PlayStation 5 review: Video games you can actually feel

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PLAYSTATION 5 | Photo Courtesy: Sony Interactive Entertainment

The most impressive thing about Sony Corp.’s PlayStation 5 isn’t the alien-like design or the powerful machinery inside. It’s the controller, which adds an entirely new dimension to the experience of playing video games.

The new PlayStation comes out Thursday with two models: one that plays Blu-ray discs for $500 and another that doesn’t for $400. Bloomberg reviewed the product for the past two weeks and found the PlayStation 5 delivers on promises of loading games faster and performing more smoothly than current hardware. But the DualSense controller stands out as the real innovation. It’s full of neat tricks, the coolest of which is the ability to deliver a subtle range of vibrations that simulate different tactile sensations.

Astro’s Playroom, the game that’s built into every system, is a good demonstration of the technology. Every step your character takes through the platforming game is punctuated by a slight vibration from the controller. When you leap onto a moving platform or walk through tall grass, the vibrations grow more pronounced. Stomp on an enemy or yank an object out of the ground, and the controller pulsates in ways that evoke the feeling of performing those actions.

This may not sound like much, but success for a game console can come down to one or two differentiating features. The stakes are high for Sony as it prepares to take on Microsoft Corp.’s Xbox Series X, which debuts Tuesday.

The PlayStation 5 is the first proper, new Sony console since 2013. Its predecessor, the PlayStation 4, sold a whopping 112 million units and transformed gaming into the most important part of Sony’s business. Video games and online services now account for nearly a quarter of revenue. Sony has said it expects to sell more than 7.6 million PlayStation 5 consoles by the end of March, and the stock is trading near a 20-year high.

The product won’t be easy to find over the holidays. Supply chain issues are constraining the number of units Sony can make. The Japanese company said Thursday that stores will limit sales to customers with pre-orders and won’t stock inventory for walk-ins. Sony said the move is meant to discourage crowds and minimize the risk of spreading the coronavirus.

The Xbox Series X is technically superior to the PlayStation 5, but you’d hardly know it when comparing the two side by side. That’s because the new Xbox will hit stores without an exclusive game that fully takes advantage of the hardware. The PlayStation 5, on the other hand, has a far stronger lineup this fall. It includes Demon’s Souls, a remake of the challenging 2009 action game, and Spider-Man: Miles Morales, which looks smoother and plays better on the new hardware. And don’t sleep on Bugsnax, a charming independent title in which you solve puzzles to capture insects that resemble snacks. Think: spider with French fries for legs.

Those are on top of all of the games playable on both the PlayStation 5 and new Xbox, including Ubisoft Entertainment’s Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and Activision Blizzard’s Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War. Most of the early games, including the new Spider-Man, will be available on the PlayStation 4, too. That makes the $500 cost for the PlayStation 5 feel unnecessary right now, except for those who can’t wait to play games in 4K ultra-high definition and at higher frame rates.

Sony will try to make up for the limited selection of content by offering improved versions of older games. The catalog pales in comparison to what’s offered on Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass, but subscribers to Sony’s online service, PlayStation Plus, get access to 20 great games from the last seven years, including the transcendent action-horror game Bloodborne and the snazzy role-playing game Persona 5. A few titles, such as the 2018 gem God of War and this year’s samurai game Ghost of Tsushima, will perform better on the PlayStation 5 than they did on older hardware, although most do not. Nor do they support the new vibration control features, which are only for new games.

It’s a wonder that the most refreshing aspect of the PlayStation 5 dates back to an invention Nintendo Co. popularized in 1997. The oddly shaped controllers for the Nintendo 64 had a slot in the back where owners could plug in a hunk of plastic called a Rumble Pak that would vibrate when a character falls or takes a hit. The function has been a staple of video games ever since but hasn’t changed all that much. The so-called haptic feedback in the PlayStation 5 takes the technology a big step forward.

The DualSense controller also has motion controls, a speaker and a microphone. The back trigger buttons contain their own technical novelty called adaptive resistance. This allows a game to change how much force is required to press the buttons down. In the new Spider-Man game, for example, the triggers require some extra oomph while swinging around New York City, creating a unique and enjoyable new challenge.

It’ll be up to game developers to implement the PlayStation 5’s hardware flourishes. Even promising features can be forgotten, as was the case with advanced rumble technology in previous generations. Going up against the Xbox Series X, which hasn’t brought much to the table beyond better specs, Sony’s controller is the only thing that really feels next-gen.

The PlayStation 5 is an impressive machine, but even with its advancements and standout controller, it’s hard to recommend the purchase of a console this year. Whether it’s the new PlayStation or Xbox, most gamers would be better-served waiting a year or two. By then, the hardware will probably be available at a discount, and there should be a decent library of games you can’t play elsewhere.

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