Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Choose your figher: Playstation 5 (Photo: Sony) or Xbox Series X (Photo: Microsoft)

The Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 are a triumph for brands, not games

Choose your figher: Playstation 5 (Photo: Sony) or Xbox Series X (Photo: Microsoft)
Graphic: Karl Gustafson

William Hughes: This isn’t exactly news, but the last week has been an immensely distracting one for pretty much the entire planet. The U.S. national election has gobbled up ungodly amounts of attention, cognitive load, and “Oh god, are we fucked? Are they fucked? Who’s fucked?” energy from anyone whose lives might end up being affected by it, i.e., most lives. Which is what makes it tremendously strange to note that not just one but two of the biggest names in video gaming chose these wild days to begin the promotional push for devices that will make or break them over the next several years, as Microsoft and Sony both lifted early review embargoes for the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 just a few short days after the election (began). Now it’s a week later, and both consoles have officially arrived for the masses. Which leads me to the question that’s been bouncing around my head for the last seven days (and, really, ever since my PS5 review kit arrived the week before): What was the goddamn rush?

Because while the Series X and the PS5 are both, undeniably big, beautiful babies, with a load of new quality of life features and some fairly blinding speed, what they aren’t, right now, are especially good machines for playing next-gen video games. That’s mostly because “next-gen” is an extremely nebulous term at this point; outside a few PS5 titles (the Demon’s Souls remake, Counterplay Games’ extremely shiny hack-and-slasher Godfall) there’s almost nothing you could be playing on your new boxes right now that wouldn’t play nearly as well on the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One that was probably already in your home. Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, the new Destiny 2 expansion, Watch Dogs: Legion—and the reliance here on third-party software feels telling—are all big new games, but they’re just as big and new on the old hardware, too.

There’s an argument to be made here for egalitarianism—that adding more next-gen exclusive titles would only be self-defeating, simultaneously enraging consumers, and cutting companies off from one of the most robust install bases for games in recent memory. But this strategy also leaves both consoles struggling with a critical lack of identity; Miles Morales is a perfectly fine Spider-Man game, but it’s a hard sell for a $500 new box—especially when you could just play it on the PS4 instead. The absence of a guaranteed system-seller on either console feels like a symptom of something that my colleague Sam Barsanti (who’s handling all our Series X coverage) and I have been asking each other for a while now: Did these companies goad each other into launching before the software was ready to support them? What the hell is up with this “next-gen” console launch?

Sam Barsanti: I would be very interested to know whether or not Sony and Microsoft had any clandestine, off-the-books meetings about mutually agreeing to delay their consoles, because like you said, William, it really seems an awful lot like they’re both dropping them now simply because they don’t want to be playing catch-up with each other. Pointless competitiveness is, for better or worse (worse), baked into the video game industry at this point. So yes, they absolutely goaded each other into launching before they were “ready.”

Not to say “I made a pretty good point in my review,” but in my review I came around to the idea that the world itself isn’t necessarily ready for the Xbox Series X—since a lot of games aren’t updated to take advantage of its features yet (especially in the pre-release environment we reviewed it in), and a lot of people won’t have TVs or monitors that can really capture its raw power. Without any must-play exclusives or dramatically new capabilities beyond Quick Resume (which can keep multiple games running in the background) and the super-speedy load times, that raw power is all the Series X really has going for it. So if you don’t have a thing that can display 4K graphics at 120hz or whatever, it’s honestly hard to recommend the Series X.

Unless, of course, you love hot new shit and you’re already invested in the Xbox family of systems, which I very much am, after years and years of buying cheap digital copies of Xbox games and Xbox controllers and Xbox TV remotes (which all worked on the new system without me having to do anything). That’s what I wanted to ask you about: If we accept that these consoles are here, even with very few exclusive games and a general lack of top-of-the-line televisions, do you think there’s a compelling reason for someone to go with the PlayStation 5 over the Series X beyond personal preference? Does the potential of future exclusives seem more enticing than having access to Microsoft’s impressive Game Pass library?

WH: Sam, you’ve nailed down, very clearly, how slight the differences between these two consoles are—to the point that it might literally come down to which device’s predecessor you used more often, and thus have more save files from that you’d like to transfer over to the new machine. There’s a certain freedom in the fact that there’s no wrong answer here—even if the reason is a little depressing, in terms of how few differences between these two devices there actually are. At least at the moment—and keeping in mind that I haven’t yet played the extremely anticipated Demon’s Souls, which wasn’t made available to reviewers ahead of the console launch—I think Game Pass might be the triumphant nudge that gives the Series X the win for the truly undecided gamer. But, at least until either company really gets its exclusive game down—wherefore art thou, Halo: Infinite?—the differences between these two fancy new toys are going to be academic and aesthetic, at best. (And for the love of god, please don’t buy both.)

In fact, that’s a knock-on effect of this launch I hadn’t really considered before: Both companies are clearly trying to turn these new consoles into legacy purchases, where the single biggest reason to buy a PlayStation 5 is that you already have a bunch of games for the PlayStation 4. It’s something I hit on in my own review of the PS5, as major console releases begin to more closely resemble a new iPhone release rather than a bold leap forward in tech, with the same old software running on this fancy new hardware. It’s an absolute triumph for PlayStation and Xbox as brands, as they come one step closer to overcoming the idea that games sell consoles, not the other way around. It’s more of a bummer, though, for people hoping to point to something revolutionary and say, “This is why I have to own this thing.”

Any final thoughts on this latest battle in the Console Wars, Sam? Anything in particular got you fired up for the future of next-gen gaming? (Such as it is?)

SB: You’re right about this being a triumph for brands, certainly. If they both pull this off and manage to turn “Xbox or PlayStation” into a largely meaningless distinction that just comes down to personal preference like “iPhone or Android,” then they’ll both be set with lifetime users who have no real incentive to hop from one platform to the other. There’s not really anything compelling about my iPhone, but at this point I’d rather have nothing than an Android—and I’ve spent way less money on apps than I have on Xbox games. It’s just the thing that I have already, so I might as well stick with it. I doubt anyone’s going to love an Xbox Series X or a PlayStation 5 the way they might love a Nintendo Switch, but neither of them need that as long as they keep people in their ecosystem.

That’s kind of a bleak way to think about a medium I really like, so I’ll change gears and answer your question: If I’m fired up about anything with these new consoles, it’s the idea that game developers will someday put in the time and effort to make things that could only be possible with the technology they offer. Instantly loading into an enormous Assassin’s Creed game and then admiring how good the water looks or whatever is nice, but I’m curious to see what happens when someone comes up with a concrete purpose for loading things in really fast rather than just being able to say, “Look how fast this is.” I’m picturing, like, a big Bethesda role-playing game like a Fallout or an Elder Scrolls, something with a big outdoor world and lots of little indoor areas, all seamlessly loading. I stopped playing Fallout: New Vegas on my Xbox 360 because getting a loading screen every single time I opened a door was really annoying, so a big open world that itself loads quickly and then doesn’t have to stop whenever I go into a new place would be a dream.

Or imagine something like a Grand Theft Auto with actual modeled interiors for every building. Video games have been doing “look at that mountain, you can go there” for years, so doing it faster isn’t really that impactful. I want “look at this reasonably photorealistic city, you can explore every inch of it without hitting a fake door, a painted-on window, or a big empty cube pretending to be a skyscraper.” I already have a Series X, and I think it’s cool and I’m impressed by what it can do, but that’s what I would be waiting for. You know, something new.