To be swept off our feet. That, in the end, is what we all want from a new console. We wish to be borne along by technology put not to moral or responsible use but, rather, bent to the purpose of indulgence. Loops of rubber-coated copper, whose job it is to fizz and pour forth the pleasures of 8K resolution. Wide strips of glass and sculpted metal that hum with the hertz necessary for us to play at 120 frames-per-second. And now, adding to this noble effort, the PlayStation 5 DualSense controller: a wondrous clump of God-knows-what, clasped in a strange shell, whose mission is to do for the hands what has long been done solely to the head—to dip them in the textures of our escape.
Still, the closest I was to being swept off my feet this last week came before I could plug anything in. Heaving the PlayStation 5 from its box, I swayed under the weight, as if being bullied in a ballroom dance. If you are one of those people who balk at bulk, the coming generation of hardware will test the limits of your taste, to say nothing of your knees. The PS5, with its black core and stark white exterior, gives off the impression of a tall, dark stranger—a count in a pale cape. When you turn it on, the body emits a blue glow, like smouldering ice. It’s by far the curiouser of the two big machines heading our way, the other being Microsoft’s Xbox Series X, which resembles a chunk of charred wood. Whichever you prefer, you’ll know instantly and fiercely. I happen to love the design that Sony has concocted. Then again, as a friend of mine carefully put it, “The PS5 looks like a piece of shit.”
Sooner or later, however, we must set aside the moulded hunks of plastic that dwell on our media units, and consider instead the treasures they harbour. I was relieved to find, within approximately nine seconds of turning on the PlayStation 5, that Sony had built a next-gen console and not forgotten—as, apparently, had Microsoft—to fill it with an abundance of next. The startup is a thrill. A black screen bruises into blue and refines into glittering particles, as the dashboard is brushed elegantly into view. The noises—one can hardly call them music—sound like Brian Eno attempting to interpret the contents of Mark Cerny’s mind. Sony’s machines, particularly when powered up, have always plucked, thrummed and sang the way computers might if they were lost in thought, aspiring to a future of play well beyond our reckoning.
Is all this terribly important? Only in so much as we may understand the odd sensibility that sets Sony apart from its rivals when it comes to consoles: the governing principle that games deserve a surreal landscape of their own, a place for us to come to. If that means hiring David Lynch to direct your advert, amidst billows of funereal fog, then so be it. This ethos will be keenly understood by those of us who gazed at the menus of the PlayStation 2, and felt the ambient breezes that echoed from its gloomy depths gusting all about us, following us home, bidding us to leave the world behind. The new dashboard is sparse and sensible—not too dissimilar from that of the PlayStation 4—but it betrays the elusive tinctures that define Sony’s eccentricity.
Another area where Sony scores and Microsoft falls short is the new controller, which is a prime example of Sony’s creative approach—one that has always betrayed the dual sense of a dreamer, drunk on possibility, and an old hand, sobered by a conservative touch. So, too, is it an example of the company’s long-running tendency, whenever pure invention is unavailable, to tinker the outlandish into style. The Rumble Pak, for instance, may have been released for the Nintendo 64 in April of 1997, seven months before the first DualShock, but there was no argument as to which was superior. Nintendo had tapped into our craving for the tactile, summoning up the quakes with a clunky, battery-powered add-on; and Sony had beefed up the tech, doubling the number of motors, and sealed the good vibrations within, giving up no unsightly bulges.
With the PS5, it is again to Nintendo that Sony has looked—specifically, to the HD rumble, for the Switch, which seemed to cram its Joy-Con controllers with springs, ball bearings, and milk. The DualSense seems to be wrought from elements wilder still; its adaptive triggers, for example, in resisting your fingers, feel as though their chambers were being flooded with sand. Drawing back a bow string, in Astro’s Playroom (an exquisite platformer that comes pre-installed on the hard drive), you can feel the trigger tighten and tremble. In Spider-Man: Miles Morales, meanwhile, the delicate thwip of Miles’s arcing threads, at a half-pull of the shoulder button, has a pleasing shiver to it; and a full squeeze conveys a firm crunch, as of gripping on for dear life, high above the avenues of Harlem. Add to the triggers the haptic feedback, which targets your thumbs and palms and, in Astro’s Playroom, simulates the precise plink of its hero’s metal feet, as they clatter across glass, the soft grit of dry soil, and the rustle of fresh grass.
Whether or not the alluring tremors of this impressive technology will fall still, due to a lack of third-party enthusiasm (as was the case with HD rumble, which was scrapped altogether for the release of the Switch Lite) will depend on the ease with which developers can wield it, and the breadth of its application. Early signs are promising. If Spider-Man: Miles Morales—a title from a first-party studio but one that was developed for the PS4—can make meaningful use of these features, then it is likely not a huge leap for Activision or EA, say, to prove themselves similarly adaptive. Certainly, video games suffer no shortage of triggers to be pulled, accelerators to be pressed, strings to be drawn back and loosed. And I wonder if the DualSense might inject third-party games with judders enough to lure over those who have the choice of consoles. At the moment, I know where I would rather play.
But what decides the fate of a new games machine, not just the rumble of its financial success but the lingering feedback of its legacy, is not where people would rather play but what. Sony is starting the new generation the same way it dominated the old: by delivering us exclusive games. Astro’s Playroom is a rarity (expect a full review in the coming days), both a delirious showcase for the DualSense and a platformer glossed with the kind of polish and life that I thought was only permitted to drift from the chimneys of Nintendo. Spider-Man: Miles Morales, while also available on the PS4, is nonetheless new, sealed with the ease and spectacle of a Sony blockbuster, and on PS5 arrives with a ray-traced New York, caked in a Christmas blizzard, and a hero whose elasticated exploits aren’t tangled up with loading screens. Looming over launch is Demon’s Souls, from developer Bluepoint Games, a ground-up remake of Japan Studio and From Software’s masterwork. And then there is Godfall, my indifference to which may yield the delight of an early surprise.
If you’re poised between the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series X, then the answer may come down to patience. Microsoft’s strategy is steeped in accessibility, power, and the frictionless slide from the old to the new. But it relies on the long haul, with its most exciting releases on hold until next year. It’s also missing something else. As I’ve left my flat these last few days, taking the late, cold air of a spent year, only one of the two machines waiting for me at home has made me smile with helpless excitement, gliding along on the pavement at the prospect of the next generation. Only, that’s the thing about the PlayStation 5. It isn’t next. It’s now.