November 2020 feels like a lot of things, but the start of a new console generation isn’t one of them. And yet it must be, since I’ve been staring at the enormous, unmistakable body of Sony’s PlayStation 5 for over a week now, playing games new and old to see what “Next Gen” means for the future of interactive home entertainment.
This is a great time to release a game. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has resulted in huge swaths of the world’s population spending far more time at home than they’d like, and with the rapidly rising infection rates, particularly in the U.S. and Europe, that’s not changing anytime soon. People are starved for content. Netflix has gotten less interesting and more expensive, while the launch of all the new streaming services over the last 12 months—including the already-failed Quibi—has further fractured and confused the content-consumption experience.
The video game industry has provided when it could; titles like Final Fantasy VII Remake and The Last of Us Part II drove gaming discourse for weeks and months, while Animal Crossing and Among Us grew big enough that both were used in the final weeks of the U.S. election cycle to get out the vote—the former with Joe Biden’s campaign island that players could visit, and the latter with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s breakout Twitch stream that became one of the biggest in the platform’s history.
Even for those tightening their belts in an economically fraught time, the occasional video game to help relieve some stress seems like an appropriate purchase. But a new console? Especially one that is going to have a $70 base price for its games (ending the $60 standard set with the Xbox 360 in 2005)? Read the room.
At least the prices aren’t as bad as the rumor mill suggested. At launch, the PlayStation 5 is $400 for the “Digital Edition” and $500 for the “Standard” model. Where Microsoft has created two similar-but-different boxes in their $300 Series S and $500 Series X consoles, Sony’s two systems are internally identical with a single difference: a disc drive. The Standard PS5 has a UHD Blu-ray drive from which it can play movies and physical games, while the Digital Edition requires everything exist entirely on either its super-speedy internal storage or a compatible external drive.
This is both a massive shift and none at all. There was talk leading up to the unveiling of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One that the companies might release versions of their systems without disc drives. Back then, it was largely centered around an industry-wide backlash against the idea of used games, but now it’s a reflection of consumer behavior. In yet another trend accelerated by the pandemic, 2020 marked the first time more games were purchased digitally than physically—and it’s hard to imagine going back if and when this is all over.
Looking at the console, I imagine that Sony prefers the Digital Edition. Not just because they’re financially incentivized to have you buy a system that requires any purchases be made through their store, giving them the cut of every purchase that Amazon, GameStop, et al. take on physical media, but because that version simply looks nicer. When put side by side, the extra disc hump looks almost tacked on, and it makes an already garish design downright ugly. Regardless of version, the PS5’s curvy, white-with-black design is an active repudiation of the sleek all-black box Sony has been pushing since the PlayStation 2. It is also unapologetic in its hugeness. This is the largest video game console in decades and will be a struggle for some to fit under their TVs. It barely fits beneath mine, and I am a little worried about the cramped space impacting airflow and causing the system to overheat. (So far, so good.)
But while I may not like the way it looks in my entertainment center—and I really don’t—what matters is when the magic happens, when I get that controller into my hands and turn the thing on. Sony has made some unique choices with its new “DualSense” controller that do sometimes feel a little like magic. The general language of game controllers has become pretty standardized over the past few generations, and they’re all pretty good. I’ve always preferred the asymmetrical analog stick placement used by Microsoft and Nintendo to Sony’s, but all modern controllers feel good, and this is no different.
The color scheme matches the console: mostly white, with black accents. The button layout and placement echoes its predecessor, the DualShock 4, with speaker, lighting, and clickable touch bar included, but there’s one addition: a dedicated microphone on/off button to accompany the new mic built into the controller. I can see it being a nice addition for those who want to play online but don’t want a full-on headset, but it’s also a gimmick used for the gimmickiest part of the PS5’s pack-in game, Astro’s Playroom. Astro’s Playroom is a 3D platformer that is, at its core, a way to show off the new controller wrapped up in a whole lot of PlayStation fan service. It’s a fun little thing that has some neat ideas and also an onscreen prompt telling me to blow into the microphone to make wind. I thought we were over that after Nintendo did it in 2015, yet here we are.
Far more intriguing are the changes you can’t see: a pair of technologies that completely change the way games feel. First is haptic feedback, which is basically super-fancy rumble. Where traditional rumble just, well, rumbles a whole section of the controller, haptic feedback is targeted. So, for example, when someone is typing on a keyboard in the PS5 version of Spider-Man: Miles Morales, you will feel small little taps, as though you were pressing a key down and it was pressing back. This is primarily a way to make your connection to the digital world a little more tactile, but the precision of it could allow you to feel the individual ticks during a lock-picking mini-game. It’s just a nice little extra bit of immersion… though it doesn’t alter the actual experience of playing the way so-called “adaptive triggers” do.
While I had read that the “trigger” buttons on the DualSense—the back-most buttons on each shoulder—could change their resistance, I didn’t really understand what that meant until I felt it happen. It’s bizarre. Astro’s Playroom is actually a perfect showcase for it: I was just doing my regular running and jumping when all of a sudden I got zipped up into a suit attached to a giant spring. And now I need to spring my way through the next section. A prompt tells me to pull the trigger, so I do…but it didn’t move. It was suddenly fighting back. I pushed harder, and down it went and so did Astro. Seemingly by magic, the controller had changed its physical properties: it truly felt like I was pushing down on a spring to wind up, so much so that I got tired and had to switch to my middle fingers in order to complete the section.
The combination of haptic feedback and adaptive triggers resulted in a genuinely new experience, and it didn’t stop there. Another area had me pulling a lever to get something from a toy-capsule vending machine. The start of the pull requires the increased pressure, but once it hits the point where the in-game mechanical slot has finished, the real-world resistance gives way, and the last little bit of movement happens easily. It’s an extremely visceral feeling, and I can only imagine how this technology is going to be used in games down the line.
Which, unfortunately, brings us to the big caveat in all this: The reason I have to imagine how the technology might be used is because there aren’t many games to actually show me. This is one of the thinnest launch lineups in recent memory, with the only one thinner perhaps being the Xbox Series X/S’s after Halo Infinite was delayed to next year. That’s not to say there aren’t some solid games available for prospective buyers: there are (more on that next week!), but many of these day-one titles are going to be available on the PlayStation 4 as well, including that Miles Morales Spider-Man spin-off. Any cross-generation games will look and play better on PS5, but the only big exclusive at the launch of a new system is a remake. The new Demon’s Souls does look very good. Is that worth $400+?
There’s no question that the PlayStation 5 is a very powerful machine with a lot of technology under the oversized hood that will make games load faster, play better, and look amazing. Heck, it’s already doing those first two things to many existing PlayStation 4 titles. More than 99 percent of PS4 releases are playable on the new machine, and certain games have already received updates to specifically take advantage of the extra power, with more to come. Even those that don’t get a specific update, though, get a little boost: extensive load times are dramatically lessened thanks to the switch from a spinning hard disk to a blazing-fast solid state drive, and occasional visual hiccups are smoothed over. This is all great! However, it makes the PS5 at launch feel more like a PS4 Pro-Pro than a true PlayStation successor.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. Any brand-new piece of technology is sold less on what it offers in the moment than its potential. That’s rarely been truer than with the PlayStation 5. This has been a strange and scary year for every industry, and video games are no exception. I have no doubt Sony had a brilliant strategy to slowly drip-feed information and excite the masses—and to better fill out this launch day lineup. But when everyone was sent home as the realities of the coronavirus became apparent, that got thrown out the window. Sony hadn’t even announced the price of the system two months ago, and they’re clearly having trouble manufacturing systems considering their pre-order fiasco. This launch feels less like a celebration than an obligation: they promised it would be out this year, and so it must be. So it is.
Still, I am looking forward to what the future holds—or what Sony believed 2020 held. The hardware is there. Now we need everything else to catch up.