A PlayStation 5 was provided by Sony for ongoing review purposes.
The phrase “first impressions are everything” has always annoyed me. It’s boomer wisdom, the sort of knowledge best imparted by bumper stickers. The sort of shallow catchcry that only works on first impression, that falls apart if you dig even a little deeper. It means the same thing as “judge a book by its cover”*, which would be a terrible thing.
I suppose I also hate the phrase because I give off some of the worst first impressions of all time. My habit of always showing up on time to events is fantastic, but that’s never the first impression someone gets. No, the first impression I deliver is later, when, having been the only person at something for too long, I partake in a little social lubricant, a bit of a tipple, and then I meet someone new and they think I’m a drunk. Which I am, but I wasn’t actively drunk if they’d been there on time. And it’s not like I judge them for being “late”.
Anyway, I have loads of other terrible qualities that I generally showcase to people the moment I meet them because I have the savoir-faire of a grizzly bear trapped in a particularly robust tent. And I don’t care to alter this behaviour because I yams who I yams, you know what I mean? I gotta be me. But I would like it if people didn’t write me off based on their first and then generally only interaction with me.
I think the PS5 is a bit like me in this regard. Because your first impression of this thing is “holy shit, it’s big. Too big.” And that feeling won’t ever really go away. And if you happen to have already ex-boxed some other piece of tech recently, you’ll directly notice that it’s not the slickest packaging, either. Be it a phone, a TV or a console created by a rival manufacturer**, the unpacking experience is just better elsewhere. You have this behemoth box, you unfold all these cardboard cut-out tabs like you’re playing a kickstarted board game, and then when you finally get to the machine it’s bigger than any TV cabinet space in the history of channel surfing.
If it’s not literally bigger than the TV I used to play Sega Master System II on back in the day, it has to be close.
When you plug it in and turn it on, you half expect the lights to dim. You brace for impact, wondering if you should have worn the many layers of protection a signal officer on an aircraft carrier wears. If the PS4 was loud, this thing feels like it should be deafening.
But it’s not. It beeps an unassuming beep, a pale “True Blue” light blinks on around the edges of the machine, and it powers up silently. The blue fades to white and it remains silent. You’re instructed to turn on your DualSense controller — which itself radiates the ‘big chungus’ energy of the PlayStation 5 as an entity — and proceed through the setup process. It’s not as slick as other setup processes, and at this point you’re still not getting that next-gen feel.
I mean, it’s different to the PS4. There’s no mistaking it. The swishy wave aesthetic of last generation’s dashboards is replaced by a champagne sparkle, and it feels modern — but there’s very little exciting about the setup. You’re sitting there, selecting options using a controller that now looks like an Xbox controller (except symmetrical) and even weighs the same. If you believe in that sort of thing (and you shouldn’t), it feels like PlayStation lost the console war.
Then it launches into the new dashboard, Astro’s Playroom starts downloading and everything begins to change.
The new dashboard is very slick. Gone are the cascading circles of the old UI, replaced instead by eye-catching icons sequestered at the top left of the screen. A few button presses and you’re in the settings menu which… I mean, it looks pretty similar. I’m not sure what you’re supposed to do with a settings menu at the end of the day, and if you keep the font the same (I’m no typophile but I think it’s the same) you’ll wind up with something pretty similar.
A significant portion of what used to take up the main screen of the dashboard has been relegated to the menu on the DualSense controller. I really appreciate this move — it plays well into the negative space of the menu, which, once games are installed, is used to display game art — but I did find it difficult to wrap my head around at first. I’ll admit up-front that I didn’t know where the bloody Power button was until I’d had the console for four days (and I had to ask Nathan Lawrence, who reviewed it for reviews.org/au).
That’s the new console experience in 2020. The Xbox Series X was the same. You get your shiny new console, you plug it in, you go through the setup process and then you wait for a game to download and install.
It’s basically the PC Gaming experience, to be honest. I have the drive-based version of both Next-Gen consoles, but I can’t remember the last time I got an actual game disc. When I built my newest PC about two months ago, I didn’t get a disc drive for it.
That said, I feel like that’s an experience that won’t be reflected for most people. I have belting internet, and those downloadable games I get are provided for review purposes, and I think failure across these two factors either alone or combined is enough to warrant still getting game discs. Or the desire to save money, because both console stores operate on RRP by default, which is… a lot higher.
So I understand that my experience is not exactly normal here, but even accounting for the idea that you walk out of a store with your brand new PS5 and a copy of Spider-Man: Miles Morales on disc you’ll still have a bit of time to kill while it installs. Less than if you downloaded it, but more than zero seconds. That is, as I said, the console experience in 2020.
Once installed, Astro’s Playroom takes over the screen on your shiny new UI. It’s absolutely worth playing, although it’s also absolutely not a ‘complete’ game experience ala Alex Kidd in Miracle World.
It’s a showcase title more than anything else, a way for the PlayStation 5 to demonstrate what it does best all in a cute, sentimental ode to the history of Sony’s game console. Astro (I… think his name is Astro) cavorts through four distinct levels, each named after some show-stopping feature of the PS5. A frozen area represents the state of the art cooling technology. A lush green jungle showcases the GPU’s power. The SSD — which is the fastest in any game console — is shown off via a futuristic speedway. And the “Memory Meadow” shows off the… well, memory, though I didn’t really understand how.
All of this is just set dressing though. I don’t really look at Astro’s Playroom and think ‘wow, that sure is the power of next-gen gaming’. It’s a gorgeous game, and it loads phenomenally quickly, but it’s a platformer and the world has moved on from the days of Super Mario 64 and Crash Bandicoot representing the pinnacle of 3D technology. If you want to drop my jaw, show me God of War or The Last of Us Part II or… Spider-Man. But more on that later.
What Astro’s Playroom does showcase is the DualSense controller. This is true next-gen technology. There’s a reason it weighs the same as an Xbox Controller — because there’s a lot going on inside this thing.
Worse still is that it’s reminiscent of VR tech. It’s the sort of thing someone will describe to you, but until you feel it in action, it’s kind of meaningless. Which is why Astro’s Playroom is such a good idea.
It features Adaptive Triggers, which are not only pressure sensitive to differentiate between soft and hard pulls, but feature electric motors to push back against you. In Astro, this means grabbing something with your right thumbstick and accidentally crushing it if you pull too hard. In NBA 2K21, they’ll use this feature to make holding the sprint button harder as you become more fatigued. It’s awesome.
It has more haptic actuators built-in, which means its vibration rivals even the Nintendo Switch’s world class 3D Rumble feature. It has a microphone at the base of the centre, and best of all — an easy to reach mute button right above it. I’m so excited for a world where people know how to mute themselves quickly and easily.
The way Astro combines the haptics and adaptive triggers is the real star, however. And as you cavort through the platforming levels, collecting artifacts from PlayStation’s storied history, it feels like you’re playing something brand new. Something that wasn’t possible the day before. And that winds up being important.
Of course, it’s over in about 5 hours.
The Best Is Yet To Come
Even then, you still get to see some of the other cool stuff the PS5 has going on. The hints system, imaginatively titled “Game Help” (I suck at names too, don’t worry) is awesome. I couldn’t find one of the collectibles on the very first level (Astro’s Playroom is rated G for all ages, by the way) but after a few button presses, I knew where to go via a small video clip. Game Help is restricted to PlayStation Plus, which I’m not a fan of, but it’s going to be immensely helpful when Demon’s Souls rolls around.
Outside of Game Help itself, you can get a very broad overview of your progress in a game via a single press of the PlayStation button. In Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, you can use this to not only start new missions, but near-instantly warp to a nearby location to complete them. These loading times are no joke. When you’re swinging through Manhattan as Spider-Man (not that spider-man but the other spider-man), you feel like you’re moving a lot faster. The sense of speed is finally there, something I felt was missing in the PS4 version of the game.
But it’s when you fast travel that you really understand it. It’s basically instantaneous. It’s almost existentially terrifying. Does Miles Morales exist in all places at all times? Is he omnipresent? How else could he move so quickly from one location to another.
Spider-Miles, which is what I’m gonna call it from now on, is the first real next-gen game I’ve played, too. And you can see it immediately. There’s Ray Tracing no matter how you play it — either the prettier quality rendering mode, which runs at 30 fps or the speedier performance mode, which belts at 60 fps. Ray tracing is relatively new tech, but it means light acts as it’s supposed to in the game world. Mirrored surfaces show reflections, shadows overlap the way they should, lights dissipate in a natural way. It’s one of those things that is hard to see, but once you do, you can’t unsee it. And Spider-Miles does it beautifully.
It’s actually hard to tell which version I like more. The sense of speed in performance mode is that much grander, but the look of the quality mode is so much more pronounced. I think performance is for those who swing around the city, and quality will work for people who are happy to teleport to the nearest subway station.
The hard drive, a PCIe 4.0 affair that boasts numbers beyond what even the Samsung 980 is doing, is probably a bit small. It’s not a full terabyte, and games just keep getting bigger. But the upside is the PlayStation 5 features three USB 3.2 2×1 ports, so at least if you decide to offload some games from the main storage, it will be quick(ish). And when they start approving PCIe 4.0 hard drives, you’ll be able to expand the memory within — although there’s no way that will be cheap.
It runs silent, but it definitely puts out heat. The back of the console gets very hot just idling, although that heat is dispersed over a broad area. I had a USB key plugged into it at one point, and when I removed it from the back it was legitimately hot to touch.
But it’s silent, and it’s designed to stay that way. My PC — that one I built very recently — makes far more noise than both the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 combined.
The PlayStation 5 is a perfect demonstration of the pointlessness of the first impressions idiom. Yes, it’s a massive unit and yes you’ll have to find somewhere for it to live, and unless you’ve literally done measurements I guarantee you you’re not prepared for its size. But once you’ve solved that inconsequential problem, once that first impression ends, you’re left with one of the most powerful machines I’ve ever seen.
And I have to say — while fighting a staggering sense of deja vu — that the PlayStation 5 has no right being this good for as cheap as it is. $749 is a steal for a console that does ray tracing, loads this fast, has the revolutionary DualSense controller and plays the games it does. I’ve said next-gen so many times this week that the words have lost all meaning, but this is truly a next-gen console.
*I also hate this phrase. Have you ever collected a series of books only to have the publisher change the design on them because three decades have passed and a hit TV show has been released? Awful covers. But I guess I’m judging the covers.
**I like calling them rival manufacturers because it feels very Cyberpunk.