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The PlayStation 5 is a sensory game-changer

The new Sony PlayStation 5, released Nov. 12, stands 15.4 inches tall and weighs a whopping 14 pounds.

CAROLYN VAN HOUTEN/THE WASHINGTON POST

By ELISE FAVIS | The Washington Post | Published: November 13, 2020

As Sony and Microsoft unveiled their next-generation consoles to the world, the two mega-publishers raced in different directions. Microsoft boasted that the Xbox Series X would be the “most powerful” Xbox ever made. Sony, on the other hand, focused on exclusive titles, but more importantly, immersion. It’s a concept games have flirted with through their entire existence, but the PlayStation 5 pushes the envelope.

The PS5 draws on your senses to pull you in. Rather than providing a window into another world, the PS5 actually places you into one that you can see, hear and feel like never before. Sure, you’re used to the rumble of the controller as your character falls down a rocky hill or gets struck by an enemy’s sword. But that was the old, blunt approach. Now you can feel the pitter patter of raindrops falling onto an umbrella through the palms of your hands. The whiz of a bullet shooting past your left ear might make you instinctually turn in that direction. Combining finely-tuned haptic feedback moments with 3D audio makes the PS5 feel like a truly next-generation experience.

If the PS5 wasn’t so massive (you may have trouble finding room for it on your shelf), I’d consider it a near-perfect console. It’s quiet, powerful and quick. The system is a glimpse into the future, featuring 8K resolution gaming, 4K resolution at high frame rates, crazy-fast load times and ray tracing, previously only possible on high-end PCs that cost thousands of dollars. Console gaming, by comparison, is cheaper but still costly: The PS5 is $499 with a disk drive and $399 for the disk-less version — that’s still $100 more than the Xbox Series X’s little brother, the Series S.

The PlayStation 5 places a major emphasis on the sensory experience, and we’re excited to see how that performs in exploration-based and atmospheric games to come.

Performance

Power isn’t everything in generational shifts — but it’s a major aspect of gauging how big the leap is. With the PS5, that jump is profound. Load times are cut down significantly, and in many cases, removed entirely. Ray tracing allows for realistic graphics with crisp lighting and deep shadows, adding more color and depth to environments. Performance-wise, the PS5 is remarkable.

The biggest game changer is the PS5’s SSD; the massive performance boost allows for lightning-quick loading. Fast travel in Marvel’s Spider-Man on PS4 took approximately 15 seconds to complete from one side of the map to the other. That same game on PS5 shaves the wait down by five seconds. In the new Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, you won’t hit load screens at all; even fast travel completes in as little as one second.

Games boot up instantly and run smoothly, though I did experience the occasional crash with Miles Morales. Even then, it didn’t cause a long interruption, as games — and the console itself — reboot incredibly quick.

The SSD could end loading screens for good. At least, that’s the hope. In Miles Morales, I became more absorbed in the game, without interruptions to action. When I died, I could immediately hop back in. Returning to Xbox One or PS4 games afterward became jarring; I was no longer used to waiting.

At 825 GB of storage space, your library will quickly reach the limit, especially if you’re filling your system with PS4 blockbuster games. This is problematic for users who hope to download PS4 games to their new console: Triple-A behemoths like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (over 200 GB with all modes downloaded on PS5) and The Last of Us Part II (78 GB) will take up significant space. The size of future next-generation titles is unknown, but we have a starting idea with Marvels’ Spider-Man: Miles Morales (it’s 39 GB, whereas its predecessor is 67 GB on PS5). It’s hard to say how storage management will look later in the console’s life cycle, but just like the previous generation, the frustration is somewhat alleviated with external hard drive support.

Graphical fidelity

Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales (review on page 21) is stunning, largely thanks to ray tracing. Even with this one game, I saw major improvements in comparison to what the PS4 is capable of on a graphical level. Puddles in alleyways reflect the skyline above. Even polished concrete flooring looks great, making drab supervillain labs beam with color and depth. Areas that would normally be dark and unassuming have more life — rays of light peek through slits of ventilation shafts as Miles crawls inside.

Across a snow-blanketed Manhattan, ice and snow look different depending on how the sun strikes those surfaces during different times of day in the game. Particle effects explode and zoom past with more detail than ever as vehicles, cranes or armor blast apart. Expect a shower of sparks, bullets and projectiles during action-packed moments, with a smoothness that could easily be mistaken for a non-playable cinematic.

Spider-Man: Miles Morales has two graphical modes. Fidelity mode is the default setting that plays at 30 frames per second and includes ray tracing, enhanced lighting and additional VFX. Performance mode, on the other hand, increases the frame rate to 60 frames per second and removes the aforementioned graphical enhancements. The two modes are crafted for different resolutions: For example, Fidelity mode is best played from a 4K resolution and performance mode supports lower resolution televisions. These options give the player more control to favor graphics or performance. In performance mode, for example, there’s a smoother consistency for fast-paced animations during action sequences.

The PS5 reportedly supports 120 frames per second for specific titles, like Dirt 5 and Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, but we didn’t see these in action before publication.

DualSense controller

The DualSense controller (priced individually at $69.99) is PlayStation’s comfiest controller yet. It’s slightly wider and larger than its predecessor, the DualShock 4, and has more weight to it. It fits in my small hands perfectly, and that extra weight gives the controller a comfortable heft. Button layout is nearly identical to the DualShock 4, though the light bar has moved from the back to the front, glowing on the edges of the touch pad. The controller’s familiarity will have previous PlayStation users feeling right at home, though it has some new features.

The DualSense has been upgraded with specialized haptics for a wider range of sensations, letting you feel more precision such as the tickling of tall grass as you weave through a meadow. These moments can be subtle, and in other instances more notable, like the rumbling of a subway station. The level of variety is astounding.

I loved when the DualSense controller haptics worked side by side with the sound design, like when the swoosh of Miles’ web shooting out of his palm aligned with a finely-tuned rumble that shifts intensity depending on the arc of your swing. I’m curious how designers and audio engineers will take advantage of the new tech to best present a game’s atmosphere.

The question is how often those elements will be implemented by third-party developers, launching titles on several platforms, who may invest their resources elsewhere. For example, the touch pad from the DualShock 4 controller remains one of the most unused PS4 innovations.

After spending hours upon hours with the PS5, one of my favorite moments is from the controller demo of Astro’s Playroom, showcasing the motion sensor: As you move, shake or tilt the controller, haptics and sound activate to give the illusion that a crowd of little, yelling Astro Bots are stuck inside, and you can feel them tumble from one side to the other.

In Astro’s Playroom, metal surfaces, gusts of wind or even walking on a fluffy cloud all feel different. A muddy hill astounded me: As I climbed up and slid down, it didn’t just look like real mud, but felt like it, too. The controller feels connected not to the console, but to the game itself.

The adaptive triggers accomplish similar feats. Depending on different in-game tasks, the triggers become tense and more difficult to pull, almost as if they’re fighting against your fingers. In Astro’s Playroom, one instance requires you to pull a trigger to use a bow and arrow. There’s a tightness to the trigger that resembles actually pulling back a bowstring.

Among the more standard features, the share button from the PS4 is no more. In its place on the top left of the controller, you’ll find the create button. Just like the share button, you press it to save, share or edit screenshots and gameplay clips. An improvement is you can now edit videos without leaving your game, and retroactively record footage in defined increments, such as 15 seconds, 30 seconds, 5 minutes and 15 minutes, giving video creators a wider breadth of control than they had on PS4 (for even more options, users can turn to the new-and-improved Share Factory app).

The DualSense has a built-in microphone and speaker, meaning you no longer need a headset for voice chat, but it’s still best to use one. The controller microphone’s sound quality is great, but the speakers are tinny.

The controller is the most “next gen” component to the PS5 — you can lose yourself in a game more than ever by feeling the world in your palms and fingertips. If you want to modify these features, you can adjust (or turn off) the vibration intensity and trigger effects in the system settings.

3D Audio

Sony built its new audio engine, named Tempest, to help achieve the console’s ambitious sensory vision. When paired with the pulse 3D wireless headset ($99.99), the results are impressive, introducing a sense of place as sound reaches your ears relative to your character’s position or surrounding environment.

The PlayStation 5’s audio uses object-based sound; it simulates and supports hundreds of sources in a 3D environment, coming from different directions and with varying levels of intensity. In “Demon Souls,” we were told by creative director Gavin Moore that you can hear the rush of arrows flying past your head. When web-slinging from building to building in “Spider-Man: Miles Morales,” car horns sound louder as you swing closer to the streets. Even in quieter narrative moments, like a dinner scene at Miles’s home, I enjoyed how the voices of characters around me fluctuated in volume depending on where I was or if I faced them.

The headset is comfortable, but the fit — at least on my small head — isn’t snug. Washington Post reporter Gene Park, in comparison, feels it’s too tight. The problem is it’s barely adjustable, with just an inside strap that sits right atop your head. The leather padding for the ears is comfy, but can get warm after prolonged use.

A variety of controls are situated outside the bottom of the left ear of the headset, including volume, muting the dual microphones embedded in the ears and prioritizing sound from party chat or your game. But there are a few too many buttons right next to each other; I often pressed the wrong function or had to take the headset off to adjust the volume, since you can’t change it on-screen in PS5 menus. Those who care about the headset’s sound quality, however, won’t be disappointed. The sound is rich and bass-y; my Turtle Beach Elite Pro headset paled in comparison.

User interface and experience

At first glance, the PS5 home screen resembles that of the PS4. Icons for games and applications are neatly arranged in a single row, but now they’re smaller and nearer the top, giving more open space for the rest of the screen. The layout is clean and easy to navigate, which isn’t surprising: Sony has long excelled at presenting user-friendly interfaces for its systems.

Custom themes are unavailable at launch, Sony confirmed to The Washington Post, but the option could come down the line, especially since the home screen has ample room to show off custom themes.

The best part of the UI is a consistent feeling of fluidity. Everything flows, and feels connected. When apps like the PlayStation Store, PlayStation Now or PlayStation Plus are opened, they don’t prompt a load screen or take you elsewhere. They become an extension of the home menu, making use of that extra space.

This philosophy of fluidity is felt elsewhere, too. While you’re gaming, you can access a new function called the control center by pressing the PlayStation button on your DualSense controller. The customizable control center is a minimalist menu that appears at the bottom of your screen with several icons. You can easily multitask with the switcher to open up recently used applications and games. You can also view your notifications, downloads status, adjust your sound or mic levels and return to the home screen. By clicking the PlayStation button, your game automatically pauses so you can fiddle through the menu without worry.

The control menu is excellent, with every action instantaneous, no loading or stuttering.

One area of the control center cannot be customized. Cards, as Sony calls them, are large, game-centric icons that appear right above the control center. For trophy hunters, cards help keep track of progress in games such as how many collectibles or secrets you’ve found. For example, it tells me I’ve located 33% of all hidden tech caches in “Spider-Man: Miles Morales.”

These cards take up half the screen and scroll horizontally. The lack of customization is frustrating because I often wished to remove them. I never found myself clicking the “official news” card, for example, which reveals recent PlayStation announcements.

The presentation of the cards is distracting, somewhat shattering that illusion of immersion that the PS5 seeks to create. In practice, though, some are useful. By clicking a card about in-game challenges, I’m immediately transported to that exact mission starting point, all ready to go, rather than having to scour the in-game map for the location. In other instances, cards offer hints (if you’re a PlayStation Plus subscriber) when you’re stumped. “Demon’s Souls,” for example, has around 180 guide videos that pop up on the corner of your screen while you play.

Another new feature: With share screen, you can watch a friend as you play your own game. Their gameplay appears in a picture-in-picture frame that you can move, change size and pin to the side.

Streaming simultaneously with another user as you both play is a big deal. On PS4 you had to take turns. While two of us streamed, we experienced some latency issues making the image momentarily blurry or pixelated, but it was never egregious with high-speed Internet. Share play returns, so you can take control of your friend’s game or vice versa; this is great if you need a friend’s help to get through a tough section of a game or wish to have them experience a specific moment.

Backward compatibility

Thousands of PS4 games are compatible on the PS5. I have a library of 150 PS4 and PS5 games combined, and the majority are instantly playable on the PS5. For only a few, such as “Overwatch,” “Outlast II,” and “The Division,” a prompt told me I’d need to purchase a playable version again and redirected me to the PlayStation Store. Since I’d previously installed Overwatch via a physical copy, it did install correctly when I loaded the disk. Sony PR had not responded to our question about the compatibility of the other two titles as of the publication of this review.

What’s more disappointing is that PS5 backward compatibility only works with PS4 games, so games from older eras are not included (this excludes titles available via PlayStation Now). This is a far cry from Microsoft’s more robust approach: All games that run on Xbox One, including original Xbox and Xbox 360 titles, are compatible on Series X as long as they don’t require Kinect.

Design

The PlayStation 5, you may have heard, is massive. At 15.4 inches tall, 10.24 inches deep and 4.09 inches wide, it’s the biggest video game console in decades. It’s more than double the weight of its predecessor at 14 lbs.

It’s heavy and difficult to move around. For those that plan to travel with the system, it’ll prove cumbersome. Even when keeping it in one place, you need considerable room on your TV stand or media center to have it fit comfortably. In the modern age of pocket-size smartphones, tablets and gadgets, and even with consoles like Nintendo Switch marketing the ease of portability, the PS5’s design feels like a step in the wrong direction. This is by far the console’s most glaring downside, especially when the Xbox Series S is super compact.

With its curved, white panels framing the black, glossy center and LED lighting illuminating its inner edges, I liked the PS5 much better in Sony’s promo shots than next to my television set. The massive size makes it imposing in the living room.

For a system meant to last years, I worry about the durability of its shell casing. On both sides, two corners jut out like sharp edges of a sheet of paper. They’re thin, bend slightly at the touch and could potentially break off after a nasty fall.

The PS5 has a robust cooling system, with vents running down both sides of the console and down its back, keeping the system from overheating during performance-heavy moments. Occasionally the console is a little warm, but never hot. It’s incredibly quiet, with the purr of the fan quiet as a whisper during games such as “Spider Man: Miles Morales,” as well as backward compatible PS4 titles “The Last of Us Part II” and “Death Stranding.” Considering games like “The Last of Us Part II” were loud even on a PlayStation 4 Pro, this is a big improvement.

Conclusion

The PS5 is a beast in both its tech and its size. The former is its greatest strength, the latter is its weakness. The machine takes up too much room. But considering most won’t spend their time lugging it around, this shouldn’t be too detrimental.

The PS5 launch lineup doesn’t offer much in terms of new IPs, but it does have a strong selection of games, including Demon’s Souls and Spider-Man: Miles Morales. It also blows Microsoft out of the water on that front: the Xbox Series X/S have a tiny launch library with mostly cross-platform games. Game Pass and that console’s power are the bigger selling points.

For those looking for an immersive, sensory experience that pulls them deeper into virtual worlds, the PS5 accomplishes this in flying colors with its combination of 3D audio and the DualSense controller’s new functions.

Some elements of the PlayStation 5, however, are not yet reviewable due to embargoes posed by Sony Interactive Entertainment. These include certain online features and the Media tab on the home screen that opens up third-party services like Netflix and Disney Plus.

The future of virtual reality is also a big question mark. PlayStation VR works with the system, but only for backward compatible PS4 titles. Even then, you need a PS4 PlayStation camera (the new camera, priced $59.99, won’t work for VR), along with an adapter that Sony is currently offering free to PSVR owners. As of now, PlayStation has made no public plans for a PS5-specific VR headset.

Witnessing the full potential of the PS5 will take time, as developers tinker with the new tools, crafting novelties or pushing the boundaries of the console’s remarkable tech. But even just this glimpse into the future feels promising.

The DualSense controller has been upgraded with specialized haptics for a wide range of sensations.
CAROLYN VAN HOUTEN/THE WASHINGTON POST