PlayStation 5 Review: Very Big and A Little Bold

Sony’s PlayStation 5 offers a significant leap in console power that further increases performance on the PS4’s impressive library of games, 99% of which will work on the next-gen console. The PS5 doesn’t offer much yet that’s genuinely innovative outside of its speed however, and it suffers from some notable shortcomings.

The first and most obvious is the console hardware itself. The PlayStation 5 unit is laughably large and oddly shaped. It’s in fact the largest console in modern gaming history, even bigger than the launch Xbox One and original Xbox. Even with that size, the PS5 embraces an odd and impractical form factor that requires users to manually screw in a cheap plastic base to stand it up vertically, or snap it in to lay it horizontally. At a glance the PS5 looks futuristic but it’s rather ugly up close and the odd plastic plating on the console’s sides feel too flimsy for a premium product. It’s a design we can expect to be totally abandoned in the next iteration once they get past current thermal management challenges.

For PlayStation gamers looking to upgrade or newcomers joining the next-gen of console gaming, it’s what on the inside of the PS5 that counts. Sony’s Tempest 3D AudioTech promises to deliver unprecedented 3D sound via compatible hardware and for compatible games including the launch title Demon’s Souls, and the future releases of Resident Evil Village and Gran Turismo 7. It’s a bit of an unknown until we get there though.

A custom AMD eight-core Zen processor at 3.5 Gigahertz and a GPU capable of 10.28 teraflops make the PlayStation 5 much more powerful and faster than the PS4, further bolstered by a state of the art 825GB SSD. Load times vanish, older games run so much smoother, and now there’s a platform capable of offering so much new in the future – that is, if developers can take advantage of it.

Like the Xbox Series S and X, game experiences on the PlayStation 5 are and will continue to be limited to what also works on the 7-year old PlayStation 4. PS5 flagship launch title Spider-Man: Miles Morales runs on PS4, and even 2021’s highly anticipated open-world sequel Horizon Forbidden West will run on PS4. PS5 users instead get an even better way to play these, often times with notable visual upgrades, super fast load times, or other added features exclusive to the PlayStation 5 version. More ambitious next-gen mechanics from world size and AI, to character and player counts however, may be limited to what the PS4 can also support.

At the time of this writing, there isn’t a playable next-gen exclusive except for Astro’s Playroom which comes with the PlayStation 5 and serves as tech demo for the PS5’s new DualSense controller.

The design of the PS5 console may be inconvenient but PlayStation has landed on something special with the DualSense wireless controller, a re-shaped and slightly larger iteration of the classic DualShock design that comes with the PlayStation 5 console.

The DualSense keeps the iconic button layout of the DualShock series and all the innovation of the PS4’s DualShock 4 – from the touchpad and share button, to the lightbar for motion controls – and attaches it to a more Xbox-esque form factor. With a futuristic aesthetic that looks like something out of the Mass Effect universe or the modern Star Trek movies, the DualSense feels and looks like a step forward in next-gen hardware design where the console does not.

The DualSense feels great, with the smoothest and comfiest design yet for a PlayStation controller, and the right amount of added texture underneath. And believe it or not, the textured pattern is comprised of many, many little PlayStation symbols – a wonderful little detail for long-time PS players.

Other notable changes to the next-gen controller from previous generations include the main PS button taking the shape of PS logo instead of a round button, and the PlayStation 4’s share button now being labeled the ‘Create’ button for the PS5. In addition to form factor improvements are the added haptic feedback features in the DualSense’s L2 and R2 trigger buttons which add not just a traditional vibration where applicable, but can offer real resistance as well which first-party games could get creative with if it’s embraced. This can literally be a game-changer if developers use it in meaningful ways as Astro’s Playroom showcases so well.

The DualSense brings back the built-in microphone and speaker and there’s an added mute button for the built-in mic that lights up when engaged. Lastly, PlayStation 5’s DualSense controller uses an internal battery that is charged with a much more convenient USB-C cable and from our experience, battery life is comparable to the PS4’s DualShock 4 when playing games that use the vibration on the regular.

While Sony confirmed to us that the PlayStation 5 does not support mouse and keyboard for use outside of compatible games, when we tested the console for this anyway, it recognized these USB devices immediately. The mouse doesn’t do anything, but the keyboard will indeed let users navigate through the PS5’s system-level interface and of course, type for the on-screen keyboards. They work together as intended in-game and we tested this with Call of Duty: Warzone.

There are only 3 standard USB ports on the PlayStation 5 however, so when using mouse and keyboard, with a headset like the official PS5 Pulse 3D headset, there’s no room for any other USB peripheral or storage option outside of the USB-C port on the front.

The PlayStation 5 is a joy to actually use. Its specs allow for a consistently slick and fast experience, with a modern but very familiar interface and behaviour flow to what PS3 and PS4 users will be accustomed to, even down to the ambient background sounds and visual aesthetic. The horizontal layout of buttons and menus is similar to the PS4 and pressing the PS button on the DualSense brings up an interface across the bottom where users can choose to return to PS5’s home screen, access recently or currently open games via the Switcher, check notifications and the friends list, and quickly access sound, mic, and status options.

These are just the first indicators that the PS5 is a proudly a PlayStation family product through and through, even down to some of the quirks of the PlayStation 4.

PS5 content creators must again face PS4 holdover limitations like HDCP (High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection) which by default blocks capture cards, and on the console, it limits apps like Twitch from being usable until the option is re-enabled. The PS5 also doesn’t provide the option to send audio output through HDMI and a headset at the same time – it’s one or the other, making it tricky to stream or capture content when chatting with friends without other hardware and workarounds.

PS4 users who are upgrading have several options to transfer data from their old console to the PS5 – a recommended option due to the PS5’s painfully slow download speeds, another holdover from the PS4 era. When benchmarking on a steady 1 Gigabit per second bandwidth speed, it took almost five hours to download the 100 GB Call of Duty: Warzone (the full Modern Warfare experience is more than twice that size) and nearly three hours for Spider-Man: Miles Morales which was under 53 GB. Small, older titles, like Rocket League still took nearly an hour.

Triple-A games and live service games with frequent and substantial patch sizes take space and time to acquire, and the PS5 doesn’t satisfy in handling these tasks. Its download speeds haven’t improved over the last generation, and they’re a far cry from what the Xbox Series X download speeds are and what’s needed for modern gaming. Also worrisome on this front is the PS5’s limited storage space. Before installing any games, the PlayStation 5 only has roughly 660 GB of available space on its SSD, meaning for active gamers, additional external storage will be a necessity and so to may be repeatedly downloading to rotate what applications are on the small hard drive. Unfortunately, the ability to add SSD storage to the PS5 will not be available at launch.

These limitations don’t take away from what the PlayStation does do. While in operation, the console runs silently, so much so, that when recording with a microphone beside the console the only audible sound picked up was the classic PlayStation start-up beep. The quality of life enhancements just from smooth sailing menus and loading times cannot be understated, and upcoming games that offer better visuals really do look and run better, with so much potential to push boundaries in the future.

When it comes to the past, PlayStation 4’s DualShock 4 controllers can be used on the PS5 but only for PS4 titles, even though the controllers are generally the same in terms of functionality. PS5’s DualSense controller oddly works on the PlayStation 3 but not PS4. For PlayStation VR titles however, the PS5 requires an adapter (this can be requested and shipped for free from Sony) for the PS4 camera to work since the PS5’s new camera doesn’t work with VR.

For PlayStation early adopters who appreciated the PS4 Pro and are looking for the best way to play their current library – and a way to finally play 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Discs on a PlayStation console – the PS5 adds more speed, but doesn’t add much else. It’s a better, replacement home for more great exclusives, which as far we know, will still be playable on PS4 for the foreseeable future. Sony Interactive Entertainment president Jim Ryan confirmed that the PS4 will be supported this way at least until 2022 so there’s no rush to get a PS5 unless the Demon’s Souls remake is a must-play.

The bigger benefits will come from enhanced experiences from multi-platform and multi-generational games, like having more PC-like visual options in Call of Duty: Black Ops – Cold War which will help raise the standard of what games across the board should be offering players going forward on the PlayStation 5.

The PlayStation 5 trailer had the tagline “Play Has No Limits” but it does at the moment.

Sony’s PlayStation 5 releases November 12, 2020. The Ultra HD Blu-ray disc version is priced at $499.99 USD / $629.99 CAD, and the PlayStation 5 Digital Edition will be available for $399.99 USD / $499.99 CAD.

A PS5 was provided for purposes of this review.

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