While 2020 has been a terrible year for several reasons, there's at least the small silver-lining of having a new console generation kicking-off: Or, in this particular case, the fifth generation of PlayStation home consoles. Sony has kept the focus where it really matters - video games - while also allowing its users to enjoy streaming services and multimedia entertainment. In the end we get a machine with top hardware, with an added value well above the £449.99 (€499.99) it costs (£349.99 / € 399.99 if you're going for the digital edition).
The focus on video games becomes clear as soon as you try out Astro's Playroom. This charming game comes included with every PlayStation 5 and is accessible even without an internet connection, and what a delightful presentation card this is, not only for the PS5 as a whole, but particularly to the new controller.
DualSense - A new generation controller
After four generations of DualShock, the DualSense emerges as a natural evolution, presenting characteristics that genuinely increase the player's immersion and elevate the gaming experience. Its ergonomics are superior to those of DualShock 4, perfectly fitting the player's hand with a positive solid feeling. The controller is equipped with all traditional buttons, plus a touch pad similar to the DualShock 4, a headphone jack, and a specific button for recording, streaming, and sharing content on social media.
What really sets DualSense apart are the adaptive triggers and haptic feedback, moreso in games that truly take advantage of them. Adaptive triggers mean that the triggers can offer different levels of resistance to the player, such as forcing you to press much harder if the character is carrying something heavy. As for haptic feedback, it somewhat resembles the HD Rumble technology in the Switch's Joy-Cons, featuring different sensations of vibration in independent spots all over the controller.
This allows developers to increase a game's immersion, reinforcing whatever is happening on screen, like gentle vibrations while walking on sand, or heavy vibrations when climbing rocks. If something is happening to the left of the character, you'll feel the controller vibrate on the left side, and with a very specific feeling. All of this (at least in the games we tried) is done in such a coordinated way, that it never took us out of the experience, not even during big vibrations.
In addition to this small overview, we will also publish a specific article on the DualSense, so stay tuned.
SSD - Gaming at light speeds
Among all the shining new components, the SSD storage has the potential to be the most relevant. While previous consoles used the typical HDD drive, the PS5 comes equipped with a highly customised SSD, which puts it above even what the PC and Xbox Series X are capable of doing at this point. This means that data access is done at an unbelievable speed, virtually eliminating load times.
The improvements to loading times in PS4 games are massive, but it's on PS5 that you'll be able to really see how fast this SDD is. To get an idea, Spider-Man: Miles Morales takes something like 10 seconds from the console menu to actual gameplay, and we believe it would be even faster if the player was not forced to watch the Insomniac and Marvel logos. The speed with which the PS5 accesses data is truly unbelievable, and this is not only evident in games, but also in other actions, such as installing or uninstalling games.
The SSD is impressive, but it comes at a cost. We are talking about very expensive technology, and to cut costs most likely, Sony only presents a total of 825GB as internal storage, not even reaching Xbox Series X's 1TB. The console is also compatible with external storage - NVMe SSD is required to run PS5 games, but you can use an external HDD to store PS5 games or even play PS4 titles.
CPU and GPU - Console gaming finally at 60 FPS
While 60 frames per second was possible in previous generations, the standard has been 30 FPS. This might finally be changing this gen, as most games seem to be able to run at 60 fps even at 4K (some with dynamic resolutions or upscaling, but still, "4K"). This is possible due to the PS5's custom CPU and GPU, built by AMD. Some games might even allow you to play at 120 frames per second (on a 120Hz TV/Monitor), marking a first for console gaming. The PS5 also supports 8K, albeit only regarding compatibility, as it won't actually run games at 8K.
But, returning to the 60 FPS matter, the overwhelming majority of PS5 games announced so far, either run at 60 frames per second, or at least include a performance mode that allows you to choose between high graphics or 60 frames per second. As such, gaming at 4K and 60 FPS seem to be something well within reach of the console, but it gets trickier if we consider ray tracing.
This technique, which substantially improves lighting, reflections, and shadows, has a tremendous cost on hardware resources, especially if applied to a open world game with many mirrored surfaces, like Spider-Man: Miles Morales. In this specific case the player can choose between 30 frames per second and ray tracing, or 60 frames per second without ray tracing. In one hand we appreciate the option, we must also confess it's somewhat frustrating that it has to exist at all - ideally it would be 60 FPS and Ray Tracing.
That said, we're still at the birth of this generation, with games running on last-gen engines. We believe that new engines, such as Unreal Engine 5, will not only enhance graphics quality but also gameplay fluidity. Even looking at these first titles, Spider-Man: Miles Morales presents a remarkable graphics quality even at the 60 frames per second mode (reflections being the only real low point).
We actually believe that the leap from PS4 to PS5 could potentially be greater than from PS3 to PS4, mostly due to a truly substantial improvement on hardware. Consoles as a rule have always bet on GPU, relegating CPU, storage, and RAM memory, to a secondary degree. This time around though, in addition to a significant GPU leap, Sony has also made massive improvements to other areas, and this can potentially allow studios to create different, more bold, experiences. In other words, the hardware is there, we just need to wait and see how it will be used.
Tempest - Great 3D sound
A big bet from Sony for the PS5 is the console's sound system, as instead of implementing external software like Dolby Atmos (which will be used by Xbox Series X|S down the line), they have decided to create their own sound engine. This engine, called Tempest, uses specific hardware components to improve sound quality and offer a greater surround feel, even on regular headphones (not in all though). Most importantly, this system will give developers freedom to work on sound independently of everything else.
Unfortunately we didn't have access to the official Pulse 3D headphones, but we tried a Razer surround headset and we were impressed with the results. Through USB connection, we were able to really appreciate the 3D effects of the PS5, but even with traditional connection to the controller via jack, a small improvement was evident - in addition to a fantastic overall sound quality. Astro's Playroom in particular impressed us with its sound effects, which together with DualSense's feedback and triggers, really came together to deliver fantastic results.
Design, heating, and noise
I think we can all agree the PS5 has a bold design, and we appreciate Sony for it... but we're not fans of it. Not only is it massive, which can be a problem for some setups, its design is one of the most confusing ones we remember. The horizonal positioning of the console, and the way the Blu-Ray player is set, are both counter-intuitive to the standard disposition, and this caused some initial confusion. We wouldn't even be surprised if several users end up unknowingly inverting the console's horizontal standing, or even placing the Blu-Ray disc upside down.
As for the noise, there is nothing noticeable to report, except maybe when a Blu-Ray is being read at high velocity. But generally speaking, the PS5 was mostly quiet during the duration of our test. The same can be said for heating. We don't have tools to measure temperature, aside from the good old 'hand', but aside from a slight heat at the rear of the console, we also didn't notice anything resembling overheating. This is of course is early days, and there's no way we can measure the PS5's longevity, but for now, it seemed like a quiet and overall cool console.
Interface and Services
The PS5 interface is essentially an evolution or continuation of what we had already known on PS4. It is simple, practical, and functional, and we like it. As services go, nothing new. There's the PS Plus, still mandatory for online gameplay and access to Cloud saves, and PS Now, which is still a long way from Microsoft's Game Pass.
There is, however, a new function that delighted us - Game Cards. Although these cards allow for several activities, such as immediately joining a friend's game, what really impressed us were the suggestions in terms of goals we still had to complete. Every time we finished a level in Astro's Playroom, and we still had collectible to find, all we had to do was visit the Game Card, and a suggestion would appear in the form of a short instant video with the location of that exact collectible. It's a very useful and practical function, but we're not sure most developers will put effort into it. Once again, the technology is there and it works great, let's see if it will be used.
Improved backwards compatibility
After making a massive mistake by ignoring PS4's backwards compatibility, Sony has made a 180 with the PS5, making the vast majority of the PS4 games compatible from day one. Whether in disc format, or in digital format through your profile, you can play almost any PS4 game you own on PS5, and usually with improvements. The level of improvements depend on a number of variables, but the various games we tried ran at least as well as on the PS4 Pro, and in most cases, in an enhanced fashion.
Nioh 2 is an excellent example, as it featured three gameplay modes on the PS4 Pro. Each offered differing frame rates to resolutions, with a "cinematic mode", that had the highest resolution, but with an uncapped framerate, meaning it was all over the place between 30 and 60 FPS. Now, on PS5, this cinematic mode not only runs at it's max resolution, but also a smooth constant 60 frames per second, and that's a massive improvement.
There's still a lot we don't know regarding the PS5 and this upcoming generation, in terms of innovative experiences and leaps in audio-visual quality, but that's the case with any new generation. That said, the hardware inside this huge console is impressive, and it allows us to dream with significant advances in the future. As for the now, well, the PS5 is a console prepared for video games, multimedia entertainment, and social interaction, while presenting a new controller that is a real asset to the gameplay experience. We believe it's well worth picking up even without thinking much about the future, as not only can it display amazing PS5 games, it will also allow you to access a massive library of PS4 titles that will run at the best of their capabilities. What more could you ask for?