For more than two decades, PlayStation has arguably – and sometimes demonstrably – been the first name in console gaming. Ever since the original PlayStation took gaming out of the bedroom and into the nightclubs, establishing the medium as more than just kid’s stuff, there’s been widespread excitement whenever a new console generation comes around.
With the impending launch PlayStation 5, that buzz is back at fever pitch, with players eager to see how Sony’s latest entry stands to revolutionise the games they’ll be playing for at least the next half-decade. Sony promises faster, better looking games that catapult the medium into a new era – but is PS5 really that revolutionary?
It’s sleek, it’s sexy, it’s… big. Really big. The PlayStation 5 is so dauntingly large, it makes the original model PlayStation 3 – notoriously and unflatteringly nicknamed the “Fat PS3” – look positively miniscule. In its horizontal orientation, the PS5 measures in at 390mm wide, 260mm deep, and 104mm tall (that original PS3 was 325x274x98mm). PS5 is a beast, a chonker, an absolute unit.
And yet, despite its unmistakable heft, the PS5’s sweeping curves manage to almost give it a svelte appearance. The sleek white panels flow over the central black core, lending the console a liquid aesthetic. The PS5 also marks the first time Sony’s design approach has wavered from a single colour, and it’s all the better for it. It may still be monochrome, but the black and white approach really makes it pop. It calls to you from your media unit, demanding attention. It’s beautiful.
Like most beauty though, there are unseen efforts supporting the appearance. In the PS5’s case, it’s an odd base – included, thankfully – that’s necessary whether you choose to have the console running in vertical or horizontal mode. The same sleek curves that make PS5 so striking also, due to their symmetry, mean it’s impossible to lay the console flat without the stand. It’s a curious choice, and one that makes setting up more fiddly than it ideally should be.
The same stand rotates to support the PS5 if stood vertically, but – and we’ll level the same criticism here as we did to Xbox Series X – the vast majority of people will be setting up PS5 horizontally, to sit in a media unit under a TV. PS5 in particular is so tall in its vertical orientation that the thought of it getting knocked over gives us anxiety. Console designers: stop trying to make vertical consoles happen.
Thankfully, the black-and-white beauty of the PS5 is replicated in the new controller. Here, the white areas have an almost pearlescent sheen to them, while the black areas prove slimming, making the pad as a whole seem a little smaller than it is – physically, it’s slightly bigger and more rounded than the PS4 controller.
The overall layout remains the same, although the d-pad and command buttons (circle, cross, triangle and square) are now smooth and glassy, with the icons underneath. The central power button is an artfully etched ‘PS’ icon, rather than a rounded button with the logo on, which feels just lovely – you may find yourself absent mindedly running a thumb over it, just to trace the outline.
The ‘light bar’ of its predecessor is gone – a USB-C charging port is all that sits at the top of the pad now – but the PS5 controller gains accent lighting on the front instead. So far, it seems to be a purely aesthetic shift, though perhaps developers can use the light mechanically in future.
It’s also one of the biggest upgrades Sony has delivered to its joypads since the introduction of thumbsticks on the original DualShock controller. It’s such an overhaul that it’s not even a DualShock anymore – it’s dubbed the DualSense controller. That’s more than just some fancy branding though, the PS5 pad really does feel like a step change.
Some technological features will be familiar. Directional and motion controls remain built in, and the central touchpad from PS4’s controller returns, and so far seems to be used to similar effect – in Spider-Man: Miles Morales, a swipe brings up Miles’s in-game phone, while clicking the pad brings up the main menu. Also making a return is a dedicated ‘Share’ button, that more easily allows you to upload screenshots or game videos.
However, much more interesting is the improved rumble features, which notably feel to shift in the palm of your hand, depending on the action in-game. Combined with a new and improved speaker embedded in the controller, which can direct sound surprisingly well, the DualSense can add surprising depth to a gaming experience. For instance, in Astro’s Playroom, the game included on all PS5 consoles, the rumble and sound will shift as the diminutive hero walks around on different surfaces, shifting from a light tink-tink-tink as they race over metal to a softer, solid patting if running on grass. It really does add a new layer of immersion to games that make use of it.
Another nice trick is the new level of resistance on the triggers. When a game calls for using the resistance, you can feel them almost fighting back as you try to squeeze them. It’s a great use of haptics that makes even mundane tasks such as pulling a lever feel more significant. An embedded mic will have communication uses, but also has gameplay utility – gently blow on it and you can activate fans, again in Astro’s Playroom, for example.
However, lovely as all these features are, we have to wonder if developers will remember to implement them in a year or two, especially those working on big budget multi-platform games where uniformity is key. Hopefully, Sony’s first-party studios, at least, will continue to make use of them, as it’s clear that as much thought has gone into the DualSense as the PS5 hardware itself.
Performance & storage
Moving under the hood, PlayStation 5’s insides are as impressive as its outer shell. Between its 3.5GHz 8-core custom AMD Zen 2 CPU, 16 GB GDDR6 SDRAM, and custom solid state drive, it’s ridiculously fast. If you set up the console in ‘Instant On’ mode – which also allows background downloads and updates to complete – it’s possible to go from turning the console on to being in a game in seconds.
However, there’s no real equivalent of Xbox Series X|S’s ‘Quick Resume’ feature, which holds several games in suspended state and allows you to jump between them without losing progress. The closest on PS5 is the new ‘Switcher’, which remembers which apps or games you’ve run recently, but doesn’t seem to store your place in them. We tried swapping between Spider-Man and Capcom’s Devil May Cry 5: Special Edition, and had to load game saves from scratch.
While the PlayStation 4 was somewhat notorious for how loud the physical unit could be when running a challenging game – a cacophony of fans straining to cool down the over-worked processor and GPU – the PS5 is pleasantly quiet so far. It’s louder than Xbox Series X, but nothing that isn’t immediately drowned out by the game you’re playing. Whether that will remain the case over the course of the generation is to be seen. As developers start to really push the console, it may start to make clamorous use of its cooling systems – but for now, it’s a nice volume reduction on its precursor.
The closest Sony comes to making a misstep with PlayStation 5 is the comparatively paltry amount of storage. On paper, it ships with an 825GB SSD, but close to 160GB is given over to system files, leaving players with around 667.2GB of useable space. The performance of the drive is undeniable, contributing to the system’s overall speed, but much like the aforementioned knock-over factor, the relatively low capacity makes us anxious, especially as game file sizes continue to grow. Even games purchased on disc still need to be installed locally, so that 825GB is going to be eaten up pretty rapidly, we fear.
There’s also no clear path – yet – to increasing that storage. Sony has stated the internal SSD storage can be expanded via an NVMe M.2 port, but this will not be an option at launch. External USB drives are supported for backwards compatible PS4 games, though nothing has been confirmed yet as to running PS5 games from an external drive, even a solid state one. It’s very much a “watch this space” situation for the time being.
Gameplay & UI
The PlayStation 5 UI gets a complete overhaul from PS4, emphasising clean minimalism, sharp fonts and clear icons. A constant swirling background and a gentle hum of background music gives it an air of power.
There are a few major shifts from the last generation to keep in mind. Most of the features of the notifications bar from the PS4 – which you reached by pressing ‘up’ – are now tucked away, accessible by tapping the PS button on the DualSense, which brings up a menu at the bottom of the screen. This is also customisable, allowing you to only bring up the options you use most often.
The UI further strips back the fluff by presenting players with essentially just two categories on the main screen – games and media. The media tab is where your streaming apps will live (although not active or accessible during the review window) but the games tab is redesigned to make the titles you’ll be playing on the console sing.
Big, bold tiles for the games you’ve recently opened stand out, and whichever one you highlight then takes over the whole ‘desktop’ with tiles related to the game. Some are reminders of where you’re up to – progression markers on a story mission, for instance – while others might give you hints of what to do next in the game, such as accessible side quests or available upgrades. You may also see hints for Trophies you’re close to earning, and games that support the feature will allow you to jump straight to a point in the game where you can earn it. Actually earning a trophy now pops up a bigger, clearer window explaining what it’s for, that can be checked without exiting the game – a great little addition that shows real consideration for how people actually play.
The PS5 doesn’t have the largest launch line up, but Sony’s new titan does earn some kudos by having a few titles that are brand new, while also being either PlayStation exclusive (such as Spider-Man: Miles Morales, which will also see PS4 release), or totally exclusive to PS5, such as the upcoming Demon’s Souls remake.
While we’re still waiting to try titles such as Sackboy: A Big Adventure and Demon’s Souls, both Spider-Man and the built-in Astro’s Playroom show off the power of the PS5. Indeed, for the latter, that’s very much its reason to exist – it’s specifically built around showing players all the capabilities of the console and the new controller. Much to our surprise, though, it’s actually a fantastic, if short, little platformer, rather than a soulless tech demo.
Controlling the diminutive robot Astro, you’ll hop through four different worlds, collecting items related to the past four generations of PlayStation. The colourful locations are incredibly detailed, and showcase how graphical techniques such as ray-tracing can elevate even cartoonish settings, while the play mechanics use each and every one of the DualSense’s technological features. It’s great fun, and, for a quirky freebie, not to be sniffed at.
Spider-Man, meanwhile, returns players to developer Insomniac’s stunning recreation of the Marvel Universe’s New York City for a new adventure focusing on the younger Spider-Man. No spoilers, but fans of the comics will appreciate a lot of the deep cut references to the source material, while the game itself is impressive with a staggeringly detailed world that so closely borders on photo-realistic that we had to remind ourselves it’s a game.
Both games utilise the fierce speed of the PS5 well, with barely noticeable loading times. Astro’s Playroom in particular likes to show off, with Astro’s transitions between worlds being barely noticeable. It all bodes very well for the future of games on PlayStation.
Sadly, backwards compatibility is limited only to PlayStation 4 titles. PS5 definitely loses some points here, compared to Xbox’s near-universal compatibility with older games – it would have been something truly special if players could pop in any disc from PS1 onwards and play it on PS5.
However, Sony says only 10 PS4 games won’t play on PS5, meaning when you log into an existing PlayStation Network account, your entire PS4 digital library is waiting for you to play.
Last-gen games also get a boost on PS5, although so far that seems to be limited to general speed and loading improvements. We’ve mainly been checking out recent PS4 horror title The Dark Pictures Anthology: Little Hope on PS5, and – between jump scares – been impressed at how much quicker it runs, even compared to the PS4 Pro.
A caution: players may notice an option to filter their game collections in the library screen, and be confused by the option to filter to PS3 games. Sadly, this doesn’t mean you can actually play PS3 digital games (or run them off disc) but rather that subscribers to PlayStation Now, Sony’s game-streaming service that does include older titles, can find titles from that generation. PlayStation Now itself was not available during the review window, but it’s an important clarification to make.
For the first time, Sony includes a 4K UHD optical drive on a PlayStation, after strangely opting for Blu-ray only on PS4 Pro. Discs will play out of the box, without needing to download a player app as on Xbox, and performance is on par with some of the best standalone 4K players. Testing the same discs as we did for Xbox Series X – Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Pacific Rim Uprising, and The Greatest Showman – on the same 4K OLED screen, we were impressed by the quality of picture and sound, and the overall disc loading speed.
As for wider media features, we can’t say – although we expect the usual array of streaming apps to be available at launch, Sony has not made them available during the review window. If they perform as well as they do on PS4, though – and at this stage, we have no reason to presume they won’t – PS5 will be another all-rounder when it comes to multimedia capabilities. The availability of a conventional media remote (not supplied for review) may tip the media odds in PS5’s favour for some users, allowing you to watch films and TV without having to use the game controller.
It’s hard to deny there’s a bit more frisson surrounding Sony’s next-gen effort compared to its chief rival, not least because it actually brings with it some truly new games. The likes of Spider-Man: Miles Morales and Demon’s Souls have some genuine excitement and hype around them and, in at least the case of the former, that hype bears out.
But PlayStation 5 isn’t just a bigger, better box – it really feels new and futuristic. With the power of the hardware and the genuinely fun and impressive features of the DualSense controller, it actually promises new ways to play, while its revamped UI better draws players into those games.
Concerns over storage capacity, and disappointment over the limited scope of backwards compatibility are really the only downsides for PS5 at this point, though its sheer size may also prove a stumbling block for some – we expect many will be biding their time for a “PS5 Pro” down the line, offering the same benefits in a smaller box.
So, is the PS5 revolutionary? Not just yet – but the seeds of revolution are planted here, and, if developers make tend them well, the future should be very impressive indeed.
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