New game consoles rarely launch alone. Of the 11 home consoles released by Sony, Microsoft or Nintendo since 2001, only three didn’t come out the same year as another. In fact, all of the other eight were released the same week as a competitor, and always in a November. The GameCube and original Xbox landed within days of each other in 2001, and that continued with the Wii and PlayStation 3 in 2006, the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 in 2013, and now the Xbox Series X/S and the PlayStation 5 in 2020. The console wars are real, and totally perpetuated by the companies that make them. I reviewed the new Xbox yesterday, and now it’s time to talk about the PlayStation 5, which hits stores on November 12.
Sony’s latest box boasts the confidence you’d expect on the heels of the market-leading PlayStation 4. It doesn’t try to rethink what made the PS4 so successful, but expands on its strengths in a natural and iterative manner. Despite the system’s new design, simultaneously stark and flashy with its curved, clean, white side panels, the PlayStation 5 in action looks and feels a lot like the PlayStation 4 did, only with more power behind it. If you’ve ever played that last system, you’ll feel right at home when you jump into the new one.
But what about the numbers, I can hear you asking. Well, how do you feel about an 8-core AMD Zen 2 CPU that can run at up to 3.5 GHz? A GPU based on AMD’s fancy new RDNA 2, the same graphics card that the new Xbox is also built around, and that has all that ray tracing biz the specheads are gaga over? Uh… how do you feel about… uh… 16 GB of memory? Please tell me how you feel, so that I can know how to feel—again, I play games, I don’t study the tech that makes them possible. What I do know is that all of these numbers are higher than the numbers on the PlayStation 4, meaning that, yes, a brand new gaming console that costs $499 is considerably more powerful than the seven-year-old one it’s replacing.
Some numbers I do understand, slightly, are 4K and 8K. The PlayStation 5 runs at a native 4K resolution, with HDR support (of course), and can chug along at up to 120 frames per second. Don’t worry: it still works perfectly fine on older HD TVs that are capped to 1080 or even 720p. You’ll even still see the other benefits of the PS5’s powerful architecture in action, like its speed, if you don’t own a 4K TV. Sony’s also bragging about 8K resolution on the PS5, and although that is technically possible (not that I have an 8K TV to check it out, or anything), here’s a CNET article explaining why upscaling 4K games to 8K on a PlayStation 5 isn’t really that big of a deal.
I can confirm that a PlayStation 5 game played on a 4K TV with high dynamic range color looks pretty damn sharp. I used Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales for comparison’s sake, and yes, the enhanced lighting effects on the PlayStation 5 are noticeable, especially in the crispness of the reflections on glass buildings as Spider-Man swings through the city. Miles Morales on the PS5 is vibrant, fluid, and almost photorealistic, and a clear step up from the PS4 Pro.
I’m leading with the graphics and visuals not because those are the most important parts of a videogame, but because they’ve long been the standard by which new consoles are judged. What’s more significant to me is the user experience. And on that front the PlayStation 5 continues a trend in gaming of simplifying menus and layouts while also putting your entire library of games, stretching back to the previous generation, just a few clicks away.
After powering up your PlayStation 5 and seeing a brief intro screen, you’ll find a main layout that’s similar to the PlayStation 4’s, but a little cleaner and less cluttered. This screen has two main tabs on the top left, one for games and one for media. Depending on which one you’re on, you’ll see a single line of tiles showing either the games or entertainment apps that you’ve recently used. At the top right on either of those pages you’ll find icons that can quickly take you to a search bar, the settings menu, and your PSN profile. Compared to the busier Xbox Series X interface and its multitude of tabs, the PlayStation 5 is downright elegant.
The PlayStation 5 also makes it very easy to download digital games that are already in your PlayStation 4 library. The last tile on the games tab takes you to your library, just like it does on the PlayStation 4. Here you’ll find every game you’ve ever accessed on either the PS5 or PS4. If it’s one that is compatible with the PS5, and that you don’t own on disc, you’ll be able to immediately queue it up for download onto your new system. If you own a physical copy, just insert the disc, and then the game will download to your system. (Yes, you’ll need to keep the disc in the drive to play it.) If you’ve used cloud saves or online storage, you can also download your save states. It gets a little tricky between PS4 and PS5 versions of games—if you’re playing a backwards compatible PS4 game on your PS5, your PS4 saves will work. If you’re playing an upgraded PS5 version of a PS4 game, though, your saves from the older PS4 version may or may not work with the upgraded version of the game. That’ll happen on a case-by-case basis.
This focus on backwards compatibility has surprisingly become standard with both the PlayStation and Xbox ecosystems. As somebody who routinely pulls up old games when I have nothing more important to take care of, it’s probably the single best thing about the PlayStation 5. Right out of the box, all that stood between me and a deep library of games to play on this new console was a few downloads.
Of course, as I’ve already written about here at Paste, the PlayStation 5 is also the rare modern console that launches with a new pack-in game. Astro’s Playroom comes installed on the system, and although it’s a bit on the short side (I completed it in a single sitting of four or five hours, which is kind of a perfect length for me), it’s one of the most charming and enjoyable games I’ve played this year. You might think cutesy mascot platformers aren’t your speed, but definitely give Astro’s Playroom a chance. It’s as adorable and smartly designed as a top-tier Nintendo game, and it also serves as a fantastic introduction to one of the PlayStation 5’s other chief selling points: the brand new DualSense controller.
Physically the DualSense isn’t that different from the PlayStation 4’s DualShock 4. Like the PlayStation 5 itself, the most immediate change is the color: both are the same clean, clinical white as a science lab or a space shuttle. As you’ll discover while playing Astro’s Playroom, the DualSense has more tools in its kit than perhaps any other traditional gaming controller. Sony’s touted the new shoulder buttons—L2 and R2—as “dynamic adaptive triggers,” and they do feel like something new—or at least an enhanced version of an idea gaming has played around with for a while. Basically these shoulder buttons are more responsive to pressure than before. The system can tell how tightly you’re pushing down on these things, and that can correspond directly to your onscreen actions. That manifests in Astro’s Playroom in a variety of ways, including a section where your character turns into a spring; the power and speed when they spring into action is determined by how far down you press those triggers. The DualSense also sports motion controls, a larger and more sensitive touchpad, an internal microphone, and a greatly enhanced speaker that’s capable of more prominent and more natural-sounding audio than the DualShock 4. The DualSense is the new cream of the controller crop, across all systems.
Is a great new controller, enhanced graphics, a more powerful CPU, and the promise of new games in the future enough to justify a launch purchase? Well, that’s dependent on your own economic situation. It comes in two versions, one with a disc drive that costs $499, and one that only plays digital games and will set you back $399. I’m a physical media guy as much as possible, and even though I already own like four different devices that can play 4K UHD Blu-rays, I can’t see myself ever buying an all-digital console. Unlike the Xbox Series X and S, the all-digital version of the PlayStation 5 at least has the same hardware specs as the more expensive model; that’s probably why the digital-only PS5 is $100 more than the digital-only Xbox Series S.
Let’s set the competition aside, though. On its own terms the PlayStation 5 is a powerful and highly promising gaming device. It’s a more direct continuation of its predecessor than perhaps any console in history, but it is by no means simply a juiced-up PS4. The PS5 is a powerful, state-of-the-art console that absolutely holds its own against its main console competition and high-powered gaming PCs. From a user experience perspective, it picks up seamlessly from where the PS4 left off, making it a smart choice for any long-time PlayStation owners looking to upgrade. Hey: it’s a good console.
And seriously, don’t skip Astro’s Playroom. I genuinely love that game. It’s lovable. For real. It’s one of maybe three good things in 2020 so far. Dig it.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, music, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.