PS5: The Kotaku Review

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PS5: The Kotaku Review

I’m sitting at my desk, staring at the PS5 looming over my media stand — “entertainment centre” is a little too grandiose for the small piece of Target furniture that holds all my gaming stuff — and wondering how the hell I’m going to review this thing. How would my boss, whose various PlayStation 4 reviews I’ve skimmed several times so as to glean some insight into what I should cover, review this thing? How can anyone, at this very moment in time, review this thing?

Let’s start with the basics. PlayStation 5 launches next Thursday, November 12, in the United States, Japan, Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, and South Korea. It reaches the rest of the world one week later on November 19. It costs $749 for the standard version and $599 for a digital-only version sans disc drive. It stands just over 15 inches (390 mm) tall and weighs a smidge under 10 pounds (4.5 kg). It is a beefy boy.

These specs, however, bely what the PlayStation 5 truly represents. It’s been almost seven years since Sony released the original PlayStation 4, a platform now known for producing some really great games. But it’s starting to show its age; more recent PlayStation 4 games cause the console, OG and pro alike, to wheeze and moan under the strain. It feels like developers have done all they can to wring every last drop of power out of the old girl before setting her out to pasture.

In many ways, the PlayStation 5 feels like a more significant upgrade from the PlayStation 4 than the PlayStation 4 did coming from the PlayStation 3, especially for someone like me who never splurged on a PlayStation 4 Pro. My technological illiteracy kept me from getting too excited during lead system architect Mark Cerny’s deep-dive presentation on the PlayStation 5’s innards — I still have no idea what a teraflop is and I refuse to learn — but seeing the graphics of the Demon’s Souls remake and the snappy universe-hopping mechanics of Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart in action quickly opened my mind to its possibilities.

Sony provided me with a retail PlayStation 5 two weeks ago. I’ve spent those two weeks playing Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales and Astro’s Playroom, with some Bugsnax and Devil May Cry V on the side since they arrived a little late. I’ve transferred over my PlayStation 4 library and saves, the process for which was super easy but the benefits for which remain hazy from game to game. I’ve messed around as much as I can with its settings, trying to familiarise myself with its copious cascading menus. I’ve also wondered if anyone even has the energy to care about — let alone the means to buy — $US500 ($688) electronics anymore.

Cutie with a booty

The standard PlayStation 5 cuts an imposing figure, with a bulbous shell protecting its hefty bulk. (Kotaku staff have joked about being able to use the detachable, plastic plates as riot shields if the contentious U.S. presidential election makes that a necessity.) The disc drive creates an extra protrusion on the right side or bottom of the console depending on its placement, which ruins any chance at the wonderful symmetry of the digital edition. A sturdy, plastic base is included as a way to facilitate both vertical and horizontal orientation (neither side is perfectly flat), and setting up is quick enough if you consult the console’s manual to find the single screw’s secret hiding place.

While the white plates have a matte finish, the black strip down the middle is glossy, which makes it a magnet for dust and lint. Over the course of the last couple of weeks I’ve had to wipe it down what feels like a dozen times to keep it looking pristine, though that might also be a result of my living in a particularly dusty region of California. The power and eject buttons are small and out of the way, with faint markings indicating which is which. I’ve already confused them several times.

The overall design and size evoke comparisons to particularly fancy computer towers. It’s not so unwieldy as to completely dominate a room’s aesthetics, but the PlayStation 5’s hefty, lopsided figure also keeps it from being entirely inconspicuous. If you’re looking for a video game console that’s going to blend into the scenery, this is not it.

Screenshot: Sony / Kotaku

The PS5 interface is the product

The first time I powered the PlayStation 5 on, there was something very comforting about hearing the same beep that emanates from my PlayStation 4. It also helps that the home page is largely like its predecessor. Games and apps are still laid out in a straight row, and hovering over an icon opens up a space below the navigation bar for things like news and communities related to that item. That’s also where you’ll find those nifty Activity cards from PlayStation’s recent user experience demonstration, allowing you to jump into a game during a specific mission or even watch short walkthrough videos in case you get stuck.

Unfortunately, the games I was provided before launch didn’t make much use of this built-in Activities system. The cards associated with Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales only let me start back up where I last saved, while the bulk of the Astro’s Playroom cards simply recreate the quick level-hopping mechanic that’s already in the game, with some singular hints here and there. Bugsnax, which I spent much less time with, includes quick clips on how to complete every mission, but as I’m still near the beginning of the game, none of them are terribly involved.

That said, the potential is obvious. The ability to attach these walkthroughs to the screen for side-by-side examination with your own gameplay is incredibly cool, and in Bugsnax’s case I’m sure these Activity cards will be useful in capturing more elusive creatures further into the game. I’m looking forward to cutting the necessity of online guides out of my life, which should be possible if punishing games like Demon’s Souls routinely come with 180 separate tip videos.

I’m really just struck by how smooth the PlayStation 5’s user interface is. While there’s a limit to the number of games and apps shown in their respective front-page tabs, opening the library and finding what you need is lightning-quick. Of course, it would be better if there was an option to expand or even customise which icons appear on the front page, but at least the console’s inherent speed cuts down on the headaches caused by these restrictive design choices.

This menu fluidity also improves capturing media. Much like on PlayStation 4, the PlayStation 5 controller (more on this beauty later) has a dedicated button, now known as the Create button, for recording and sharing gameplay. With just a few simple inputs, you can save high-definition screenshots and video. The options allow for HDR and 4K captures, but you’re locked into the PNG and WebM formats for images and videos, respectively, while using them. The coolest thing, I think, is that you can edit and post your captures to social media without leaving or suspending the game you’re playing: no more having to add captions to screenshots or trim down videos in a separate app. Also, the built-in DVR saves up to an hour of footage while you play, a huge increase from the PlayStation 4’s limited 15-minute chunks. As someone who loves to share too much on Twitter, this is a godsend for me.

Unfortunately, the PlayStation 5 doesn’t have a system like Quick Resume on Xbox Series X, which gives players the ability to run multiple games at once and switch between them on the fly. An area on the PlayStation 5’s pop-up menu called the Switcher sounded promising until I realised it was just a glorified way to change the game I was playing without going back to the main menu. It doesn’t even warn you, as on the PlayStation 4, that your game is going to close to make room for the new game. It feels like Sony is hoping that more involved Activity cards make up for this, but again, none of the games we were given before the console launch made great use of them.

As far as I can tell, right now, the PlayStation 5 runs one game at a time.

Can’t quit you

Which is a shame, because in addition to the few PlayStation 5 games I was given early, most of the PlayStation 4 library is backward compatible from day one — with a few exceptions that I don’t think anyone is going to miss and possibly some others (we’re checking). Adding them to the PlayStation 5 is as simple as downloading them from your PlayStation Network account or hooking up the same external hard drive you’re possibly already using on PlayStation 4. Some games require a small update to get them ready for the new console, but for the most part, you’ll be able to play a vast majority of your PlayStation 4 games from the get-go.

Whether or not they’ll see any significant upgrades on the more powerful platform depends on the game.

Let’s just get this out of the way: apart from faster load times, Bloodborne does not run any better on PlayStation 5 than it did on PlayStation 4. Which is fine! It’s a great game even without a buttery-smooth framerate, and there are several previous-generation games that do look incredible on the PlayStation 5. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, for instance, makes use of its uncapped framerate to get very close to 60 frames per second — forgive me, I don’t have fancy Digital Foundry tools at my disposal for exact measurements — and its tug-of-war combat feels even better when you’re given more frames to read what’s happening on-screen.

Some games, like Ghost of Tsushima, God of War, and Days Gone, have even received PlayStation 5-specific updates to improve their performance, and most of the PlayStation 4 games I tested made use of the PlayStation 5’s SSD to greatly speed up loading times. Speaking of which…

That PlayStation 5 SSD

Apart from its graphical output and controller (I swear I will get to this eventually), the PlayStation 5’s most next-generation feature is the solid-state drive, or SSD. It can read and store data much more quickly and efficiently than a traditional hard drive. I knew this would be a net benefit over the PlayStation 4, but I wasn’t prepared for how much of a game-changer the SSD would be. Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, the most graphically impressive game I was able to play over the last couple of weeks, gets you from the PlayStation 5 home screen to gameplay in less than 20 seconds. You blink and suddenly Miles Morales is perched on a traffic signal or overhang, waiting to swing through Harlem.

While you need to see games booting up on the PlayStation 5 for yourself to truly appreciate the speed of the SSD, here are a few rough loading time comparisons we pulled together to give you have some idea of what it can do:

The benefits of the SSD’s quick loading also extend to gameplay. Moving from area to area in Bugsnax requires almost no downtime, with only the briefest loading screen as you chase down the game’s critters. I was given very little time to ponder my mistakes after dying in PlayStation 4 games like Bloodborne and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, foreshadowing the upcoming Demon’s Souls remake. I’m torn on games not having built-in water breaks anymore, but it’s probably for the best.

Oh god, it’s the framerate section

If I’m being honest, I never understood the constant clamor for higher framerates in video games. Sure, it was a nice thing to have in fighters, but it was never a deal-breaker for me if a game couldn’t reach 60 frames per second. And to continue baring my soul, I’m still not entirely convinced of its necessity when it comes to games on PlayStation 5, although I’m starting to come around.

For example, Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales’ performance mode — which does away with bells and whistles like ray tracing and true 4K to maintain a consistent 60 fps — is nice, but ultimately ends up eliciting the same reaction from me as movies filmed at anything higher than 24 fps. It just feels weird. But unlike movies, where a relatively low framerate is necessary to preserve that unique filmic quality, I’m convinced my discomfort with 60 fps in video games is a by-product of years getting by with less. Most major games on PlayStation 5 seem to at least give players the option between peak fidelity and performance, which I appreciate.

While I’m looking forward to being proven wrong about framerate over the coming years, Bugsnax is one unlikely game that really benefits from the increased power of the PlayStation 5 so far. It’s not the graphics powerhouse of the system, but in going back and forth between Sony’s previous and next-gen consoles, it became clear just how much Bugsnax relies on smooth 60 fps gameplay for its overall aesthetic. The whimsical adventure game manages to look like a playable cartoon on PlayStation 5, whereas the comparatively muddy visuals and lower framerate on PlayStation 4 ruin any chance it has of living up to that lofty benchmark.

Once more, with feeling

Oh hey, you made it to the controller section of this PlayStation 5 review. Congratulations! Here’s a tangent about Dune.

Frank Herbert’s iconic science fiction novel takes place, predictably, on a desert planet. As such, the native Fremen must learn how to differentiate between several different types of sand to safely navigate its hellish landscape. Drum sands, for instance, amplify footsteps, making it particularly harmful for avoiding giant sandworms, whereas pebble sand provides more reliable footing. Fremen can tell the difference between these kinds of sands by sight and, more importantly, feel. As Arrakis, the planet on which much of Dune is set, is a place where a single misstep can lead to a grisly death, honing every sense into analysing and understanding even the grains of sand beneath your feet becomes vital to survival.

While playing with the PlayStation 5’s new DualSense controller, I couldn’t help but think a Dune video game, faithful to what the novel’s characters truly experienced, was finally, inexplicably possible.

Everything you may have heard about the DualSense is true. It really is the massive game-changer that enthusiast gaming sites have made it out to be. Whereas video games have mostly relied on sight and sound to convey important information, there is now a tool that will reliably allow developers to bring sensations into the equation. The DualSense (first of its name) achieves this through two separate tools: complex, vibration-based haptic feedback and adaptive triggers.

Video game console controllers have shaken, rattled, and rolled in our hands since the Nintendo 64’s Rumble Pak landed in 1997. This has been almost entirely utilised to convey very simple concepts like damage and collision, but when it comes to the DualSense, nearly everything that happens in a video game can be expressed through the controller with surprising accuracy.

Photo: Sony

Astro’s Playroom, the PlayStation 5’s pack-in title, is meant to be a glorified demonstration of this technology, and everyone should really take the time to check it out on launch day while other, bigger games download. In Playroom, there is a dramatic difference between Astro crunching around on a sandy beach and clanking against metallic platforms. You feel wind. Water ripples onscreen and the DualSense reacts with rhythmic pulses. Playroom can go overboard at times to make sure the player gets it — I took frequent breaks due to the constant vibration aggravating some undiagnosed hand issues before realising the PlayStation 5 lets you disable both the haptic feedback and adaptive triggers as needed — but it’s legitimately impressive how the DualSense confers subtle benefits and additional texture to gameplay mechanics like web-swinging through New York City in Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales or capturing creatures in Bugsnax.

That said, I was still a little sceptical about the DualSense’s other major feature, adaptive triggers. I didn’t really understand it until finally getting my hands on the controller, and now I’m completely sold. In short, the DualSense’s triggers are capable of increasing their resistance to imitate actions like firing a gun or breaking open a plastic capsule. It’s also not as simple as the triggers being easy or hard to pull, but a combination of tensions that make the controller feel like a completely different tool in your hands. I found one of the more impressive implementations, again, in Bugsnax, in which the adaptive triggers simulate taking a picture by providing just enough friction to channel the feeling of pushing down a camera’s shutter release and then letting up as soon as you’ve captured the photo.

I’m sure there are very technical explanations for how the DualSense does what it does, but I choose to believe it’s magic, or perhaps little gremlins inside the controller. I prefer the mystique.

But does it really matter?

This review has spent 3,000 words talking about the PlayStation 5, which is the most I’ve written about anything. It’s as good a video game console as there has ever been. The combination of ultra high-definition video, increased framerates, high-end graphics techniques like ray tracing, and the lightning-fast SSD make it feel like a real-deal, next-gen successor to the PlayStation 4. And if you’re not ready to give up on the previous console, the PlayStation 5 reliably runs a vast majority of the PlayStation 4 library, with many of those games receiving upgrades to fidelity, framerate, and loading times.

But I’d be remiss to ignore all the reasons not to be excited for the PlayStation 5.

The world is still reeling under the weight of the covid-19 pandemic. There are more Americans out of work right now than at any point in the country’s history, with no relief in sight. Our health care system is an inherently evil institution that forces people to ration life-saving medications like insulin and choose suicide over suffering with untreated mental illness.

As I’m writing this, it looks very likely that Joe Biden will be our next president. But it’s clear that the worst people aren’t going away just because a new old white man is sitting behind the Resolute desk — well, at least not this old white man. Our government is fundamentally broken in a way that necessitates radical change rather than incremental electorialism.

The harsh truth is that, for the reasons listed above and more, a lot of people simply won’t be able to buy a PlayStation 5, regardless of supply. Or if they can, concerns over increasing austerity in the United States and the growing threat of widespread political violence supersede any enthusiasm about the console’s SSD or how ray tracing makes reflections more realistic. That’s not to say you can’t be excited for those things — I certainly am, on some level — but there’s an irrefutable level of privilege attached to the ability to simply tune out the world as it burns around you.

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I won’t deny that video games can be an escape. It feels great to lose yourself in a fictional world where you can fix everything. Some of us see a strength or personality trait in video game characters what we wish we saw in ourselves. As much as it sucks for real-world problems to intrude on that space, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to focus on video games amid our current situation. Many nights, it’s all I can do to play a couple runs of Spelunky before collapsing into bed for a few hours of doomscrolling and restless sleep. And I know I’m not alone in that feeling. We are collectively tired, and for good reason.

Sony and Microsoft chose a hell of a time to release their next-generation video game consoles. I think the PlayStation 5 is a great machine, but it’s tough to recommend when folks are literally fighting for their lives while residing in the richest country in the world. I was very lucky to receive a PlayStation 5 for the purposes of this review despite the fact that I am comfortable enough to have bought one on my own.

If you’re in the same boat, I encourage you to grab the console and see what it’s all about for yourself. If you aren’t, don’t feel like the PlayStation 5 would change your life. It’s a video game system, and it’s not going anywhere. I’m looking forward to a time when we can all chat about next-generation gaming on equal footing, without a dozen daily crises looming over our heads. Until then, let’s focus on what’s truly important, even if that means dipping out of the next-gen hype machine for a bit.

Comments

  • You can’t resist injecting articles with politics can you? Not everyone you reach lives in the United States, cares about politics and/or shares your particular dire point of view on the current state of the world.

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