PS5 review: Sony's enormous new PlayStation goes big on next gen gaming experien...

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PS5 review: Sony's enormous new PlayStation goes big on next gen gaming experiences

An incredible controller and super-fast hard drive are game-changers - but there's no escaping the size of the box it all comes in

By Dan Silver

27 November 2020 • 12:38pm

PlayStation 5 is released in the UK on November 19

PlayStation 5 is released in the UK on November 19

Unboxing has become something of a dirty word in the YouTube era but there’s an undeniable thrill to breaking the seal on a brand new PlayStation. The combination of polystyrene packaging and the near limitless potential promised by a new generation of gaming hardware remains as intoxicating as ever some 25 years on from Sony’s revolutionary first foray into the living room.

That mood survives first sight of the industrial design team’s work on the PS5 but it’s an unexpectedly close-run thing. Sony’s new box is no looker. In fact, some will consider it positively ugly: a bulky black brick wrapped in an unappealingly asymmetrical white metal folder. It’s an obvious attempt at instant iconicism which falls so far short it would be laughable were the thing not so enormous that it dominates any domestic setting in which it weighs anchor. The PS5’s size is both the elephant in the room and an elephant in the room.

Tower of power - the PS5 is even more foreboding when stood vertically

It’s a remarkable misstep that conjures uncomfortable echoes of the similarly slab-like PlayStation 3 and the subsequent years during which Sony squandered the seemingly unassailable market share accumulated by the PlayStation and its successor to Microsoft's sprightlier upstart, the Xbox 360. Back then Sony badly misjudged the burgeoning appeal of online gaming and by the time it caught on the race had been lost.

Almost a decade and half later, the Japanese giant finds itself at a potentially similar juncture. The PlayStation 4 dominated the previous gaming generation but their resilient  rival from Redmond has rallied for another assault. The Xbox Series X, released a week earlier than the PS5 in the UK is a sleeker and, on paper at least, more powerful machine with an array of clever cloud gaming features to tempt modern gamers. 

Sony have largely eschewed such ephemera (for now) and are instead going all-in on tactile immersion. It’s a risky strategy, seemingly derived from a belief that in this digitally disparate age where entertainment experiences are derived from a sea of platform-agnostic service providers, consumers will cling to premium pieces of hardware like life rafts. 

Viewed through that lens perhaps the PS5’s overpowering physical presence makes sense, serving as an extremely literal antithesis to the ubiquitous ‘cloud’. Yet it’s the console’s new controller, dubbed DualSense, which best illustrates the benefits of tactility. Like everything else in this new era it’s not cheap - an additional one will set you back a penny or two under £60 - but in this case you definitely get what you pay for.

The new DualSense controller has to be held to be believed 

Bulkier than the DualShock 4 but arguably more comfortable to hold for it, its USP is the myriad motors housed within that combine to create haptic feedback - vibrations capable of expressing such delicately defined movements that at one point my teenage son asked in all seriousness whether there were marbles inside. It’s no exaggeration to say it’s as much a step up from previous generations’ rumble effects as 4K panels are to the cathode ray tube. 

The controller’s other headline addition is adaptive triggers, allowing not just for greater fidelity of input and control but also cool force feedback features. Basketball game NBA2K21, for example, makes it harder to activate the sprint command with them as individual players tire; Marvel’s Spider-Man spin-off Miles Morales, meanwhile, makes the triggers tingle in time with the star’s Spidey-sense. 

Increased immersion is a notoriously tricky concept to sell to consumers - particularly during a pandemic, when hands-on opportunities are constrained - but in this case feeling really is believing. When all of the DualSense’s features (also including a bigger and better touchpad and new built-in microphone) are working in tandem, as on the tailor-made tech showcase Astro’s Playroom pre-installed on every PS5 unit, it’s a wonder to behold. Literally.

Astro's Playroom has been precision-tooled to showcase the DualSense controller's new features

Such clear cut generational leaps are more difficult to pinpoint elsewhere. The PS5’s carbuncle of a case conceals some serious GPU upgrades but given the visuals in recent PS4 titles like The Last of Us II and Ghost of Tsushima were already incredible, there isn’t as much room for improvement as you’d think. 

The standout new graphics enhancement is ray tracing - a processor-intensive process which essentially allows for more realistic reflections and lighting effects. Its effect on Spider-Man’s’ virtual New York City setting is subtle yet transformational, making the hitherto impressive PS4 version feel like a flimsy cardboard facia-fronted film set in comparison.  However, despite the tricked out hardware, that realism still comes at a price, with Miles Morales still making players choose between whizz bang graphics or smoother frame rates. 

Hardware specs have become the console fanboy's weapon of choice and there's no denying the Xbox One X has more horsepower under its hood. However as games developers are often at pains to point out, it's not how many teraflops you have but what you do with them that counts, and those impressive first party PS4 exclusives are testament to Sony's architectural expertise. Simply put, they build systems which are greater than the sum of their parts.

Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales provides plenty of opportunities to put Sony's new ray tracing tech through its paces

A case in point is the PS5's least sexy but arguably most impactful improvement of all: it's much-vaunted SSD - a lightning fast solid state hard drive which could have the biggest influence on how we play games this generation. Superficially, it means there’s a lot less hanging around as new games load ridiculously quickly (Miles Morales boots up in less than 10 seconds). 

Better yet, dedicated Game Hubs accessible from the PS5’s home screen boast custom Activity tiles which let you dive straight in to specific missions, modes or challenges literally within seconds, even when a different game is running in the background - a quality of life feature you never knew you wanted but now won’t be able to imagine going without. 

Longer term it will be fascinating to see how the SSD will influence games themselves. For decades developers have been forced to come up with ever more ingenious methods of hiding the time it takes for consoles to load in new sections of a game, ranging from the door opening animations in the original Resident Evil on the PSOne, to the more subtle sight of Lara Croft squeezing through crevices in the modern Tomb Raider reboots.

Early evidence suggests that will be a thing of the past on PS5 as art assets are now streamed from the SSD instantaneously, freeing up level designers to create ever more expansive worlds. How that manifests itself remains to be seen, though. Miles Morales is for all intents and purposes a PS4 game in next gen clothing, and pretty much every other AAA title available this year has also been coded with less powerful platforms in mind.

New York City looks more realistic than ever in Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales

And there’s the rub. Given the PS5 can play more than 99% of existing PS4 titles out of the box and Sony have also made 20 of the best games of the last five years - including stone cold classic exclusives like God of War, Uncharted 4 and The Last of Us Remastered - free to download for all PS Plus subscribers, early adopters will have more games to play on this new console at launch than for all of the previous PlayStations combined. 

And even though most of the big publishers have promised enhanced upgrades of recent PS4 titles will be free to download in the weeks and months to come, you can count the number of new releases designed to take advantage of the console’s amazing features on the fingers of one of Spider-Man’s hands. And as wonderful as the remake of hard as nails PS3 cult classic Demon’s Souls looks, it’s hardly a mainstream crowd pleaser.

It was ever thus with new console launches, of course, but the particularly anaemic native software line-up this time round combined with the undeniably impressive hardware makes for a frustrating juxtaposition. The PS5 has the potential to change fundamentally the way we play blockbuster video games - but it could well be a year or more until we really find out how. 

Buy the new PS5 from Amazon and Very.co.uk now

Read more: Nintendo, Xbox and PS5 Black Friday deals: Best UK offers on consoles and games in 2020

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