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Sony PS5 game console and controller on a dark background with swirling multicolored lines Photo: Henry Hargreaves for Polygon | Graphics: James Bareham/Polygon

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PlayStation 5 review: a hardworking beefcake

Accessible ray tracing, speedy load times make PS5 an excellent upgrade

Chelsea Stark (she/her), executive editor, has been covering video games for more than a decade.

The PlayStation 5 isn’t taking any huge risks. Aside from the hardware’s unconventional design — two white fins jutting out from a sleek black tower — there isn’t really a moment where Sony has zagged on the features you’d expect from a game console in 2020. In a year of change, the PlayStation 5 is consistent.

That’s worth celebrating. In the past, console makers have focused on ways to make their products the center of your whole life — or at least your living room. They’ve toyed with features like motion controls or augmented reality or other gimmicks that haven’t had staying power. Games are the focus of the PlayStation 5, so much so that entertainment apps like Netflix or Disney Plus have been shunted off to a separate tab on the home screen.

While its outsides suggest a radical design philosophy, the PlayStation 5’s insides are largely building upon the strong foundation Sony laid with the PlayStation 4: more games, better-looking games, and shorter load times. And thankfully, the PS5’s hardware offers plenty of broad improvements to game performance; you won’t need the newest television set to benefit.

This isn’t entirely a re-skinned PlayStation 4. There are a number of changes to the PlayStation operating system worth digging into, and not all of them feel like forward momentum. But nearly every choice the company made amplifies that this is a platform for high-end gaming experiences. Everything else is just gravy.

At left, a PlayStation 4 with a DualShock 4 controller. At right, a PlayStation 5 with a Dualsense controller.

A big boy

But before we dive into that, it’s worth addressing the elephant in the room. Or rather, the honking beefcake that is the console itself. There’s already been a lot of to-do online regarding how big the PlayStation 5 is, or how hard it is to hide in living room décor, and frankly, the discourse is warranted. This system looms large over any other previous-generation game console.

It has to. The PS5 and the nearly-as-beefy Xbox Series X are essentially real-deal gaming PCs, and the former manages to pack a power supply that’s still compatible with the same power cable from the last two generations of Sony consoles. I ended up standing it on the floor next to my entertainment center because we don’t have an obvious home for this chonk in my Brooklyn apartment.

But the size has its perks: It gives space for adequate cooling. One of the highest compliments I can give the PlayStation 5 is that I rarely noticed it once I was playing. The PlayStation 4’s fans could reach distractingly loud volumes, especially with demanding games like Red Dead Redemption 2. Although this certainly could change as more developers put this thing’s hardware to the test, the fans have rarely made any noise in my time with it, including during all the PS4’s trouble spots: startup, switching games, cutscenes, and loading.

A close-up on the front of the PlayStation 5
Photo highlighting the various ports on the PS5 video game console, including two USB ports, an ethernet port, an HDMI port, and the power input

Other nice touches include the easy-to-access, well-placed ports, including the two USB 3.0 inputs on the back of the console. I also cheered at Sony’s return to physical, clickable power and eject buttons that are neither hard to find nor too sensitive against an accidental press. Long live real buttons. Polygon has already marveled at the design of the included stand, which I found to be sleek when you set the console vertically, but a bit flimsy when resting the PS5 on its side.

I don’t know if I love the overall design of the console itself, but I can’t say it’s not striking and memorable. In fact, my PlayStation Network friends list displays anyone playing a PS5 with a tiny icon of the console next to them, and it’s immediately recognizable. (The PS4 icon next to other players’ names, on the other hand, just resembles a tiny gun.) It’s a bold design, and I appreciate Sony having the guts to run with it.

A front-facing view of the PS5 DualSense controller
A close up photo of the face buttons on the Dualsense controller
An angled view showing the trigger buttons of the DualSense controller
A top-facing view of the PS5 DualSense controller

Adjusting to the DualSense

When I first picked up the DualSense, it felt like a perfect controller. It adds some heft to the DualShock frame, while still sporting a space-age design. It just feels “next-gen,” like when a car model gets a curvy, bubbly face-lift to make it look futuristic. I also love that Sony ditched the DualShock 4’s too-bright light bar, which was never fully utilized, but kept the touchpad, now more seamlessly baked into the controller’s surface.

The DualSense’s triggers have remarkable resistance, which several launch games make great use of. None of the buttons feel mushy, though I do think the face buttons are far too flat against the surface, a break from all other modern game controllers.

The DualSense is also packed with some truly magical haptic feedback that made playing the pack-in Astro’s Playroom a whimsical delight. I could feel every step Captain Astro made across a sandy beach, or when he crunched on an icy platform. The haptics feel more heightened and distinctive than those inside a Nintendo Switch Joy-Con. (Thanks Sony, for providing a simulation of something rolling around inside my controller, so I could directly compare it to minigames from 1-2-Switch!) But as impressive as these haptics are, I can’t help but wonder how many developers will actually implement them in the future, especially since very few Switch games take advantage of them three and a half years after the console’s launch.

Unfortunately, the DualSense’s magic faded for me after my first dozen hours of play. My hands hurt after using it for long periods, especially with games that involved a lot of constant use of the triggers and bumpers. For context, my hands are medium-sized for a woman’s, and I’ve never felt any similar pain from using an Xbox One controller, the Switch Pro Controller, or the DualShock 4. The bottom half of my right hand, as well as just below my wrist, ached after playing Devil May Cry 5 Special Edition — a game that requires constant use of R1 to focus on an enemy — and Spider-Man: Miles Morales, where swinging is mapped to the right trigger. The controller just feels a bit too big. Its grips are too thick and long, and don’t have enough space in the rear divot where I normally rest my middle finger. (My colleague Russ Frushtick wrote a counter-take, where he says this controller is a “literal game-changer”, so I should emphasize that this is my experience; it turns out that people have different-sized hands.)

Maybe most damning of all, I felt sweet relief switching back to the DualShock 4 to play Control, and my aim actually improved. (Making headshots was easier when my hand didn’t hurt!) I appreciate how easy it was to pair a DualShock 4 with the PlayStation 5 — I just plugged it in once to pair it, and it worked — but the controller only works with PS4 games in your library, not PS5 titles.

The young new hero’s face in Spider-Man: Miles Morales
Miles Morales leaps down while in stealth mode in Spider-Man: Miles Morales
Nero from Devil May Cry 5

Games, new and old

Setting up the PlayStation 5 is fairly simple, and it carries over a lot of information from your PSN account. But there was one hiccup. At the end of the short setup process, the PlayStation 5 prompts you to port over the contents of your PS4, including save files, full games, and apps. After trying it, I encourage everyone to skip this step, especially if you have PlayStation Plus (and thus, cloud saves). Trying to transfer 195 GB of games and saves via Wi-Fi took 25 hours. While an Ethernet connection would have trimmed that down, transferring was slower than just redownloading each game from the PlayStation Network. Worse still, nearly every game I transferred had an error message that said it couldn’t download the latest updates, and I ended up just deleting the games and redownloading them all, which finished in one afternoon.

While it’s not as staggering as powering on an Xbox Series X to see four generations of games, watching my library populate with a lot of PlayStation 4 bangers I could immediately download made the PS5 feel less empty, especially since I’ve only had five PS5 titles available to play pre-launch.

Photo: James Bareham/Polygon and Photo: James Bareham/Polygon

The PlayStation 4 titles I tested didn’t have any of the next-gen patches Sony and other developers have promised for launch, so there weren’t any additional graphical enhancements that capitalized on the new hardware. They ran like native PS4 games, for better or worse. I noticed they benefited from the PS5’s faster storage speeds and increased memory. Load times were noticeably shorter. Control struggled to load on PS4, and while I don’t expect Control to have breezy load times, they were no longer the comically long, I-picked-up-my-phone-because-I-got-so-sick-of-waiting load times of just last year. (Polygon’s team has compiled a more thorough testing of how PS4 games work on PS5, and our collective research suggests the DualSense doesn’t play well with some of the DualShock 4 features those games implemented, but patches could be incoming.)

The PlayStation 5 titles I had access to before this embargo were fairly limited. Along with the aforementioned Devil May Cry 5 SE, Miles Morales, and Astro’s Playroom, I tried indie titles Bugsnax and The Pathless. The first two games on this list are the most visually stunning ones, and helped me get the best sense of what the PlayStation 5 can really do.

Miles Morales is an ideal showcase game, especially since there’s a toggle to prioritize frame rate and run the game at 60 frames per second, or prioritize graphics and utilize ray tracing. Opting for the better-looking mode added post-processing oomph to the game. The sun and clouds — and Miles himself — cast perfect reflections on Manhattan’s glistening skyscrapers, and I could see textures on buildings far into the distance. But for a game so focused on flowing movement, prioritizing 60 fps action felt like the sweet spot. Spider-Man’s graceful leaps around New York looked even better.

Devil May Cry 5 was already a vivid action smorgasbord, but its next-gen-enhanced special edition will be worth the upgrade for fans. There are similar toggles to enable ray tracing at a target of 4K at 30 fps or 1080p at 60 fps. The ray tracing effects turned the bloody, slimy worlds that Nero and Dante climb through into even more beautiful hellscapes. There are plenty of places for the game to benefit from ray tracing, though the PS5 also supports a 120 fps “high framerate mode” with ray tracing disabled (which I couldn’t test because no display in my house supports it).

I was concerned about my ability to fully test the PS5 with a 2-year-old 4K television that doesn’t have HDMI 2.1 (which only the newest of new TV sets offer), but even in my circumstances, the PS5 excels. It feels novel to have ray tracing so accessible after experiencing it as a buzzword for the last two years. And the biggest hardware improvement that everyone can benefit from, no matter their TV, will be faster loading times for huge games. I never hit a loading screen longer than a second in Miles Morales. While a Sony-owned studio is more likely to be able to optimize for the hardware out of the gate, the load times for Devil May Cry 5 were shorter than those in the original game. Things will certainly change as developers find new ways to press the hardware, but this is a promising start.

Speaking of game optimization, the PlayStation 5’s internal SSD seems a bit puny, especially when you account for the size of games these days. Although the console has an advertised 825 GB of storage, my PS5 says I have 667.2 GB of usable space, with 223 GB free after two weeks of use. There will be a few options for me to expand the internal storage, but neither one is without caveats, like the fact that external USB drives can only support PS4 titles. And also of course cost more. You can certainly pick up a fast external drive, but the PCIe 4.0 SSDs the PS5 requires for internal storage could run more than $200. Considering how big some games are now, especially with 4K textures, it feels like a small SSD as we look ahead to the next five to seven years of games. It also suggests we’ll all be juggling game installations as much as we have been in the last three to four years.

A close-up of the stenciled PlayStation logo on the white side panel of the PS5

Menu minutiae

The PlayStation 5 builds on the interface concepts of the previous PlayStation consoles: a line of recently played or installed games, with the ability to drill down into each. Now each game also has a splashy backdrop that dominates your screen, as well as custom music, if enabled (although you may want to turn that off in the system settings). It gives each title its time in the limelight as you scroll through.

Beneath each game icon is a row of Activity Cards, one of the PS5’s biggest interface innovations. They allow players to load directly into the game at different objectives or levels, or hop right into add-on content like art galleries. I found the most useful ones to be anything that would quickly help you get on a different path and avoid a slew of menus. The side quests in Miles Morales dropped me right at each mission’s start point, and having Devil May Cry’s training mode readily available was a helpful way to quickly jump back into practicing with the game’s litany of characters and weapon types. But the Activity Cards’ usefulness seems to be directly up to a developer’s implementation, and will probably be a bit of extra work. For instance, Bugsnax did have Activity Cards tied to in-game objectives, but flipping between them would just change the objective on my in-game HUD. It’s something that’s hard to evaluate without more examples, or without seeing how their use evolves over time.

There are some overall menu improvements that I love. It’s now much easier to find each month’s PlayStation Plus free games; they’re nestled in the top of your Library, and can be redeemed right in the tab without opening the PlayStation Store. The Store itself is also much easier to access, right in line with your games in the top row, no longer its own app that must launch separately.

But some of the UI changes feel like regressions from the PlayStation 4 interface. The Media Gallery app, which contains screenshots and clips captured from games, is tucked away at the bottom of the Library, and can’t be pinned on your main menu bar or the Control Center that appears at the tap of the controller’s PlayStation button. The Control Center itself is customizable, but to a limited extent. Many apps or services I’d want to include (like the essential Settings menu!) can’t be added to it at all, and I can’t change the order in which icons appear. The PS4’s equivalent of the PS5’s Control Center was fully customizable and could be re-ordered in any which way.

There’s also one big change that longtime PS4 users will find frustrating: Accessing the Control Center is now mapped to different button behaviors. Now, tapping the PS button brings up the Control Center, while holding it goes back to the PS5 dashboard. If you’re on the home menu and hold the PS button, it doesn’t react. This flip-flop is annoying because there’s no longer a fast shortcut to send the console to sleep mode. You instead have to open the Control Center with a tap, and then thumb to the last option. One of the most handy features of the PS4 is how easy it is to turn off; powering anything down should be as simple as possible. This may seem like a small complaint, but it’s an example of several ways in which the PS5 UI feels clumsy — many of which backpedal on cleaner design choices Sony made in the previous console generation.

The PlayStation 5 and DualSense controller, alongside the Pulse 3D wireless headset, the PlayStation HD camera, and several connecting cables
The PULSE 3D wireless headset, a peripheral for the PlayStation 5
A PS5 controller resting in a charging cradle (not included with console)

Should I get one?

Many aspects of the PlayStation 5 weren’t ready to evaluate at press time, including any entertainment applications, the PlayStation Now streaming service, and the act of purchasing games from the PlayStation Store. And much of evaluating a console relies on evaluating its games. I wasn’t able to spend time with all the games coming out for PS5 this holiday season; publishers haven’t made most of them available to press yet. The PlayStation 5 is a worthy upgrade to the PS4, but it might not be essential to grab this holiday season. Launch lineups are often weak, and there’s no obvious blockbuster PS5 game at this point. Demon’s Souls is not exactly a welcoming experience. Miles Morales takes about 10 hours to beat. Everything else is also coming to my PlayStation 4 (or Windows PC, which PC gamers will remind you can already do 4K at 60 fps if you’ve spent a bunch of money upgrading your rig).

While some of the PlayStation 5 interface changes are frustrating, they’re issues that Sony can fix on a small supercomputer that might live next to your TV for the next six to eight years. I also hope Sony releases a smaller controller variant, or allows me to use my DualShock 4 with PS5 games. While it’s up to Sony to make the most of the console by continuing its legacy of strong first-party games, it’s hard to predict if some of the more ambitious features — Activity Cards and robust haptics — will see widespread adoption. But every console has its experiments, and these are relatively inert. The PlayStation 5 isn’t going to be the alpha and the omega of your entertainment ecosystem, but it will make games faster, smoother, and more striking, and that’s all I really want from it.

The PlayStation 5 will be released Nov. 12 in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, and South Korea, and on Nov. 19 elsewhere. This review was conducted with a final retail PlayStation 5 provided by Sony. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.