An Xbox Series X and a PlayStation 5 were provided to me by Microsoft and Sony respectively for ongoing review purposes.
In May 2015 the Wu-Tang Clan sold Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, an album concept designed to demonstrate the fine art value of music (and also make a decent chunk of money). It was purchased by the human equivalent of a stubbed toe, Martin Shkreli, a pharmaceutical extortionist and convicted felon, who streamed bits and pieces of it during a manic episode that he live-streamed, because the internet is something else. Legally speaking, he would be the only person able to listen to the album.
Before it was sold, a 13-minute section was played for would-be buyers, and RollingStone.com described it: “Simply put, if the full, 128-minute Once Upon a Time in Shaolin is as solid as the 13 minutes heard Monday night, it could be the group’s most popular album since 1997.”
It’s a preview, but the worst sort. It’s a preview of something that nobody will ever experience. With his assets seized by the US Government, Martin Shrkeli’s ownership of the Wu-Tang Clan’s penultimate album was vacated — but the music hasn’t been heard since. It might never be heard.
And here we sit, on the precipice of a new generation of game consoles, and I can’t help but wonder. Could you imagine reviewing Once Upon a Time in Shaolin? I imagine going to an unassuming building somewhere in New York where plain-clothed, heavily armed security stand outside the main door. They confirm my identity and let me in, and I’m lead to a doorway. Standing outside are more armed guards, more brazen now. That door opens, and I’m bathed in white noise, an aural airlock, and once the lock sequence completes I’m fully surrounded by dark black egg-carton style material. There is a set of headphones on a stool in the centre of the room. After two and a bit hours and the last track fades, I’m asked to leave.
What purpose would there be in my reviewing this album? What would anyone get out of my thoughts on it? Fans, those who wouldn’t ever get to hear the album, they’d derive nothing from my praising the album’s production or Ghostface Killah’s bars, or the surprising performance of Cher. I’ve never gotten the feeling that Wu-Tang Clan gave a fuck about critical reception of their music, so I don’t think it would be for them.
And the man who paid $2 million for the privilege of owning and listening to the album certainly wouldn’t want to know what I thought. Not if I what I said wasn’t extravagantly positive.
Of Critical Importance
Most people don’t want critical analysis of their purchases. Most people don’t want to be told they make poor purchasing decisions. They prefer to find this out later, when the consequences of their actions come back to bite them. My wife hates it when I critique the toilet paper she bought, even if I know ahead of time from previous use that the stuff she bought is going to disintegrate the moment the humidity drifts above 30%. I don’t value the environment as much as I value at least the pretence of there being something between my hand and my shit-covered bunghole.
But as much as people hate hearing about their bad purchasing decisions, they hate hearing that they can’t make good decisions even more.
And that’s what people are gonna get from PlayStation 5 reviews. That’s what they’re going to read and hear when they see Xbox Series X reviews. They’re going to find out that if they didn’t preorder that shit 11 minutes after those bad boys went on sale months ago, there’s no chance they get to buy a significant upgrade to their console situation for at least half a year.
And the truth is, there is a paradox at the heart of every review. A bias I think every critic needs to resolve in their own way. On some level, for a review to have real value, it wants to be about something people can engage with. It doesn’t need to be, but it certainly desires it. When Nathan For You made frozen yoghurt that tasted like shit (like actual excrement), reviewing that would have been its own little nightmare. If it succeeded in its task — and by all accounts it did — then a review would tell you to avoid it at all costs.
I’ve encountered this before, playing games that are so bad that I feel the need to emphasise a point beyond how shitty the game is. In my review of Postal 3 (no longer available, unfortunately), for example, I begged readers to ignore the part of them that reads a scathing review and can’t help but want to find out whether it really is ‘that bad’. And I would, I presume, do the same for a review of shit-flavoured frozen yoghurt.
But the consoles find themselves in a different position entirely. They’re good. Great even. Both represent a massive upgrade over the previous generation. We’re not talking about the difference between a PlayStation 4 and a PlayStation 4 Pro, or an Xbox One and an Xbox One X — this is more akin to going from an NVIDIA Geforce 780 to a Geforce 3080.
Actually, based on the hardware specifics, the comparison would be more accurate if we subbed the 3080 with a slightly underclocked Radeon RX 6800 in both the PS5 and Xbox SeX. That’s not a diss. Both consoles have custom RDNA2 architecture under the hood, and both are sharing their DDR6 RAM between graphics and the system itself. The specifics aren’t terribly important — we’re looking at a difference measured only in benchmarks here — but the Xbox SeX outdoes the PS5 in terms of sheer numbers.
They’re straight-up great. For A$749.95 (RRP) you could find yourself with a machine that does hardware-based ray tracing, has PCIe 4.0 storage (this is a very good thing), and has a better graphics card than 60% of Steam Users (at time of writing).
Now, you’ll never convince me to go wholesale console. I’m too far gone. I know too much about computers and consoles alike that the upsides of PC ownership far outweigh the downsides. But most people aren’t like me. It’s true. And hell, because of my stubbornness about putting a 3080 (I might be persuaded to go a 6800XT) in my current machine, the PC I recently built is the third most powerful gaming rig in my office.
And you can’t buy either of them. So what the fuck is the point of this review?
I guess the answer is in the title itself. The spirit of competition. Despite knowing very well that the Alien vs Predator film franchise is awful, and that the number of bad Predator and Alien movies is beginning to outweigh the good, I would still watch an Alien vs Predator 3 in a heartbeat.
Because even if we know the outcome is moot, as soon as something is ‘versing’ something else, some part of our brain wants to know who will win. I’d say ‘lizard brain’, but I’ve never known lizards to be all that competitive.
The Tale of the Tape
So, we’ve got two combatants, the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series X. Let’s go to the tale of the tape.
The Xbox SeX has a better CPU and more powerful GPU, and the PS5 has a faster (and smaller) Hard Drive, but the truth is, if you took me to Mwave and showed me two pre-built PCs rocking this hardware it’d be some coin flip stuff. If it were a PC, they’d have the same underlying software and access to the same games, so the truth is I’d probably go for the Xbox. And then, when Nate grabbed the PS5 and beat me on the chopper drop every game, I’d be rethinking that choice.
But the quiet truth we’re not supposed to say out loud is that they’re basically the same. This isn’t even a case of ‘one has Intel Inside and the other is AMD.’ These are two AMD PCs, both have independent Graphics processors, both have 16GB of RAM and thoughtful approaches to cooling. Neither has anywhere near as much onboard storage as I think they need.
For more in-depth thoughts on the two consoles, I’ve crafted two separate reviews, but you already got the Cliff Notes. The embargo for the Xbox Series X ends 24 hours before the PlayStation 5’s, so it seemed like the best approach.
It’s something that, once in people’s hands, they won’t be able to get enough of. A machine this powerful has no right to be as cheap as it is. $749 is a steal for a machine that does all of this. A machine that, when coupled with Xbox Game Pass Ultimate — which costs less than a 4K Netflix subscription — will provide you with oodles of games for a long time to come. But truth be told on November 10, it won’t look at a passing glance all that different from November 9.
…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 this 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.
On The Bias
Of course, my conclusion comes with bias. Everyone has their biases, and I’m no different. I’ve been accused of being an Xbox fanboy and a PlayStation fanboy more times than I can count. If you point out that Halo’s story is trash, some people imagine you must only have played PlayStation exclusives until then. When you turn around and say that David Cage couldn’t write a coherent narrative if it was a three-word long mad-lib, (Today I went to the STORE and I bought some AMERICAN SODA and then I ATTACKED THE FOURTH ESTATE) other people will claim you’re team green.
In console terms, my family skipped a generation after the Sega Master System II and went straight to the PlayStation. The first console I bought using my own money was an Xbox. I held Xbox LANs at the Internet Cafe I ran. I was first in line at a midnight launch for the Xbox 360 at my local EB Games (although to many people’s amusement, I was there to buy Oblivion on PC). There is a direct connection between my winning a PlayStation 3 in a competition and my career as the world’s greatest video games critic. I would personally weigh this up to say I don’t lean towards one over the other.
The bias at play is that I like games. Above all else, I like games. The platform with the best games is the platform of choice for me. And on launch the PlayStation 5 is the clear winner in that regard. It’s the only one with any exclusive games on launch, even if they are a five-hour-long platformer, a stand-alone expansion (for an amazing game) and a remaster.
Everything you can get on the Xbox Series X, you can invariably get on the PlayStation 5. And while the acquisition experience might be smoother on the SeX thanks to Smart Delivery technology, the playing experience will be the roughly the same.
Of course, there’s a twist here. The Xbox Game Pass Ultimate system is phenomenal, a player-first program designed to get games into peoples hands at a reasonable price, and Microsoft for some reason won’t stop adding value to it. And the truth is, if you’ve already bought into that system — say because you crunched the numbers and worked out that it pays for itself once you get three decent games out of it in a single year on PC alone — the Xbox Series X will eventually prove to be a better value proposition (provided you don’t care about any of the PlayStation exclusives).
That’s the problem with this showdown. There are a million billion “if” statements you could throw out that change the variables and therefore the outcome. But that is the cop-out of review conclusions. The “early fade-to-black” ending, where everything is left up to your interpretation.
So instead, I’ll provide two definitive answers. Two conclusions grounded in everything I now currently understand about both consoles, posed against two different questions.
Question 1. Gun to my head which console would I choose to own by my birthday on November 15?
The PlayStation 5. I had a pre-order down for it before one was graciously provided to me for review purposes. I tried mightily to get the same for an Xbox Series X — I’d say I put far more effort in for the Xbox, to be honest — and I failed, but my intention was to own both. But if I could flat out only buy one on launch week, it would be a PlayStation 5. For all the reasons stated above.
Question 2.When people are able to buy one of these consoles by simply walking into a store and slapping down some money, which would I recommend? Early estimates pitch this as being, at the earliest, in May next year. At the earliest.
Both. Either. Whichever one has the games you want out of it.