As a self-proclaimed Sony fanboy (or a Sony Pony as the mean folks on Twitter call me), I have been very, very, VERY happy with PlayStation’s offerings over the last few years. Sony’s strength has always been its games, and the previous generation’s line-up contains some of the most memorable games I have ever played. Console exclusive titles like Horizon Zero Dawn, God of War and The Last of Us Part 2 just further solidified my love for Sony’s dedication to first-party IPs and really separated the console from its competitors. The strong line-up of games, predominantly those with a single-player narrative-focus, available on the system helped push it well ahead of its rivals, eventually becoming the second-highest selling console of all time.
However, that isn’t to say I ignored the downsides of the console entirely though. After running for seven years, my PlayStation 4 was starting to develop the jet-engine roar of a console on its way out. No matter how many times I took it apart and cleaned it, I could still hear it over my headphones while playing more demanding games like Control. However, that was never an issue for long as I would need to stop playing every five hours or so to charge my controller. And while PlayStation Plus is a good value deal, it pales in comparison to what Xbox offers with Game Pass. So the games were most certainly there, but it was far from a perfect user experience.
With the PlayStation 5, Sony has looked to address some of the previous generation’s most pressing concerns with complete re-designs of both the systems and hardware, while not taking a backwards step with its focus on first-party IP. While on paper, the console isn’t as powerful as its direct competitor, the Xbox Series X, Sony has pulled out a few unexpected tricks that I believe may keep it at the head of the pack this console generation. Let me explain why the PlayStation 5 is the hottest ticket in town right now.
First though, let’s deal with the literal elephant in the room: the design.
I have fond memories of reading through copies of the Official PlayStation Magazine back in the days between the PS2 and PS3, looking at the bizarre rumoured design concepts and ideas (remember the Batarang controller?), wishing they would go into production. I guess the PlayStation 5 design is a fulfilment of that wish, but we have a bit of a monkey’s paw curse situation here. It’s a fucking weird design, and while I am learning to appreciate its awkward curves and stark two-tone colour scheme, I really can’t get over how fucking big this thing is. Most entertainment units will require a significant re-shuffle to accommodate the Big Boi – I know mine did. The placement issue becomes even more pressing when you consider the orientation of the machine.
The PlayStation 5 is very tall, but there is undoubtedly a reason why almost all promotional materials show the console upright rather than on the side. When vertical I can handle the design just fine, but the look of a disc-drive edition of the PlayStation 5 horizontally makes me feel very uncomfortable. I think it comes down to the placement of the disc-drive and the uneven curves of the unit. On its own, the PlayStation 5 wouldn’t be able to lay on its side, and vertically it would be quite precarious, but that is where the nifty little stand comes in. With a simple turn of a screw, the stand can be re-adjusted to accommodate the console either horizontally or vertically, keeping the whole system safe and secure. As a whole, I don’t mind the design, but when it comes to size, I think a lot of the criticisms are valid.
That’s not to say the console is a chungus for no reason, though. As most would know, both the PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 4 Pro were notoriously loud when stressed, which could be immersion-breaking and also quite concerning. I am pretty sure healthy fans shouldn’t scream. The new console design is all about air-flow, cooling and noise reduction with a massive intake fan, liquid metal thermal conductor, and shielded Blu-Ray drive to reduce vibrations, all which keep the console running quiet and cool. While not as silent as the Xbox Series X, it is still a remarkable and welcome improvement.
Even though the design of the console itself still has me a little torn, there is one aspect of the PlayStation 5’s physical redesign that I love unequivocally: the new DualSense controller. PlayStation controllers have always been considered the lesser option when compared to its peers, mainly due to the thumbstick placement and short battery life. Does the DualSense fix either of these issues? Heavens no. But it does introduce a bevy of new features, most of which have had dramatic effects on the way I play games, with the unique design and heftiness also adding up to give the DualSense a genuinely premium feel. The brilliant Astro’s Playroom, a fantastic celebration of the history of PlayStation that comes preloaded on the console, begins with a brief showing of what the DualSense is capable of. When it showed me what the controller could do, I made a sound I have never made before. It was a good sound, though – an excited one. Y’all, I think this may be the greatest controller I have ever used.
First of all, the triggers are magical. Rather than just being buttons that can be pushed down, the new L2 and R2 adaptive triggers now push back, giving actions a certain ‘tension’ depending on the situation. It is a bit hard to explain in words, but imagine your character pulling back a bow and rather than just being a static input, the trigger tenses up, and you feel the friction of the bow build and tighten, allowing you to feel the sweet-spot. When you loosen the arrow, the tension disappears from the bow, and the triggers go slack again. This type of haptic feedback translates exceptionally well to shooters, with each gun in games like Call Of Duty: Cold War and even Fortnite feeling unique. A small handgun can be fired with a quick ‘pop’ of the trigger whereas a high-calibre sniper rifle has more of a ….’cronch’? (what’s a review without some onomatopoeias?). The triggers aren’t only impressive when acting as in-game triggers though, with the rocket-pack in Astro’s Playroom, web-swinging in Spider-Man: Miles Morales and translation of player fatigue in NBA 2K21 showing some unique uses for the new haptics.
The new controller fanciness doesn’t end there either, with the new haptic vibration capable of conveying realistic and somewhat unnerving feeling in ways I didn’t think possible from a piece of hardware. Can a sense of feeling fall into the uncanny valley? Remember when the Nintendo Joy-Cons were first released, and people were understandably losing their minds over being able to ‘feel’ marbles roll around in each controller due to the highly sensitive vibrations? Yeah, imagine that but cranked up to 11. The subtleties of DualSense vibration are demonstrated amazingly well in Astro’s PlayRoom, translating the crunch of sand underfoot as Astro runs across a beach, to the tip-tap of walking over glass or carving over ice. You can even feel the rain hitting his cute little umbrella, a feeling that gets stronger as the drizzle turns into a downpour. And while the DualSense also offers the touchpad, in-built mic and movement controller, it is the haptic triggers and vibration that add a level of immersion I didn’t think possible. The DualSense makes playing games better. Let’s just hope it is something that developers stick with and start getting weird with. Battery life is still a bit iffy, though, with a charge required every 7-8 hours or so.
Another area where Sony has copped some flack over the years, the user-interface, has also received a significant overhaul. Rather than a cross-media bar that scrolls infinitely to the left, meaning most content is off-screen, the gorgeous new 4K UI shrinks it all down and pops it in the corner, with games and media separated into different pages. I barely even go into this screen anymore though, with the new Control Center now fulfilling most of my gaming needs. By tapping the PlayStation button on the DualSense controller, a Control Center overlay menu pops up at the bottom of the screen, giving quick access to things like settings, recorded media and the overhauled Party system. As someone who keeps in contact with a lot of friends via online multiplayer, the new Party menus are far simpler to use, giving easy access to messages and invites, and a super cool screen-sharing mode. The screen share can be laid over your screen, allowing you to watch a friend play their game while you play yours. This has acted as a damn effective marketing tool for Sony, with a few of my latest game purchases based on watching my friends showing off the coolest moments from their run-throughs. They got me good!
The Control Center also provides access to a new feature I am only starting to properly appreciate – Activity Cards. Acting as PlayStation’s answer to the Xbox Quick Resume feature, Activity Cards allow you to not only jump between games with ease but even individual activities and quests within that game. Rather than jumping from Spider-Man: Miles Morales to Astro’s Playroom‘s menu screen or Turbo Trail – the area I was previously up to – I can select to jump straight to Teraflop Treetops and start my quest from there. Activity Cards also include short help videos that provide contextually sensitive tips and tricks to get through tricky enemies and puzzles, if needed, and also help guide you to a few unlockables and Trophy achievements. Rather than completely spelling out the solutions for me, I found that a lot of these tips were more of a nudge in the right direction, so I still feel a sense of accomplishment once I have completed a section I need help with.
Performance-wise, I am finding it hard to split the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5, with both consoles providing amazing graphics and super-fast load-times. Games like Spider-Man: Miles Morales (in Fidelity Mode) show off the nuances of solid ray-tracing, and Demon’s Souls impresses while running at 60fps, even after dying for the trillionth damn time. Something to keep in mind though, as I mentioned in my Xbox Series X review, a lot of these graphical and performance issues will come down to your TV itself, with many older TVs not able to cope with 4K or 120hz. Those with more modern TV set-ups will notice several games in the extensive library of backwards compatible titles have received graphical and performance improvements via Game Boost. The silky-smooth combat in Ghost of Tsushima running at 60fps is truly a sight to behold. With many games still being made to be cross-generational, it may be some time before we properly see the PlayStation 5 go full throttle.
It’s not all good news, though, and I do have one major grievance with the PlayStation 5. With so many games already and offer, and Sony looking to continue its focus on first-party IP, it is a real disappointment that the console only has 640GB of usable storage. I currently have around seven games loaded on my system, and still have some memory to go, but with such a packed roster of titles due in the next six months or so, it is a wall I am going to hit quite quickly. I fully understand that memory costs money and at $750 Sony didn’t want to push ahead of the Xbox Series X price, but it still feels decidedly ‘last-gen’. We should be talking about 120fps games and 4K graphics, not worrying about storage – but here we are. I have no doubt Sony will soon clear the air in regards to expandable memory. Sony has mentioned that PCIe Gen 4 NVME SSDs will work fine on the new consoles, but are yet to confirm a list of compatible hardware. Like Xbox, I wonder if a proprietary option is on the cards?
Though not addressing every issue that I have had with past generations of PlayStation consoles, I would find it hard to argue that Sony has hit anything short of a home-run with the PlayStation 5. With a sharp new UI and menu scheme, a quiet (yet BIG BOI) design, a stack of impressive first-party games at launch and on the horizon and the most revolutionary controller I could imagine, it is clear that Sony has not rested on their laurels.
The PlayStation 5 is a truly great console… if you can manage to actually buy one.
All photography in this review is courtesy of the talented Obie Nyamori. Support his work over on Instagram @africangangs, and be sure to give him a follow!