Hard to believe it’s been an entire year since a whole new hardware generation for video game consoles got its proper kickoff. But here we are.
Microsoft’s Xbox Series X (and its cheaper, storage-deprived Series S sibling) launched on Nov. 10, 2020. Sony went right after, setting both the disc-based and all-digital (but otherwise identical) PlayStation 5 consoles free on Nov. 12. It was a busy week, to say the least.
The arrival of a new console generation is historically one of the biggest hype moments in gaming. Upgraded hardware means shinier, fancier games that look better, run smoother, and deliver more complex experiences. But no one should need any reminding at this point that it’s been a less-than-optimal stretch of years for the people of planet Earth.
The big question, then, isn’t “How are these consoles doing one year in?” It’s more, “How has the current shape of the world impacted the arrival of a new generation of gaming hardware and the games that hardware powers?” Let’s take a look.
The invisible elephant in the room
Credit: Kellen Beck / Mashable
Any discussion about the current state of PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series gaming has to start with people’s ability to actually buy these things. The fact is, you can’t. Yes, all the various major retailers get re-stocked at a semi-regular pace, but the consoles still disappear in a matter of minutes, every time.
That means demand is still far outweighing supply for these things. And that’s not likely to change soon, either. The chip shortage that’s just one aspect of the world’s broader COVID-era supply chain issues isn’t likely to end soon. As recently as Dec. 16, we had Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger admitting that the chip shortage is likely to linger into 2023.
It’s going to be a while before shopping for a new PlayStation or Xbox gets easier.
Would-be buyers still have options, but it definitely takes some work. There are plenty of tracker bots out there, of course. If you’re on Twitter, the @Wario64 account regularly shouts out when more consoles become available. There’s also Matt Swider, a veteran tech media journalist who’s developed such a reputation for connecting people with new game machines during these lean times that he started a whole service, The Shortcut, devoted specifically to that.
I won’t lie, though: It’s still not going to be easy. You’re up against countless other would-be buyers who are getting the same information from the same sources. Every time these things appear for sale in the wild, it’s a race to get one. But it’s not impossible. Just be patient, jump on the opportunities when they come up, and cross your fingers.
The hardware experience
Sony’s comically oversized new gaming machine has seen some small but significant changes in the year since it launched. One that hasn’t arrived yet, but which is nonetheless exciting (and happening soon enough): replacement outer shells.
I was very much a fan of the PS5’s unique shape and look back in 2020 and that opinion hasn’t changed. It’s like a video game machine hatched from the mind of Frank Gehry. But the white shell-on-black hardware look isn’t for everyone, and while that outer shell is easily removable (and built to be removed), Sony hasn’t exactly been welcoming with third-parties that want to sell aftermarket shells in an assortment of colors and looks.
We found out why on Dec. 13. As many suspected, Sony is going to sell its own “PS5 console covers” in an assortment of colors, starting in Jan. 2022. They’re on the pricey side at $55 for a set, but they’ll finally let PS5 owners spice up the look of their entertainment centers, at least.
Sony’s latest console also has some truly experience-changing shortened load times thanks to the way the hardware puts its built-in solid state drive (SSD) to work. But that setup also meant buyers didn’t have the ability to easily add more storage that takes advantage of the same features when the console first launched. It took almost the entire year in the end, but a post-release update in September finally brought M.2 storage expansion to the PS5.
Without getting into overly technical territory, M.2 SSDs are faster, but pricier, upgrades to the older, boxier 2.5-inch SSDs you might be used to seeing. So if you’re willing to spend the money — and deal with potential compatibility headaches (IGN’s got you covered on that front) — you can now add significantly more storage capacity to your PS5 and it’ll operate just as efficiently as the built-in storage.
It’s not all good news for PS5 owners, though. The user interface (UI) is better than it was at launch, with less-than-clear menus and submenus making it overly difficult to ensure you’re installing the PS5 version of a particular game when a PS4 version also exists. There was even a period after the PS5 launched when game downloads defaulted to the PS4 version for whatever reason. That particular issue has since been fixed, but interacting with the PS5 outside of games themselves could still be smoother.
Take the Media Gallery, where all your saved screenshots and clips are stored. It’s not exactly the easiest thing to find. You can get to it using the Share button, but that’s not immediately obvious because it’s buried in a submenu. It’s also accessible from your Game Library — another submenu — but there’s no way to, say, pin it to the PS5 dashboard or create a quick-access link in the console’s extremely limited shortcut bar. The issue with Media Gallery exemplifies what is generally a clunky and cumbersome interface that Sony will hopefully work on improving in 2022.
Credit: Dustin Drankoski / Mashable
Also, the DualSense controller that I loved at launch is still brimming with so much unrealized potential. The tech itself is so cool: DualSense gives game developers a greater and more nuanced level of control over haptic feedback, including location-specific rumble and the ability to increase the tension on pulls of either trigger.
A handful of games have done cool things with these features: Pinprick rumbles in Returnal give players a tactile sense of falling rain; click-y triggers in Bugsnax and Marvel’s Spider-Man create the sense that you’re snapping photos or thwipping out strings of webbing; even Square Enix’s troubled Avengers game is a winner with the DualSense, with rumble effects that are specific to each hero creating a different feel depending on who you choose to play as.
As the games of 2022 and beyond start to arrive, we’ll hopefully see more developers taking advantage of what feels like gaming’s most significant player input innovation since motion controls came along with the Wii in 2006. When a game gets it right, those tactile effects really do heighten the experience.
There’s far less to be said about how the XSX has evolved in 2021, but that’s not necessarily a knock. Microsoft’s latest Xbox arrived in strong shape right from the outset. It’s not perfect, and the PS5 still has plenty of its own, unique advantages (I really do adore the DualSense), but the Xbox is in a pretty good place all the same.
Microsoft’s latest Xbox arrived in strong shape right from the outset.
Microsoft’s buzzword-y “Smart Delivery” feature immediately trumps Sony’s approach to the leap from last-gen to current-gen. What it really means is you don’t have to worry about getting the right version of a game downloaded, or transferring your save data — except for some game-specific exceptions that have no connection to Microsoft or Sony — from your old hardware to your new one. As long as you’re up and running online with your Xbox account connected correctly, all that stuff is handled behind the scenes for you.
In a similar vein we have the Quick Resume feature, which lets players suspend most games, power down their Xbox (technically it’s a low-power suspend mode), and come back later to pick up right where they were with no load times or intro screens to wade through. The feature isn’t as helpful for online-only games, but it works perfectly for offline and most hybrid online/offline games, and it’s been like that since day one.
Don’t underestimate quality of life features like these. Smart Delivery and Quick Resume may not be as flashy or directly impactful to your gaming experience as something like haptic feedback, but anything that gets players into their games more swiftly and with less friction is a good thing. It’s why the XSX and its basically unchanged UI from the Xbox One era stills runs circles around a PS5 dashboard experience that looks and feels similar to what was on PS4, but is changed enough for there to be a distinct learning curve.
Games, games, and… oh yeah, games
However you feel about the hardware, Sony’s first year of PS5 releases delivered one of the strongest launch lineups in recent memory. Returnal is a Sony exclusive that was an easy pick for Mashable’s “favorite games of 2022” rundown, and it’s also my pick for best of the year. The mid-year release of Ratchet & Clank: A Rift Apart is similarly strong, and delivers an incredible showcase of what “next-gen graphics” can look like: basically, it feels like a playable Pixar movie.
The lineup was strong right out of the gate, too. A remake of Demon’s Souls, From Software’s precursor to the Dark Souls series, is also the first proper PS5 exclusive, and it shows in the way the game looks and runs. Spider-Man: Miles Morales (along with an updated-for-PS5 re-release of 2018’s superb Spider-Man) is also a first-class showcase packed inside an incredible game. The list goes on from there: Deathloop, Bugsnax, MLB The Show 21, Final Fantasy VII Remake Intergrade, Sackboy: A Big Adventure, and Astro’s Playroom all bring console-exclusive excellence to Sony’s hardware.
Older games are still the big missing piece here, though. While the PS5 does play nice with an “overwhelming majority” of PlayStation 4-era games, anything from before the last generation is left out. The best bet for fans of Sony’s older games is to check out PlayStation Now, a subscription-based cloud gaming service that lets you play (via stream) an assortment of games, including some from the PlayStation 3 era and earlier, on your PS4, PS5, or PC. It’s far from a complete library and obviously less than ideal if all you want to do is slide your old copy of Folklore into a disc tray and start playing.
It’s a bit of a roles reversed situation here with Xbox. While Microsoft has had some very strong exclusives, notably including fall 2021’s Forza Horizon and Halo Infinite, its launch lineup hasn’t made as much of an impact. You’re going to have a great time playing Psychonauts 2, Gears 5, Sea of Thieves, and the Ori games (to name a few), but Forza is the only one that feels like a truly strong showcase of Microsoft’s hardware leap.
That said, Microsoft’s real “killer app” at this point isn’t any one game, it’s an entire service. Xbox Game Pass is a subscription-based add-on that gives subscribers immediate access to an enormous library of games, including hits from Electronic Arts and Bethesda Softworks (the latter of which is now a Microsoft subsidiary). It might sound similar to PS Now, but any comparison between the two isn’t even close.
While PS Now offers more games, with close to 1,000 in its library compared to Xbox’s 100-plus, most of the Game Pass offering skews toward newer releases. What’s more, all first-party releases — which is to say, games published by Microsoft itself — are in the library and available to play on day one. That means subscribers don’t need to worry about buying the latest Halo or Gears game; it’s simply free with a subscription.
Microsoft’s real “killer app” at this point isn’t any one game, it’s an entire service: Xbox Game Pass.
In 2021, and after an extended beta period under the name “xCloud,” Microsoft rolled out Xbox Cloud Gaming for Game Pass subscribers. Just like PS Now, the feature lets people who have a speedy internet connection access their library of games without downloading a thing. And unlike PS Now, Xbox Cloud Gaming supports mobile gaming on Android in addition to console and PC.
The smaller library on Game Pass is also easier to accept because of the other low-key killer XSX feature: full backward compatibility. If it’s an Xbox game released at any point in the brand’s history, the latest generation of Xbox hardware will play it (though the Series S lacks a disc drive, so it’s a bit more limited in terms of support).
What’s more, many older games get a straight-up performance upgrade on Xbox Series consoles via “FPS Boost,” and in the past year we’ve seen that feature expand to include a growing number of titles. The list of backward compatible Xbox games with or without FPS Boost is incredibly long and rather daunting. It’s not every single thing, but it’s the lion’s share of them. So if you’ve ever owned an Xbox before, you have a library of games ready to go before you even pick up an XSX or subscribe to something like Game Pass.
Bringing it all home
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Both the PS5 and XSX were in pretty great shape right out of the gate when they launched in 2020. Each has its own advantages and drawbacks, and each has also improved in small yet significant ways in the year since they launched. Even if they don’t entirely fulfill your own idea of what the next-gen hardware promise should look like, there’s no question that they’re getting closer.
Availability continues to be the biggest problem, and there’s no separating that from state of the surrounding world. Disruptions caused by almost two years of a global pandemic continue to wreak havoc on everything from the availability of parts to the actual day-to-day work of creating and polishing the video games we all want to play. It’s not just that these consoles are hard to find; the games that promise to really push the envelope are also slipping into later release windows because getting the work done is that much harder.
That said, if you can get your hands on a PS5 or XSX now in the twilight days of 2021, you’ll inarguably be getting yourself a more features-packed piece of hardware than you would’ve in late 2020, and with a wider offering of games to play. That’s just the nature of time, progress, and release schedules, but it’s good news all the same for fans of video games.