As anyone who has tried to buy a Nintendo Switch over the past six months can tell you, the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically increased the demand for video games, which provide escapism, time-killing, and a link to the outside world in one convenient package.
And so, although new video game consoles are always met with an absurd amount of hype, this week’s release of both the Xbox Series X/S (on November 10) and the PlayStation 5 (on November 12) feels more important than the last time seven years ago. So what do you need to know about the next generation of gaming, and which new console is right for you? I’ve spent the past couple of weeks playing around with both the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series X, so let’s dive in:
The Looks: Which Is Bulkier?
Unlike the PS4 — a slim, unobtrusive black box that basically just looks like a DVD player — the PlayStation 5 wants to be noticed. It’s a big, beefy console with big white fins on each side, like a PS4 that’s cosplaying as EVE from WALL-E. It’s very distinctive, though that might come at the expense of your living room decor, since this thing really stands out.
Sony has been giving gamers the option to stack their consoles vertically since the PlayStation 2, but this is the first time that felt like a necessity to me. The PS5 just doesn’t look right sitting horizontally, and it’ll take up a ton of real estate in your entertainment center. It is the ideal height to sit under a $12.99 IKEA end table, though.
The Xbox Series X is shorter and squatter than the PS5, but it still looms over everything else, and it also looks better if you configure it vertically. That said: I ended up putting mine behind my TV. I’m not thrilled about it, but even laid out horizontally, the Series X is way too tall to sit in front of my TV like my PS4 did. Consider your own home-theater setup and plan accordingly.
There is an alternative to the Series X. If you don’t need a disc drive (and want to save $200), you can get a Series S instead. Unlike the PS5’s cheaper Digital Edition model—which costs $100 less than the standard PS5 and lacks a disc drive, but is otherwise identical—the Series S looks completely different to the Series X, and takes up much less space (with a smaller hard drive to compensate). It’s also incapable of playing games in 4K Ultra-HD, so if you have a really nice TV, you should probably spring for the more expensive model.
The Winner: It’s a close call, but the PlayStation 5 is the one that’s actually on display in my living room right now.
The Controllers: Next Level vs. Status Quo
When Sony announced that PlayStation 5 games wouldn’t be compatible with the PlayStation 4’s DualShock controllers, it seemed like an obnoxious way to make gamers buy a marginally upgraded version of the controllers they already had. That turned out to be incorrect.
I’ll get into the PS5’s other launch games below, but there’s no point in talking about the PS5 controller if you’re not going to mention Astro’s Playroom. Much like Nintendo’s Wii Sports, Astro’s Playroom is a “game” that’s actually close to a tech demo designed to show off everything the new controller can do. And friend, let me tell you: It is wild what this new controller can do. It’s hard to explain without actually holding it in your hands. Through precise haptics and audio feedback, the controller adds clever, subtle little nuances that immerse you in the game. When you walk across a floor, you’ll literally feel the difference as your little robot feet walk across metal or glass or sand. When you propel yourself on a spring, you’ll feel the resistance and the vibrating twang of release in the shoulder buttons.
Controllers have been shaking since the Nintendo 64’s Rumble Pack, but this is something very different. It is deeply and unexpectedly cool—though whether developers will actually exploit the full potential is an open question. But in theory, the DualSense strikes me as the PS5’s biggest possible game-changer.
Meanwhile, the principle behind the “new” controller for the Series X is pretty simple: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Xbox One players will notice some minor differences between the old controller and the new one, like a new D-pad and a dedicated share button, which will be very useful to anyone who likes to share stuff (and very irritating to people like me, who will accidentally push it over and over again). But the consistency does come with a bonus: You can use your old controllers with the new games.
The Winner: PlayStation 5
The New Games: There Aren’t Many
The PS5’s killer launch game is Spider-Man: Miles Morales, a spinoff to the Spider-Man game that came out a couple of years ago for the PS4. I am happy to report that Miles Morales is fun as hell. But Miles Morales is also launching on PS4, and while the PS5 version is somewhat prettier (and uses the new controller in some fun ways), it’s not a huge improvement.
What else? I’ve tried The Pathless, a sleek and stylish action-adventure game that feels like the PS5’s riff on The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and Godfall, an action game that bills itself as a “looter-slasher,” which is still under embargo. (If you want my impressions, hit me up on Twitter) I haven’t tried Demon’s Souls, a remake of the first game in a famously tough-as-nails action franchise; Sackboy: A Big Adventure, a cute-looking platformer in the Super Mario vein; and Bugsnax, a game that seems weird and singular enough that I won’t attempt to describe it here (but here’s a trailer if you’re curious).
As for the Xbox Series X’s big new launch games, here’s the short (if somewhat misleading) answer: There aren’t any. Until a few months ago, the hot game in the Series X lineup would have been Halo Infinite, which has since been delayed until sometime in 2021.
So what’s left? The clear winner in the Series X lineup is Yakuza: Like a Dragon, which launches on the Xbox Series X but won’t be out for the PS5 until next March. (That said, it’s also coming out for the PS4 this week.) It’s a big, ambitious, goofy gangster soap opera that serves as a quasi-reboot of the Yakuza series, and it looks and plays like a dream on the Series X. It’s also worth trying Gears Tactics—an XCOM-style tactical shooter set in the Gears of War universe, which was previously only available on PC—to see if it’s your thing. But at least for now, the Series X/S is less about brand-new first-party games, and more about enhanced versions of the best games from the Xbox One’s back catalogue. More on that soon.
Exclusives aside, most of the new games you’re probably excited about will be available on both consoles (and the old consoles!) anyway. Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, and Watch Dogs: Legion are all dropping on both the PS5 and the Series X/S this week. (None of the next-gen versions were ready for me to play in advance, but it’s safe to assume they’ll be prettier variations on previous versions.) The highly anticipated action-RPG Cyberpunk 2077, from the creators of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, will be available on both consoles next month. So will the “What if Zelda, but Greek mythology?” game with the truly hilarious title Immortals Fenyx Rising.
The Winner: PlayStation 5
The Old Games: How Super Is Your Subscription?
If you have a PS4 game—either digitally or on disc—you can almost definitely play it on the standard-edition PS5. (There are ten exceptions, and I guarantee you don’t care about any of them.) Most of those older games benefit from the PS5’s improved hardware, which generally means smoother frame rates and shorter load times. You can’t play your old PlayStation 1, 2, or 3 discs, though.
If you’re a subscriber to PlayStation Plus— the $60 per year service that allows you to play games online, and gives you a couple of new games to download every month—you’ll also get instant access to 20 PS4 classics. The list includes top-tier Sony exclusives like God of War, The Last of Us Remastered, and Uncharted 4, as well as a few multi-platform games like Final Fantasy XV Royal Edition and Resident Evil 7.
Meanwhile, the Xbox Series X/S can play every Xbox One game that doesn’t require the now-defunct Kinect peripheral. Some of those games, like Dirt 5, Gears 5 and Ori and the Will of the Wisps come with a feature called Smart Delivery, which means you’ll get the Series X/S versions for free whenever you upgrade (and for the record, they play really well on the Series X, with virtually no load times and a silky-smooth framerate). The system can also play hundreds of Xbox 360 games, and a solid lineup of classics from the original Xbox.
And the Xbox Game Pass Ultimate is a whole thing in itself. It’s a subscription service for $14.99 a month, which grants digital access to hundreds of games at a time. The roster shifts a little every month; as of this writing, there are 346 games. Game Pass Ultimate also comes with the promise that any future game from Xbox Game Studios will be available to subscribers on the day of its release. That includes upcoming titles like Halo Infinite, the horror game The Medium, and the long-awaited sequel Psychonauts 2—so if you’d be spending $60-70 on those new games when they came out anyway (and don’t mind that you don’t “own” the games), it quickly pays for itself.
You know those old Nickelodeon contests where a kid would get 10 minutes to run around with a shopping cart in a Toys R Us? That’s how I felt the first time I opened the Game Pass Ultimate. Here, somehow, was pretty much every game from the past few years that I’d thought about buying, decided to skip, but still wanted to try. I instantly filled my hard drive with a couple dozen Game Pass Ultimate games. Look at the roster, and you’ll see at least something you want to play—like, to name one purely hypothetical example, if you’re stressed out about an election and to escape into Banjo-Kazooie.
The Winner: Xbox Series X
The Specs: What Is Ray Tracing?
Let’s start with the bare fact: Both the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series X make video games look very, very good. There are detailed technical breakdowns if you’re interested, and both consoles include features like HDR support and 3D audio for anyone with the TV, speakers, or headphones to appreciate it. Technically, the Series X has a little more raw power. But for gamers like me with midrange HDTVs and passable speakers, I suspect the PlayStation 5 and the Series X will impress in the same way without feeling like a full-blown game-changer.
This isn’t to say there’s no noticeable improvement on the previous generation. (Get ready to hear the phrase “ray tracing” a lot.) But in general, you shouldn’t expect a massive visual leap out of the box. Miles Morales is gorgeous on the PS5, but it’s not exactly a slouch on the PS4, either. And the PS4’s most visually impressive games, like The Last of Us: Part II, already look so good that they don’t really need the help of the PS5’s fancy new hardware. It’s harder to gauge the Series X, since we don’t have a new new game to judge, but the enhanced Gears 5 is about as pretty as you can expect any game about chainsawing lizard-men to be.
The Winner: It’s a tie.
Which Console Should You Buy?
My honest answer: It depends.
I know that’s a cop-out! I’m very sorry! But I don’t think you can go wrong here. Either way, you don’t need to drive yourself insane trying to track them down this holiday season. Even if you do find one—not likely, since both Sony and Microsoft have struggled to even fulfill demand for preorders—there are very few games so far that you can’t also play on the PS4 or the Xbox One. You’ll definitely want at least one of these consoles eventually, but both are worthwhile upgrades that also don’t immediately kick the previous generation into a dumpster.
Generally, my taste skews toward Sony, whose exclusives tend to be the type of story-driven, single player-focused games I prefer. But the Xbox Game Pass Ultimate is a value proposition that feels, for better or worse, like it might be the future of gaming, and there’s something truly dazzling about jumping from game to game like you might dabble in a bunch of Netflix shows.
If you’re still on the fence, look at the list of exclusive games for each console and pick the one that impresses you more. Or ask your friends which system they’re going to buy—gaming is always more fun when you can play with your buddies. Or consult this little chart:
If you’re going to go all in one console: Buy a PlayStation 5 (either version) or an Xbox Series X.
If you’re going to buy two consoles: Buy a PlayStation 5 (either version) and a Nintendo Switch or Xbox Series S.
If you’re going to buy three consoles: Buy a PlayStation 5 (either version) and a Nintendo Switch and an Xbox Series S.
Microsoft Xbox Series X
Microsoft Xbox Series S
Sony PlayStation 5
Sony PlayStation 5 Digital Edition
Originally Appeared on GQ