After an almost eight-year run, the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One eras are coming to an end. Taking their place with new releases from Microsoft and Sony this week are the Xbox Series X and the PlayStation 5 — the two consoles that will officially herald the start of the next video game generation.
The timing could not be better. Many, after all, will no doubt relish an escape after monitoring election news this week.
Granted, among the debates and choices that Americans have had to face in recent weeks, the discussion over which piece of video game technology to plug into your TV may seem relatively minor. But while the release of new home game consoles from Microsoft and Sony were destined for this year regardless of the pandemic and the increased political tensions it brought, their arrival as 2020 nears its end feels more than a little serendipitous.
Most mainstream media — our film and television productions, our live theater, our theme parks — have had to pivot or struggle to reach anything approaching normal in 2020, yet video games have continued to thrive.
Evidence: In March, " Animal Crossing: New Horizons" showed the world the power of welcoming, virtual gathering spaces as a place to socialize and share in communal creativity. Soon after, "Minecraft's" educational prowess turned more heads, "The Last of Us Part II" inspired a broad discourse about narrative and themes, and games such as "Fall Guys" and "Among Us" became such prominent and joyful celebrations that the latter found itself in the midst of this year's political campaigning.
So this is as fine a time as any to get acquainted — or reacquainted — with the medium whose cultural resonance is only getting louder.
I've spent the past week jumping between the Xbox Series X and the PlayStation 5 — the two consoles that will officially herald the start of the next video game generation.
As games and updates hit both systems over the coming weeks, I'll document how the consoles evolve as places to play. My initial impressions of both follow.
What is being released and when can you buy it?
XBOX SERIES X AND S: Microsoft is releasing two consoles on Tuesday, the enthusiast Xbox Series X ($500) and the smaller, less costly Xbox Series S ($300), which is seemingly aimed more at the entry-to-mid-level player. In this sense, Microsoft is pivoting slightly from viewing the PlayStation 5 and the Nintendo Switch as primary pieces of competition. Content of course is the most crucial factor in choosing a console, and both Xbox units are geared toward a world where hundreds of games can be downloaded on demand via a subscription service.
Microsoft's consoles are essentially entryways into the Microsoft ecosystem, home to the subscription Xbox Game Pass. At $14.99 per month for the most attractive tier, Game Pass remains the best deal in gaming, as well as the easiest way to transition an audience weaned on the ease of the likes of Netflix, Disney+ and more into the gaming sector.
The Xbox Series X is designed to make use of top-of-the-line televisions and all the graphical and lighting tools at a developer's disposal. The Series S packs a slightly lighter punch. But those who opt for the Series S and aren't using games as their primary at-home entertainment medium — or lack an upper-tier 4K TV — likely aren't going to complain or notice anything too drastic. The end goal of both, ultimately, is to get owners to subscribe to Game Pass.
PLAYSTATION 5: Two editions of PlayStation 5 launched Thursday — a $500 console with a disc drive that can play games and media and a $400 option without the drive. Technical specs are otherwise identical, with promising graphics that heighten the believability of game universes by emphasizing a greater fidelity with lighting and shadows.
Those who own 4K televisions, especially sets with high refresh rates and HDR compatibility, will experience the greatest boost, one that boasts significant smoothness and sharpness.
Unlike Microsoft's approach with the new Xbox, in which the company is releasing two consoles Tuesday with different capabilities in the hopes of selling people on its subscription service and setting them on a regular upgrade path, Sony is taking a more old-fashioned route. Sony is betting people want a new console that looks and feels significantly different than the previous generation — and also comes with some nifty tricks in the hopes of increasing immersion.
While it blissfully includes backward compatibility with the PS4, PS5 games will require PS5 controllers, and Sony's subscription endeavors haven't as yet been as robust as those of Microsoft.
But to those in the market for one, good luck. Sony has said consoles will be available online only, citing the pandemic and alluding to the desire to avoid a crush of people in long lines for a potentially limited supply. They'll be in high demand. Sony, whose PlayStation 4 was the industry leader with sales topping 100 million worldwide, has stated in interviews that in the United States the company sold as many PS5 pre-order units in 12 hours as the PS4 sold in 12 weeks.
PLAYSTATION 5: The PS5 diverts heavily from the thinner, flatter black look of the PS4. This white curved box is a behemoth. It's close to 16 inches tall, and its curved design means it won't disappear into an entertainment center, especially since it glows when turned on. It's also heavy, at around 14 pounds, meaning you likely won't be tossing it in a backpack to bring to a friend's.
But this plays into the console's ambitions. It's designed to be a statement piece. While I think Sony was going for something that looked futuristic, I worry it will soon look dated. It wants to be the Frank Gehry of home video game console design, but there's a sci-fi coldness to it, a box with a bold flair but also one that diverts from any attempt at home comfort. I've slotted it between my TV stands and turntable stand, sliding it closer to the wall with each day.
While it's true that few are buying the PS5 for its design — or conversely not buying it for its look — it's worth highlighting because the PS5 wants its games to demand attention.
XBOX SERIES X: Much fun was had on the internet when Microsoft and Sony unveiled the looks of their new consoles, with people immediately comparing the Xbox Series X to a refrigerator. But its vertical look — think a "2001" monolith — more closely resembles a speaker than a bulky home appliance. In other words, something that is more or less designed to become invisible in your home entertainment setup. At only about a foot tall and 6 inches in width, it doesn't feel that big. I've slotted it behind my bookshelf speakers and it's out of sight and out of mind, except for when I pick up a controller and hear it beep on.
While it's true most people don't buy a video game console for its living room aesthetics, much thought goes into making these consoles eye-catching rather than just functional. The unassuming look of the Series X reflects Microsoft's goals for this generation (the Series S, which I haven't seen up close, is thinner and white rather than black but also maintains the speaker inspiration). That is, a home video game console should be as restrained as, say, a cable box or a receiver because games will soon be as commonplace in our households. At least that's the hope.
The breakthroughs I love
XBOX SERIES X: There has never been a game console as seamless to set up as the Xbox Series X.
As soon as I logged in I had easy access to my entire game catalog and began downloading older titles with ease. I moved my Xbox One to my bedroom, and saved games were automatically synced to any older game I loaded. I am a subscriber to the Game Pass Ultimate, and my full back catalog was immediately recognized. While it took time to download games of course, switching from one Xbox to another was easier and quicker than transitioning to my new iPhone a couple months back. Everything just worked, including my older controllers.
All of this will go a long way to keeping consumers gaming. It also reassured me that if there's an Xbox Series X update three years from now, the upgrade will be painless. After all, the biggest challenge facing games is accessibility — I want everyone I know to be playing — and the Xbox Series X isn't focused, out of the box, on wowing you. The console wants to get you logged on and playing. Its goal is to show you that all of this is easy.
The Xbox Series X also has a refined version of the feature I've wanted my entire life: the simple ability to start a game at the exact moment I left off. No, not the start of a mission or the start of a "check point" — the Series X has a feature called "Quick Resume," which will allow players to jump almost instantly between pause points in games.
This is important. I remember where in the game I was when I set my controller down, but too many modern games rely on check points to save your progress (changing this, it should be noted, is a very complex development process). I appreciate Microsoft building into its console a solution to one of the most frustrating traits of modern games — there is a long list of games I simply stopped playing because I was asked to replay 30 minutes.
It's only been a couple days, but so far I haven't run into any major issues. I have four games in a pause state at the time of this writing — two of which haven't been released — and the Series X has dropped me in each of them in about 10 seconds or less after booting up.
PLAYSTATION 5: I thought my days of praising a game controller were over. Each generation gets a bit more refined, a bit more ergonomic, but doesn't really change the way we play. I was wrong. After a week with the PS5 my favorite aspect is the controller. It has gimmicks — you can actually blow into the controller to affect gameplay, which wasn't fun when Nintendo did it and it isn't fun when the PS5 does it — but other aspects succeed in pulling you deeper into the game.
For instance, in "Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales," when the main character rides a subway, our controller ever-so-slightly vibrates to mimic the forward-moving bumping sensation of a train ride. In "Astro's Playroom," a game that comes with the PS5, the controller can mimic the feel of zipping up a spacesuit. By moving your finger along the controller's touchpad, the controller will sputter and stop as if zipping up a jacket. I probably did this for 20 minutes.
And there are other effects as well. For instance, the left and right triggers are able to adjust to pressure — that is, they can adjust the level of resistance to your fingers.
But there are also less pronounced tweaks that make gaming a little easier. On PS5 games, you can pull up a page from the menu that will show you what missions you've completed, what mission is next and how long those tasks are estimated to take. It's a nice little feature, especially if you're debating whether you want to take on another chapter before calling it a day. Welcome, too, is the ability to go to specific chapters or missions that have been completed, in case you want to revisit a game or fully complete a section.
PLAYSTATION 5: The difference in console generations can be profound, and that holds true with this one for the PlayStation 5. But there's a catch.
Like the Xbox Series X, you're going to need to upgrade your television if you don't already have a top-of-the-line 4K model and you want to truly see a difference. Next-generation games also look to be big, and while the PS5 comes with a large internal hard drive (825 GB), I have less than a third of it left after installing six games, meaning I'll likely have to purchase a compatible hard drive, which is another small investment of $100 or $200.
And while PS4 controllers will work with PS4 games, they won't work with PS5 games, making the PS5 feel more like a closed system than the Xbox universe. That holds true when moving over saved games from your old PS4. While it works, it requires some digging into the console's system settings rather than everything just syncing like it does on the Xbox Series X. A small thing, but one that makes it clear that the PS5 is designed primarily for PS5 games.
XBOX SERIES X: A strength of console gaming over PC gaming is relative ease in use: Buy a box, set it up and play. But as games evolve and get bigger, one will likely need to engage in memory management, either downloading and deleting games for new ones or investing in an external hard drive. Heavy gamers will likely need to eventually invest in the official storage expansion card that runs for $220 to better manage next-generation titles. Older games from previous generations can be more easily stored on a host of external SSD drives.
There's also the drag of needing to upgrade my television to fully take advantage of the consoles' graphical prowess, which is not on my list of pandemic-era purchases. For now, I'll be sticking it out with a decade-old television and will consider an upgrade in a year or two when more games that take advantage of the new consoles start to hit the market.
So how fast and pretty is it?
PLAYSTATION 5: It's fast. From a cold boot to my saved game in " Miles Morales," it took less than a minute. Once the PS5 was already up and running, I was able to jump among open games in 15 to 20 seconds. Compared with the PS4 launching of "Ghost of Tsushima," it took about the same amount of time, but the PS5 allows players to bounce to content that's already open at a fraction of the speed.
And even if you don't have a newer 4K TV, games on the PS5 still operate in a more slick manner. In the PS5 version of "Ghost of Tsushima," for instance, walking around a flame showed the fire flickering in one motion. There's no break in fidelity regardless of how fast one moves the camera. All told, it's a more seamless, visually pleasant experience. Also of note, it's quiet. My PS4 sounds like it's going to burst when I play "Ghost of Tsushima." Nary a peep when it runs on the PS5.
XBOX SERIES X: Those with 4K TVs, and especially TVs that can accommodate 120 frames per second (a narrower, often pricier field needing an HDMI 2.1. port), will recognize the biggest graphical boost. I'm not in that camp — my 2011 TV isn't going to cut it. But even on my TV, running older Xbox games that received an upgrade, I noticed some differences. Namely a game such as "Gears 5" overall felt smoother. Pans up and down the screen had a more cinematic sensation; there was never a vertical scan line present as there was on occasion on my original Xbox One.
Everyone, however, will notice the speed. Booting up "Gears 5" on the original Xbox One took 3 minutes and 10 seconds for me to get from the menu screen to a moment in the game's campaign. On the Xbox Series X I went from menu screen to game in 1 minute, 38 seconds. Additionally, the time it took for my character to respawn after death was shaved in half, from 9 seconds on the Xbox One to 4 seconds on the Xbox Series X.
What you need to play now
XBOX SERIES X: Having only sampled a limited selection of November's game releases, the first game I would boot up on the Xbox Series X would be one of the prior generation's most beautifully crafted experiences, "Ori and the Will of the Wisps." The game is receiving a boost for the new console, although the update hadn't yet been released at the time of writing. No matter, the fairy-tale world of darkly illuminated forests is already a marvel to look at. The story will tug on your heart, and the platforming mechanics will offer a serious challenge without becoming punishing to the player. It's one of 2020's best and most approachable games, unfolding like an interactive animated film.
PLAYSTATION 5: The PlayStation 5 is launching with more next-generation content than the Xbox Series X. It also comes with a pretty swell game in "Astro's Playroom." What is technically a game designed to show off the new controller features actually turned out be a strong platformer, and if you're purchasing a PS5 you immediately have a must-play game. The Astro robot is Sony's friendly little mascot, and the levels are designed as if one is exploring the innards of a game console, from its hard drives to its cooling fans, although these are abstracted to appear as journeys through space or forest-like settings.
It also provides a surprising challenge as it switches constantly in how we play, from running and jumping to bouncing with a spring suit to hovering through space. The spring suit allows Sony to show off the controllers — the buttons click as if we're pushing down a toy.
The sound, too, is worth celebrating. The little speaker in the controller will create a surround-sound effect that will respond to the environments that Astro is in. On ice? The skating effects make it feel like we're gliding. On a beach? It truly sounds like our little robot is squishing through the landscape.
Marvel fans will no doubt want to soar through New York as Miles Morales, and with plenty of good reason (the game is beautiful), but don't sleep on "Astro's Playroom."
What's next for the PS5 and Xbox?
The Xbox Series X was originally supposed to launch with "Halo Infinite," the latest installment in the sci-fi shooter saga, but that title was pushed to 2021. It's a good reminder for those hesitating to spend the cash now for a new console that it is typically a year or two into a console's life until we start seeing games that were tailored specifically for the new tech. Still, Microsoft has in recent years been boosting its stable of studios, including high-profile developers such as Bethesda and Double Fine. The latter has the long-awaited sequel to the trippy, humorous and thoughtful "Psychonauts" due next year.
Coming sooner, however, and looking intriguing, is psychological horror game "The Medium," set in Poland and featuring music from "Silent Hill" composer Akira Yamaoka, as well as the inviting mix of vintage animation and futuristic imagery that is "Call of the Sea," which has a pulpy 1930s-art style that has me eager to play it.
Coming with the launch of the PS5 is a remaster of the game "Demon's Souls," a challenging nightmare of a fantasy that is beloved among hard-core players. For a tamer, more family-friendly experience there's "Sackboy: A Big Adventure." Down the road, look forward to a sequel to "Horizon Zero Dawn," as well as enhanced audio features for the PS5.
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