PlayStation 5 review: were we caught in its web?
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I have been around computer games and gamers for nearly 50 years. I played Pong in the 1970s, then later saw my kids progress from Atari 65XE to Sega Megadrive to Xboxes, Nintendo Switch and Sony PlayStations.
I have also visited two of the world’s leading professional gaming teams, in Berlin and London, so know how deadly serious gaming and the creation of games has become since we used to cluster as a family round a 14in TV and load Caterpillar from a cassette to an Atari. But I can safely say that few console releases have been so hotly anticipated as the new PlayStation 5, which sold out instantly on its launch in November and continues to sell out as soon as restocks are released. Is it worth the hype? To find out I sat myself down one recent evening in front of a 50in TV to play Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales on one of the first PlayStation 5 samples out of captivity.
(Actually, I wasn’t so much really playing the game as I was walking, running and swinging freestyle around Manhattan, controlling Spider-Man and marvelling at the technology, at the photorealism, the beauty and the precision of the software.)
The graphics are so extraordinary even on a standard HD television (the PS5 is capable of satisfying a 4k and an 8k TV) that my first thought was that actors and film sets are possibly only a few years off being obsolete. The game is entirely digital, yet the Manhattan street scenes feel almost more realistic than the real thing. And when I say street scenes, it doesn’t just cover a selection of streets. The game somehow captures, as far as I can see, all of the city. I know New York pretty well and on the PlayStation 5 wandered from Harlem to Brooklyn Bridge on a computer-generated snowy day, dodging down side streets at random, and couldn’t catch it out. Everything, every building and store I know to be in a certain place was there, seemingly at least. I am sure there are mistakes aplenty, but the recreation is beyond impressive.
What’s more, those streets are busy with people – thousands of them – and cars, truck, taxis. I deliberately bumped my Miles Morales character into people on the sidewalk and heard a variety of expletives from them. I heard passing voices expressing astonishment that they had seen Spider-Man (“Hey, isn’t that…”). I jumped in front of vehicles to see them jam on their brakes. It all had the quality of a startlingly vivid dream.
And what about the PS5 hardware? The PS5’s graphics are astonishing, but arguably evolutionary rather than revolutionary. They don’t materially improve game play but they do make it look extraordinary. The PS5 is some 100 times faster than its predecessor, the PS4. So it can handle video at 120 frames per second, giving acuity never seen before. I only tried games at the standard 4k 60 fps, and they were already hyper-real.
In terms of computing grunt power, as measured in teraflops, the PS5’s direct rival, Microsoft’s Xbox Series X – which was also released last month at the same price – is a little mightier. The Xbox has 12 teraflops against the PS5’s 10.28. But the difference is arguably notional.
The big attraction of PS5 – the most exciting element, as well as the main differentiator between it and Xbox – is Sony’s DualSense controller, which is being hailed by gamers as the next level in immersive technology. The DualSense delivers a combination of force feedback – the simulation of real-world physical touch with haptics (vibration and so on) and even audio to enable speaking with opponents without wearing a headset, or for the possibility, as yet unexploited, for games developers in future to add audio input to the controller.
Rumble effects are old hat in controllers, but the DualSense takes the multisensory experience much further and is convincing in a more subtle way, in my view, than complex gaming accessories such as vibrating chairs. Felt merely through the hands, for example, driving on an icy surface in Dirt 5 feels quite different from driving over gravel. Thanks to innovative actuators in the controller arms, in games involving walking you can tell the difference between the textures you’re traversing, feel rainfall, detect different levels of springiness in a gun trigger or, in Astro’s Playroom, a delightful new PS5-only game preloaded on the machine, feel increasing resistance when you pull back an arrow in a bow.
It all works wonderfully well. The sum total effect gives a hint of what virtual-reality gloves might one day feel like.
As to the availability of games for the PS5? It is fully compatible with the thousands of existing PS4 games – and with regard to the titles specially developed for PS5, the Sony offering has by far the more extensive selection available. It has launched with Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Demon’s Souls and Sackboy: A Big Adventure, as well as Astro’s Playroom. Xbox Series X, by contrast, launched with no exclusive titles, opting instead to release 30 games “optimised” for the new console.
Sony PS5, from £450, playstation.com