PS5 Review: Truly Next-Gen Gaming

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After trouncing the competition with the Playstation 4, Sony’s long awaited next generation console has finally arrived and it’s ambitious on all fronts. From the bold design, graphics and audio through to the wildly innovative DualSense controller, the Playstation 5 makes a big statement about the future of gaming, writes Krishan Sharma.

Question is, does it deliver?

Design: Big, bold and divisive

The most polarising aspect of the PS5 is the outlandish design that dwarfs every other console that came before it in both size and flamboyance. At 390mm tall, 260mm deep and 104mm wide, it’s far bigger than its chief rival in the Xbox Series X and makes the Series S look like a bite sized snack.

Regardless of whether you’re standing it upright or on its side, the console is simply going to be too big for most people’s entertainment centres particularly as you have to allow for some clearance for it to stay cool (Sony recommends at least 10cm of free space around each side). As such, you’ll want to measure your available space before you set up a PS5 at home.

I found the included stand to be rather finicky in horizontal orientation, taking more than a few tries before I could get it to lay flat securely on the base. I do wish that Sony used a stronger mechanism to lock the stand in place as even the slightest of nudges can still cause the console to slide off.

Beyond ostentatiously reminding you of its presence, there are benefits to its bulk: a large twin-airflow fan inside keeps it cool, preventing the system from overheating and thus ensuring it stays almost silent.

The large white slabs of plastic on either side of the PS5 are easily removable, making it customisable within a matter of moments and we’re already starting to see custom coloured replacement plates offered by third parties. Removing the two white plates also grants you access to the console’s innards for dust removal and adding more NVMe SSD storage.

Playstation 5 console and controller

Ports and expansion: Storage management an issue

The PS5 edges out the Xbox Series X in the ports department with a USB-C port as well as three USB-A ports. The USB-C port located on the front and the two USB-A ports on the back max out at 10Gbps which is twice as fast as the USB ports on the Series X. While you can expand the system storage with an external USB drive, it is limited to storing PS4 games only.

Unlike the Series X, there’s no archive feature so you can’t store PS5 games on the external drive and move them back to the console’s internal storage when you’re ready to play them.

Playstation 5 is marketed as delivering 825GB of storage, which translates into 667GB of available space to the end user, up against an actual 802GB of usable storage on the 1TB Xbox Series X. In a world where the 100GB game barrier is routinely surpassed, you’re going to need to upgrade the storage sooner rather than later on the PS5.

While you’ll be able to expand the console’s internal storage with an off the shelf NVMe SSD drive, Sony has disabled this feature at launch. There are also only a handful of drives available on the market that are fast enough to meet the bandwidth requirements and they aren’t exactly cheap. That said, it’s worth being patient as storage prices will only come down with time.

Playstation 5 interface

Interface: Fresh and tuned for gamers

Upon booting up the console, you’re greeted to an impressive looking user interface that has been built from the ground up specifically for the PS5. The UI pops onscreen with a native 4K HDR presentation that makes scrolling through your game library a real treat for the eyes. Every title is presented beautifully with its own massive artwork, iconography and music all while remaining extremely fast and responsive to use.

The Playstation Store is now integrated into the UI at the system level so you don’t need to launch a separate app, making for a more cohesive experience.

The PS5’s interface features a new control centre, which pops up when you hit the PlayStation button. It makes it easy to keep track of the games you’re playing and recent captures. The most significant addition is “Activities” cards, which show you tips for the level you’re in or take you directly to a specific part of a game. Some titles will even include video guides which I found particularly useful for Sackboy A Big Adventure where I was struggling to find a few remaining collectables. The PS5 knew exactly which collectable I was missing and showed me a short video of where I could find it.

The Activities cards will even show you an estimate on how long it’ll take to finish the section you’re on. As someone who’s gaming time is so limited these days, it’s nice to have a sense of how long a specific mission or level will take.

As polished and streamlined as the interface feels to use, there are some areas that aren’t as elegant. For one, the PS5 defaults to downloading the PS4 version of a game, a problem that I encountered with several cross-generational titles such as Call of Duty, Immortals Fenyx Rising and NBA 2K21.

There’s no smart delivery system like there is on the Xbox Series X/S that automatically accesses and downloads the correct version of a game suited to the system you’re playing on. Instead users will have to manually select the game version via an obscure dance within the options menu which only becomes visible after the title has started downloading.

Performance: Truly next-gen

In terms of raw graphical power, the PS5 appears to lose out slightly against the Xbox Series X. Both have 8-core CPUs from AMD, but the Series X is clocked at 3.8GHz while the PS5 is at  3.5GHz. Both consoles also use AMD graphics processors, with the Xbox’s providing 12 teraflops of power to the PS5’s 10.28 teraflops.

After having sampled the entire launch library of the PS5, I’m thoroughly impressed by what Sony’s console is able to pump out. Games like Spider-Man: Miles Morales and Demon’s Souls look like something that should only be possible on a high-end PC and not on a $749 games console. Whether it’s catching the ray-traced reflections of Manhattan in the glass windows of high-rises in Spider-Man or admiring the sheer density of detail crammed into every harrowing corner of Demon’s Souls, there’s no shortage of jaw dropping moments.

Ray tracing is a graphical feature that transforms almost everything you see on screen by massively improving lighting, shadows and reflections. It’s also extremely taxing and is something that was limited to expensive graphics cards on PCs. The fact that we’re already seeing so many titles at launch support ray tracing while also simultaneously outputting at 4K resolution and a smooth 60fps, speaks volumes about how well the PS5 has been architectured.

I was also surprised to see how many big name tentpole titles offer an optional 120fps mode such as Call of Duty Black Ops Cold War and Dirt 5.

The main thing that is missing from the PS5 is support for VRR (Variable Refresh Rate) and ALLM (Auto Low Latency Mode). VRR synchronises the displays refresh rate in realtime to the frame output from the game console for noticeably smoother gameplay, making it particularly beneficial for titles that can’t quite hit their target framerate. The lack of VRR support means titles like Immortals Fenyx Rising for instance, suffer from noticeable judder and screen tearing.

ALLM automatically switches your TV to game mode, ensuring you get the lowest possible input lag. Sony has promised that VRR support will be added via a future software update but there’s no word on whether ALLM will be making its way as well.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has shown an impressive commitment to supporting every practical feature offered by a HDMI 2.1 display with support for both ALLM and VRR out of the gate on the Series X/S.

The special sauce inside the PS5 is the custom built 825GB NVMe solid state drive (SSD) which boasts throughput speeds of a whopping 5.5GB/s, making it twice as fast as the SSD found inside the Series X and outpacing most drives you can currently buy on the market. It results in exceptionally fast load times while also enabling developers to overcome many streaming and data bottlenecks of prior console generations, boosting overall system performance.

The best example of this is in Spider-Man: Miles Morales – a game that is completely devoid of loading screens. Regardless of whether you’re booting the game from the home screen, fast travelling between locations or progressing through to the next chapter, the experience feels instant. It means you’re spending more time playing and less time waiting for the game to load. The benefits can also be seen in the actual streaming of the open world. I encountered no stuttering at all while swinging through the dense landscape of New York City at 60fps with all of the graphical bells and whistles enabled in Performance RT mode.

Developers are doing some inventive things with the PS5’s blazing fast SSD such as the upcoming Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart that enables players to instantly teleport to different alien worlds without any interruption during gameplay.

Of course, some PS5 titles are better optimised than others. While I didn’t encounter any loading screens on first party titles like Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Demon’s Souls or Sackboy: A Big Adventure, third party titles such as Borderlands 3 and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla can take as long as 30 seconds to load up a level. Keep in mind that this is still a significant improvement over the PS4 versions which take well over a minute to perform the same task and is only going to get better once studios make the switch to develop exclusively for next-gen consoles.

One of my favourite features of the PS5 is the aforementioned Activities menu which at any time can display the progress of your game, a set of trophies you can go for and a list of in-game activities that you can jump right into.

As an example, I was able to dive into a series of side missions and challenges right from the Activities menu in Spider-Man: Miles Morales without having to actually find them in-game, saving me time I’d have to otherwise spend swinging around Manhattan looking for mission markers. The nice thing is that you can access the Activities menu without even booting up the game first so I was able to hop right into a specific level without having to deal with any menus. The fact that the lightning quick SSD can do all of this in an instant, makes it a massive timesaver.

While it’s a bit disappointing that you can’t suspend multiple titles and pick up right where you left off in each one like you can with Quick Resume on the Xbox Series X/S, the PS5’s load times are so fast that it almost makes up for its absence.

Playstation 5 close up of controller

DualSense Controller: Feeling is believing

One of the most exciting aspects of the PS5 is the new DualSense controller.

The DualSense is packed to the gills with interesting tech carrying across the motion controls, touchpad and speaker from the DualShock 4, but this time adds adaptive triggers and haptic feedback that all work together to immerse you in new and inventive ways.

Haptic feedback can pinpoint sensations in different places on the gamepad allowing you to feel even the most minute details while the adaptive triggers can change their tension on the fly. It means that everything that goes on with your character on screen more closely lines up with what you’re feeling in the hand.

Until you hold the controller in your hands, it’s easy to dismiss it as just another gimmick. It wasn’t until I fired up the PS5’s free pack-in title, Astro’s Playroom, that I realised how much of a literal game changer the DualSense controller really is.

Whether it’s feeling the tiny taps of Astro’s footsteps literally beneath your fingertips, mimicking the difference between trudging through sand and snow, piloting a glider, manning a spaceship or firing off a gatling gun, the DualSense accurately recreates the tactile sensations in such convincing fashion that you can’t help but be floored by the experience.

Call of Duty Black Ops Cold War is a great example of what the DualSense controller can do for shooters thanks to a stellar implementation of the adaptive triggers and haptic feedback.

Triggers now have a resistance to them just like an actual gun and that resistance changes based on the weapon you’re wielding. For example, assault rifles feel relatively easy on the trigger while LMGs genuinely feel heavy in your hands. The triggers also deliver their own kickback simulating recoil perfectly and the haptic feedback vibrates to the rhythm of the fire rate. With the DualSense, every type of weapon handles differently and feels unique to shoot, making the game that much more immersive to play.

I could imagine how the triggers alone could ratchet up the tension in titles like the upcoming Resident Evil 8 when you run out of ammo during a gunfight and the trigger in your hand locks up in response.

In The Pathless, I could feel the adaptive trigger tension gradually increase as I pulled back the string of the bow and arrow and in NBA 2K21 I could physically feel players tiring.

The DualSense shows incredible promise and I’m hopeful that developers will take the time to leverage its unique features in future titles as it adds so much to the experience when done right.

Thankfully all that tech hasn’t come at the cost of battery life with the DualSense lasting more than 11 hours before needing to be charged which is a colossal improvement over the five hour battery life of the Dualshock 4.

One other addition that’s easy to miss is the DualSense’s integrated microphone which allows you to plug any pair of standard wired headphones into the bottom of the controller, while still being able to communicate with friends in online games. It might make voices sound tinny, but the clarity is decent and it’s a convenient option to have for those who mightn’t own a headset.

Speaking of headphones, the PS5 uses Sony’s bespoke 3D audio system that will work with any pair of headphones and it sounds great. I tested a bunch of headphones including the recently released Turtle Beach Stealth 700 Gen2 and found they all did a convincing job in delivering open, spacious and atmospheric sound with greater directionality than standard stereo can offer.

Backwards compatibility: A mixed bag

The PS5 is backwards compatible with the vast majority of PS4 titles but Sony hasn’t gone the extra mile like Microsoft has with the Series X to ensure legacy games look and perform better on the PS5.

In fact, only two titles from the PS4-era have been specifically optimised for the PS5 with Days Gone and Ghosts of Tsushima receiving a 60fps patch both of which feel transformative to play with the faster frame rate. Sony amassed a fantastic library of exclusives during the lifespan of the PS4 that would benefit greatly from the extra headroom that the PS5 offers but sadly, the company has been reluctant to release any sort of enhancement patches for more of their older titles.

At least all legacy titles played on the PS5 benefit from faster loading times. Also if the game in question happens to have an unlocked frame rate or variable resolution, the PS5 will automatically enhance until the title reaches its natural boundaries – which was the case with Knack 2, Final Fantasy XV and Infamous Second Son.

While you can transfer your PS4 save data to PS5 and carry on your progress, there are a few caveats. Some PS4 titles such as Yakuza: Like a Dragon won’t let you transfer your save data over to the PS5. Unlike the Xbox Series X/S, the PS5 won’t automatically pull in your save data from the cloud either, so when you boot up a game for the first time, don’t be surprised if you’re asked to start from scratch.

The process of transferring save files is convoluted to say the least. For example, bringing my save across from the PS4 version of Spider-Man to the remaster on PS5, I first needed to download the PS4 version, start the game, upload my save from the main menu to the cloud (which requires a PS Plus subscription), and then start the game on the PS5 where I could download the save from the cloud to one of the save slots.

The PS5 doesn’t let you play PS3, PS2 or original Playstation games. You can stream some older Playstation games via Sony’s game streaming service, Playstation Now, but that isn’t available in Australia.

Playstation 5 and all the gear you need

Verdict

With gorgeous 4K performance, dazzling front-end, stunningly fast load times and a truly revolutionary controller, the PS5 is a genuine leap forward for console gaming. While Sony has made very little effort to enhance older titles for the PS5, there are plenty of new titles to enjoy on the console along with some stellar must-have exclusives that take advantage of everything the hardware has to offer.

The console’s massive size is a concern for those with limited space, and the lack of VRR and ALLM support at launch will frustrate those with HDMI 2.1 displays. The inability to expand the storage to store more PS5 games will also be a pain point for many at least until Sony enables user upgradeable NVMe SSD storage on the system.

Teething issues aside, the PS5 is the most ambitious console that Sony has ever made and from what I’ve seen so far, it just might be its best.

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