The beginning of a console’s life cycle is filled with unknowns. The limits are a little unclear, its promise masked by the presence of a previous generation. New functionality is discussed, but often unavailable initially, sometimes for years. Fortunately, the PS5 does a good job of knowing how to feel like a new console.
Priced at $749, the PS5 is a symbol of Sony’s view of what video games should be: fresh experiences built around innovation — or at least the appearance of innovation — on the current gaming experience. That’s first apparent in the sheer size of the console, a gargantuan monolith with curved, all-white face plates designed to stand out. If not the centrepiece of a room, the PS5 is designed to be noticed, entirely comfortable in its skin. It’s most physically apparent in the adaptive triggers and the advanced haptic feedback, and moreso through the added fluidity of new games, and improvements to a handful of current-gen titles.
If you didn’t know the PS5 was a gaming console, chances are you’d probably assume it was. It’s definitely capable as an all-in-one entertainment device, but that’s absolutely not how Sony advertises, or wants you to think about the PS5.
There’s obviously an enormous jump in the hardware potential — 4K/60 FPS games should now be a genuine expectation, rather than a hopeful dream. But it’s the controller that most people notice first.
The adaptive triggers have gotten a lot of hype, and in Astro’s Playroom — a light-hearted 3D platformer that comes installed by default on every PS5 and PS5 Digital Edition console — the triggers’ versatility are on full show. You’ll feel resistance as Astro pulls back electric wire, or as he bounces from one platform to the next.
But it’s really the haptic feedback that’s the star, and it can be felt through the entirety of the controller. When zipping Astro up into his robot suit, the haptics respond respond as each notch of the zipper clicks into position. It doesn’t matter what part of the touchpad you use; the haptics can be felt across all of the controller.
The added haptics, springs and motors mean the DualSense is a physically larger unit than the DualShock 4 controller. It is closer in size to an Xbox One controller, and is much sturdier as a result. If you found the DualShock 4 controller too small, or not robust enough in the hand, you’ll appreciate the DualSense. If the DualShock 4 was your perfect controller, the size of the DualSense might take some getting used to.
Either way, whatever your feelings, the DualSense feels new. And, for anyone unboxing a shiny white monolith in their living rooms, bedrooms or wherever a console best fits this week, that matters.
The PS5 UI helps it look like a new console
If the form of the PS5 offers something new, much of the function remains the same. PlayStation Plus returns, with a small addition in the form of the PlayStation Plus Collection. If you have a huge library of digital purchases from the PS4, you can access those immediately after logging in. You can also transfer saves and game data over from your PS4 and PS4 Pro, and if you’ve got an external drive, this is probably the easiest way to get going. (Saves and data stored in the cloud can be downloaded once logged in, but your speed there is limited to your internet collection.)
The front-facing UI has gotten a major visual refresh; even the menu music has been swapped out. Unlike Microsoft’s approach, which aims for parity and familiarity across consoles, Sony has swapped out their larger, tile-based strip of icons for a smaller series of rounded icons closer to the top of the screen.
The PS4 and PS4 Pro UI was focused on themes, so you could have one unifying visual look applied to the entirety of the console. That may — and probably — will return, but for now the visual design allows for the most space to highlight the poster art and background music of whatever game you’ve hovered over. If it’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, you’ll get a largely dark background with Miles Morales in his iconic, black Spider suit with his right arm covered in bioelectricity.
Some light hip-hop beats play in the background, and you get the “Be Greater. Be Yourself” tagline hovering above the play button. Hovering over Persona 5 brings up Phantom from the original OST, with a full shot of the game’s inimitable cast in the background, brightness dulled slightly. Fallout 4‘s memorable menu music plays while the screen is filled with a shot of glistening Power Armour.
Not all games have background music, though, indicating that it’ll have to be set on a game-by-game basis. Final Fantasy 7 Remake, Wipeout Omega HD Collection and Sonic Mania just continued to play the low, PS5 default hum, although the screens did change to the background art when hovering over.
Still, the effect does its job. The PS5 wants to draw you into playing games. Unlike the Xbox, which simply presents a series of icons, the PS5’s interface does a better job of enticing you to load up a video game.
The amount of PS5 games is limited, but everything boots nice and fast.
The amount of truly new titles for the PS5 is still pretty limited. Bugsnax is launching as a free PS+ title, but it wasn’t accessible in Australia during the review period or at the time of writing. (Some of our US colleagues have had no such issue, but I’d also note, this was a problem too with the Xbox review program where some titles could only be redeemed on an US account, whereas others worked with our Australian PSN IDs.)
There’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, a slightly more streamlined take on Insomniac’s first outing that’s absolutely worth the 16 hours it took me to finish the game and most of the side missions. Demon’s Souls is almost a guaranteed pre-order for a lot of PS5 users, but due to the way the game’s asynchronous multiplayer worked, we were told that reviewers wouldn’t be able to access the game until the day it launches (November 12). There’s also Sackboy: A Big Adventure, but that’s another game I haven’t had any hands on time with yet. (By the time you read this story, that situation may have changed.)
The most noticeable UI difference when you’re in a game is when hitting the PS button. Rather than the Quick Menu that appeared from the left, there’s now a Control Centre overlay that highlights activity cards and small icons on the bottom. There’s still all the same functionality as the Quick Menu, but the focus on icons rather than names means you might have to spend a bit of time looking for the options you wanted.
There’s no “close application” button front and centre, but you do have a “Switcher” that just lets you go from one game to another without having to go back to the main PS5 hub. (From there, you can select the game you’re playing, then the “Close Application” button.) This isn’t an alternative to Microsoft’s Quick Resume feature or anything — it’s really just a shortcut. But if you’re playing only one game at a time, the speed between going from the main PS5 menu and back into where you were playing is pretty damn smooth. For games like Sonic Mania, I was right back into a level in less than a second. Cold booting Fallout 4 from Sonic Mania took less than 10 seconds, and it was less than 20 seconds from there into my running Fallout 4 save. God of War took just over 5 seconds before the main “Sony Interactive Entertainment” splash screen appeared, although there was a few seconds extra loading time for the main menu.
The key here is that switching from one game to another does boot that previous game afresh. Everything loads pretty quickly. The best part is if your console shuts down in Rest Mode when you’re playing a game. When you boot it back up, it’ll launch right where you left off. It’s a super nice touch, and one that I’m a little confused that Sony didn’t make more noise about.
Sadly, there’s a real lack of communication around what the PS5 does do for existing games. The hardware benefits are obvious, but Sony has done little to advertise what games get an immediate benefit.
For instance, the PlayStation Plus Collection has plenty of games that would run amazingly well on the newer hardware — but as of writing, they run at their standard, 30 FPS locked PS4 versions. Titles like Bloodborne are transformed with the extra smoothness of a boosted frame rate, but there’s no such benefit on the PS5 right now.
However, there are games today that are transformed immediately on the PS5. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice runs at a buttery smooth 60 FPS, partially because the game’s PS4 Pro and Xbox One X versions removed the 30 FPS limit. They never got remotely close to 60 FPS on the older consoles however — hovering around 40 for most of the time, and suffering atrociously bad frame pacing to boot.
On the PS5, that jarring and fractured experience is gone. Unsurprisingly, Dark Souls 3 — another game patched to unlock its frame rate for the last console generation — runs like absolute butter on the new console. Monster Hunter: World gets massive benefits too: all three of its various modes (Framerate, Resolution and Graphics) had unlocked frame rates on the PS4 Pro, but none of them came anywhere close to 60 FPS. With the PS5, the game runs much smoother, is vastly more stable, and consequently exhibits none of the jerk that made the original release so jarring.
And these benefits also give Sony some clear room for improvement. Right now, most of the benefits are things you just have to discover for yourself. There could probably be some kind of tag or label to identify PS4 titles optimised for the PS5. The responsibility will be on individual developers to do that work, but Sony could help a little in this regard.
If they did, it’d make the PS+ Collection better value for money too. Right now, if you didn’t play games like Persona 5 or Days Gone when they were accessible on the PS4, what’s the compelling reason to play them now? But if you knew those games would run better, look nicer, or have some kind of improvement, then you might give them a second chance.
About the PS5’s PlayStation Store
I haven’t spoken a lot about the PlayStation Store yet, and with good reason. Embargoes prevent me from covering the store and its revamped UI until the console’s launch later this week. I’ll say more when I can — but I’ll refer you back to this paragraph from my Xbox Series S review:
It’s a lot less cluttered and a lot clearer. It still doesn’t do much in the way of surfacing games that I might want to buy, or games that match games I currently own. And while it’s a stretch to expect Microsoft to specifically build out their machine learning and algorithm chops to reinvent the Store experience on day one, I don’t think it’s a huge ask to expect the Microsoft Store to be intelligent enough to not advertise games that are already in my library (like Watch Dogs: Legion).
That’s going to be a huge concern for indie developers, as it will largely be their content that fills the void of the next 12 to 18 months until Microsoft’s first-party exclusives (or Bethesda’s) become available on the platform. But so far, the new consoles do little to improve the discoverability of those titles to the user beyond the Xbox Game Pass program. That’s still deeply important, and hugely valuable, but it won’t solve the attach rate issues plaguing developers.
Storefronts always change over time, so what users roll into this week won’t be its final form. Still, it’s an area that all console manufacturers need to seriously revamp. The cost of next-gen development is expected to rise, mirroring a similar situation in the early days of the PS4 and Xbox One. It’s why the RRP for next-gen games has jumped, although fortunately retailer competition has kept the prices down. (It’s also why you shouldn’t get the discless Digital Edition of the PS5 — eating an extra $20 or $30 per game adds up fast over the course of a year.)
With the higher costs of development for AAA games generally, smaller studios and indie titles will have to fill the gap. Consoles need to do a better job this generation of showcasing those smaller titles — it’s not only good for the consumer, but it’s good business for the platform holders too.
Another interesting omission I noticed while using the console was just how little the PS5 targets families. There are social features, of course, and a revamped Game Base menu for group voice chats. It’ll support up to 99 players, which sounds like absolute chaos. I’d still rather prefer inbuilt functionality for something like Discord, but that’s unlikely to happen in the near-term considering the can of worms that opens for Sony.
But as for families, there’s little provided that they might want to enjoy as a group. Only Until Dawn and Detroit: Become Human really fit into the group play category — and Detroit‘s opening scenes of domestic violence aren’t the most family-friendly activity. There’s no party games that can be shared across multiple controllers, not even from Sony’s own library. Knowledge Is Power certainly wasn’t anything like the Jackbox Party Pack games, but why wasn’t it included in the Sony PS+ offering?
The PS5’s download speeds — so far — are pretty fast, but there’s some weird exclusions.
This situation might change when everyone starts patching Demon’s Souls and Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War on the same day, but so far my PS5 has had none of the miserable download issues that plagued the PS3 and PS4. Downloading some of the biggest games from my library took no longer than it did on the Xbox Series X, which is a genuine surprise.
To be clear, I’ve been using the PS5 exclusively with a wired connection. I’d always recommend having that setup if you can, although if you do have to go wireless, just know that the PS5 does support Wi-Fi 6. (You’ll need a router that supports that though.)
But there are some parts of the PS5 that seem a little weird, if only because they’re a downgrade. Trophy data is much harder to read and parse from the PS4, thanks to the tile-based design that’s central to the PS5’s UI. There’s no sugarcoating this: it’s bad, it leaves less room for text, and even doing something as simple as seeing your hidden trophies is more difficult.
Even something bizarre like accessing your cloud saves has a bit of an asterisk on it. You can download your cloud saves from your PS4 to your PS5, which is good to have for various games where your saves might be in the cloud, but the game only relies on saves stored on the console.
That’s fine — you can access all of your cloud saves easily enough through the settings. But unlike the PS4, there’s no option in the PS5 to search via a text entry — which would be helpful if you only wanted a few saves and didn’t want to scroll down hundreds of games in alphabetical order.
Some of the PS5’s nicest ideas are also hidden deep within the settings.
It’s pointless to ruminate on the proper value of the PS5 right now. There remain so many unknowns. How far can raytracing genuinely be pushed on the next-gen console? Much has been said about load times, but what happens when games are designed with worlds to support that amount of bandwidth? Will super-fast loading screens still be a thing? Will the windy corridors and annoyances of seven million doors between you and the Mako reactor finally come to an end?
Even one of the console’s biggest features, 3D audio, is still a massive unknown. We don’t even have a competitive multiplayer game so far that would properly test the 3D audio. Something like Destiny 2 is a bit of a misnomer — the game’s in-game radar tells you where everyone is anyway — but hopefully Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War and shooters like Rainbow 6 Siege, Fortnite and more titles next year will help.
It doesn’t help that Sony doesn’t even advertise the feature. The console has five in-built presets to optimise the sound more closely, but this isn’t mentioned when you plug headphones in for the first time. You have to dig through the menus yourself to find the functionality, which just seems a wholly bizarre way to treat one of the few defining features of the PS5 over the Xbox Series X. Similarly, users who prefer inverted controls can now set this system-wide.
But as developers become accustomed to the console, I think there’s some tangible benefits that will undoubtedly never fade. The haptic feedback in the controller — moreso than the actual adaptive triggers — is something that will permanently set this generation apart from the one previous. We may never see a Golf Story-type game that uses the vibrations to generate music, but the responsiveness and rumble adds a degree of tactility that simply isn’t present on the new Xbox controllers.
There’s also a huge scope for revisiting the PS4 back catalogue. I played many games on the PC instead because the PS4 Pro’s lack of fidelity and capability — not to mention the PS4 — was significant enough to damage the experience. Those limits are gone now, and over the next 6, 12, 18 and 24 months, people will have a blast rediscovering some classics. Xbox users will enjoy this pleasure too, but as was the case there, Sony will need to make sure they properly advertise these upgrades when they’re added.
That said, there are also a lot of cool ideas and implementations. System-wide difficulty settings hasn’t been a thing since the Xbox 360 era, but Sony’s brought it back for the PS5. It’s also nice to be able to set if you want performance or a resolution mode for every game you play on your PS5. Or having presets for the adaptive triggers, which is a nice (and crucial) accessibility touch. Leaderboards built in at the system level are also pretty great, and we haven’t seen the potential of the 3D audio yet.
New generations are all about potential. But with the PS5, Sony’s also doubled down on their precise vision of gaming. It’s about creating worlds, singular and shared, and experiences that take you away from the monotony of the day to day. 2020 is as good a year for that as ever. But if the PS5’s promise is to be truly fulfilled, Sony will have to make sure they properly advertise that experience to all audiences, while finding new ways to help developers find audiences of their own.
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