PS5 and the Majesty of a New Generation

Welp. It’s finally here. After all of the hype and anticipation, I received my pre-ordered PlayStation 5 on release day, luckily enough. I have to say, one of the things I failed to mention in my post about previous console launches is the insidious worry that the coveted console that you have been waiting months for… might not live up to the hype. In the yesteryears of gaming, that wasn’t much of a concern. The leap in graphical and audio presentation alone between console generations was enough to satisfy an excited enthusiast such as myself. You didn’t move from an SNES to an N64 and think “eh, this is okay, I guess.” But starting with the PS3/Xbox 360 era, there was a valid concern that your shiny new console might just be a slightly faster, barely more powerful version of the box you’ve been playing on for the last half decade. The question many people would ask going into a new generation is “is the upgrade worth it?” And that question is difficult to answer when virtually no one has played the new machines, not to mention the fact that the earliest games on the platform surely don’t showcase its true potential (unless you’re Nintendo and you release genre-defining games right off the bat).

I don’t want to give the impression that this was a huge concern for me. I’ve yet to become the old, cynical gamer that constantly and needlessly asks “do we really need this?” about every new console or feature. I hate that question, in fact, because it’s an exercise in futility. We don’t “need” any new video game or console. That question seems often to be used as a rhetorical way of saying “I don’t want this new thing,” but it attempts to elevate it beyond a “want” and to include others in the assessment. I see it very often with movie and video game remakes or reboots. People will say “Ugh, do we really need a reboot of Jurassic Park?” Again, what they really mean is “I don’t want a reboot of Jurassic Park,” but that rightfully sounds selfish and petty, so reframing it as a problem that “we” are all facing softens the blow a bit. “We” seem to only “need” reboots of things that we like or approve of. One person may “need” a remake of Chrono Trigger, one may not. It’s a ridiculous argument that never serves anyone, but somehow it seems to have become a staple in discussions about new consoles.

I’m used to it from people outside of gaming. Friends, family members, people who don’t keep up with gaming and aren’t champing at the bit to spend hundreds of dollars on a new console frequently ask “is it worth it? Does it really do more than the console I already have? Why do I need to upgrade?” This generation, however, I have been surprised to hear these kinds of questions from a lot of people in the gaming industry and fan communities, though. On podcast after podcast, I hear hosts saying they probably aren’t going to buy one of the new consoles, or they wouldn’t get one if the company they worked for wasn’t providing them with one for review. On a pre-launch discussion episode of the GamesIndustry.biz podcast, the hosts were pretty much unified in how underwhelmed they were about the upcoming generation. The question “do we really need new consoles?” was asked specifically, and the person asking pointed to the recent spate of excellent titles, particularly on the PS4, as evidence that the current generation still had legs. Isn’t that how console generations work, though? Aren’t the best games always released at the end of a lifecycle? How long do we wait before taking the next step? Do we expect platform developers to wait for their competition to take that step first? They continued, lamenting the fact that there was nothing that truly screamed “next gen” about these consoles, other than the Quick Resume feature on the Xbox Series X.

I understand I am on a bit of a soapbox here, and I apologize for the rant. I was just struck by how loud the discourse seemed this time around, and it certainly contributed to the worry that maybe these consoles weren’t going to be as amazing as I wanted them to be – as much as it pains me to admit that the opinions of others was swaying my own, however slightly. So, regardless, I was somewhat worried that I would get my PS5, set it up, hit that power button… and be utterly underwhelmed. As with all of the other anxieties described in my previous post, this concern was quickly and thoroughly dismissed.

Before I get to gameplay or interface, let me set the scene and describe the ritualistic receipt of a new, divine device of fun made manifest. As my previous post probably illustrates, these launches are cherished events for me, and I treasure every moment. First, I have to comment on the unit’s size (okay, yes, that is what she said, now let’s move on). Again and again, I saw reports of how gargantuan the PS5 was. On social media and podcasts, gaming journalists reported that it was even bigger than they’d expected. Upon opening the exterior delivery box and removing the PS5 box itself, I was… not blown away by its size. It was heavy, yes, but if the box was any indication, the hype surrounding its hugeness seemed overblown. It was definitely bigger than the PS4 box, which I remember being surprisingly slight, but it wasn’t the mammoth I was expecting. The PS3 and original Xbox were pretty big systems, too, and their boxes were large, so this wasn’t the first chonky gaming console I’d seen. Bellatrix, my curious and much beloved kitty, hopped up to investigate what was stealing my attention away, so you have a sense of the PS5 box’s size in comparison to her. She is a small cat, less than ten pounds.

Also, I would be an absolute monster if I didn’t share this very important outtake of Bella’s impromptu photoshoot:

I mean…

Blep.

Anyway, so the exterior box didn’t exactly reinforce the “thick boi” reputation the system had gained. Pulling the system out of the box felt, as always, magical. As I gently removed the protective plastic wrapping, the size began to make more of an impression. Or did it? It certainly felt big, even outside of its weight. But when I put the system on the outer box, it again seemed smaller. And when I put the controller on top of it, it seemed absolutely average sized. Huh.

This trick of the eye, I would guess, is by design. I’m no artist or visual designer, but I imagine the curve of the upper and lower “blades,” the use of contrasting colors, and the tapering of the inner dark face from right to left were all done to trick the eye into thinking the system looks smaller than it is. I was very excited to find that it fits into my entertainment center, and planning out a new configuration for the systems connected to my TV was also weirdly exciting. I moved my PS4 Pro over a couple of slots and am leaving it hooked up as a dedicated PSVR system, and once I get an Xbox Series X I will disconnect my Xbox One and replace it with my 80GB PS3, giving me full access to the entire history of PlayStation games between the PS3 (fully backwards compatible with PS and PS2 games), PS4, and PS5.

One of the most important components of a new console launch is the controller, and I was very pleased by how good the DualSense controller felt in my hands. I don’t seem to be as picky about controllers as others, but I certainly have had my favorites. I thought the DualShock 4 was a much needed improvement over the previous PlayStation controllers and I was perfectly happy with it, but as soon as I held the DualSense I felt good about the prospect of holding it for many hours to come. The weight, the texture, the joysticks, and the clear buttons and directional pad, made this feel like a shiny new toy all its own, wholly separate from the console. The joysticks feel especially good, though that may just be the newness of the rubber coating. I am a little worried that they will wear away like the DualShock 4’s did, and I will be far more nervous about cracking these open to replace the sticks if I have to.

As I was connecting the system I noticed a fun little detail about the textured interior of the blades:

The setup process was mostly painless, though transferring my old game files was an ordeal. Before I get there, I want to say that I was very pleased with most of the setup process. Once I connected the PS5 to my network, it pulled over my profile and settings from the PS4 effortlessly. I also thought it was cool that it asks you to insert a game disc so that it could install the game and be ready to play by the time you get everything finalized. The fact that you could just check boxes for the games that you have installed on your PS4 to be copied over to your PS5 seemed amazing, but it proved a little too tempting. I almost checked a bunch of boxes, because if it was that easy, why not just copy them right over? Well, I thought twice and scaled back to just games I knew I was going to play: Grand Theft Auto V, The Dark Pictures Anthology: Little Hope, Telling Lies, The Castlevania Anniversary Collection, a couple of the Jackbox games, and That’s You. In total, it was still over 200GB, and that should have been cause for reconsideration, but I stupidly went ahead with the transfer. Well, it took over twelve hours and within the last hour or two there was an error that prevented the Jackbox games and That’s You from being transferred, but other than that it went fairly smoothly. I only found out later that Sony has you use your home network to transfer profiles and game files because it helps prevent data caps from being exceeded (because you’re not downloading several massive game files from the internet). Fair enough, but it’s definitely a slower process.

Once everything was transferred over and I was able to log in, I was again pleasantly surprised by how intuitive the interface was. It’s a more compact, contained version of the PS4’s (and PS3’s, really) horizontal access bar design, so having that previous experience probably contributed to the sense that everything just felt right and made sense. There are several features I was pleasantly surprised by, and one (well, a lack of one) that I was not. The Remote Play feature, which allows you to play PS5 games on a PS4 system, is cool, though I don’t know how often I’ll use it. I also like that you can set things like difficulty, perspective, and performance/resolution in the system itself, and that they will automatically carry over into compatible games. Again, I’m not sure that I’ll use any of them very often, but it’s neat that they’re there. Perhaps even more surprising, and something I personally appreciate, is the ability to set the system to avoid spoilers. How cool is that for people like me, who hate spoilers? The feature that I was sad to find missing was a lack of support for themes. I remember an announcement from Sony not too long ago where they said they would not sell themes on PS5, but that any themes you purchased before they stopped selling them would still work. Maybe they just meant they would still work on your PS4, not your PS5, but I am very disappointed that I’m not able to use the incredibly beautiful Persona 5 Royal dynamic themes I fought so hard to get by platinum-ing the game and pleading with Atlus support for over a month. I’m hopeful they’ll find a way to integrate old themes with the new interface at some point.

Okay, I’ll probably have separate, more thorough posts for specific games later, but I want to talk briefly about a few, including the pack-in game Astro’s Playroom for a bit, because it’s a real showcase for the system’s features, particularly the DualSense’s haptic feedback. It can be difficult to explain how different and more specific the DualSense’s rumble and trigger pressure is than other controllers. To say that the rumble feels different when your character is inside a ball and rolls over different surfaces doesn’t adequately convey much. Previous controllers used variable speeds to make rumble feel different for different things. I remember vividly that in Metal Gear Solid for the PS1, one of the earliest games to use the first DualShock controller, when a helicopter was taking off the controller started vibrating lightly, and as the blades rotated faster the controller vibrated more and more. You could tell, however, that the vibrations were coming from the grips of the controller, where the motors were, and that remained true through the DualShock 4. The vibrations in the DualSense are so fine, though, that the sensation seems to come from various parts of the controller, even traveling throughout, including the triggers (since some of the sensation works in concert between the rumble and the haptic feedback).

Again, none of this really helps to truly describe the feeling. The game is designed to introduce you to a multitude of environments and situations that create different sensations, and there were a few that really made me perk up and realize the potential of this controller. The first was rain. I had been running around an early level and, sure, I could tell the difference in feedback as I ran across different surfaces. But when I first entered an area with rain, I was, as the kids say, shook. It felt like rain drops were impacting the controller. And when I moved to an area with heavier rain, the invisible drops on my controller also seemed to increase in size and intensity. This was more than simply “rumble.” Later, there are sections where your character is in a monkey suit and you have to climb upward. There are certain handles you can grab onto after a jump, and they zip you along a serrated track. I was again shocked by how much it felt like my controller was a real version of those virtual handles, because the sensation I felt seemed like exactly what I would expect if I were really zipping along that track. I could feel the bumps, the force of movement, and the sway when I stopped. I should note, too, that the controller’s built-in speaker seems leagues ahead of the speaker built into the DualShock 4.

With many of the haptic experiences in Astro’s Playroom, like the serrated track, I couldn’t tell how much of the experience was the feedback and how much was the sound, because they complimented each other so well. In the parts of the games where your character is in a frog suit, for example, you use the triggers to compress the spring under your character, then release to bounce away. As far as I can tell, three things happen when you do this. First, the trigger resistance is adjusted so that it feels harder to squeeze than usual. Second, the controller is vibrating slightly to give the sense of a spring tensing up. Third, the speaker projects the sound of a spring being compressed. This all sounds simple, probably, but it comes together so well that it truly does feel like your controller is making something spring forth. Speaking of the speaker, I also tested the controller’s built-in microphone and speaker for chat, which is something I had low expectations for. It worked shockingly well. I tried it with two friends, one of them for almost four hours, and it was almost as good as using a chat app on your phone (with speakerphone on, of course).

I played a lot of Astro’s Playroom by myself, but I had a couple of friends over (hi, Amy and Russell!) the day after I got it, so I was able to watch them play it as well. I’d tried to not make a big deal of the controller beforehand, but they had heard tell of the hype surrounding it so I was worried that they would be like “meh, it’s not that cool.” When Russell ran into the rain area, he exclaimed much like I did and handed the controller to Amy, who seemed equally impressed. Controller function aside, I had such a great time playing Astro’s Playroom with them. The game is filled with so much creative charm and love for PlayStation’s history. Many of the levels are made up of actual PS components, so as you explore you might see a PS1 controller port in a wall, or a PS2 memory card or HDD plate acting as a platform, or any number of cooling fans churning away in the environment. You also collect “Artifacts,” which are just consoles and accessories from past PS generations, and the level of fidelity and detail on these models was pretty amazing.

Each level is based on a different PlayStation generation, and the nostalgia triggered by hearing the startup sound of an old console is powerful. There are also little groups of Astro Bots in each level reenacting scenes from some of PlayStation’s most historic games, and spotting a new one at every turn was so exciting. Maybe all of this nostalgic magic affected me, because handing the controller back and forth with Amy and Russell truly made me feel like I was a teenager again, huddled in front of an exciting new PS1 game with my friends, taking turns playing and frequently interrupting with a “ooh, go there and check that thing!” or “maybe there’s something if you go around that corner there, you see it?” We raced around, explored the lovingly crafted worlds, got some trophies for being silly, and it was just a genuinely good time. For a free pack-in game, I think we were all thoroughly impressed.

I was very close to getting the platinum trophy for The Dark Pictures Anthology: Little Hope on PS4, so I decided to see how the PS5 handled a backwards compatible game that had yet to be patched for optimization on PS5 by playing my final run of the story on my shiny new machine. I’d say the results were mixed. I had a hard time determining if the game looked better at first. I thought it did, slightly, but I couldn’t tell if that was a placebo affect because I wanted them to or thought they should. When I saw the first demon, however, I was certain that I could make out loads more detail in the character models. The demons looked very dark and shadowy on my PS4 Pro and I thought that might have been a design decision, but on the PS5 I could make out way more detail and finer features. The framerate was also noticeably improved in the PS5 version. It was especially apparent in segments where something was scrolling on screen, like the heartbeat sections. I could tell almost immediately because I had played through the game six or seven times on the PS4 just prior to getting my PS5, and I doubly confirmed it when I went back to the PS4 version. On the downside, the game crashed several times and even corrupted my save file when I was nearing the end of my run, which is why I ended up returning to playing it on the PS4.

PS4 version shown

Lastly, I am around eight or nine hours into Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, the PS5 version. As usual, I’ll probably dedicate a whole blog post to this game later so I’ll save comments about the game as a game and just focus on how it looked and ran on the PS5. I can’t compare it to the PS4 version, obviously, but I have played the previous two AC games extensively, so I almost immediately noticed the improved framerate. Look, I have long been one of those people who love to say that I don’t see the big deal about 60fps. And, truthfully, I’d never been impressed with any of the 60fps videos I’d seen. Between these three games, though, I can see why people prefer it. It really is noticeable, so while it doesn’t magically make a game look better, it is a really nice bonus. In terms of fidelity, this game is unsurprisingly beautiful. At first, it didn’t seem like much of an improvement over Origins and Odyssey, though, because those were also notably gorgeous games. In those games, however, if you looked close enough you could pretty easily spot a muddy texture here or there, or some aliasing on a wave or blades of grass. I have yet to notice much of that in this game. I’m sure it’s there somewhere, but the times that I’ve stopped Viking-ing to just appreciate the setting, I’ve been impressed with how crisp and smooth things look.

It’s been a week since launch day, and I have plans to try Grand Theft Auto Online, Spider-man: Miles Morales, and Bugsnax soon, but overall I am thrilled with my purchase. Despite all of the apparent doom and gloom about these consoles not feeling “next gen,” I am very happy and impressed with my PS5. I know it’s only been a week, but the little things still excite me. Moving through the menus feels fresh. Picking up the controller feels sweet. The startup sound is tinged with magic. Console launches are so rare and I am grateful each time I get to participate in one. The pundits can fret all they want over whether or not we “need” a new generation. We got one, and I am loving it.

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