2020 will be remembered for many things. Ironically the things that will make 2020 memorable are things that many, if not all of us, would rather forget. Still amidst all of the turmoil and uncertainty there were a few shafts of light attempting to pierce the mists of darkness all around us. One of which for gamers was the release of the “next-gen” consoles, making them “current-gen” and bumping the current “current-gen” consoles to “boomer-gen” status. Today we’ll focus on Sony’s latest offering, the aptly named PlayStation 5. It’s been almost three months since Sony released the PlayStation 5 into the wild and most of the consoles ended up in the hands of unscrupulous ne'er-do-wells hoping to scalp them on eBay and other places for obscenely marked up prices due to the holiday rush. Still, the retailers were able to sell a few units here and there to actual consumers instead of the fetid jackanapes posing as human beings. So how did Sony do?
Well, thanks to the miracle of adulting and unexpected twists of fate I’ve found myself in possession of a PlayStation 5 (yay adulting)! I’ve been doing my best to put the machine through its paces to see if it has lived up to the hype, and I’m happy to share my experience so far. But first, let me preface by saying even if the PS5 was the next step in human evolution and would align the planets and bring peace to the known universe, I would never recommend buying from non-legitimate sources (i.e. scalpers). It’s not worth the hassle nor the risk of getting ripped off by those who sit on thrones of lies. As much as you might want one right now, just let it go until you can buy one from a reputable retailer for its regular price. If you are thinking of selling one for obscenely marked up prices, you’re bad and you should feel bad and may you be cursed to play Superman 64 while listening to Spongebob laugh over and over until the end of your days.
There are two things you instantly notice about this console when you unbox it. First is its size and the second is its distinctive style. There’s no denying the fact that it is a big console. I saw the pictures of others with their PS5’s but when you see it in person it will still surprise you at its overall size. Then there’s its looks. Now, there’s probably a very small percentage of people who buy a console based on what it looks like. I don’t know any of them personally but I’m told they exist. Either way, the ps5 styling is a love it or hate it design. That being said, I’m still not sure which side I’m on. I kind of like the sleek curves but it doesn’t sit flat and needs a stand for stability. I’m also not sold on white as usually white plastic tends to fade and yellow over time. On the plus side, the stand is now included in the box unlike like preview PlayStation models that offered stands as a separate purchase, one I could never justify. Whether you like the new look or not, you’ll want to make sure you have enough room for it. Not only that, you will need to ensure that you have enough room for it to “breathe”. The design wasn’t just for aesthetics, it has to move air and heat far away from its number crunching, polygon rendering, data moving innards.
Also mirroring the same white and black styling is the redesigned, full featured and somewhat misnamed DualSense controller. In all reality this is where the game is actually played. The controller serves as the tactile interface between gamer and the game and if it’s no good then it doesn’t matter how much cosmic 4k rendering performance you have. Specifically, the controller should be comfortable, precise, and intuitive. The new DualSense is good in all three of these. Although overall the DualSense fatter in the middle yet it tapers more to a point on each of the grips. More so than the DualShock controller which I’ve found can lead to fatigue on your pinky fingers and thumbs during extra long gaming sessions. My guess is the DualShock was designed for larger “American” sized hands and the DualSense was altered slightly in response to cater to the Asian market. Other than the slight size change and looks, it feels nearly identical to a DualShock ps4 controller. All of the buttons are where you’d expect them to be and work as you’d expect them to work. The d-pad and buttons are a little stiffer in their travel although they may soften over time. The texture of the DualSense is made up of little squares, crosses, triangles and circles. Not only is a cool branding choice, it also add to the grippiness without it feeling sticky or rubbery.
All controller praise aside, Sony has gotten into a bad habit that I really wished they’d stop. I’m referring to releasing new and incompatible controllers with each new console. Some transitions made sense such as wireless controllers. Since then, there really hasn’t been a killer feature added to the controller to really justify it. Most of the time it seems, Sony throws in a new feature either as a gimmick or ploy to require everyone to upgrade their controllers. Going back to the SixAxis PS3 controllers. It felt like Sony added motion controls to keep up with Nintendo, yet there was hardly any game that used the feature in any meaningful way. The DualShock was released with a center touchpad because by now everyone’s smartphone and tablets had touchscreens. In all the games I’ve played, the touchpad is used as a big center button. The one game I remember that did use the touchpad as a touchpad later dropped it as a feature. Both the SixAxis motion controls and the touchpad were touted as enhancing the gameplay experience just as much as haptic feedback and adaptive triggers have been for the PS5. When reading Sony’s description of the new DualSense controllers features, the page includes a lot of asterisks. Immersive haptic feedback offers a highly immersive gaming experience… when compared to the DualShock PS4 controller. Dynamic adaptive triggers also usher a new level of varying feedback in gameplay… for games that support it. Pay attention to that last one since it may become the latest new feature that is rarely implemented.
Haptic feedback is here to stay and it works really well. In No Man’s Sky for example, when you land your ship on a planet surface, the haptic feedback effect gives you a sense on how level the ground is as certain parts of your ship make contact with the ground before others. It is an outstanding replacement of the rumble motors found in all previous iterations of controllers. It’s less intrusive and depending on the game can convey information that the previous controllers could not. Adaptive triggers surprise you the first time you experience it. To be honest, it almost felt more like the trigger was broken or jammed. You’re so used to a smooth trigger travel that when they don’t it kind of breaks your brain for a second. Going back to No Man’s Sky, when launching your ship the trigger button now provides feedback while you shoot off the ground. However, for all things DualSense, Astro’s Playroom is a perfect showcase for what it is capable of, including all of the features of previous controllers going back to the PS3. Yep, SixAxis stuff is in the DualSense too.
For me though, once I had my fill of Astro and the gang, I turned it all off in settings. The reason is simple, while they’re cool new features and can enhance immersion in the game, they don’t improve your gameplay. Let me put it another way, the best advice I ever got when starting out in online play was to turn off controller rumble. Having the controller shake while trying to make precise movements hurts your performance and also impacts your ability to enjoy the game. Turning all that off instantly makes you more effective as now you’re not fighting the controller along with your opponents. In fact, the killer feature missing from DualShock controllers wasn’t haptic feedback and it certainly wasn’t adaptive triggers. It was back paddles or buttons on the underside of the controller. You know, where your fingers are. It could be a pro version just like Microsoft does with their Elite controller. Literally every aftermarket pro controller manufacturer has them. Scuf even has a version with 4 paddles on the back. The ability to keep your thumbs on the sticks is a quantum leap in gameplay improvement, much more so than haptic feedback or adaptive triggers. Sony even made an aftermarket adapter for the DualShock that added paddle buttons and dynamic mapping back in 2019.
Hopefully they’ll do the same for the DualSense as it is a “shut up and take my money” feature. You may sense a little bit of bias in my critique of the DualSense and you’re correct. I’m of the opinion that the DualShock design was nearly perfect in ergonomics, function, and accessories. Haptic feedback is nice along with dynamic triggers. However, I think Sony was wrong to make PS5 controllers a requirement for PS5 games that may or may not even use those features. I’ve found that games that require a DualSense controller in order to play work just fine with the DualSense features disabled and therefore, would play equally well with a DualShock controller too. I can’t escape the feeling that requiring DualSense controllers for PS5 games is essentially a money-grab pure and simple. Let me put it another way. I like the DualSense controller, but I don’t like them enough to justify the $350 USD it would take to replace all of my DualShock controllers I have. On the plus side though, all of your KontrolFreak gear will still snap into place on top of the sticks. No need to replace those.
When setting up your new PS5, be sure to have everything connected to your TV before powering up as there’s a really cool splash screen that is only shown once and you won’t want to miss it. Next, transferring all of your PS4 stuff to your PS5 is a breeze but will take time depending on your content and network speed. Once that’s all done, you’ll have an overpriced PS4 Pro that can also play Astro’s Playroom. Here’s what I mean. The transfer isn’t “smart” so all it does is copy all of your data and PS4 games to the PS5. The PS5’s shiny new OS doesn’t check to see if there’s a PS5 update or version of all those games that you just transferred over and when you play them it will look just as it did on a PS4 Pro with faster load times. That was my first impression. Why does it all look the same? Once you discover you have to go to the PlayStation Store and download the PS5 version - if the game has one, then the true power of the PS5 is unlocked.
Depending on the game, there may be additional steps to ensure all of your game data is available for the PS5 version of the game. No Man’s Sky for instance requires you to transfer your game data on your PS4 and then download it on your PS5. Destiny 2 keeps all of your game data safe and sound, but will require you to re-download the entire version of the game. If you’re keeping track, that’s a lot of Gigabytes. Once again, if you have data caps (which should be a sin in my opinion) you could easily blow past them.
One of things that you’ll notice right away depending on your choice of headphones or home theater system is the PS5’s lack of optic audio port. Most of the high end cans for the PS4 took advantage of the optical audio for both great sound and audio/voice mixing. My Astro Mixamp does this and it’s great on the PS4 and Mac. Not so much with the PS5 which is a really nice way of saying it doesn’t work at all. For my Astro’s, there’s a firmware update and a hardware dongle to restore full functionality. Alas, the cost of technological progress can usually be measured by the number of dongles your new technological wonder needs to work with everything else. Alternatively you can use the headphone jack right on the controller but the audio quality is not as crisp or as adjustable. In other words, be sure to make sure your existing kit will work with a PS5 and what it may cost to get it work. Your mileage may vary.
Loading Screens are Dead! Long Live Loading Screens
The one feature that stood out to me the most in Sony’s PS5 announcement stream was that with it’s super fast memory and storage, loading screens would be a thing of the past. A demo of the upcoming Ratchet and Clank game was used to highlight how Insomniac Games was taking advantage of no load screens. As of this writing, I have yet to play a game for the PS5 that does not have a loading screen between levels. Those screens are much, much shorter. No Man’s Sky for example, warping between systems used a load screen that was both psychedelic and took forever. With the PS5 update, it takes a couple seconds at most. Destiny 2’s loading screens (in PvE) when travelling between locations usually gave you enough time to adjust your loadout, review quests, ponder the meaning of life and other things. Not anymore. You need to have your loadout ready before you launch, cause you’ll be there before you can change anything. Even Bugsnax, a game with such lightweight requirements that the PS5 renders an abacus and slide rule to do all of the graphics calculations so it can find something more interesting to do, also has short loading screens. This isn’t a knock on the console but rather pointing out that only games specifically designed to take advantage of this feature will have it. For cross platform games, loading screens are here to stay. For now, those loading screens are extremely short. Hopefully it stays that way.
How Does the Gameplay Look?
Games look… great! I don’t know what PS5 gaming looks like on a 1080p display as I’ve only used it with my 4K display and I don’t plan on trying it on one. If you don’t have a 4K display then you won’t be able to appreciate what the PS5 is truly capable of. Even my 4K unit is not completely up to the task as it doesn’t support a120Hz refresh rate. What the PS5 is able to do with what I have is exceptional and for those with fully capable displays are surely in for a treat. Keep in mind that displays or TVs that support the HDMI 2.1 spec and 120Hz refresh rates don’t come cheap. So if you simply must have the top of the line everything for your new console, be prepared to lighten your wallet in the process.
One of those bright shiny new features jam packed into all of the PS5’s curves is ray tracing. Ray tracing used to be one of those things that took Pixar years to render its films as entire farms of high powered computers would essentially calculate light rays for reflections, shadows, brightness and in Seth Abram’s case, lens flares. The use of ray tracing helps everything just look better. Reflections are more lifelike and conversely things that shouldn’t be reflective, such as cloth and skin are not as “shiny” as they once were. It will allow game creators to make much more visually stunning games that many players may not even notice. For example, this video highlighting the PS4 Pro vs PS5 differences in Spider Man: Miles Morales shows how ray tracing more realistically renders the light reflecting on a coffee mug, along with everything else of course.
To do that correctly in real time is a technical marvel of computing. At the same time, it’s just shadows and reflections on a coffee mug. It has no impact on the gameplay or why Insomniac’s Spider Man is such a tremendously enjoyable experience. It’s ironic that one of the coolest features of the PS5, namely ray tracing, can be so easily missed as it enhances the visual experience in subtle and somewhat imperceptible ways. The other reason is that not all games use it, but you can be sure the list of games that support ray tracing will continue to grow.
If you’ve ever wondered what middle management does in large companies, look no further than the new PS5 UI. The PS4 UI was simple, elegant and useful. With the PS5, it seems middle management decided they needed to make changes that no one asked for or wanted. For example the PS4 UI’s behavior when the PS button is pressed or held is nearly reversed with the PS5 UI. There’s a few of these annoyances found in the UI that are kind of baffling from a user experience standpoint. The PS4’s UI has been around for seven years now and its use patterns are very well established. Granted, some things had to change because of new features. But I just can’t figure out any other explanation for some of the UI annoyances other than a middle management far removed from the users wanting to make some sort of contribution to justify their existence. Kind of like when people decide to mess around with popular movies and/or TV franchises (I’m looking at you Animaniacs).
Of myself and the two other people I know who own a PS5, we’ve all reached nearly the same conclusion. First, it’s fast and you will spend more time playing and less time waiting for things to load than ever before. Second, things look awesome and everything is better in 60fps (or higher). Third, the DualSense controllers are nice with myself being the dissenting opinion on whether they were necessary. Fourth, the new UI is acceptable but not necessarily better. Overall, in my opinion the PS5 is an evolutionary step in the console market. It’s better in nearly every category than the PS4. However, aside from any of the annoyances and quirks the PS5 may have, the best indicator of whether or not the PS5 is worth the wait is the simple fact that I haven’t turned on my PS4 Pro since November 2020.