A Whole Lot of PS5 & Xbox Series Launch Impressions

2020 began with the promise that the next generation of mainstream videogame consoles (and by extension PC hardware) would at long last grace our homes by its end. At multiple points throughout this year, such a promise seemed about as far from reality as conceivably possible. The stop-start hype cycle, packed as it was with guesswork and noise, was nothing short of exhausting. Yet here we are. Despite two distinctly bitter flavours of worldwide preorder drama, the PS5 and the dual-threat Xbox Series exist in real life; they are out there in the wild and after almost two weeks spent with each, I’m here to talk about how they look out of the racing blocks. Strap yourselves in – this is a big one.

Seven years ago I posted a similar article comparing the PS4 and the original Xbox One. In many ways that feels like yesterday, but going back over it in preparation for this round I was struck by just how many shiny plates were spinning on both sides of the main home console divide in 2013. Gimmicks and talking points abounded: futuristic Kinect voice commands and hand gestures running on a tile-based solid-colour Windows 8 interface versus PS Vita remote play, the abandonment of Sony’s trusty “cross media bar” and Playstation’s most radical controller shake-up ever. Both consoles felt functionally fresh and experimental. They were missing key features their predecessors had taken for granted and neither one showed any interest in backwards compatibility with older-generation games, but at least in those first few months there was a sense that each cut had made way for something tangibly new.

Which is why that launch also feels like a hundred years ago. The still-young gaming industry has continued to change in many ways since 2013, and the feverish year of marketing and punditry behind us would have you believe there’s a growing ideological gulf between Microsoft and Sony. But the dawn of the ninth home console generation has a somewhat surprising streak of quiet confidence about it. Make no mistake: The PS5 and the Xbox Series X feel like marked leaps ahead for the home console experience, and they are quite different despite clearly learning lessons from one another during the last go-around. But neither Sony nor Microsoft has come off looking quite as insecure about it this time around.

Clash of the Titans

Let’s start by talking about the elephants in the room. It’s been well-documented (love an understatement) that 2020’s new boxes are a bit on the large side, but much like the pocket-friendliness of last year’s Nintendo Switch Lite didn’t hit home until I held it, the stature and weight of the Xbox Series X and PS5 feels like little more than a meme – until you actually have to try and fit them into your entertainment setup. I distinctly remember transitioning from PS3 to PS4 painlessly because they shared identical cabling and a similar stature, but the PS5 is so gargantuan that the tape measure had to come out more than once during the multi-hour entertainment unit reshuffle it demanded.

Visually the PS5 looks like it belongs firmly in the middle of the 2000s, right next to the lightly-toned, vertically-marketed day-one model Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii. Despite being larger than both combined, it would’ve fit right in among that semi-space-age design trend. It marks a huge departure from the last decade of flat, straight black lines that aim to draw attention away from the consoles they adorn, arriving instead with a weighty form factor wearing a brilliant white coat, collar popped like it was made by a company that just sold 100+ million PS4s. It doesn’t care that it needs a chunky (included) stand for stability; it wants to be the first thing anyone looks at in your living room.

Not that any of these things matter, because the only place I can fit it is behind my TV.

The initially-maligned wide black tower that is the Xbox Series X doesn’t seem quite as monolithic next to the PS5 as it does next to a previous-generation console. Not only is it shorter and squarer, it’s actually quite the inoffensive addition to a primarily-black AV setup. Much like the PS5 the Series X can work just fine when placed on its side, but the more I look at it standing vertically between my TV and audio receiver the more I enjoy its own version of a self-assured vibe. The reduced horizontal footprint also means it can coexist with a Nintendo Switch dock in my particular setup, which is neat. Most of its cooling happens through the top of the unit, which makes access to airflow highly recommended, but it looks like I will definitely have to dust the thing more than any other console I’ve had before.

Less fun is the finish on both consoles. One of the things you’re never quite sure of just looking at pictures of a new piece of tech is how fingerprint-resistant its surfaces are, and neither of the big boys come out clean in that department – literally. The particular style of matte that wraps the Series X just despises the human finger and all it stands for. Don’t let the pictures on this page fool you; I was wearing gloves for those. The PS5’s slightly off-white panels showcase smudges with stubborn defiance and the black central unit is a little too proud of the ray-traced reflections its internals can pull off. The thing is so ridiculously mirror-like that taking front-on pictures is a write-off, and pieces of dust flock to its surface for a chance at the spotlight. I live in fear of the day my nieces discover it.

Alt Control

By the time the Xbox One and the PS4 had hit store shelves in 2013, I had already sampled each new controller thanks to the wonder of public videogame expos. Needless to say there haven’t been a lot of those to go around in 2020, and the copious amount of preview content I’ve been watching on YouTube can only go so far. Alas, alack, but there are far worse problems to have. Turns out that hands-on time with these brand-new controllers would have to wait until the consoles arrived. And boy, do I have thoughts.

The Xbox Series controller is probably the best place to start, because on paper it’s the least different from its predecessor. It’s certainly the less eye-catching of the two, even though there are three colours available at launch, and that’s mostly due to Microsoft’s decision to make it their first-ever forwards-compatible console controller. That means yes, you can buy an Xbox Series controller (OK, technically it’s just called the ‘Xbox Wireless Controller’ now) and it will work on your Xbox One or your Windows 10 PC right out of the box. The new dedicated screenshot button even works on any Xbox One  (though sadly not on PC for the moment, even with Xbox Game Bar enabled).

As a bit of a fan of special edition controllers, I had plenty of opportunities last generation to refresh my supply of Xbox One gamepads via trade-in offers and the like. Because of this I’m intimately familiar with the list of small upgrades and changes made by each quiet revision Microsoft has made to the template over the last half-decade or so, rendering some of the subtle changes made by the new controller a smidge less exciting than they perhaps otherwise would be to someone coming straight from the 2013 model Xbox One. For example, the newer, less shiny plastic on the surface has been on Xbox controllers since at least 2016. You can find textured grip material on the back of the Sports White controller from 2018, and bumpy triggers on last year’s Gears 5 pad. The redistributed weighting comments coming out of last month’s early Series X previews can also be applied to the excellent Elite Series 2 – that thing also feels like it’s magnetised to your hands.

But that’s hardly the end of the story. The new Xbox Wireless Controller is still an elegant piece of design that advocates for the benefits of iteration in ways hardly seen in tech outside of the smartphone world; it has already made things awkward for my Sea of Thieves Xbox One controller, even though that one works just fine on the Xbox Series consoles. USB-C charging (which sadly still requires a separate purchase) and that wonderful screenshot button might’ve been enough to get the new controller over the line anyway, but it also packs a few delightful surprises.

The form factor is ever-so-slightly smaller without feeling restrictive to people with large hands like myself. Gone are the ridges on the upper face and the curves around the edges have been deflated somewhat, giving the impression of something much easier to 3D print. If anything, it’s a push further towards minimalism that you might argue shaves off some character in the transition – or perhaps just underscores Microsoft’s deep desire to become more like Apple. The “Robot White” controller is even the first one since the launch of the Xbox 360 to tout all-white bumpers and triggers to match the chassis; simplicity on the shelf is the name of the game here.

But however you feel about the face of the controller, the underside is where some of the bigger design changes are hiding. Microsoft may have been doing textured rear grips for years now, but on standard-priced controllers the texture has usually been confined to the middle back panel, right below the battery compartment. It looks like the new standard is to spread this out across both handles and up the sides, meaning most people’s entire palms will come into full contact. It’s a change that makes a heap of sense. The bumps are also much less course; a change that also applies to the grips on the new, less aggressively-sloped triggers. Said triggers are also slightly shorter and wider at the actual point of contact, leaving less room for the One’s chunky mid-finger rests. I’m a big fan of this change in particular.

The last thing worth talking about on the new controller is the next in a long line of experimental Microsoft D-pads. Though the Xbox One’s clicky plus-shaped D-pad was a clear improvement over the 360’s cheap overly-raised circle design, it felt like lead to press at times and had some pretty chronic wear issues. The Xbox Series consoles usher in a return to the round look, but they do so having learned plenty from their older brothers. While the tactile click persists, the spring-back on this thing is more energetic than even the Elite Series 2 can boast. That’s probably helped by the fact that this D-pad is the most concave version I can remember using on an official gamepad. It also keeps somewhat of a plus shape, which helps when playing tile-based games and makes motoring through menus a breeze.

I can wholeheartedly recommend picking one of these things up if you feel like upgrading your controller game but don’t see a reason to go all-in on an entire console at the moment. They’re just about the only piece of Xbox Series-adjacent hardware with decently-available stock levels right now, anyway. Honestly, when combined with the new Xbox app and refreshed console UI (more on these shortly), you really get the sense that Microsoft is giving everyone in their ecosystem the chance at a de facto next-generation upgrade, new box or not. This makes sense – after all, they have the longer history in software development out of the two major home console players.

But my oh my, did the hardware people bring their A-game to this new generation.

There’s a reason the PS5’s Dualsense controller has dropped Playstation’s decades-long Dualshock moniker and raised its price – It is going hard on the kinds of new features that fill a gimmick-lover like me with joy. But because they’re hardly the first thing anyone will notice when picking up the gamepad, it’s worth taking about the considerable changes gracing the hallowed Playstation controller form factor in 2020.

First things first – The Dualsense controller is quite a bit larger than its predecessors. Pre-release images did nothing to prepare me for the heft it brings to the table, likely because said images were usually cast against the gigantic PS5 itself. I have reasonably big hands but the Dualsense fills them more than any controller since the first Xbox’s infamous Duke, and it’s similarly weighty. The bulk isn’t haphazardly distributed, of course; it’s clear Sony has put some serious research into making each curve align with the way a human hand is likely to hold it. There’s quite a bit of the Nintendo Switch Pro Controller in the feel of its materials, to be honest – Playstation has been paying attention to the competition and it shows. This thing feels as expensive as it is.

Sony’s signature ‘squishy’ directional buttons return, along with the flat-faced triangle, square, circle and cross buttons. But for the first time since the wondrous Playstation Vita, they’re made out of clear plastic. There’s a part of my brain that can’t help but adore this (and it’s not even the only part of the PS5 experience that harkens back to the Vita – more soon). The L1 and R1 buttons are significantly taller – think L2/R2 on the PS2 pad – and the twin analogue sticks feel like a slight evolution of the second-generation PS4 ones. There’s definitely a whole lot less of the grippy stuff that wore off so reliably on every original Dualshock 4.

In another Xbox-like move, the Options and Create (formerly Share) buttons now have basic symbols instead of words above them. They’re closer to the edges of the controller now, making them easier to reach. And yes, the underside of the controller is adorned with teeny-tiny squares, triangles, circles and crosses. That’s just such a Playstation move and I love it. I’m less into the way the bottom ends of the controller look like they’ve been sliced clean off; it’s already been a bit annoying for my outer fingers brushing past the unexpectedly harsh edge during one or two sessions. I’m sure I’ll get used to it.

Naturally, the size comes with purpose. The Dualsense really wants to use your senses to immerse you more in videogames, so there are more bells and whistles crammed inside it than any controller before (not to mention a bigger battery to accommodate them). The atypical stuff starts with the returning lightbar, but this second iteration of the feature is far less brash than the Dualshock 4’s full-bodied power drain. The bar is now more of a sliver, wrapped around the also-returning touchpad like it doesn’t need to prove a thing to anyone. At launch its uses are more reserved as well; when playing PS4 games the two Dualsenses I own light up on both sides in the familiar blue/red configuration to denote players one and two, but in PS5 games all they show is the relevant number of isolated white lights instead. More intuitive and more power-efficient, I suppose. I didn’t notice too many more uses within games, but I wasn’t really looking, which might explain why the lightbar’s presence has been reduced in the first place.

Right below the bar sits the traditional PS button, feeling less traditional than ever. Now in the exact shape of the iconic logo, it sits barely above the plastic housing and, at least with the single dual-toned Dualsense colour available at launch, blends right in to its surroundings. If you’ve been playing games for a while, it might take a few attempts to get the travel time down so you don’t feel like you’re crushing the button. It’s certainly a choice. The only entirely new input on the Dualsense is a mute button that lights up orange when toggled on, which I initially thought just controlled whether the now-inbuilt controller microphone was on but actually functions on headsets as well. That’s really handy, especially because the PS5 system settings let you set it so everything defaults to muted on a hardware level.

So that’s sight and sound covered, and thankfully Sony hasn’t elected to make use of smell and taste in videogame controllers just yet. The major push against the status quo the Dualsense is attempting is all about changing the way a gamepad feels to use. This is where most of the initial hype around this controller has settled, and I’m happy to report that the tech is mighty impressive, although early signs that it’ll actually be used by game developers aren’t as promising as I hoped.

The best analogue I’ve heard for the haptic feedback response inside the Dualsense is “4K Rumble”, a.k.a the Nintendo Switch’s HD Rumble turned up to 11. I’ve struggled to compare the two in my head ever since the Dualsense was first announced, because I’m the guy who did all the optional LABO stuff that dived into how the Switch Joy-con’s multiple tiny motors worked, played all the 1,2 Switch and Super Mario Party minigames, had my hands numbed by Okami HD, booted up Golf Story just for it’s ridiculous rumble integration etc etc. I could scarcely believe the things I was feeling in these examples, but pretty much nowhere else across the Switch’s vast library.

If you have a Switch and haven’t played these games, your experience with HD Rumble probably begins and ends with the subtle bumps you feel in menus or grazing other players in the likes of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. Even then, to get a chance at feeling it you essentially need to be using two Joy-cons wirelessly in the middle of your palms without wrist straps. Using a Pro Controller in docked mode, like millions of other players around the world? Good luck getting anything out of the same tiny motors buried beneath all those additional layers of plastic! In 2020 you might not even realise HD Rumble is a thing.

The Dualsense essentially rectifies the issue the Pro Controller has, either by using stronger rumble motors, more of them, or quite likely both. It then puts even more of those motors in the triggers, so it can also claim to offer a better version of the Xbox’s existing “Impulse Triggers” to boot. This truly feels like the next generation of haptic feedback, especially when combined intelligently with the Dualsense’s improved speaker. Playstation’s genius decision to pre-install the wonderful tech-demo-with-a-platinum-trophy Astro’s Playroom on every PS5 ensures that everyone who picks up their new console can experience the best of the new rumble standard on day one. Moments like moving through a sandstorm and ‘feeling’ the grains move through your hands, or the rustle of the grass brushing against your adorable bot as you run through a green patch, mark perhaps some of the clearest next-gen moments of the year, because right there in your hands they sound like they feel – and they feel pretty good.

Finally there are the “adaptive triggers”, the only 100% brand-new whiz-bang part of the Dualsense setup. They are very, very cool. If and when a game decides, either trigger can vary how much it resists your finger pulling it – even at different stages of its arc. The clearest example from Astro Bot is a stage where you pilot a springy jumping robot – you can feel the resistance of the spring as you prepare for each jump.

The Sony first party titles at launch back up the Astro implementation of haptic feedback and the adaptive triggers pretty handily. Despite also releasing for PS4, Sackboy: A Big Adventure and Spider-Man: Miles Morales revel in them (Sackboy even does so in local co-op). Collecting things in the former feels even more gratifying than usual, and the oh-so-magnificent swing mechanics of the latter are enhanced by a tiny bit of extra resistance at the bottom of the R2 trigger pull. Demon’s Souls gives you an option for “immersive” rumble in the settings menu, which makes plodding through puddles an ominously tactile affair. I haven’t felt any adaptive trigger use just yet, but I hear it’s in the parry system and I’m just so bad at parrying.

Feature usage starts to feel a bit foreshadow-y after that. I tested four third-party PS5 games, but only Godfall and Bugsnax – which are admittedly PS5 console exclusives at the moment – felt like they cared about the Dualsense’s shiny new internals. The former packs some neat mid-trigger-pull touches depending on what attacks you make, while the latter attempts to replicate the feeling of a bug rattling inside a cage whenever you successfully capture a critter. However, Borderlands 3 only adds one static tier of resistance at the top of each and every R2 pull, no matter what gun you’re using (I tested six different guns from different sub-weapon types). Fortnite does only marginally better with an ever-so-slight variation if you’re using an automatic weapon versus a single-shot. As far as I can tell, both shooters just use your standard garden-variety rumble.

This kind of controller should be a competitive advantage for Playstation when it comes to choosing where to buy a particular third-party game. But we’ve been here before. Videogames are difficult enough to make already, and history shows that developers usually won’t put in the extra time to support console-exclusive hardware features outside of a launch window if they aren’t incentivised to do so. Once again, I hope I’m wrong this time, but these early signs are the wrong kind of familiar.

UI Royale

At first glance, comparing the Xbox and Playstation user interfaces this time around looks like a simple case of sticking with what works vs pushing forward into a new era. But as usual, there’s a great deal more to it.

Booting up an Xbox One and an Xbox Series console right next to one another will show you a near-identical home menu layout, and digging through menus will only give you slight differences in available options – though the Series S/X will run rings around the One in navigation speed thanks to that inbuilt Solid State Drive, and will walk you through every step of optimising a HDMI 2.1 TV if you have one. Thing is, the Xbox One only received that menu update about a month before the Series consoles released (where it is also noticeably snappier, though nowhere near to the same extent), and the Xbox team have essentially been tweaking their UI on an annual basis for at least a decade now. These guys want their best face on every device they can get it on.

In contrast, the PS4 user interface essentially did not change for the entirety of its life as Sony’s main console – though it did add additional options over time – and so the PS5 marks Playstation’s first new UI in seven years. This means it can deliver a stunning, fresh look (which it does, at 4K and in HDR unlike Xbox’s baffling 1080p) but may suffer from crucial missing options at launch. Fortunately, the PS5 takes a page from the Microsoft playbook here and basically lifts the exact structure of the PS4 settings menu, transplanting it into the next generation. Some settings have changed names, some are new and some are missing, but it’s a much better start than the PS4 got. Unfortunately, beyond this pocket of the interface there is a push towards minimalism that made my first week with the PS5 far more frustrating than it could have been.

The look and sound of the PS5 UI no doubt deliberately harkens back to the PS3 – complete with particle effects and beautiful string sounds – but that comes with the removal of themes. Everything is currently just the same shade of white and silver. This makes a certain amount of sense once you see what the UI is going for – every game you select on the tiny game bar across the top edge casts a huge piece of splash art over the rest of the screen, sometimes accompanied by relevant music. However, at the moment when my brother and I switch profiles there is no way to tell whose screen we’re on beyond the tiny avatar in the top-right corner.

Having the PSN Store built right into the home dashboard is a cool touch, but the structure of said store is pretty bare-bones at the moment. Like the day the Epic Games Store launched, the focus seems to be on big beautiful pieces of game art and a speedy browsing experience at first. At the time of writing there is no sales tab in the store at all, but it’s not like there will be many PS5 games going on discount this early anyway, so I’m sure it’ll arrive soon enough.

There’s also no way to check on every piece of DLC you’ve bought or even just redeemed for a particular game. If a PS4 game uses the PS5’s “game boost” feature to increase its performance beyond what was possible before (think Days Gone and Ghost of Tsushima running at 60FPS), then you’d better keep up with external gaming news sources because there is no notation of such anywhere on the PSN Store. Want to know if a game supports the PS5’s hyped-up 3D Audio spec for sound output? Again, no indication of which games support it. By contrast the Xbox Store has tags for days and it’s not afraid to fill up a store page with them.

The rest of my issues with the PS5 UI pretty much boil down to bugs that have already been fixed since launch day – such as being unable to upgrade any of my eligible PS4 games – or learning a new language of sorts, like figuring out the best new button combo shortcut to turn the console off or get to my friends’ profile pages (where there is finally a passive play time tracker, Nintendo Switch style!)

I did have to turn my console off and back on again twice to fix freezes, including the very first time I booted up the console, but they were isolated incidents that didn’t happen in the same place twice. Just like the PS4 Pro, the PS5 flat-out does not support 1440p resolutions, which sucks for people with 2K monitors they might’ve hoped to use with their new console. There’s no sign of Variable Refresh Rate support at launch, either. There are a whole lot fewer streaming apps available at launch on PS5 than there are on the Xbox, but the good news is no matter which new console you’re watching on, that app is going to load up frighteningly fast.

There are some new system-level features that are just fabulous, however. You can set presets for common game settings, like whether you prefer standard or inverted camera controls or whether you want your games to prioritise pretty visuals or better frame rates (though the latter doesn’t work for me in Godfall so I’m not sure at what level it’s calculated). The dark background has returned to the trophy notification for the first time since the PS Vita days, which feels like a cheap shot to get people like me back into trophy-hunting – and I won’t say it isn’t working.

At long last you’re able to view a trophy description without leaving a game, and each trophy now records a short video clip of the last 15-30 seconds before you earned it. I can think of some doozies over the years where that would have been good fun. You can also now go through the whole rigmarole of uploading a screenshot right after taking it, all within a tiny window overlaid on top of the game you’re playing. And it all loads so quickly! I’ve got more to say on the topic of screenshots soon, but that’s a massive improvement over PS4.

The PS5 and Xbox Series each offer a headlining UI-level feature primed to take advantage of those tasty internal SSDs. For PS5 that takes the form of the card system, which will bring up a set of “cards” at a single press of the PS button. Most games seem to populate these cards with trophy descriptions and quick party-starting links, but a few first-party Sony games boast the tremendous ability to load up specific levels or parts of a game via the appropriate cards. That means from the home menu you can, say, skip a game’s already blazing-fast initial load and go straight to a certain section of Astro’s Playroom or Spider-Man: Miles Morales.

This seems very much dependent on designing a game for the PS5’s unique SSD interface (yes I did watch that March Mark Cerny presentation four times, what of it?) and therefore probably won’t show up in a lot of non-exclusive games. A mate of mine also shared an amusing glitch he had in Miles that loaded in the wrong skin when he tried to boot from a card. Nonetheless, it’s a lovely feature and I hope it lasts the generation.

On the Xbox side we have Quick Resume, which uses a dedicated partition of the Series’ SSD to suspend the 3-5 most recent games you’ve played (the exact number seems to differ by what games you’re holding) and switch between them with much faster load times and at the exact points you left each of them. The pitch is that this can work with any game, regardless of how it was developed, but at the time of writing it does not work with everything. Microsoft has made it publically known that Quick Resume “works with thousands of games” but that some will still need work before support is added. I haven’t seen an exact list of what doesn’t work online yet, and therefore you can’t rely on the feature before you’ve tested it with the game you want to play. That ain’t good.

What I can confirm is that Quick Resume still functions after the Series X and S are unplugged from power for eight hours, because my household had a forewarned power outage for that exact timeframe while I was writing this and the likes of Yakuza 0, Titanfall 2 and Rare Replay still blazed in with the Quick Resume header and loaded from where I left them. Flashy stuff. But we’re getting into a different topic now so it’s time for another sub-heading change.

No Escape from the Backlog

One of the biggest differences between this generation of home console launches and the last is the prevailing attitude towards backwards compatibility. One gets the sense that Sony has been the more reluctant of the two to get it working this past decade, but the Xbox One’s huge mid-generation push to earn some goodwill back by getting 500+ old 360 and original Xbox games working has had a knock-on effect on both sides of this new console generation. This is the first time in a decade-and-a-half that both major competitors have brought out a new console that doesn’t have to sustain itself purely on brand-new games.

Most PS4 games will just play on PS5 with no issues, though some will exhibit the odd bug not present on their native hardware. Due to Playstation’s cut-and-move opinions on console generations since the launch of the PS3, however, that’s as far back as you’ll be able to go at this point. Quite a few PS4 and Xbox One/360/original games will perform better on the new hardware – specifically the ones with unlocked framerate modes and/or dynamic resolution scaling. There are plenty of videos out there worth digging into if you crave comparisons, all made by people more informed than I am. The incomparable Digital Foundry, the charismatic InnocenceII and the lovely NX Gamer are great channels to start with if you’re into that sort of thing, and there are plenty more.

However, despite my hopes to the contrary, the loading time improvements to older games across the board are not there on the Playstation like they are on the Xbox. The very first disc I put into my PS5 was Final Fantasy VII Remake, because back in April I had picked up an SSD for my PS4 and done a bunch of loading time tests so the comparison data was ready to go. The game actually loaded slower on the PS5’s internal SSD, which was bitterly disappointing to put it mildly. At least you can play PS4 games off an external USB drive, where they may even load slightly faster than before due to the PS5’s higher-spec USB ports. Remake certainly did for me, by about 10%. Just remember that unlike on an Xbox you need to “safely eject” any external drive you use before moving it to another port or console, and also unlike an Xbox the PS5 won’t recognise more than one drive at a time (extra frustrating because it has one more USB port than the Series X does).

One area in which the PS5 has a clear (and slightly confusing) advantage over its predecessor for backwards-compatibility is download speeds. On the same heavy-traffic launch evening, on the same network, I downloaded a sub-2GB Borderlands 3 patch on PS4 in half an hour, and the first 30GB to get Borderlands 3 itself playable (the PS4 version – don’t ask) in two and a half hours. Now there’s a lot of margin for error there but that’s roughly three times faster on the PS5, even on awful Sydney internet. Transferring 30+ saves from a USB flash drive took minutes to leave the PS4 and seconds to copy to the PS5, so it’s probably more to do with something hardware-side rather than Sony un-clamping internet speeds, but what do I know? I cannot tell a difference on the Xbox Series consoles compared to the Xbox One X, for what that’s worth.

There has perhaps been no time like 2020 when Xbox has felt more like a division of the Microsoft Corporation. Not only did they just splurge 7.5 billion US dollars on Zenimax a.k.a Bethesda and the boys, they have an entire department devoted just to backwards compatibility optimisations. It shows. Whether I was loading them off an external mechanical hard drive, an external SSD or the internal “full-fat” SSD, every single one of the dozen games I tested loaded roughly 20-50% faster on the Xbox Series X than it did on the Xbox One X – except, weirdly, for Katana Zero. Xbox 360 games sit towards the bottom of the load improvement list because the Series X insists on showing you the full Xbox 360 animation whenever you boot one, but such is life.

There’s also this wondrous thing called Auto-HDR, which the Series X automatically applies to any game that doesn’t already support the wider colour range and deeper contrast of High Dynamic Range. It does this with an AI algorithm that works out what parts of the image need enhancing, although if that algorithm has been deemed to make the game look worse by Microsoft’s back-compat team, it has been disabled. You can turn this off in the system menu if you’re worried about creative intent, but I must say there’s a bit of additional pop to the bright spots within Banjo-Tooie and Final Fantasy XIII that I find quite agreeable indeed (I cannot show HDR in any screenshots, sadly). The PS5 looks like it’s doing something similar, if only because your TV will never tell you that the console has stopped outputting HDR even when you’re playing old pre-HDR PS4 games, but that’s just a tone-mapped image. The easiest way to explain this (in an oversimplified way) is to remember your old pal Syndrome:

And Now, the Games

Of course, these aren’t just old-game, new-feature boxes. There are a raft of new games optimised for the next generation of consoles, and I’ve been playing them. You know, a little bit. When I haven’t been writing this. As you can see, the length of this post has gotten a little out of hand, so I’ve got plenty to play after this eventually gets published. I’m thrilled by the concept.

Let’s just get the fanboy point out of the way first. The Playstation 5 currently has a clear advantage in the exclusive games front. Especially after the delay of Halo Infinite, the comparison is night-and-day. But thanks to Xbox Game Pass, the slight on-paper power disparity between the consoles, and the slightly-less-slight difference in available features, I’ve played a lot more next-gen-optimised titles on the green side so far.

Godfall is the place to start if we’re talking Playstation, because it has the most quintessential console-launch-title feel about it – and I’ve been playing it the most. As was the case with the Xbox One’s Ryse: Son of Rome, the people behind this Gearbox-published “Destiny-with-swords” beauty were clearly concerned primarily with looking as good as possible, using as many of the new hardware features as they could, and releasing on time. You don’t have to go far online to encounter the old “style over substance” argument wherever this game is brought up.

And yet I have enjoyed playing it online with two friends immensely. Yes it’s grindy, and it re-uses a fair few environments. But the combat feels sensational, the build-tweaking potential is deep enough, it loads at ludicrous speed and the visual tricks it pulls – ray-tracing included – are fitting of an ostentatious console launch. Even if I never go back to Godfall after this year is through, it will have nailed its purpose.

I’ve already talked a bit about Astro’s Playroom, but the other family-friendly day one Playstation games have not disappointed. Sackboy: A Big Adventure doesn’t just make for the best way to show off the Dualsense to someone in the same room as you; it’s also genuinely stunning visually. The textures and lighting on the fabric characters is a step up from anything I’ve seen in its artistic category. Bugsnax lacks the visual wow factor of the first-party stuff but it’s the closest thing to Viva Pinata (or Pokemon Snap) we’ve received in a decade and that should make you very excited.

Miles Morales is the deserved money-making headliner. 2018’s Spider-Man was one sumptuous JRPG away from being my game of the year, and the flow of the gameplay in this half-sequel is made even better by the Dualsense and an optional 60 frames per second mode. The mode prioritising graphics, however, adds some extra detail to the bustling city and has the honour of debuting ray-traced reflections in a Playstation first-party title to make those puddles and windows sing. You might wonder why anyone would pick anything but the performance mode when you’re moving so fast so often in this game, but shhhh.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the most all-around impressive launch title is the remake of Demon’s Souls. I am absolutely trash at Souls games but I am a huge fan of Bluepoint Games’ work on Playstation remasters/remakes in the past; they have well and truly set a new bar for themselves with this one. This is the only true PS5 exclusive at the moment and it really sells why – the best haptics outside of Astro, truly silky loads and jaw-dropping environments/effects. It’s got just enough jank to remind you it’s a remake of a gameplay-first cult classic, too.

I downloaded Days Gone, part of Sony’s generous catalogue of hits known as the Playstation Plus Collection, to give it a go in its new 60FPS mode. Given I had never played the original I cannot tell you how much better it looks, but it sure looks good. Finally, I have to mention Borderlands 3 again, because despite its underwhelming controller support I was pleasantly surprised at two things about it: Bringing up the in-game menus, which caused the PS4 to chug when the game first launched, is snappy as anything even in splitscreen; and the game’s install size is almost a full 10GB smaller on PS5 than it is on the 4.

A quick word on that: The PS5 has a total usable storage size of 667GB, and there are no Sony-approved expansion solutions at launch. That’s eventually going to be a problem for quite a lot of players, and it’s already a problem for a few of my mates. If I hadn’t been leaning towards Xbox for my third-party games as a holdover from last generation, best believe it would have been a problem for me too. Frustratingly, on the Xbox Series consoles you can move next-gen games from the internal SSD to an external storage device temporarily until you need to play them again, but this is currently not an option on PS5 at all.

Which of course brings us back to the Xbox, and the best example of a next-gen graphical difference I have seen in person. Watch Dogs: Legion released mere weeks before the Series X arrived for the Xbox One, and I played the opening sections on my One X. Then, once the Series X was home and set up, I plugged my external drives from the One into the back of the new tower, prompting Legion (and other games) to start upgrading immediately. Once that was done I jumped back in and was somewhat disappointed to find only slight improvements to the character models. The below image shows my main character Becky – Series X on the left, One X on the right:

The improvements are definitely there, particularly in the volume of Becky’s skin and parts of her hairline. But my unrealistic hopes of anything more than a scale-up job were dashed. But then I looked into the distance and noticed I could see a lot more of the skyline. Then it started raining. Then it turned from day to night. Then I gasped.

There’s a fair amount of discourse online that Legion on consoles has poorer ray-tracing implementation than what a PC of equivalent power can achieve, mostly due to the fact both the PS5 and the Series X use AMD-based internal chips and this game was optimised for their main graphics card competitor, Nvidia. We do NOT have the space on this page to go into that whole thing. But my oh me oh my, if this is poor ray-tracing then frankly I don’t think my eyes are ready to see good ray-tracing. The city of London just comes to life with this level of reflective quality, especially with HDR polishing up the neon lights and deepening the shadows. Legion is already a chaotic toolbox of enjoyable interlocking systems that have kept me invested for a few hours, and this sure is some lovely icing on top.

I’m not much of an Assassin’s Creed guy and I haven’t played much Valhalla, but I’ve spoken to plenty of people who have and it seems to run at a pretty consistent 60FPS throughout. The analysis machines out there seem to have pegged that as the only major improvement over the last-gen versions of the game, so it’s interesting to see two open-world games published by Ubisoft taking two different approaches to next-gen boosts (Watch Dogs Legion still runs at 30FPS). It definitely seems like both could have been more efficiently optimised, but time was clearly a factor; the French mega-publisher is perhaps the most famous supporter of console launches out there. We will almost certainly start to see better results on these new consoles after the upcoming Far Cry 6 releases.

Gears 5 is a game I’ve been playing at a glacial pace over months, because Xbox just loves to release juicy Microsoft Rewards hauls whenever the game gets updated and they usually require you to pick up an achievement or two. So I will continue to experience the technical marvel for a while to come – only now the cutscenes are even more detailed and I can see further into the distance.

Honestly to the naked eye it’s one of the smaller improvements I’ve played so far, but the game already looked and sounded ridiculously good in 4K HDR at 60FPS with Dolby Atmos on Xbox One X last year. It was pretty much the showpiece game for that console, along with Forza Horizon 4 (which incidentally now hits 4K 60FPS on Series X and feels great). I did give the Gears 5 120FPS multiplayer mode a go, and while I’m not going to sit here and tell you I noticed a difference right away, whipping the camera around on my LG C9 TV without a hint of blur was a stone-cold eye-opener.

Speaking of 120FPS, the first game I actually booted up after setting up the Series X was the excellent Ori and the Will of the Wisps, which curiously upgraded to its new optimised version without moving to the internal SSD like its buddies – so I guess not all next-gen games need to be on the internal storage? I’m sure more will clear up on that front as more consoles get out into people’s homes, but so far it’s been the exception for me. Regardless, Ori is absolutely delectable in 120 frames; our hero darts around and strings together movement skills with even more fluidity than ever. Mark it down as yet another above-and-beyond technical achievement for this game in 2020.

Playing Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War multiplayer in 120 frames per second is the exact kind of premium next-gen experience this series is so consistently great at delivering. Though your storage will pay for it, the six studios worth of development energy contributing to the package is on full display in every encounter. Swinging around corners and scanning the horizon of a map entirely made up of battleships, blur-free while the HDR-boosted sunlight glints off distant metal – all while Dolby Atmos object-based surround sound fills your headphones – it’s truly something else. I’m having a heap of fun with the game overall so far.

Here’s something I didn’t think I’d ever say just a couple of years ago: I played a bit of No Man’s Sky. Having not touched it since launch four years ago, the game is absolutely unrecognisable – and quite engaging. The new next-gen patch supposedly increased the density of life on all planets, but I was too stunned by the new stuff to notice. Apex Legends snuck in a surprise next-gen patch on day one of the Series X, but it’s less than a gigabyte and only seems to unshackle the game’s dynamic resolution to go higher. Developers Respawn are being coy about future updates but it’s safe to presume they are coming. The Touryst, one of the cleanest-looking (and best) indie games I’ve played in years, somehow looks even shinier on Series X with it’s brute-force super-sampling. Gears Tactics looks as good as it did on my PC in April, and Tetris Effect Connected – well, it’s Tetris Effect with multiplayer, so it’s a hit.

Finally, there’s Yakuza: Like a Dragon, a Series X timed exclusive (as far as next-gen goes) that I’ve been saving for myself to play when the dust from this behemoth article has cleared – the next-gen advantages in the game essentially just come down to better resolution and framerate options anyway. There has never been a better point to jump into this franchise properly and I simply cannot wait to get stuck into the turn-based hi-jinks of Ichiban Kasuga and pals.

This console launch has been packed to the gills with games that take some sort of advantage of the added horsepower – and loading speeds – within the PS5 and Xbox Series X, leaving players with no shortage of choices and leaving me reunited with my old pal decision paralysis. But 2020 is a tricky time, and it could’ve been even more intense. This is the first console launch in which I’ve ever been involved where there is no shiny new gimmick-heavy version of FIFA ready to go; that absence feels weird, but it’s supposedly coming in early December alongside the next-gen update for Destiny 2, Ubisoft’s new open-world Zelda-like Immortals: Fenix Rising, and yes, Cyberpunk 2077. Launch window titles like Deathloop, The Medium, Marvel’s Avengers and Crossfire X may have moved into next year, but that means they should be better spaced out from one another (should) and have more room to breathe.

Beyond the Box

In the weeks leading up to launch, both Sony and Microsoft unleashed shiny new versions of their respective mobile apps. You may wonder why this is even noteworthy enough to mention, and that’s a completely understandable reaction given how surface-level and cumbersome the previous iterations were. It was nice to have some of the previous apps’ features if you were heavily invested in the Playstation or Xbox ecosystems, but the fresher versions are clearly looking to change up how people look at their phones as an extension of their consoles.

The apps have almost leapt forward in lockstep; though the purposes of the apps differ slightly, it’s honestly a bit of a shock how much of a clear jump in quality and functionality we’re talking about here. On the Playstation side that’s more about at long last bringing multiple separate apps – and apps within those apps – under one slick umbrella. On the Xbox side it’s almost the opposite: trim the fat and use what’s left to do a couple of things that no console companion has ever been able to do before.

There’s no doubting that the new PS app makes engaging with the Playstation world much less of a chore than it was last generation. Even just the ability to browse the PSN store (currently a better experience then on the PS5 itself) and send messages to a party of friends without needing three separate apps is game-changing. It’s also great to see the official Playstation Blog feed integrated into one of the five main tabs at the bottom, because in 2020 that is still often the first place where official news on first-party Playstation games turns up.

The whole look of the interface is now much more polished, and there’s a fresh feature that sends a push notification when a game has finished installing – Playstation knows where your eyes have likely been fixed while you were waiting for that download. Sadly there is currently no centralised friend-to-friend trophy comparison screen in the app, which isn’t the greatest, but you win some and lose some I guess.

In keeping with Microsoft’s service-focused attitude to this new generation, the new Xbox app is a curious and exciting beast. From the first time you turn on your brand-new Xbox console, it now asks you whether you want to use the app to help set up your preferred options while the console updates. That’s the first sign it might be a good idea to have, the second being that mobile remote play is finally supported on Xbox consoles – though it definitely has a way to go to catch up to Playstation’s fine-tuned, generations-old implementation. Input lag within my own house doesn’t seem to be a problem, but the visuals lagging definitely is, and there’s no onscreen control interface if I just want to mess around in menus like there is on the PS side.

Unlike on the PS app, there is no store you can load up to buy games, but in a truly unprecedented move you can use it to download Xbox games onto your console remotely, without buying them. This has all kinds of implications: you can get rid of the wait times on a game you’re thinking about paying for later, or do the same thing for a bunch of games to prepare for a surgically-timed 1 month subscription to Game Pass if you have some free time coming up. Most excitingly for those of us who prefer the cost-effectiveness of physical media, however, you can actually do the full installation through the app while you’re out at work or whatever, then just insert the disc when you get home and you’re good to go. This feature isn’t 100% watertight; across the three consoles I tested I had success pre-installing Watch Dogs Legion, GTA V, Dark Souls III, Yakuza 0 and No Man’s Sky, but Mafia: Definitive Edition and (especially disappointingly) Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War just did not want to know about it. Still, a surprisingly consumer-friendly move from Microsoft.

But the best thing about the app has to be the way it handles the sharing of game screenshots and video clips. Within one generational change, the Xbox has gone from the fiddliest of the three main console families in this department to the smoothest. Now whenever you take a screenshot in-game (with that shiny new button of course), it automatically uploads to Xbox Live and your phone gets a notification. You tap it and there’s the full-resolution capture on your mobile screen, ready to save to your gallery and share however you want. I’ve been using dedicated secondary and tertiary social media accounts to upload and pull down screenshots for almost a decade, so the idea of reducing that habitual six-step process down to just two actually blows my mind. And again, this functionality is available across the last generation of Xbox consoles, not just the new ones.

Phone integration isn’t where the reach of these new consoles stops; they really want you to be thinking about them as much as possible, which is probably why Sony dropped an unannounced PS5 Remote Play app onto a bunch of PS4s all around the world on the eve of the new launch. Got a PS4 in a different room from your main PS5, where the TV is being used by someone else? No worries! Now your PS4 is basically a PSTV (Remember the PSTV?) As long as you’re OK using a Dualshock 4, you can stream your PS5 gameplay to whatever screen is attached to the PS4 – and in my experience it performs surprisingly well over home Wi-Fi. Compared to the PC Remote Play app – which can now stream PS4 or PS5 – I even got clearer picture quality, although it’s worth mentioning that the PC allows you access to the full suite of haptic feedback/adaptive trigger functions on a wired Dualsense.

Some oddities I discovered about the whole console streaming shebang:

  • Though Playstation still rules the roost in terms of quality in the mobile remote play world and the Dualsense will pair with just about any phone via Bluetooth, at the time of writing you can only use a Dualshock 4 while streaming PS5 games to mobile;
  • You cannot use a Dualsense to play PS4 games on a PS4 natively, but you can use a Dualsense to play PS4 games on a PC through the Remote Play app connected to a PS4;
  • Like on the Xbox One, the Xbox Series consoles can still stream to a PC and it all works great;
  • Everything in this section is referring to direct console connections – PS Now and XCloud streaming are unfortunately not readily available in Australia at the moment (though the latter may finally be arriving soon).

The Little Guy

I seem to have forgotten someone.

Indeed, the teensy reason why I’ve been saying “Xbox Series consoles” so much on this page is the tiny next-gen console that could, the Xbox Series S. The direct financial result of a year without a lot of public hang-outs with mates – not to mention a healthy amount of fear the new consoles might cost four digits each – I now have a second next-gen Xbox attached to the small 1080p monitor in my room I bought on sale that one time but have only used as a Switch display so far.

The Series S does not have all the graphical chops to match the big boys, but it has a surprising amount of them. It has a laughable 364GB of usable storage, but that storage is just as fast as that of its big brother. It can’t play any major triple-A game in 4K (and isn’t hitting 1440p nearly as often as Microsoft implied in the marketing), but it can play CrossCode in 120FPS and load it in seconds. It cannot play those cost-effective game discs at all, but it’s pretty much the size of a Wii U, so it fits into any place I need it. I used to have to set aside about 10 minutes in the morning to get down to my Xbox One X and keep my daily MS Rewards targets in the Game Pass app ticking over – now they’re checked off before I’m even fully awake.

I still cannot recommend this box at its current price point to anyone seriously looking at only one next-gen console. There are too many inhibiting factors that make the X a much smarter buy overall, and that’s without talking about Sony’s own heavy-hitter. The price of the only currently-available up-to-spec expansion card for the Xbox Series S (and X) is nearly high enough to buy another S. But it’s probably safe to say that if the PS5 has come in slightly under my (very high) expectations and the Series X has been pretty much what I expected, then the S has demolished my basic assumptions of what can be achieved in its diminutive form factor. As a more-or-less dedicated Game Pass box, I just love using it.

The Chart

This is the best way I could muster to get most of the quantifiable, comparable stuff I’ve talked about in this post (and some stuff I haven’t) down to one digestible package. The chart does not cover every possible feature; just more or less the things I found important enough to mention. It will no doubt be outdated extremely soon, but here it is:

Welcome to the Future

When it comes to actually playing pretty videogames, early word from the pixel-counters of the world paints a picture of two shockingly similar new videogame consoles in 2020. From game to game we are seeing the PS5 and the Xbox Series X trade slight advantages with one another, naturally stoking all kinds of messy online arguments but also proving just how good competition is in the videogame hardware space.

I’ve just spent over 9000 words talking about what makes the PS5 and the Xbox Series consoles different, and yet I sit here without the ability to tell you which one I’ll be playing more in a year’s time. Sony has learned from Microsoft’s exemplary service-first actions over the past five years, Microsoft has made huge strides in the hardware space by taking cues from Sony, and both of them have clearly been looking over at Nintendo. You can expect this to continue for a long time to come. Thanks to AMD’s very public collaboration with the two console giants and Nvidia’s refusal to sit on their laurels, PC gaming is about to take another huge leap forward as well.

As you may have guessed at several points throughout this post, I’m still planning to grab most of my big third-party games on the Series X. The Xbox wrapper is currently just so much better for me personally: the console will get slightly more out of any display it touches; I can play more games from more generations enhanced in more ways; I know exactly what tech each game supports and whether it’s optimised for new consoles before I buy it; my saves sync across whatever device I’m on automatically; painless screenshot-sharing, remote pre-downloads and Quick Resume are dreamlike features to me at this point; and Game Pass/MS Rewards make it exciting to log into an Xbox device of some kind every single day.

But Playstation’s learning isn’t over just because they’ve reached another new generation. They know they’re in for a bigger fight than last time around and I’m confident they will fix several of my many frustrations with the PS5 in due course. In the meantime, they have the exclusive gaming experiences to keep people like me coming back time and time again. The Dualsense hugs my hands, the revamped trophy system hugs my nostalgia, and the quality Sony-published games load so ridiculously fast I don’t even have time to think about the UI once I’m in.

The stage is set. Console makers blue and green alike have plenty of reasons to be confident. The next few years in gaming are going to be absolutely thrilling to follow.

Your move, Nintendo.

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