I haven’t cracked open a new Sony PlayStation in years. Seven years to be exact. That’s how long it’s been since I first laid hands on the original PlayStation 4. It was a hulking home-videogaming powerhouse that trounced its archrival, Microsoft Xbox One, in the previous generation of console wars.
Now comes the rematch. In November, Sony and Microsoft unveiled their next-generation hardware. I’ll be writing up my take on the new Xbox Series X in the coming days. For now, here are first impressions of the new PS5, after a week’s worth of button-mashing.
Start with aesthetics. I’ve been checking out the top-drawer PS5, the $500 model with the built-in optical drive. It’s not exactly ugly. But its tall, swoopy structure, clad in blazing white plastic, is too gaudy for my living room, and probably yours. Why not a simple black box, like the PS4, or for that matter the new Xbox? We’re here to look at games, not the machine that runs them.
The PS5 optical drive can run Ultra HD Blu-ray movie discs, if you happen to have an Ultra HD television, which I don’t. So far, the drive’s only been used by my soccer-obsessed teenage son, to load up the latest edition of EA’s FIFA sports game. But if you’ve got fast broadband, you can just download the latest titles. If that’s your style, the optical drive-free PS5 costs $100 less. However, if you’re in the market for a high-end video player, or prefer to own physical game discs, spend the extra money.
Neither model contains an old-school spinning hard drive. Instead, the PS5 comes with 825 gigabytes of solid state storage, and not the cheap kind found in low-end laptops. Sony went with an insanely fast version called NVMe memory, the same kind that lets my desktop machine boot Windows 10 in about 25 seconds. It’s similarly fast in the PS5. Hit “Start” on a game, and in seconds you’re rolling. This remarkable drive speed is especially good for inept gamers like me. I kept getting annihilated in the medieval fantasy adventure “Demon Souls,” but the PS5 resurrected my character so quickly that I didn’t mind a bit.
But for all its speed, an 825-gig drive is pretty skimpy. Expect to squeeze just a dozen or so games onto the PS5. Sony promises to offer a second NVMe storage slot by next year, and you can plug in an external hard drive for storing older PS4 games. Virtually all these older games will run just fine on the new console.
And you’ll be playing a lot of them. As you’d expect, there aren’t a lot of games yet that have been optimized for the new console. But the ones I’ve tried make an excellent first impression. For instance, the PS5 comes preloaded with “Astro’s Playroom,” a classic family-friendly run-and-jump game that mainly serves as a demo of the console’s impressive new DualSense controller.
We’re all accustomed to haptic controllers that send game-related vibrations through our fingers. DualSense levels up this concept with remarkably precise tactile feedback. The triggers generate subtly different sensations as you squeeze them, depending on whether you’re grabbing an object or throwing a punch. As you walk through “Astro’s Playroom,” the controller’s vibrations convey the texture of the ground your character is walking on — wood feels different from grass, which feels different from stone. No idea how Sony did it, but it’s brilliant.
The other big technical upgrade promised by the PS5 is a gimmick called ray tracing, which is supposed to produce ultra-realistic lighting effects, like those in the computer-generated sequences of big-budget films. Moviemakers take months to create these effects, using roomfuls of computers. A gaming console like the PS5 must do the same thing in real time.
Mission accomplished, judging by “Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales.” Built specifically for the PS5, the game transforms midtown Manhattan into a gleaming wonderland. Trees cast precisely defined shadows; passing cars and humans are crisply reflected in shop windows and pavement puddles. There’s a deep, satisfying glow to the city. It’s not up to Hollywood standards, of course, but easily among the best-looking games I’ve seen.
And of course, Sony’s just getting started. It generally takes a couple of years after the rollout of a new console before there’s a roster of games that can get the most from the machine.
Which ought to comfort you in your desperate and likely unsuccessful quest to purchase a PS5. The machines are not available in brick-and-mortar stores, and online retailers like Amazon, Walmart, and Best Buy are selling out of them as quickly as shipments arrive. Which means that by the time most of us can buy a PS5, there will be enough new games to make it worth the money.