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Technology releases during the pandemic have proven to be a dice roll. You might work on the yearly revision of the iPhone, only to design a wonderful device for a year that didn't happen. Or not. Sony's newest PlayStation is designed to last all the way through the pandemic's sixth, seventh, and eighth waves — and beyond.
I got my hands on one and sunk about 30 hours into two launch titles — Spider-Man: Miles Morales and Astro's Playroom. Here's what to expect from the PlayStation 5.
The PlayStation 5 will debut with some exclusive games, including a Demon's Souls remake and the looter slasher Godfall — and ones that work on both it and the PS4, like the action-adventure title Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales, arguably the launch's most anticipated release.
The sequel to 2018's Spider-Man has players taking control of Miles, who appeared in the first game but wasn't the focus. And if you only know Miles from the Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse movie, this isn't that Miles. The plots don't line up, so newcomers to the video game series should either play the game from two years ago first, or watch the recap at the start of Miles Morales.
Miles tries to overcome his own hesitation at being the Spider-Man while working to save Harlem from a power struggle that could leave his neighborhood devastated. It's smaller in scope than the first game, and you can breeze through it in about eight hours if you stick to the main campaign, or stretch past 20 hours if you dig into the side missions and collectibles. The game is what it needs to: be a fun showcase for what the graphics on Sony's next-gen system can do. It's not deep, but I also didn't mind having to play through the first hour again to test it on the PS4.
The surprise that comes installed on every PS5 is the platformer Astro's Playroom. Functionally, it's a tech demo to show off the new controller's haptics. But the couple-hour-long game (more if you're a collector) left me smiling, both in appreciation of the deep nostalgia cuts of PlayStation's history and the joy of something being novel in gaming hardware again. Pay attention and you'll feel rain pattering through the controller, or a can crunch as you crush it with the pull of a trigger.
Those wanting Sony's latest offering have two choices: the $399.99 digital edition (with no disc drive) or the $499.99 version with an Ultra HD Blu-ray drive, which lets you install games from a disc and play movies in 4K resolution. Unlike the new Xbox, where the $299 Series S is less powerful than the $499 Series X, the only hardware difference between the PlayStation models is that drive. So if you've got a bunch of backward-compatible PS4 games on disc, you should get the more costly version.
But actually *buying* one might be a bit of a challenge. Preorders came and went somewhat disastrously, and the Nov. 12 console launch is online only — no camping out at the local Best Buy.
The PS5 has a lot of chips with big numbers inside it that boil down to this: The picture looks gorgeous and never falters.
For example, Spider-Man: Miles Morales has two graphics settings: A 30 fps mode that runs at a native 4K with all of the bells and whistles like ray-tracing turned on, and a 60 fps mode with reduced effects. I played on the high graphics mode on a 1080p TV.
It looked great, with beautiful lightning effects that the PS4 can’t pull off, no texture pop-in, and no dropped frames. I spent a lot of time running in front of windows and flinging myself around buildings, and it’s never looked more realistic. It's generally so true to life that you don't even notice what it's doing that's so technologically impressive. What do you see here?
A normal window doing normal window things, right? Reflecting people, letting you see a bit inside the building through the glare. It doesn't look like much until you realize that's what windows are supposed to look like.
And given that the graphics on the PS4 went from this...
...I have high hopes for what they'll be able to pull off with the PS5's more powerful hardware in about six years.
With games like Spider-Man taking up 66GB, and Spider-Man: Miles Morales taking up 39GB, potential PS5 owners with a slow internet connection or data cap should consider the more expensive version — especially given that the usable storage space on the system is about 667GB. Sony will let you expand the internal storage at some point in the future, though it looks like the process will be a bit fiddly and require you to remove some of the console's housing. I asked Sony for more detail but didn't hear back.
It took me six games to use up one-third of my review unit's storage space, but four of them are for the PS4, and those can be moved to a USB drive to free up the more precious (and faster) internal storage. There are two USB 3.0 ports on the back of the console, and a USB and USB-C port on the front, so you've got options.
Sony's move to a solid-state drive brings a noticeable improvement for both in-game loading and installing a game from a disc. If your only gaming experience is on a console or an older gaming PC, the speed can feel like a revelation.
After I wrapped up Miles Morales on the PS5, I’d struggled to recall if I'd seen a loading screen. They were just gone. When selecting a fast-travel point, I'd skip straight from the world map to a one-second animation of Miles exiting the subway, back on the street and ready to websling.
A curious side effect of this speed is that those who play on the PS4, with its slower hard drive, will actually see something PS5 owners won't: fun loading screens of Miles riding the subway and awkwardly interacting with New Yorkers.
The motion control that Sony added to its controllers beginning with the PlayStation 3 always felt like an afterthought compared to that of the Nintendo Wii. Developers seemed to think so too, with the feature barely being used since its inception over a decade ago.
I hope that's not the case with the haptics.
The precision of the controller's vibration is unlike any controller I've used in the past — I could feel the tracing of a skate on ice in Astro's Playroom and the sharp tap of a subway car crossing a rail joint above a steady rumble in Miles Morales.
Aside from the vibrations, the large left-and-right triggers can become more difficult to squeeze, adding a new layer of texture. In Miles Morales, they actually felt taut when swinging on a web. In Astro's Playroom, an automatic plunger gun was a bumpy ride for the trigger finger. And for those worried about accessibility, the haptics can be switched off, making the triggers as easy to pull as ever.
The controller itself is slightly grippy on the bottom and gently curved, and I found it more comfortable for extended gaming sessions than its predecessors. One jarring thing that takes a bit getting used to is the Square, Triangle, X, and O buttons now sit on a curved surface, changing how they felt under my thumb. I was worried there wasn't enough clearance on the O key to keep my button presses accurate, but I didn't notice any misses in my run-through of Miles Morales.
I squeezed about 21 hours of battery life from it before having to charge it with the 4-foot-10-inch USB-C cord it came with. Charge this controller overnight or get a longer cord, because it probably won't reach your console from your couch.
The downside to all this tech? Your PS4 controllers won't work with PS5 games, though they can be used for PS4 ones.
THE USER EXPERIENCE
Sony has streamlined the console's user interface, breaking it down into two main sections, Games and Media.
It's a small but useful change: Games live in the Games tab, and apps like Spotify and Netflix live in the Media tab. As someone continually frustrated at the crap the Xbox One crammed into its opening screen, I appreciated the organization.
Pressing the PS button pulls up the control center, which presents you with a series of cards for the game you're playing. Hitting it during Miles Morales brought up missions to launch, news about the game, and other things tied to what I was doing. Unlike the PS4, pressing the PS button doesn't take you out of the game. Selecting a side mission immediately put me back into the game and shunted Miles back to where the mission started.
Below the cards are notifications, audio controls (I fired up a Spotify playlist from this menu that kept playing while I was in the game), and a few other options you can customize.
PS5 owners get a little more value out of Sony's online subscription service, which costs $10 a month or $60 a year. That money gets you online functions (using the multiplayer part of multiplayer games), two free PS4 games a month, and one free PS5 game a month. PS Plus with the PS5 also gets you access to the PS Plus Collection, which has 20 legacy PS4 games like Bloodborne, Persona 5, and Uncharted 4.
This likely is a better deal for people who are newer to the PlayStation, who have yet to amass a large game library, than it is to those who've had a PS4 since its launch. You can see the full PS Plus game list here.
When you fire up the PS5 for the first time, it has the screen reader enabled. That's one of several options you'll find in the accessibility menu, which includes color inversion, color correction, caption settings, and live voice-chat captioning. That menu is also where you'll find the option to disable controller haptics.
SHOULD YOU BUY IT?
The PlayStation has never been better. The controller haptics and the swap to a solid-state drive are revelations that put the PS5 well above the PS4 even before the enhanced graphics are considered.
But as ever with consoles, it's less "Should I buy it?" and more "Is it worth buying now?" The last few console cycles were almost seven years between generations, with support for older consoles extending well past the launch of the new ones.
If you're a Sony fan with $400 or $500 and want it, buy it. You won't be disappointed.
If you have a PS4 and are happy with it, you don't need to rush to upgrade. Support for the PS4 isn't going anywhere, and it's still getting great games.
If you don't have a PlayStation and are looking to get on board, there's no better value than picking up a PS5 and a PS Plus subscription to catch up on some of the last decade's best games.