Despite the current rush to get a new PlayStation or Xbox, I can’t fully recommend jumping on early for this console generation. There’s very little reason to do so. (In fact, there’s almost never a good reason to be among the first owners of a new console.) The current launch title lull is very similar to weak lineups of the past. It’s also hard to time new projects to the launch of an entirely new platform, particularly under conditions of a global pandemic. If you haven’t made the leap yet, the latest experience is somewhat muted, and there’s no need to purchase these machines from scalpers.
That said, there are notable differences in each console experience, and all three have played surprisingly distinct roles in my single-man household. I also realize that my experience is a total privileged luxury, and it’s likely that most people won’t have all three consoles for a while. I’ll try to list out the pros and cons of what I might see for users who might have just one of the consoles, as I’ve also rotated using only certain consoles exclusively for certain days.
Xbox Series S
Many people surmised that the Series S would become an “Xbox Game Pass” machine, thanks to it being cheaper, smaller and the least-powerful of the three. That’s exactly how I’ve used the machine.
Currently, the Series S sits on my nightstand, connected to a small 1080p monitor. While the Series S is touted to go up to 1440p resolution, I’m going to guess that the Series S will function best as a 1080p machine, and many of the newer titles released since launch have stuck to a 1080p resolution, despite the extra headroom. The machine is loaded up with “Halo: The Master Chief Collection,” “Destiny 2,” and a host of Xbox 360 games downloaded from Game Pass, including “Fable 2,” “Dead Space 2,” and “Splinter Cell Conviction.”
Crucially, issues from my initial review still remain. The digital storage space is tiny at 364 gb usable space, which is why I opted to use the Series S as a backwards-compatibility machine. Fitting huge games like “Call of Duty” or “Red Dead Redemption 2,” each of which come in at more than 100 gb, would crowd out space for any future titles.
And it’s still an open question on how pared back Series S versions of games will be. Its version of “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla” initially only ran in 30 fps (but has since been updated to include a lower-resolution, high-framerate mode), while other games like “Watch Dogs Legion” (from the same publisher no less) offer more premium visual features like ray tracing. Buying a Series S means understanding you’ll be getting fewer features than the more powerful systems. Problem is, you’ll never know quite how much of a downgrade you’re getting, since it’s going to vary by studio and game.
Pros: It’s cheap. The Series S is aimed toward the more casual gamer who still wants to future-proof themselves for future next-gen titles. Despite lacking some graphical horsepower, every game tested on the Series S loads just as fast as the Series X. Anyone who upgrades even from the Xbox One X, previously the most powerful console, will immediately notice and appreciate this huge quality-of-life upgrade and won’t ever go back. Buying this and a Nintendo Switch, also at $300, would set you back only $100 more than owning either only a Series X or PS5. Not to mention, this console is at least two generations more powerful than the Switch.
Cons: We’ll likely never know how visually pared-back Series S versions of games will be until they’re released, or until publishers are more transparent. The storage space limitations also make it hard to keep the unit as a centerpiece for more regular gaming.
Xbox Series X
The Xbox Series X has clarified Microsoft’s strategy to me. When “Destiny 2” received next-gen upgrades, with 60 frames-per-second gameplay, earlier this month, PlayStation 5 users were a bit confused, since it takes a bit of wrestling with its new and slightly obtuse user interface to find the “PS5 version” of the game, hidden within menus. For Series X and S users using the all-new “Smart Delivery” function, all they had to do was simply agree to “update.”
Smart Delivery, the method by which the new Series consoles upgrade your old games to the next generation, may have seemed like a smarmy industry buzzword a few months ago. But Xbox CEO Phil Spencer told us earlier this year that it helps to put a name to a feature, especially one that may seem confusing at first. In retrospect, naming this feature only highlights how simple it is to upgrade. As we move further into the generation, it remains to be seen how often this feature will be used. But Xbox has been very proactive in making sure its older games are updated through its generations, and Microsoft remains the only major platformer-holder committed to this goal.
Microsoft’s monolith claimed to be the most powerful console on the market. For now, we’ve yet to see either system really perform at the height of their abilities. But the Series X can easily reach the “Ultra” settings of PC games, as you’ll see in its updated versions of “Gears 5” and “Destiny 2,” all of which boast increased draw distances, framerates and texture quality.
It also features the best console version of the controversial and troubled “Cyberpunk 2077.” While the base console versions are famously broken, the Series X version is the only one that offers a robust graphical feature set that is comparable to PC, all while still ostensibly running the base Xbox One version. My Series X has turned into a “Cyberpunk 2077” machine for the last two weeks, and it’s run better than my first PC run through the title.
But once again, the Series X is mostly packed with older Xbox One titles like “RDR2,” and “improved” versions of games playable on other consoles, like “Immortals Fenyx Rising” and “Valhalla.” And put plainly: You don’t need an Xbox Series X to experience any of these games. Yes, the loading times are a huge improvement, and once you experience them, you’ll never want to go back. But if you’ve been getting by with the load times we’ve had for the last seven years, you’ll know that this isn’t something you need right now.
I’ve also come to appreciate the Xbox user interface as the best among the three platforms. While the same experience can be had on the older One machines, the Series class of machines make navigating this interface so much snappier and comfortable.
Pros: Smart Delivery and backward compatibility has turned the Xbox from a machine to play new games to a platform with a long, rich history of titles, many of which now look better than ever, and are accessible through the winning Xbox Game Pass subscription program. Microsoft’s recent Bethesda acquisition may bear out some incredible, impossible-to-resist exclusives. Between this and the PlayStation 5, the Series X is hands down the far more user-friendly machine, thanks to its continuity in operating systems.
Cons: Those impossible-to-resist exclusives are still far off on the horizon. The Series X currently lacks games that point to the console’s potential. Next fall, “Halo Infinite” must prove its worth as a unique selling point for the system.
I’m going to be straight up, I have a heavy bias toward the “Souls” games. Just as “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” almost instantly justified my purchase of a Nintendo Switch three years ago, so too does the remake of “Demon’s Souls,” in my opinion one of the most innovative games created this century. The Bluepoint Studios remake of the pioneering From Software game looks so good, it’s like receiving a late-generation PlayStation 5 game at launch. As I’ve written, “Demon’s Souls” is the perfect PS5 launch game because it was originally a Sony-funded idea and is a showcase for many of the console’s features. It’s also simply the best looking game out right now.
Sony has also used a first-party studio to showcase the PS5′s future. It’s a real surprise that a launch title like “Spider-Man: Miles Morales” can already feature both high framerates and an expensive graphical feature like ray-traced reflections. That it comes so early this generation bodes well for just how good games will look moving forward.
Outside of those first-party efforts, the PS5 suffers the same pitfalls as the Series X: It works best as a machine that plays old games better. “Ghost of Tsushima” now runs at a glorious 60 frames per second, but the game was already gorgeous and loaded incredibly fast on base PS4 machines. Online games like “Genshin Impact” and “Destiny 2” also run with much-improved performance, so long as you fumble through the aforementioned menus to upgrade. But again, these are all just old games that we’ve played on older machines. Upgrading is a luxury, not a necessity.
Sony also hasn’t done much to update its older marquee titles. Some of the best PS4 exclusives, such as “The Last of Us Part II, “Death Stranding” and “Final Fantasy VII Remake” remain untouched, seeing only boosts to loading times and nothing else.
Since I finished my seventh run of “Demon’s Souls,” the PS5 has collected dust. While it’s been fun to revisit the remastered, ray-traced version of the PS4 original “Spider-Man” game from 2018, I spent more than 100 hours playing it on the last generation console. So after about an hour of fiddling with the remastered edition, I started craving new experiences that simply don’t exist yet on the PS5.
To Sony’s credit, the PS5 is a better backwards-compatibility machine for the PlayStation 4 than I expected. While syncing save data for older games via the console’s system menus is far more cumbersome than Xbox’s automatic syncs, it still works just fine, and fast enough to suit my needs. Being able to pick up my PS4 game of “Bloodborne” or finishing my New Game Plus run of the old “Ratchet and Clank” game is seamless once the necessary data syncing is completed.
That said, 2020 showcased Sony as the go-to destination for massive single-player adventures, thanks to games like “Ghost” and “The Last of Us Part II.” Next year’s “God of War” and “Horizon Forbidden West” are two highly anticipated single-player sequels. While there may not be a lot of reasons to have a PS5 now, especially if you’re not a “Souls” fan, those reasons will start to pile up early next year, starting with the incredibly prolific Insomniac Games and its upcoming “Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart” title.
Pros: It boasts the best exclusive next-generation title of the moment. The promise of Sony’s impressive first-party studio stable comes with exciting, single-player narrative adventures like “God of War” and whatever Naughty Dog might cook up next.
Cons: Its user interface is confusing. If you’re hoping for better looking versions of the best PS4 games, you won’t find them here — yet — like you might with Microsoft’s marquee titles. The best reason to own a PS5 at the moment is a remake of a 2009 PlayStation 3 game.