PlayStation 5 review – everything the industry wanted, plus the promise of so much more

PlayStation didn’t become the world’s leading console platform by sitting on its laurels across four generations of hardware. This is an industry that thrives off ingenuity and innovation, and Sony has always delivered.

These days, though, such admirable ambitions have to be balanced with a degree of continuity. This latest console generation can’t make the clean break we’ve seen in the past. There needs to be unbroken support for innumerable service titles, and not just goliaths such as Fortnite and Warzone, not to mention thousands of other games on console stores which are still viable and selling.

While accepting that, Sony has still attempted to draw a line under one era in order to bound forwards into a new one with the PlayStation 5.

The evidence for that is clear to see. There’s the out-there design, a brand new controller (which made us laugh out loud in joy), blisteringly quick SSD storage, a completely redesigned UI with many intriguing new features. Plus the first all-digital PlayStation console in the shape of the PS5 Digital Edition.

There’s plenty to talk about here then, but not plenty to play unfortunately. As with its Xbox rival, next-gen games are pretty thin on the ground at the time of writing – although in Spider-Man: Miles Morales we do have at least one new cross-gen title to enjoy.

The initial success of the hardware is undoubted. It will sell out everywhere from here to Christmas and probably well beyond. The question we need to look at here is how well the PS5 can support and serve the wider industry going forward, for the benefit of us all.

UPTURNED COLLAR

To be honest, we’re still not totally sold on the PS5’s design. A console’s appearance isn’t the most important thing, but in the early days of adoption it certainly matters. Personal feelings aside, the PlayStation 5 could be considered to soar, it’s cathedral-like in a way, reaching up to the heights, it could be seen as aspirational.

It’s also pretty practical, it comes with a stand in the box (no add-on sales there I’m afraid) and using that it can stand proud, like a Foster skyscraper, or lie down, making it more of a Zaha-Hadid gallery. Either way, it’s a work of art, like it or hate it, and that’s well-suited to Sony’s ambitions (and a clear differentiation from the industrial design aesthetic over the road).

Sony PS5Turn it on and it glows in a nice understated way to indicate its status. It’s quiet and well-behaved too, unlike the airplane jet noise of my old PS4 Pro – not Sony’s finest moment and one we’re happy to move on from.

And that new-found serenity is an impressive feat, as the PS5 runs its GPU hard and fast compared to the competition. With around a 1/3rd less compute units, it makes up much (but not all) of the power differential by running them at up to 2.33GHz (compared to 1.825Ghz in the Series X).

Processors can be roughly priced by the transistor, and here Sony looks to have almost matched the Xbox in power with what must be a significantly cheaper chip. If all is well in terms of cooling, and we have no reason to believe it should not be, then Sony may have the ability to be more aggressive when it comes to pricing in the future. (Of course the landscape is far more complex than that, with the both consoles having second-tier siblings of remarkably different designs).

Putting aside chips sizes and speeds, though, the bottom line is the PS5 lags behind its rival in terms of raw graphics performance, by around 15 per cent. To what extent that will be noticeable in big cross-platform titles, such as Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla or Cyberpunk 2077, remains to be seen, at least for a couple of weeks.

Developers would likely prefer near-perfect parity between the devices, but the gap certainly isn’t so large that it will cause any major headaches. Especially given that practically all major titles are still being balanced for last-gen devices and innumerable PC specs as well.

Returning to the console itself, the rest of the specification is largely in line with that of the Xbox. Providing a huge step up in CPU performance to drive higher frame rates and more complex worlds. Although the new console does have a potential advantage in terms of storage speed, which we’ll return to in depth later.

RESISTING CHANGE?

A far more visible change for the PS5 is the all-new DualSense controller. While Sony has made incremental updates to its DualShock controller design over the years. The new controller’s streamlined appearance marks arguably the biggest change since Sony bolted analogue sticks to the original controller.

That said, there’s a lot of the PS4’s DualShock 4 controller still in its DNA. Be reassured, anyone needing to design a control scheme that works across both controllers will have no problems whatsoever.

DualSenseThe placement and spacing of the analogue sticks is essentially identical (although arguably they could do with a tad more grip on top we felt), the d-pad and face buttons are also in the same places and have a familiar feel. The bumpers have a touch more travel and more positive feedback, while the triggers have more resistance for finer control. The DS4’s largely underutilised touchpad returns, as does motion sensing, along with the onboard speaker and headphone jack.

So what’s new? Apart from the fact that it looks fantastic and feels great in your hands. Well, there’s a built-in microphone now, so you always have basic voice chat capabilities, even when your headset is out of reach. That potentially opens up some design possibilities, but we can’t see too many taking them up given that players on other consoles would need to have headsets to play too.

Best of all are the new haptic feedback triggers, they’re simply a revelation.

The PS5 comes with a pre-installed title, Astro’s Playroom, to showcase the new features of the controller. As soon as I was demoed the new triggers I laughed out loud in joy, they’re that good. The controller is capable of stopping the trigger halfway through its pull – just like a trigger stop on a high-end SCUF controller – it can even push back against your finger, like a gun kicking back as it fires. It’s astounding and joyous and we really hope developers, beyond Sony’s own, make the most of it.

Practically-speaking, Sony has moved to a USB type-C charger, and carries on with a built-in battery. Making for a sleeker appearance to its controller. All together we love the DualSense, it’s a great evolution of the DualShock tradition.

There is one problem, though. Why did Sony cut-off DualShock 4 support on the new console. Yes, some retailers and Sony itself will be most pleased that there’s a whole new round of controller sales here. However, for developers looking to make couch co-op games over the next year or two, the lack of support for DS4 on new games is a serious setback. The only route around it is to launch your game on PS4, with compatibility for PS5, though we’re not yet certain how long that loophole will exist and Sony’s perception of it.

We respect that Sony wants developers to move forward, and with the new haptics in particular they certainly have, but we can’t see any reason why supporting the old controllers (possibly only for multiplayer titles) is going to limit that in the short-term.

PRE-PLAYED

We’ve mentioned the pre-installed Astro’s Playroom, but it’s worth noting that there’s an awful lot more to this game than you’d imagine. It’s an extensive celebration not only of the DualSense controller but also of PlayStation’s incredible legacy – long-term fans will be delighted, and it’s a great reminder of just how long Sony have been getting things right when it comes to games and consoles.

But beyond that title, the range of truly new games available to play on the PS5 at launch is somewhat limited. With the cross-gen title Spider-Man: Miles Morales being the main consideration – and with the greatest respect to Insomniac that largely builds on what has come before.

The only true next-gen exclusive, a remake of Demon’s Souls by Bluepoint, looks amazing and will be available at launch, but sadly didn’t make it to us in time to write this piece (we’ll update when it does) and again, even as a total remake, it’s not truly a new title. Also dropping to reviewers just before the US launch will be Sackboy: A Big Adventure, a lovely looking cross-gen platformer from Sumo Digital.

The other key exclusive, vehicular combat game Destruction AllStars took a hard turn a couple of weeks back and will now see a PS+ launch early next year, with Sony presumably looking to replicate the success it saw with Fall Guys on the service.

Now three key titles for launch from Sony’s publishing arm is actually pretty respectable, especially given the paucity of a first-party publishing lineup across the road. Although with expandalones, remakes and cross-gen titles aplenty, Sony’s lineup still lacks a sense of excitement and ‘exclusivity’ for owners of the new console.

As with Xbox, upgrades to key third-party cross-gen titles, releasing over the next couple of weeks, will largely only be available at launch, giving us no opportunity to test those right now. Updates will also come through gradually to existing first-party titles.

So we return to Spider-Man: Miles Morales in order to gauge the early potential of the PS5. The standout upgrade here is undoubtedly an update to 60fps in its 4K performance mode. The experience of swinging through New York is much improved with the higher frame rate. There’s also a graphics mode, which utilises ray-tracing effects and more but at the usual 30fps.

It all looks great, and Insomniac has done a fantastic job in terms of both plot and characterisation – we love Miles and his extended family. However, the gameplay does feel a little too familiar for our liking, especially set against the backdrop and expectations of a new console and controller.

MORE THAN RAW

As previously mentioned, one area the PS5 does have a clear technical advantage over its competitor is the speed of its SSD storage, thanks to a custom chip that’s handling transfers and compression. It amounts to up to 9GB per second, compared to 4.8GB/s for the Xbox.

SSD storage is already a huge step up from the hard disks of old, with even the Xbox being fifty times faster than a typical hard disk, so it remains to be seen if Sony’s technical advantage here will amount to a significant advantage in reality. Looking at the practically instant load times already on offer, my feeling is that speed alone won’t be the key.

What is more likely to be a factor is the way Sony deploys its first-party development teams. We’ve already seen Ratchet and Clank’s: Rift Apart from Insomniac Games demoed, which is making full use of the SSD in its design, shifting the action from one detailed world to another at incredible pace. With Microsoft’s commitment to previous generations and to the PC platform through Game Pass, we’re unlikely to see anything that can only be played on an SSD from its first-party studios anytime soon.

In this area then, it’s Sony that is pushing the envelope. The success of that experiment remains to be seen, but the attempt is to be loudly applauded.

More immediately, playing as Miles Morales on an SSD is a joy. There’s no loading time coming in and out of buildings and you can fast travel in an instant across the map. It’s something you get used to very quickly but it’s not less of a step forward for it, and I certainly wouldn’t want to go back. Having an SSD keeps you more engaged and immersed.

It’s worth noting that Sony doesn’t currently have a Quick Resume system to match Microsoft’s, which lets you switch between up to three games in a flash. Plus the PS5 has less storage space as standard, 667GB vs 802GB, so in terms of utility today, the Xbox is ahead.

OUT FOR LUNCH, BACK SOON

Supporting that fluidity of play from the SSD is the new UI, which has been totally revamped for the new console and to great effect. The main menu has been relocated to the top left of the screen, leaving far more space for the content to shine, with games and other menu options getting the benefit of almost the whole screen as you browse across them.

Sadly, we’re not yet able to discuss the PlayStation 5’s new store, as work is ongoing, but we’ll update the review as soon as we are able.

Sony has provided some intriguing, progressive options in the UI. There’s the ability to deeper integrate the PlayStation into a game’s own options, letting players join server queues for a specific mode directly from the PS5’s front end.

A new pop-up menu is available in-game as well, providing numerous options. The most intriguing is contextual help videos, which players can play in the game, and even in split-screen to get them past tricky areas. Demon’s Souls reportedly has 180 such videos – which seems both logical (Souls games are hard!) and against the point (Souls games are supposed to be hard!).

PS5 UI

It’s great to see someone tackling the clunky ‘pause game, get out phone, YouTube search, watch ad, scroll through video, watch help, repeat steps’ method of in-game help. That said, we’re not expecting many third-party developers to go to the lengths that Bluepoint and Sony has done on Demon’s Souls. Still, even a handful of videos, to help with key sections, would be a boon for many games.

We suspect that this feature will struggle if it doesn’t get immediate support, as players simply won’t think to look for help in game if there’s not broad coverage. There’s been some concerns about where smaller developers will find time, but maybe they could cut deals with appropriate influencers to provide the content in return for a fee or just pre-launch access.

A TOUCH OF MAGIC

The PS5 looks to be yet another incredible piece of gaming hardware from Sony. We’re a little concerned about the generation-to-generation rise in prices for next generation consoles, but the all-around power, features and utility of the console more than justifies the added expense.

Console launches will never be these climatic, year zero resets ever again. Instead there’s a sense of continuity both here and with Xbox’s latest effort. But Sony certainly has to be applauded for creating a sense of theatre, adding a little magic, out of what could have simply been a more powerful box for the same job.

The design of the console, the new UI, the new controller with its incredible triggers, and even the pre-installed Astro’s Playroom all made us feel that this was something new, something playful. And we hope that sense of play is felt not just by consumers but also by developers, who are always looking for new ways to entertain.

In a similar respect, Sony’s outstanding first-party studios look better placed to make the most of the new generation. For now, Sony has many cross-gen titles on its slate, such as next year’s Horizon: Forbidden West. But the first next-gen exclusives will likely be pushing the envelope here and then will we see what the PS5 is truly capable of.

It’s a shame that experience wasn’t available at launch, maybe that’s the pandemic’s fault, maybe not, but it’s been a terrible year and we’re happy to give everyone the benefit of the doubt.

Will Sony come to regret being a step behind Xbox when it comes to graphical muscle? It certainly hasn’t seemed to hurt it over the last few years with the mid-gen upgrades, and it doesn’t look to be a critical difference. Although the most competitive of gamers may err towards the most powerful machine. For developers the gap will be easy to bridge and most consumers still care more about exclusive titles than graphical niceties.

The PS5 might not quite thrill at launch but it’s packed with potential. It’s no mean feat to provide both the continuity the industry demands alongside a sense of the new that it craves. Even at this early point, we can confidently say that it will serve the industry admirably, and we see no reason that it won’t go far, far further than that.

About Seth Barton

Seth Barton is the editor of MCV – which covers every aspect of the industry: development, publishing, marketing and much more. Before that Seth toiled in games retail at Electronics Boutique, studied film at university, published console and PC games for the BBC, and spent many years working in tech journalism. Living in South East London, he divides his little free time between board games, video games, beer and family. You can find him tweeting @sethbarton1.

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