Something strange happened on the way to the bright, new, blast-processed future: We actually got there.
That’s both the promise and the conundrum facing Sony and its shiny, new, popped-collar playboy the PlayStation 5—a console that stands as a luxury purchase even within a hobby predicated entirely on luxury purchases. The PS5—which we’ve been handling for the last week or so, since our review kit from Sony arrived—is undeniably faster, sleeker, and smoother than its 7-year-old successor, the PlayStation 4, could ever hope to be. But here’s the thing about the PS4: It already was—indeed, still is—perfectly fast, sleek, and smooth all by itself, representing the apotheosis of Sony’s long efforts to create a console that simultaneously functions as an online workhorse, a home’s key media device, and a high-end video game console. The PS5 does all that stuff, too, just as well as the PS4, and generally even a little better. And that’s the issue, really.
Some context: Our time with the PS5 was spent primarily with the two games made available to us ahead of today’s review embargo: Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales (read our full review here), and the game that comes with each new box, Astro’s Playroom. Credit where it’s due: Astro’s is a hell of a sales pitch for the new machine, just as the series’ previous game, Robot Rescue, was for the much-maligned (but still, thankfully for us early-adopter saps, supported) PSVR. Cute, creative, and brightly colored, the game puts the new, massive Dual Sense controller through its paces, which are pretty much the exact same paces applied to the PS4’s Dual Shock 4 back in the day: a built-in speaker that remains only marginally more interesting than it is annoying; refined haptic feedback that can produce the occasional interesting Rumble Pak effect; and the exact same stick-and-button layout Sony’s stuck with for the last several console generations (including the second iteration of the Dual Shock 4’s still occasionally baffling trackpad). The new tweaks are a built-in microphone (bringing the PS5 up to the lofty technical heights of 2004’s Nintendo DS) and adaptive triggers that can offer different amounts of resistance based on input from the games themselves. (Oh, and because we know it matters as much to you as it does to us: Battery life seemed completely normal, despite all the bells, whistles, and tremors; we got a full, long session of play out of every charge.)
But let’s dip back into Astro’s for a second, which is far more charming than a game that’s essentially a love letter to itself should probably be. A ludicrously beautiful spin on the 3D platformers of old, its four beefy levels run you through 20-plus years of PlayStation history, allowing your cute little robot to collect all sorts of winking nods to the franchise’s long history of titles and peripherals. (Just about any PlayStation exclusive, timed or otherwise, shows up in adorable mechanical form; we were especially delighted to see a little robot Norman Reedus carrying packages with his own little jar-fetus strapped to his chest.) If anything is going to provoke the presents-on-Christmas-morning feeling Sony is desperately hoping to evoke with the console’s November 11 release, it’ll be with Playroom. It’s as pure a dose of joy as the PS5 is probably capable of delivering—and we mean that in both a positive and a pejorative sense.
Due to various deadlines and embargoes, we won’t be able to talk about the nature of the full PlayStation 5 launch line-up until the console releases to the public next week. But it’s clear from what we can talk about that actual “PS5 games”—as opposed to multi-platform titles dropping on both the new box and the old PS4—are going to be few and far between, at least in the early going. All of which makes the fundamental nature, and, arguably, the chief flaw, of the PlayStation 5 readily apparent: This is, at its heart, an upgrade, not a revolution. To some extent, it’s simply the culmination of Sony’s steady adoption of the same approach to tech iteration that’s made Apple god knows how much money off of variously numbered iPhones over the years, an embrace of “more of the same but better,” instead of the unconventional or new.
And to be clear, those upgrades are significant, most notably in terms of load times, which were practically non-existent in either Astro’s or Miles Morales. (A quality of life boost it shares with its Microsoft competitor, also launching next week.) But also, the console UI feels smoother and less bulky. The graphics are undeniably prettier—not jaw-droppingly so, but the improvements are noticeable. Backwards compatibility to the PS4 works perfectly well, and even older games seem to benefit from the load speed increases heralded by the PS5’s switch to solid state memory. All of which means that we genuinely can’t, personally, imagine going back to the PS4, since the PS5 very deliberately does everything the original device did but better. But that same reliance on “more of the same” critically undercuts the entire reason for this shiny, swooping new toy to exist. Because the counter-argument is also true: The PlayStation 5 doesn’t do anything that the PlayStation 4 wasn’t doing for you already. (“What about the Cards?” we hear you cry, referencing the various helpful tabs and context-sensitive trophy notifications that now pop up any time you hit the controller’s PS button. Let’s put it this way: We’ve put in about 25 hours with the machine at this point, and we still had to go Google just now to confirm what the hell this particular feature was actually meant to be accomplishing.)
Outside some lovely Easter eggs and one very charming little robot, we just can’t shake the sense that there’s a certain, let’s say, soullessness to the arrival of the PlayStation 5, a burst of mercenary motivation from an industry that’s already almost all mercenary, all the time. Certainly, we can appreciate the technical merits, the quality of life improvements, the refinement and beauty of the thing—all of which are meaningful, and all of which will delight anyone who has the disposable cash ($499 for the version with the disc drive, $399 for the one without) to pony up for a generational upgrade that’s more of a gentle leapfrog than a monumental leap. But none of that can free the console from the feeling that Sony has played things so safe here as to be positively somnambulistic. The age of giants is over. The age of the comfortable upgrade is almost certainly here to stay.