Sony PlayStation 5 review: Forget the damn graphics, immersion is the name of the game

If video game developers are able to harness the power of the DualSense controller's haptics and adaptive triggers, they will have on their hands an excellent tool for immersive storytelling

The thing about the DualSense wireless controller for PlayStation 5 is that it almost instantly makes its predecessor — the DualShock 4 — seem outdated and a bit altmodisch. And this feeling kicks in long before you've even felt hundreds of different sorts of vibrations pulsing through your palms during an Astro's Playroom run. The fact is that no number of YouTube videos — including, but not limited to tear-downs, reveals, previews, reviews and deep-dives — will prepare you for the actual experience of holding the DualSense in your hands.

But more (a fair bit more) on that later.

A botched pre-order in the West would be followed by scalping and a general dearth of stocks, a long radio silence on when the console would arrive in India; a botched Indian pre-order would be followed by an abysmal launch with some reportedly having their orders cancelled as late as a day or two after the PS5's release. Along the way, a good Samaritan built a bot that allowed gamers to track various e-tailers for restocks, an enterprising Delhi man registered a trademark for the name "PS5" and all along, Indian social media stayed true to form: Not very helpful, largely angry, ill-mannered and entitled, and all amid a flurry of poorly-constructed and incorrectly capitalised sentences (reminding me frequently of some guy who was recently evicted from his Washington, DC residence).

Nearly three whole months since its release in most of the rest of the world, the Sony PlayStation 5 was finally launched in India on Tuesday, 2 February to the sounds of some jubilation, some schadenfreude and some tipsters backslapping themselves vigorously for predicting with surgical accuracy that the PS5 pre-order bonus would be a bit of cardboard with some perfunctory marketing brief typed on it.

Nevertheless, it was here at long last.

First impressions

The console's form — discussed ad nauseum in the buildup to its launch and even touched upon in Tech2's analysis of the PS5 unveil back in June last year — is no longer as alarming or surprising as it once seemed. In fact, it looks only slightly out of the ordinary now. The black and white colour combination and the curves of the system go well together. What does not go well with such a premium bit of hardware is that tacky dust-magnet of a plastic strip running down the middle of the console. If it's not gathering dust like dust is going out of fashion, then it's getting itself scratched up quicker than notoriously soft Nintendo Switch screen. Wieldy — not to mention heavy, at around 4.5 kilograms — though the PS5 is, it's worth resisting the temptation to lay it down horizontally, except when it's posing for a photograph.

While its strategically-placed vents and surprisingly versatile stand allow for both vertical and horizontal orientations, it just looks so much better standing upright.

The PS5 in its vertical orientation. Tech2/Karan Pradhan

The PS5 in its vertical orientation. Tech2/Karan Pradhan

Additionally, the stand can be screwed into the device in its vertical position, providing for greater stability than in the horizontal position, where it only clicks in — something a little push and pull could easily dislodge. Now once you've finished propping it up, plugging in the HDMI and power cables, and admiring how the PS5 dwarfs your media centre/table/area under TV (delete as you deem appropriate), it's time to switch this bad boy on.

Setting up the machine is an easy enough task and if you've got a PS4 from which you plan on transferring data (whether games or save files), it's an equally facile process. However, if  you plan to do this via a Wi-Fi connection (as opposed to an ethernet cable), you'd best keep a book handy because it's a long process and you'll need something to pass the time. You could read the instructions booklet, I suppose.

Lose yourself in the experience

"Stunning 4K visuals" is a phrase that has been popping up like a pesky hashtag all over PS5 previews, unveils and features, and it's worth dealing with straight away. Yes, higher resolution is great, but the key to really unlocking the visual power of this black-and-white beast is a television set with an HDMI 2.1 port —  a commodity that is far too rare and expensive these days, it can be argued, to justify a TV upgrade. Besides, even the PS4 Pro is capable of supporting 4K visuals. High-resolution graphics, increased detail and frame rates that can stay at 60 fps or higher are great, but ultimately meaningless if the end-product doesn't immerse you in the experience.

Luckily then, the PS5 has it absolutely spot-on with the immersion end of things.

And it all starts with the aforementioned DualSense controller. The journey from the original PlayStation controller past four DualShocks along the way, to the DualSense has been an exercise in tangible and measurable improvements every step of the way. The original controller would introduce the world to the triangle, square, circle and cross face buttons, the DualShock would showcase two thumbsticks, the DualShock 2 would bring greater accuracy and more analogue movement, the Sixaxis and DualShock 3 would unveil a gyroscope and motion detection, while the DualShock 4 would unveil the touchpad. All through this journey, the controllers grew increasingly rounder and more ergonomic. That's one area where the DualSense marks a major departure.

The DualSense and the DualShock 4 side-by-side. Firstpost/Karan Pradhan

The DualSense and the DualShock 4 side-by-side. Tech2/Karan Pradhan

The clearly defined platforms on which the D-pad and the face buttons once rested are gone. In their stead are smoother handles that merge seamlessly with the button areas. Staying on the topic of handles, the image above shows just how much the design has evolved: Aside from the new paint job, it's almost like the controller hit the gym between gaming generations, and emerged more defined, angular and ripped (for want of a better word), with a more resilient frame, a trimmer but overall larger physique and a few more grams of muscle mass. This isn't even hyperbole. If you go back to the DualShock 4 after spending some time with the DualSense, you'll find the former to feel relatively frail and very distinctly toy-like.

While the face buttons are slightly further apart on the DualSense than they were on the DualShock 4, the difference is negligible and you're unlikely to even notice it. This is the same with the redesigned touch pad: Looks different, feels much the same. The difference you will notice, however, is the one between the shoulder buttons on the two controllers. The chunkier L1, L2, R1 and R2 buttons feel sturdier and more like triggers than buttons. Bear in mind, this is before you've even switched on the system.

Once on, it's a whole different story. But before that story, here's a slight digression: Over two decades ago, I made my quarterly visit to an electronics store in the Greater London town of Harrow and was perusing through PC games, when I heard an animated conversation between the store clerk and a customer. The customer wanted to buy a Rumble Pak for her son's Nintendo 64 system and wasn't 100 percent on its exact purpose. For the uninitiated, a Rumble Pak was a device that slotted into the N64's iconic trident controller and provided force feedback when playing games. That this little accessory — a completely non-essential one, mind you — cost as much as a game (£40 back then) was something the customer could not stomach and proceeded to storm out of the store, presumably cursing her son for sending her on this ludicrous mission to acquire a Rumble Pak.

Two thoughts went through my 15-year-old mind at the time: The first was that it's not eavesdropping if the person is speaking loudly. And the second was that no amount of rumble or force feedback was worth that much money. Until 2 February, both those thoughts (that over time have turned into closely-held beliefs) stood unshaken. Today, I believe only that people would speak softly if they didn't wish to be overheard.

The DualSense controller. Firstpost/Karan Pradhan

The DualSense controller. Tech2/Karan Pradhan

And the reason for that is the DualSense's haptics, which put very simply, are a revelation. Best demonstrated by the enjoyable enough tech demo that is Astro's Playroom, the dual actuators — that as per Sony, replaced the traditional rumble motors — provide nuanced and varied feedback depending on whether you're walking on grass, steel, or through water, for starters. You can feel a tremble as wind blows past, an abrupt vibration if you fall and so on. Let the DualSense loose in Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales and right off the bat, you'll feel a very accurate reproduction of the 'dug-dug, dug-dug' sound of a train as our protagonist arrives at his subway station. One side of the controller will vibrate to indicate he's received a phone message. Further along in the game, as supervillain Rhino approaches, you'll feel the vibrations of his movements grow stronger the closer he gets. Over time, you'll find that tremors, shakes and rattles will travel up the controller and from side to side depending on the circumstances.

Naturally, the concept is a fairly new one and hasn't been fully fleshed out, by any stretch, on a majority of games, but it'll be interesting to see how it's implemented in sports games, racing games and the like.

The other major innovation comes in the form of the adaptive triggers. These tense up or go looser depending on the scenario. For instance, when shooting different sorts of guns, the triggers demonstrate a different degree of resistance. I didn't really experience the difference all that much, but again, this is still early days for the system.

If developers are able to harness the power of the haptics and adaptive triggers, they will have on their hands an excellent tool for immersive storytelling. Unfortunately, we have the touchpad (introduced in the last generation) as a cautionary tale. Rarely, in the seven-and-a-bit years since the release of the PlayStation 4 was the touchpad used for very much apart from perfunctory or largely gimmicky purposes — a swipe here to interact with a random object, a press there to open the menu. In fact, its most compelling use was in typing where it greatly sped up the pace of sending messages, composing tweets or what-have-you.

A crucial aspect of immersion is sound and to that is where Sony's Tempest 3D AudioTech comes in. Surround sound and directional audio aren't new concepts by any means. However, what Sony has achieved with its 3D audio, in conjunction with what the haptics and adaptive triggers are able to do, is to place you quite literally at the centre of the action. From hearing the volume of an NPC character's voice get louder the closer you walk to her/him to hearing a subway train move further and further away from you until you can no longer hear it, the audio upgrade from what we had on the PS4 adds another layer of immersion to proceedings. And while Sony recommends that the Pulse 3D wireless headset (not yet released in India) be used with the PS5, you can use pretty much any set of compatible headphones to get some amount of of 3D audio. Results will vary, but configuring the sound profile that suits you best in Settings goes a long way to getting a better sound. Of course, a Dolby Atmos certified speaker system will also allow you to infuse your living room (or wherever it is you prefer playing games) with 3D audio.

The Sony PS5 released in India on 2 February. Tech2/Karan Pradhan

The Sony PS5 released in India on 2 February. Tech2/Karan Pradhan

When we talk about immersion, it's insufficient to simply focus on what's on screen or on the speakers. After all, as anyone who's ever been to the cinema (although maybe not a whole lot in the past year) can tell you, it doesn't matter how great a film or how stirring its sound may be, all that you need to throw you out of the experience is a loudmouth jabbering away on her/his phone (on whom, by the way, it is perfectly legitimate to eavesdrop) or a particularly long intermission filled with shrill advertisements (that sometimes repeat).

It is therefore heartening to see a handful of quality of life improvements that truly elevate the overall experience. The first of these is the discovery that the whacky (but I'm accustomed to it now) appearance of the console is actually aimed at swiftly and efficiently cooling the system, with the aforementioned strategically-placed vents. What this means is that the PS5 fan is far less likely to sound like the PS4 Pro's jet engine of a fan and you are more likely to be able to hear every bit of 3D audio without any background noise. The second improvement pertains to that sacred space saved for gamers the world over to grab a snack or a drink, visit the loo, check their messages or just stare at their reflections on the TV screen and wonder if this is what they thought life would be like when they grew up: That's right, it's the hallowed loading screen. With the NVMe SSD replacing the hard disks of yore, the PS5 enjoys some incredibly short load times, which on one hand means you'll have to find another special place to have your existential crisis, but on the other, means that you're rarely pulled out of the experience for very long.

The bottom line

Enhancements elsewhere include a slightly snazzier UI, the ability to record upto an hour of footage on the go (previously, it was only 15 minutes), the incorporation of the PS Store into the UI (rather than it being an app) and the introduction of cards that let you jump into specific points of the game, view videos about the game etc — all of which is wonderful, but in no way resembles a reason for you to part with almost half a lakh rupees.

Since we're on the topic of costs, let's acknowledge also that it is plain ridiculous that India has to pay the highest (or thereabouts) price for a PS5, compared to the US rate which is the equivalent of around Rs 36,000. And this is after a delayed foray into the Indian market, an extremely tiny number of PS5s on the market and the half-baked launch (let's not forget that there's still no release date or even a rumoured release date for the disc-free digital version of the PS5 and the Pulse 3D headset). In short, Sony's treatment of the Indian gamer has been apathetic at best and contemptuous at worst. Still, the world is grappling with a pandemic and there are far bigger issues at hand, so we won't tarry on this point for much longer.

Another problem for the PS5 is its launch lineup. Miles Morales (reviewed here on PS4 Pro) is a very short game. Demon's Souls is a remaster of a PS3 game. Sackboy: A Big Adventure is fun in small doses. At the end of the day, the new console's launch lineup largely boasts a whole heap of remasters or PS5 versions of last generation games, which is great if you missed the likes of NBA 2K20Immortals Fenyx Rising (reviewed here on PS4 Proet al last time out. But if you didn't, you'll be waiting at least till 30 April's launch of Returnal for your first real taste of what the PS5 can do.

All that said, for an audio-visually rich and tactile gaming experience that extends beyond teraflops, resolution and frame rates, you'll be hard-pressed to find a better device on which to do your gaming than the PS5. If you can (that's a big 'if' given the situation with supply right now) find it in stores, that is.

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