In a massive stroke of luck that seems uncharacteristic for this year, I managed to secure pre-orders for two consoles over the last few months, and this last week, I’ve put in time with both the Playstation 5 and the Xbox Series S. While it’s likely to be a few more months until people who missed out on pre-orders can get their hands on either of these new machines, we now have a very good idea of what the next 6-8 years of console gaming are going to look like. There are things to be excited about, things to be cautiously optimistic about, and things to be just plain old cautious about. So, without any further preamble, let’s take a look at what the ninth generation of consoles has to offer.
What immediately struck me in the months leading to these console launches is that this generation seemed much more focused on the experience of the consumer than the last one was. I’m sure many people still remember the infamous reveal of the Xbox One, and this time around, there was nothing so blatantly anti-consumer as that. Instead, we got two vastly different approaches to the way in which each console was advertised; with Microsoft, it was all about getting people invested in a familiar and increasingly ubiquitous Xbox ecosystem at any cost, while Sony went for a more traditional focus on more powerful hardware and a ton of exclusive games. Both approaches had merit, and both offered a particular experience for the consumer. I got my Xbox Series S so that I could continue to play all the games I’ve spent the last 12 years accumulating on a more powerful machine, not so that I could play the newest and shiniest games on the market. To that point, I haven’t been disappointed in the slightest. It feels like an iterative upgrade on the Xbox One, and for the price point of the Series S, that’s a great value to me. On the flip side, I got a PS5 to be my flagship console for the remainder of the generation, giving me a way to play new releases over the next few years the way they were intended to be played, and I haven’t been disappointed with it either. The technology, which we’ll get into soon, is genuinely impressive, and I’ve had a blast diving into the launch games for it.
Unfortunately, the lack of launch games is the biggest issue with the new consoles. Microsoft made the questionable choice to advertise the fact that there would be no exclusives to the Series X/S for a few years, and many of the games that Sony was promising were delayed until 2021. As a result, neither console has a particularly robust launch lineup, and much of what I’ve been playing on them since I finished the Demon’s Souls Remake are last-gen games. Granted, this isn’t a terrible thing; on the contrary, I love that both consoles have a way to access a back catalogue of games for a small subscription fee. It negates that ancient problem of unpacking your new console, finishing whatever game you got with it, then allowing it to gather dust while you wait to expand your library. However, there’s only so many times I can play Fallout 4 and Bloodborne, and unless you’re looking to play Demon’s Souls (a remake of a game that’s over a decade old) or replace a previous generation console with a new model, there’s no real reason to buy any of the new boxes yet.
Something that’s really stuck out in this generation is that it seems as though the obsession with realistic graphics is finally over. Make no mistake, the games on the PS5 look fantastic and are incredibly detailed, but I think the general public has stopped being impressed by games trying to visually emulate real life, and the main innovations in the new consoles reflect that shift. From the marketing to the games themselves, it seems that Sony was less interested in showcasing the graphical power of their games, and more on how the PS5 would impact the experience of playing them. The SSD has enabled lightning fast loading times, and while that may not be a feature that’s immediately apparent to a spectator, it has completely changed the way I play. As I went through Demon’s Souls, I stared at the iconic “You Died” screen countless times, and more than once I caught myself reaching for my phone while I waited to respawn. It never took more than a second and a half. In fact, I was usually back to gameplay before I could even reach over to my phone. As someone who’s a big fan of Bethesda and From Software games, I’ve had to contend with some truly egregious load times over the years, and with their elimination, I can already tell I’m going to have trouble ever going back to old consoles. Even from the PS5 home screen, it takes less than ten seconds from the point in which I open the game to the point of having control of my character. Longtime PC players will talk about how they’ve had these kinds of load times for years, but having it on something as accessible and budget friendly as a console is going to fundamentally change game design in the coming years.
Another huge innovation is the DualSense controller for the PS5, and it is something that Sony has boasted about to no end. To their credit, it is incredibly impressive technology, and despite my reservations about how it would actually feel to use, I was more than impressed. The adaptive triggers feel really satisfying to use, the haptic feedback was used to great effect in the handful of games I played, and from an ergonomic perspective, the design is the best that Playstation has ever had. It also feels a lot sturdier than the Dualshock 4, and given that it’s an expensive replacement, that’s reassuring. With all this being said, my biggest concern is still very much alive; outside of first party Sony exclusives, how many games will actually utilize these features? Even in Demon’s Souls, a game which you’d think could find all sorts of use for something like the adaptive triggers, the only controller function that it took advantage of was the haptic feedback. It’s really cool tech, and I’d love to see it put to good use, but only time will tell if it actually will.
You might notice this section has been largely focused on the PS5, and that’s not an accident. The Series X, which I was not able (or particularly interested) to get my hands on seems to be largely the same in terms of performance to the PS5, and it’s good to see that they can keep parity with each other, but it lacks the big controller innovations that have defined the the move from PS4 to PS5. On the other hand, the Series S doesn’t have 4k support, a disc drive, or a few other key features of its stablemates, but for the functions I need it to serve, it serves them admirably. The one big new feature is the ability to have multiple games open at once, something that I’ve taken huge advantage of, as I tend to get bored of some games quickly. It’s nice to be able to switch between games in seconds, and while the PS5 doesn’t have the feature (at the time of writing at least), load times are so quick that it barely makes a difference.
As for the new Xbox controller, it’s more of the same, and that’s also not a terrible thing to my mind. As far as I’m concerned, the Xbox One had the best standard controller design of all time, and the Series S/X controller is almost identical, albeit with a better d-pad, more texture on the grips and triggers, and with a dedicated share button. There isn’t anything that will blow your mind like with the Dualsense, it’s just an all around well designed controller with few bells or whistles.
And yes, 60 FPS seems to be the standard for everything I’ve played.
The Console War
Even when the consoles had just been revealed over the summer, people on the internet were declaring which side had won the console war for this generation. As always, this idea of some great battle of the brands is ludicrous; at best, it promotes unquestioning loyalty to a brand and corporation, and ultimately just serves to deepen divisions in the community. That being said, despite having owned and played primarily on an Xbox One last generation, I think in hindsight most people will recognize that the PS4 was the better piece of hardware. In this generation though, I think both sides have pretty equal footing, they just both serve very different spaces in the market. While Xbox tries to make gaming more inclusive and accessible to everyone through services like Games Pass and products like their accessible controller, Sony has pushed the technology for playing games farther than we could have imagined it would go this generation. Which one you want to play on will depend entirely on what you’re looking for in gaming, and that’s great. There will be a lot of healthy competition over the next few years, and I can’t wait to see what kind of innovations that competition will give rise to. For now though, I have both consoles sitting on my entertainment stand, and I think they’ve both done enough to earn their space there.