What makes a console “next-gen?”
Strictly speaking, the term denotes a new wave of hardware, bringing with it various technological improvements to make games look and run better than before.
But that’s almost a boring way of looking at it — these sorts of advancements are, after all, the bare minimum of what you expect from new consoles. And for the most part, this is what’s defined next-gen hardware at launch for the past few decades. Having said that, what’s arguably far more interesting is when new technology is incorporated in such a way that it can create thoroughly unique gaming experiences — the ones you didn’t even imagine.
This is what the PlayStation 5 has me thinking about during my nearly two weeks of time with it. While Sony’s next-gen console isn’t without its issues so far — and there are questions regarding its long-term future that will need to be answered — my biggest takeaway is that the Japanese tech giant has taken an incredibly ambitious and thoughtful approach to next-gen. In fact, Sony has combined its under-the-hood technical improvements with the new and impressive DualSense controller to empower games in utterly fascinating ways, making the PS5 the most promising new console in many years.
Ugly on the outside, beautiful on the inside
Since Sony first revealed the look of the PS5 way back in June, there’s been much debate — and countless memes — about its futuristic, curved, mostly-white design. I very much fall in the camp that it’s unattractive — hideous, even — especially when placed alongside my mostly black entertainment stand setup.
But while the console’s aesthetic is a subjective matter, what isn’t up for debate is the PS5’s massive size. Measuring in at approximately 39 cm (15.4-inches) tall, 26 cm (10.2-inches) deep and 10.4 cm (4.1-inches) wide, the PS5 is the largest modern console in history. While Microsoft’s rival premium next-gen console, the Xbox Series X, is quite large as well (coming in at 30.1 cm/11.8 inches tall), it’s at least got a balanced, rectangular, PC tower-like form factor.
“The PS5 leaves much to be desired in terms of its physical design”
Given its obscene size, many will no doubt be unable to fit the PS5 within their entertainment stands — not vertically, anyway. Horizontal placement is possible — although still slightly awkward due to the console’s curves — using the included stand. Contrary to what the internet and even Xbox itself will lead you to believe, though, the PS5’s horizontal-vertical setup process is actually quick and easy. Since the PS5 comes in its box with the stand unattached, all you have to do is clip it on to the conveniently marked PlayStation symbols on the console’s rear. For vertical storage, simply use a coin to tighten the stand to the base using the packed-in screw.
Overall, though, the PS5 leaves much to be desired in terms of its physical design. But the internal design is where it gets very impressive.
If you’ve been following the next-gen news cycle, you’ll know that Microsoft’s been making a big deal about the Xbox Series X being the most powerful console ever made. That’s all thanks to its 12.15 teraflops of GPU power, which are indeed above the PS5’s 10.3. However, that’s not to say that the PS5 is a visual slouch — far from it. The console is easily capable of supporting native 4K resolution, and, in theory, even 8K down the road (as is promoted rather prominently on the packaging).
To be clear, though, 8K isn’t going to be supported by any game at launch and, quite likely, will barely be supported later in the console’s lifecycle, if at all. Therefore, don’t go spending several thousands of dollars on a TV just for this. Likewise, very few titles actually support 120fps at launch (Devil May Cry 5 Special Edition, Dirt 5 and Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War counted among them), so you wouldn’t miss too much without a 120Hz display to support that higher frame rate.
Overall, though, raw power isn’t everything, and where the PS5 more crucially trumps the Series X is in its custom 825GB SSD. While the Series X and the lower-priced Series S have custom SSDs to offer rapid load times, the PS5’s are even faster. More importantly, the PS5’s SSD been integrated in several clever ways to enhance games well beyond load time reductions. (More on that later).
For now, it should be noted that Sony has made the physical act of expanding storage to be quite easy. As seen in the above video, the console’s side panels can be removed to reveal a slot for standard M.2 SSDs. The central problem here, however, is that these additional SSDs won’t actually be usable until an undated post-launch update has been rolled out. This means that you’ll need to use the PS5’s 825 GB storage — which, in actuality, works out to about 667 GB of usable space — a bit sparingly for the time being. External hard drive support is possible for backwards compatible PS4 games, but not PS5 titles.
Finally, while on the subject of console breakdowns, it’s important to note that Sony is also offering a disc-less PS5 model, the ‘PS5 Digital Edition.’ By removing the disc drive, Sony has cut the price of the PS5 by a solid $130, bringing it down to $499. Otherwise, it boasts the same specs as the standard PS5. While I personally prefer having the option to sell/trade in/loan my games after I’m done with them, the Digital Edition is inarguably a welcome option for people looking to save a decent chunk of change without sacrificing specs.
The DualSense controller is outstanding
After four generations of the ‘DualShock’ controller on PlayStation consoles, Sony is introducing the ‘DualSense’ alongside the PS5, which is easily its best and most feature-rich controller to date. Unlike the PS5 itself, the DualSense largely adheres to its predecessors’ design principles — namely, the same face and ‘L1 + L2’ and ‘R1 + R2’ buttons. Further, the DualSense carries over the touchpad, built-in speaker and light bar from the PS4’s DualShock 4 controller.
All the while, Sony has made subtle tweaks for added comfort, like slightly larger L and R buttons for greater responsiveness and tiny grooves covering both the back of the controller and its analogue sticks. On top of that, the DualSense adds USB-C support (a welcome step up from the DualShock 4’s Micro-USB connectivity) and built-in mic. The latter feature is particularly handy, as you can use it for in-game chat (as a substitute for wired and wireless headsets, which are also supported) and voice dictation — no navigation of a digital keyboard required. As a nice touch, Canadian French is even one of the supported languages.
If this were where the DualSense’s improvements ended, I’d be happy calling it a satisfying iteration over its predecessors. But Sony has included two other fascinating new features into the DualSense, haptic feedback and adaptive triggers, which help make it my favourite controller to date. With haptic feedback, you can expect physical responses through contextual vibrations that can simulate everything from melee attacks to gun recoil. Adaptive triggers, for their part, offer their own feedback depending on the situation, like hitting the brakes on a car or drawing a bow. These are surprisingly more immersive than they sound and implemented well into games so far. (More on this later).
Finally, it’s worth noting that the PS5 also has what Sony calls ‘3D Audio’ to deliver vivid, object-based sound. Despite not being an audiophile at all, I was still surprised to see at how well it worked. Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales is the best example of it, allowing you to pinpoint specific people or objects — like Miles’ friend Ganke in a crowded festival — in the bustling New York cityscape simply by sound. It’s supported by a number compatible of headsets at launch, the somewhat pricy $129 PS5 ‘Pulse’ headset included, but Sony says it’s working on enabling the audio feature natively through TVs down the line.
Keep in mind that you’ll also need the PS4’s PS Camera to use PlayStation VR; the new HD Camera is not compatible. Further, a free adapter is required to connect the PS VR to the PS5 — you can order one here. I haven’t tried PS VR on PS5, but the console does support almost all of the 200 VR titles available, which is good for those who own the headset.
A great launch lineup — with some caveats
All told, the PS5’s launch lineup is actually rather diverse. You’ve got a mainstream, crowd-pleasing superhero game in Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales (and, through that, Marvel’s Spider-Man Remastered); more hardcore action-RPGs in the form of Demon’s Souls and Godfall, an all-ages 3D platformer in Sackboy: A Big Adventure; and adventure games Bugsnax and The Pathless. What’s more, Astro’s Playroom, another 3D platformer, actually comes pre-loaded on every PS5, while Bugsnax will be offered at no additional cost to PlayStation Plus subscribers for a limited time. It’s a well-rounded bunch even when considering that vehicular combat game Destruction AllStars and Pixar-like adventure title Kena: Bridge of Spirits were delayed out of the PS5’s launch to February 2021 and early 2021, respectively.
And that’s just on the exclusive side; of course, there are several third-party titles at launch as well, such as Watch Dogs: Legion, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Devil May Cry 5 Special Edition, Dirt 5 and Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War (releasing after the console on November 13th). It’s a far superior launch lineup to the PS4’s, which consisted of exclusive titles Killzone: Shadow Fall, Knack and Resogun, as well as third-party fare like Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, Call of Duty: Ghosts and Battlefield 4. The only issue, though, is that of these PS5 titles, Miles Morales, Sackboy, Bugsnax and The Pathless are also all coming to PlayStation 4. This makes it harder to say the PS5 is a must-buy at launch.
So far, while I still need to play marquee launch title Demon’s Souls (the only true PS5 exclusive), the several other PS5 games I’ve played have been highly encouraging. Right from the start, Insomniac’s excellent Miles Morales is a looker through a default 4K/30fps output with raytracing, which can produce realistic lighting effects like reflections on windows or puddles. That said, I don’t think raytracing is all that additive to the overall experience — at least, not in the case of something like Miles Morales.
“Miles Morales is better suited for Performance Mode, which removes raytracing in favour of dynamic 4K/60fps”
Since gameplay regularly consists of high-speed web-swinging or zipping between enemies in combat, I rarely noticed the admittedly pretty reflections. I can definitely see raytracing being more noteworthy in slower-paced adventure games like The Last of Us Part II, where you actually take the time to soak in what’s around you.
Instead, Miles Morales is better suited for Performance Mode, which removes raytracing in favour of dynamic 4K/60fps. As someone who spent dozens of hours in Marvel’s Spider-Man on PS4 Pro (which ran at 30fps), I can attest to how much more fluid 60fps support makes a game like Spider-Man. Meanwhile, the DualSense has a few tricks to ensure that the fast-paced gameplay feels even more immersive, like adding resistance to the triggers alongside vibration as you swing forward to better capture that feeling of web-swinging, or lending a burst of feedback to Miles’ signature electricity-powered Venom punch for that oh-so-satisfying extra ‘oomph.’ These benefits (minus Venom-related haptics, given that Peter Parker doesn’t have that power) are also on display in Marvel’s Spider-Man Remastered and feel just as fantastic there.
Meanwhile, Astro’s Playroom is far more than the PS5 tech demo it might initially seem to be. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s not just the best pack-in game since Wii Sports, but a genuinely solid five-hour experience in its own right. In Astro’s Playroom, you command the adorable titular robot as he ventures through none other than the PlayStation 5 hardware itself. It’s an amusing setup that allows levels to charmingly be themed around the PS5’s various technical components, like the ‘Cooling Springs’ area which draws inspiration from the console’s internal fans. Throughout all of these levels is a delightful assortment of easter eggs and references to PlayStation games (from both first- and third-parties) and hardware spanning the brand’s entire 25-plus-year history.
Moreover, Astro’s Playroom proves just how versatile the DualSense can be. During a stormy stretch of a level, the controller employed scattershot haptic feedback — almost like there was a little ball bouncing inside the controller — to simulate the raindrops falling on Astro’s umbrella. When I skated through an arctic area, the gamepad emitted a faint but consistent vibration that emulated the feeling of Astro softly skating over ice.
“Astro’s Playroom was developed specifically to be a showcase for the PS5 and DualSense”
My favourite use of the DualSense came during a tropical level where you have to don a monkey suit. With it, you can scale walls by alternating pulling on each trigger while rotating the DualSense in the direction you want to swing. It’s far more engaging and intuitive than expected, and it’s made even more amazing when you come across some handholds that require you to apply less pressure to the triggers so you don’t cause them to crumble in Astro’s hands.
Other than the fantastic DualSense features, Astro’s Playroom stunned me by having virtually no load times. At most, jumping into a specific level throws you through a marvellous particle effect-laden tunnel for a few seconds before you’re dropped in. This is clearly developer Asobi’s way of hiding loading screens, but it’s quick, effective and beautiful nonetheless. More importantly, it’s a nice taste of what could happen with future PS5 games on a much larger scale. For example, Insomniac has already shown how the SSD enables literal out-of-this-world setpieces in Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, wherein our heroes, enemies and objects alike get transported nearly instantly from one drastically different setting to the next. That developers can actually leverage the SSD for this kind of inventiveness in their game design is tantalizing, to say the least.
To be sure, Astro’s Playroom was developed specifically to be a showcase for the PS5 and DualSense, so we probably shouldn’t expect the same level of technical wizardry in most other games — especially when it comes to haptic feedback and adaptive triggers. Nonetheless, the potential is absolutely there, and given that we’re only at the start of this new generation, it’s exciting to think of how developers might use this tech in the long-term.
Even with cross-gen games like Sackboy, though, I’ve still been impressed with how the PS5 ensures that they look and feel markedly better on top of taking advantage of the console’s more distinctive features. While Sackboy is by no means a full display of the PS5’s graphical capabilities, the game’s endearing fabric-covered characters are superbly detailed, with the individual fuzzy hairs being rendered with almost Pixar-like realism. The DualSense, while not revolutionary in the game, also adds to the game’s charm; feeling the ‘pop’ of the signature LittleBigPlanet bubbles and the ‘clang’ when punching a metallic bolt to unscrew a platform consistently brought a smile to my face.
Meanwhile, Devil May Cry 5: Special Edition is an excellent showcase of 120fps gaming. While PC players have enjoyed this for some time now, it’s novel in the console space. I adored DMC5 when I played it on Xbox One X last year, as it’s a top-notch action game. That said, that experience feels so tame now that with the suite of new gameplay settings, like 4K/30fps or 1080p/60fps with raytracing enabled and 4K/60fps or a lower resolution running at up 120fps with no raytracing. DMC5 is the absolute best showcase for the higher frame rate modes at launch, making the series’ hallmark stylish action feel even more smooth and responsive.
We’ve also been given some exciting examples so far for future use cases of the PS5’s unique tech, like adaptive triggers allowing realistic emulation of brake pressure in Gran Turismo 7 or haptic feedback in Demon’s Souls better communicating successful attacks and parries to offer you quicker response time. Of course, it remains to be seen whether these end up being gimmicks or genuinely alluring features, but in any case, it’s reassuring to see such solid support lined up.
What’s old is new again
Adding to the PS5’s catalogue is day one backwards compatibility support for virtually all of the PS4’s 4,000-plus games, outside of a few lesser-known titles. Select PS2 and PS3 games can also be streamed via Sony’s ever-growing PlayStation Now service. Backwards compatibility is made even better because all of these games receive improved load times thanks to the PS5’s SSD. In fact, in almost every game I tested — like Final Fantasy VII Remake, Kingdom Hearts III, The Last of Us Part II and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt — load times were cut by more than 50 percent. Even games that were already relatively quick to load, such as Ghost of Tsushima and Nier Automata, still benefited from several seconds being shaved off the total wait time.
However, only some games will receive further PS5 enhancements, such as God of War, Ghost of Tsushima and Days Gone, which all get 60fps on Sony’s next-gen console. Outside of these improvements, all games I tried — even popular online PS4 games Call of Duty: Warzone and Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn — ran flawlessly for me on PS5.
There’s also a fantastic new perk for PlayStation Plus subscribers to bolster your backwards compatibility catalogue, the PlayStation Plus Collection, which offers the following 20 PS4 games on PS5 at no additional cost:
- Battlefield 1
- Batman: Arkham Knight
- Call of Duty: Black Ops III — Zombies Chronicles Edition
- Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy
- Days Gone
- Detroit: Become Human
- Fallout 4
- Final Fantasy XV Royal Edition
- God of War
- Infamous Second Son
- The Last Guardian
- The Last of Us Remastered
- Monster Hunter: World
- Mortal Kombat X
- Persona 5
- Ratchet and Clank
- Resident Evil 7 biohazard
- Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
- Until Dawn
If you never owned a PS4, the PS Plus Collection is an excellent ‘greatest hits’ catalogue for you. Beyond that, the added technical benefits make it worthwhile for existing PS5 owners; I’m already planning to replay God of War on my PS5 in 60fps ahead of next year’s untitled ‘Ragnarok’-focused sequel.
An unparalleled user experience
The PS5’s user experience (UX) is the best I’ve ever had with a console. It’s all about avoiding excess amounts of time when navigating through menus — an issue I have with the somewhat cumbersome Xbox UI.
Instead, Sony has introduced a snappy ‘Control Center’ that you can pull up at any time using the PS button to access common dashboard functions quickly. Being able to check on the status of downloads, see which friends are online and manage my controller settings (among other tasks) as my game remains open in the background is amazingly convenient.
“Sony has also brilliantly ensured that you can keep playing games while using in social features”
You can also bring up the main dashboard for access to your full game library and more extensive settings options from the Control Center. To that end, there’s even an extremely convenient option to establish presets that carry over to every game at default, like subtitles, preference for Performance/Fidelity Modes in supported games and game difficulty. What’s more, the dashboard is smartly broken down into ‘Game’ and ‘Media’ sections, which neatly separates your games from common entertainment apps like Netflix, Disney+ and Apple TV.
But the best part of the UX is that each game and app has its own integrated hub in the dashboard. This even includes the PlayStation Store and services like PlayStation Now and PlayStation Plus. These hubs are most useful for games, as they contain official news, trending videos and add-on content for all games, including PS4 titles. For PS5 games, specifically, you have Activities, which are the UX’s absolute best element.
This is where the PS5’s ever-powerful SSD kicks in once again. Activities are developer-curated links to specific in-game content that you’ll be able to load right from the dashboard rapidly. In the case of single-player games like Miles Morales and Astro’s Playroom, this means you can actually directly jump to specific missions without having to navigate through the game to get there. In both cases, your character will spawn right in front of the relevant in-game area — all within about eight seconds. Activities will also provide estimates on how long it will take you to finish a level based on your current progress. This is especially useful if you have limited time to game; as you can quickly determine whether you’re close to finishing the level or if you should put your PS5 in rest mode to save progress and head out. Sony says all PS5 titles will support Activities, so it’s fascinating to think of how the feature will be used in future games.
As a particularly handy PlayStation Plus-exclusive feature, you can even use Activities to receive in-game tips in supported titles like Astro’s Playroom and Sackboy: A Big Adventure. These bring up spoiler-free guides from the developer that you can follow along with onscreen as you play. It’s an astoundingly clever way to reduce the hassle of having to find a guide or YouTube video on a second screen, like a phone or tablet.
Sony has also brilliantly ensured that you can keep playing games while using social features. This includes the option to share live gameplay streams with friends that can be viewed in picture-in-picture mode as you play. I was particularly enthused about the responsiveness of the DualSense’s ‘Create’ button. It immediately brings up your recently captured footage — automatically saved in the background as you play — which you can instantly edit and share as your game remains open. Using the Share button on PS4 would cause my console to slow to a crawl, so it’s unbelievably refreshing to have the process of capturing, editing and sharing gameplay footage be so much smoother here.
A next-gen experience that's absolutely worth purchasing on day one
For the most part, unless you're a hardcore fan of From Software's Souls games and are clamouring for Demon's Souls, the PS5 isn't strictly a must-buy on day one, given that all other launch games are also available on PS4 and/or other hardware.
Having said that, there are still many convincing reasons to recommend buying the PS5 at launch. Firstly, those who didn't own a PS4 can play all launch titles better on PS5 while leveraging its extensive backwards compatibility catalogue to play the many exceptional games that defined Sony over the past seven years -- all with drastically improved load times. The rock-solid PlayStation Plus and PlayStation Now services even offer all-in-one access to many of these games at low costs. All of this makes it easy and rewarding for newcomers and PS4 owners alike to transition to PS5.
But what truly sets the PS5 apart is how it marries its individual aspects -- the incredible SSD, outstanding new controller and top-notch revamped UI -- to offer gameplay experiences that cut down wasted time in menus and loading screens and emphasize fluidity, fidelity and immersion. It's impossible to look back at older consoles after seeing just how vastly improved everything is on PS5.
While the full potential of the PS5's unique features remains to be seen, the PS5 still undeniably feels like a true next-gen console. Therefore, it's 100% worth buying at launch, even as an upgrade from PS4. But whether you buy it now or later, this much is certain: the PS5 has a wonderfully bright future ahead of it.
"The PS5 undeniably feels like a true next-gen console"