PS5 review: Exclusive games power Sony's sky-high space-age console
Sony's PlayStation 5 scores with the big game exclusives that gamers want. It's also tall and blindingly white.
Updated Nov. 21, 2020 12:00 a.m. PT
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Dan AckermanEditorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications.
"Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
ExpertiseI've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever.Credentials
Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
The bold design is borderline impractical for small spaces
Syncing up cloud saves can be a pain
I don't love the clunky-feeling plastic stand
Some games force you to choose between resolution, frame rate and ray tracing
My PS4 almost made it. It was a launch-day PlayStation 4 from 2013, and it worked great right up until the last few months, like it knew it was about to get the Marie Kondo treatment and replaced by the new, much-advanced PS5. The seven-year-old system still played games fine, but the optical drive mechanism grew confused, giving off random beeps, as if it were trying to eject a ghost disc. Read More: PS5 Restock Tracker: Where to find a console
And it was right to be worried. The powerful new PlayStation 5 console towers over its predecessor, both physically and in its forward-looking graphics capabilities. Its AMD-powered GPU can process 10.28 teraflops versus 1.84 teraflops in the original PS4 (each TF represents about 1 trillion operations per second). Also, it's tall. Really tall. It stands 16 inches (40.6 cm) in its vertical position. Judging by the front of the box and Sony's promotional art, that's how the company intends for you to use it.
Not many people are going to have that kind of headspace. Fortunately, there's a dual-use plastic stand included in the box to help position the console securely in both vertical and horizontal positions. The stand ain't pretty (and needs to be screwed in with a metal screw in the vertical position), but it works. I'm already sketching out a less fugly version to 3D print, and I'll post the design files when I do...
Beyond that, the graceful curved white-over-black box reminds me of the organic architectural designs of Santiago Calatrava, who created New York's WTC Oculus. That sits in stark contrast to the Xbox Series X's design, which is closer to a Soviet-era constructivist office block as reimagined by Syd Mead.
Ironically, both consoles have a similar total volume, roughly 447 cubic inches for the PS5, while the chunky Xbox Series X is about 432 cubic inches. But only the PS5 feels like a potential living room logistics problem. Still, it's a bold visual statement, and looks great from any angle. It's clearly meant to be a sculptural conversation piece, rather than an anonymous bit of black stereo rack equipment.
Inside the towering tower, the PS5 is powered by AMD components -- as was the PS4, Xbox One and Xbox Series X/S. In this case, it's a custom eight-core AMD Zen 2 CPU and a GPU based on AMD's RDNA 2 graphics architecture. You can read a much deeper dive into the components of both new game consoles here, but the key takeaway is both new PlayStation and Xbox systems are built on very similar platforms. Both also offer default solid-state drives for storage (versus the spinning platter hard drives of the 2013 PS4 and Xbox One), and that makes for a huge improvement in loading times. Technically, the PS5 has a higher throughput speed from its SSD than the Xbox Series X, but then again, the Xbox GPU can, on paper, calculate more operations per second.
You can go down this "which is more powerful" rabbit hole, and stay there, for a very long time. The first console launch I covered as a reviewer was the Sega Dreamcast in 1999, and I've heard the same debate for every console generation since. It will be a couple of years at least before any new game comes close to pushing the boundaries of this hardware, so don't get caught up with teraflops or core frequencies. The real difference is one of temperament. The PS5 is a games-at-heart machine, while the Xbox Series X is more of a console-as-ecosystem, leaning heavily into multimedia, community, cloud gaming and cross-platform continuity.
One additional note. Despite all the talk about 8K gaming, it's not something you're going to get on Day 1, if ever. As my colleague Geoff Morrison points out in his excellent explainer here, higher frame rates and variable refresh rates are more important to a good gaming experience.
A radically new controller
The DualSense controller is bold but minimalistic, with the retro-futurism of a Space: 1999 prop mixed with a killer-robot Ghost in the Shell vibe. While the new Xbox controller is a modestly modified take on the classic Xbox game pad, the PS5 controller has evolved far beyond the PS4 version, in both design and functionality.
The biggest improvements are the adaptive triggers (which can offer variable resistance, as if you're being asked to squeeze and break a glass object), built-in mic and stronger haptic effects. My colleague Mark Serrels put it best: "I reckon the controller is a game changer and, so far, has done more to sell me on the PS5 than anything else I've messed about with."
The preloaded Astro's Playhouse game is a well-thought-out platformer, as well as a fantastic demo kit for how much a controller can influence a game. It whirs, kicks, shakes, rumbles and kicks out its own sound effects. A built-in mic lets you literally blow into the controller to perform tasks.
The larger central touchpad -- more prominent than the one found on the PS4 DualShock controller -- might give that feature more ways to be useful on games and apps, but so far most of what I've done is swiped left to open Miles Morales' smartphone.
Perhaps more important than all that, the power connection on the back is a USB-C plug. Take that, iPhone 12! (To really rub it in, it even has a 3.5mm headphone jack.)
But there are some things that don't quite feel right. The option and share buttons are tiny, and the option button -- which should provide contextual choices no matter where you are, often does nothing. The PlayStation button at the base of the controller is no longer a circle, as in the PS4 version. Instead, it's literally a cut-out PlayStation logo and much harder to hit by feel. By default, it kicks up a lower menu bar of choices, instead of taking you back to the home screen. That's a big difference from the old PS4 behavior, and I'm not sure which I like better yet.
Lastly, the Home button is right above a tiny button that turns the built-in microphone on and off, again too easy to hit accidentally while aiming for the Home button.
A familiar interface
If you thought the Xbox Series X UI felt too similar to what had come before, there's a similar fealty to the historical PS4 menu here. A long horizontal line of square icons, each adding contextual info below, and in most cases a full background image behind it.
Both major console-makers could learn something from the utilitarian nature of iOS and Android menu screens. Just show me all my stuff, let me sort it, and don't add too many bells and whistles. I'm not there to hang out on the home screen.
Settings options are nearly identical to the current PS4 version, and less granular when it comes to video output options than the Xbox version. One possible bug I ran into occasionally was when resuming from the "rest" state, the system would reboot as if it had been unplugged (with a stern warning not to randomly unplug the machine). Hopefully this is a software issue that can be patched before the retail launch.
Playing native PS5 games
It's something you don't see very often anymore, but the PlayStation 5 comes with a preinstalled game (we used to call this a pack-in). Astro's Playroom is largely meant as a demo reel for the new controller. It's a smart, classic platformer that will feel familiar to fans of the genre. The simple landscapes and characters don't necessarily show off the PS5 GPU, but the controller feels great, and both the motion controls and force feedback are used as unique game elements. Yes, it's the same little robots from the Playroom on the PS4. My favorite experience was having to squeeze the trigger on the DualSense controller until I could break a glass sphere. The haptic feedback was amazing.
I also got a chance to play the new Spider-Man: Miles Morales game. As a new take on the highly regarded 2018 PS4 Spider-Man game, it's not going to blow your mind with new ideas, but it's a great example of a high-gloss, fast-paced action game to show off the hardware. There's a remastered version of the core Spider-Man game coming as well. Comparing it to the 2018 version, also played on the PS5, the new game looks, well, miles better -- towers glisten, textures have more detail, the entire experience feels upgraded.
I originally thought of this as basically a DLC-like add-on for the original game, but several of my colleagues vehemently disagreed, and I've come around to their way of thinking. The sheer amount of new storytelling, voiceover work, cutscenes and new characters is impressive, and the more I played Miles Morales, the more I loved it. For mainstream gamers (aka not Demon's Souls fans), this is probably the closest thing to a killer app at launch.
Like some games on the PS4 Pro, you can choose from two visual quality settings in Miles Morales. Basically more features and lower frame rate, or fewer features and a higher frame rate. The Fidelity mode locks the frame rate to 30 frames per second, but engages ray-tracing and other visual extras. It outputs at a native 4K resolution, according to the in-game menu. Performance mode ups the frame rate to 60 fps but kills the ray-tracing and also plays at an unspecified lower resolution, which is then upscaled to 4K.
Trying both modes (which requires reloading to the last checkpoint), I was hard-pressed to pick a favorite between a slightly shinier-looking world or slightly smoother animation. The game suggested the lower frame rate, higher resolution, ray-tracing mode as the default, and after trying both, that's what I stuck with.
More recently, I got to try Godfall, a PS5 console exclusive (it's also coming to PCs). It's a very next-gen experience in that everything is extremely shiny and reflective and gilded. There are performance and resolution visual settings, but the higher-res choice felt too choppy, so I stuck with performance mode most of the time. It gleefully cops from Egyptian, Norse and other mythologies, and I sense a strong inspiration from Jack Kirby's Fourth World saga as well.
Devil May Cry 5: Special Edition has both the benefits and limitations of being a Day 1 next-gen game. On one hand, it's an enhanced version of an older game, 2019's Devil May Cry 5, so it just wasn't built with newer console hardware in mind. But, it also offers a few different graphics options, including ray-tracing at either lower or higher resolutions (which affects the frame rate), or a very high frame rate option for 120Hz TVs, which forces the ray-tracing effects off. You'll have to try them to see which works best for you -- PC gamers are always deciding between resolution, detail and frame rate, and now console gamers get to experience that, too.
Redownloading PS4 games
Gamers love obsessing over backwards compatibility, or the ability to play games created for older consoles on newer ones. I'm personally more interested in rolling over the last few games on my list, but you can read more about long-tail backwards compatibility here, where the main takeaway is all but a handful of PS4 games will play fine from Day 1.
Right now, however, support is still being added on a rolling basis. For example, I was initially able to redownload Ghost of Tsushima on the PS5, but it wasn't until several days later that I was able to import my cloud-based PS4 save files. God of War and Marvel's Avengers were among the other games I tried -- I didn't notice any visual upgrades, but the shorter loading times count for a lot.
I flipped back to my 2013 PS4 for a loading time comparison using Spider-Man (the 2018 version, as the Miles Morales version isn't running on PS4 as I write this). From a cold launch to loading a saved game took 1 minute, 32 seconds. On the PS5, the same operation took 46 seconds, exactly half the time. It ain't instant gratification, but it's close.
One thing that drives me crazy about the PlayStation ecosystem is its confusing cloud saves. Even with a PS Plus membership, I found myself forced to manually download saves from the cloud. Some worked, some didn't. It's all too complicated for its own good.
PC platforms like Steam have spoiled me, syncing my game saves to any device at any time, completely transparently (and without a paid subscription). This is one area where Microsoft just does a better job. I can play Gears 5 on my old Xbox, on the new Xbox Series X, on a gaming PC, via Xbox cloud streaming, and it's always automatically the same save, every time, no hassles.
Asking the $500 question: Should you buy a PS5?
New consoles are expensive, especially considering they start to age from the moment the first shipment goes out, and current premium gaming PC hardware will quickly surpass the PS5 and XBX, although I'd certainly hope so for a $2,000-and-up gaming laptop or a $700 PC graphics card. But just the fact that the old PS4 is still able to push amazing experiences like Ghost of Tsushima after so many years shows there's also a tremendous flexibility to these machines, and they continue to evolve over time with patches, updates and new features.
Considering that, the fact that Sony or Microsoft only asks for $500 or so every seven years feels like a much better deal than certain tech companies hoping you'll drop $1,000 or more every 12-24 months on a barely different new phone.
Do you need a PlayStation 5 right away? No. If you wanted one but weren't able to get a preorder in, you should feel no FOMO. The launch game lineup is small, and the biggest names on it are a remake (Demon's Souls) and a standalone add-on to a 2018 game (Spider-Man: Miles Morales) -- and the latter will also be available for the PS4.
On top of that, the big holiday season games, such as Assassin's Creed Valhalla, Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War and Cyberpunk 2077, are really all made for PS4 and Xbox One hardware. The new consoles may allow for better frame rates and some extra visual flair, but it typically takes a year or so for games to really show off the power of a new-generation console.
At the same time, I'm extremely impressed with the entire PS5 package. The design is bold. The new controller is a big step forward, both in ergonomics and features, and the addition of the new built-in controller mic (and sold-separately new HD webcam) will no doubt send many new streamers to Twitch and other platforms to show off.
If you're a PlayStation fan, or especially like the kinds of exclusive games (such as Spider-Man, Final Fantasy VII and Horizon Forbidden West) the platform offers, you're going to get one eventually, whether now or when it's easier to buy in stores.
My final suggestion: If you can find one, save $100 and get the all-digital version. Classic game disc collectors, used game shoppers and Blu-ray hoarders will disagree, but it both costs less and gets rid of one of the most trouble-prone mechanical parts in any game console. A win-win, if you ask me.