come out until sometime after 2025.
But the PS5 seems to have been designed to accomplish three specific things above all others: To embrace the exclusive single-player experience that has always differentiated the PlayStation from the XBox, to peel back the ceiling of what seemed possible for it (while also creating an online infrastructure that’s fluid enough to compete with other consoles, complete with a higher bandwidth cap means that downloads of all kinds are roughly 5x faster than they were on PS4), and to restore our enthusiasm for the future of video games by making good on the holiest promises they’ve made to us in the past. At a time when gaming can be anything and happen anywhere, Sony is banking on the idea that the most fun and transportive experiences of all will still begin on your couch. Based on these early offerings from the PS5, they might be on to something.
The PlayStation 5 will be available to buy on Friday, November 12.
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