After spending a week with the next generation of gaming, a clearer picture is coming to mind. Microsoft, not wanting to fix something that isn’t broken, has chosen the route of trying to perfect the Xbox experience. Sony, on the other hand, is trying to push the envelope with what is capable in a console, sacrificing some quality-of-life elements along the way.
More than ever, there is a greater difference between the two consoles, but I find myself being constantly drawn to the PlayStation experience despite its flaws.
From the moment you open the box, it’s immediately obvious that Microsoft has spent its time since the launch of the Xbox One tweaking the platform — and the Series X is the culmination of that work. The unboxing itself is premium, much like how purchasing a new iPhone feels, with the console gift-wrapped and presented in slanted black foam. The setup instructions aren’t just laid on top randomly; they’re strategically placed as a pull tab underneath the system. The cables and accessories are stored in a compartment that is an extension of the rest of the packaging.
This level of detail extends to the setup and UI experience of the system. It very quickly links with the Xbox app on your phone, where you are much more easily able to program your account info and settings. Once your console is ready to go, it’s a near identical look to the Xbox One, but an incredibly different feel. Sedated movement through the system has been replaced by responsive leaps from your games, to the store, to your profile and settings. There’s no learning curve if you’re a seasoned Xbox gamer, just pure immediacy.
Unfortunately, this same speed was meant to be afforded to switching between different games, but it’s hit-or-miss at launch. Quick resume uses the system’s memory to store instances of titles so you can hop between five or six games without having to reload them entirely. The problem is, it’s been disabled for a lot of games as reviewers were having graphical issues for some titles that implemented it.
For me, the only game I could get it to work with was Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. Even Microsoft’s own Gears 5, at the time of writing, doesn’t support it. Hopefully, it’s patched soon, because it could completely change my feelings toward the system.
Once you’re in a game, though, the upgrades that have been made in both performance and fidelity are staggering. I had been reviewing Valhalla on the One X, and I found it to still be a gorgeous experience. But moving that game to the Series X, keeping it locked to 4K and doubling the frames per second to 60, was almost indistinguishable from running it on my PC, except it didn’t have the prevalent crashes like it did on the desktop.
I was also happy to find additional graphical tweaks implemented into games such as Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, including the abilities to increase the field of view and switch between ray tracing at 60 fps or disabling it for 120 fps gameplay. Call of Duty has never been a slouch on console, but experiencing it on next-gen hardware made its last-gen counterpart look and feel sluggish.
While a lot of these graphical improvements are also found on the games’ PlayStation counterparts, Sony’s system has quite a few tricks up its sleeve to elevate the games further.
Let’s take Black Ops Cold War for example, which I think is the best example of third-party implementation for the PlayStation 5’s DualSense controller, the headlining feature of next gen. Every gun feels different in the hand thanks to advanced vibrations known as haptic feedback, as well as adaptive triggers that can actually increase tension. Firing a compact MP5 submachine gun results in dozens of pinpoint vibrations, while a single shot from a sniper rifle will provide a decisive thud in your hands and fingertips.
It doesn’t stop at just your attacks, but those also being perpetrated against you. A tomahawk whizzing by feels like it grazes across the top of your controller, and incoming artillery raining from the sky is matched with ample haptic explosions. It’s a new level of immersion that is simply unobtainable on any other platform.
But the innovations don’t end at the controller. The new activity cards built into the system UI, which can be brought up with the tap of the PlayStation button, are actually far more useful than I thought at first glance. Not only do they list your current single-player mission, with how much progress you’ve made and an estimated time to completion, but they also show trophies you are close to acquiring and, perhaps my favorite feature, the ability to jump into any of the online modes even if the game is booting from scratch.
While playing Spider-Man: Miles Morales, I went into the character’s skills menu, and I saw that an ability I really wanted required me to complete a specific agility trial. I just wanted the ability, and I didn’t want to go through a lot of fuss to get it. Bringing up the activity cards showed that specific trial, and with a press of a button, Spider-Man was within seconds teleported to the starting point of the task. I initially thought cards would be something I rarely touched, but I find myself using them in most games I’m playing.
There are, however, some caveats to the experience that seem to have been overlooked, but were specifically addressed by the new Xboxes. Smart delivery is a feature on the Series X and S where you download a game and the system installs the correct version of that title for the console, all the way from the original Xbox One to the new systems.
There is no such smart delivery on the PS5, and it’s a huge pain. If you purchase a game that includes both a PS4 and PS5 version of the game, you have to actively choose which game you want to download. Some games, though, come with a bunch of downloadable add-ons such as extra cosmetics, levels, or avatars for your profile. The most convenient thing to do is to select “download all,” but that includes both versions of the game, meaning that you might accidentally install another needless 50GB to 100GB worth of data.
Even if you don’t, I sometimes find the games on my home screen switching to the PS4 versions and asking me to download them rather then providing the option to boot up the PS5 install. There’s a bunch of little annoying snags such as these in the PS5 experience that are simply not an issue on the Series X.
Despite these annoyances, the proof is in the pudding: At no point since my PS5 was delivered have I even thought about touching my Series X. There are several incredible games that launched with the new PlayStation, including Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Demon’s Souls, and Astro’s Playroom to name a few. Xbox doesn’t have that, with its originally planned launch title, Halo Infinite, in seemingly hot water.
Even outside of exclusives, the advantages of the DualSense and activity cards provide more reasons for me to play third-party games on the PlayStation than does the theoretical minor performance increase on the Xbox Series X, which never truly manifests itself, as most games lock their resolutions and frame rates.
I don’t regret my purchase of the Xbox Series X. I know that it will get hundreds of hours of use over the years when the PS5’s strong exclusives advantage has dissipated and Microsoft’s new studios start putting out their titles. But for now, I’m shocked with how little I even think about it compared to my PS5, which I look forward to playing every single day.
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