For the first time in probably the history of the two competitors, the two brands are taking wildly different approaches to how they service players, how they deliver content and what kind of experiences they offer.
Earlier November, we passed the anniversary of both launches. I have owned both consoles since October 2020. After having played dozens of games, new and old, across both machines for the last year, here’s a one-year review of my experience in the now-current generation of console games.
No need to mince words: The PlayStation 5 had a better year than Xbox when it came to new games. I have to agree with Sony Interactive Entertainment CEO Jim Ryan when he called the PS5′s launch lineup the best in the company’s history. This claim is backed up by the launch release of “Demon’s Souls” and “Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales.”
Later in the year, I would find Insomniac Games’s “Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart” to be a rare perfect video game, and the first real indication of a true leap in visual presentation with the newest generation of consoles. Housemarque’s “Returnal” was a bold reimagination of classic arcade shooters pioneered by the likes of Eugene Jarvis and other leading game developers of the 1980s. Sony made sure that its first-party offerings felt robust in the PS5′s first year, and it delivered before summer ended.
The PS5′s first year was also supported by enhanced versions of PlayStation 4 games, notably “Final Fantasy VII Remake” and “Ghost of Tsushima,” both of which offered transformative upgrades to their visual presentation, all pretty enough for players to feel justified in being a first-year PS5 owner.
Sadly, this momentum didn’t hold up for the rest of the year, as Guerrilla Games tried but just couldn’t release the highly anticipated “Horizon Forbidden West” in time. And a relatively empty schedule moving forward may open your eyes to the reality that, for now, the PS5 is very much a “PS4 enhanced edition.”
During the PS3 and PS4 years, Sony stubbornly did not create new machines to work with old software. This finally changed with the PS5, which allowed for just about the entire PS4 catalogue (one of the best in the history of games) to be available via backward compatibility. This allowed developers to use 2021 as a gap year of sorts to either work on long-awaited projects or fill release schedules and quarterly reports with PS5 editions of older games.
The PS5 still took some time to get used to this reality. In October, Sony finally updated the PS5 user interface to help players distinguish between the PS5 or PS4 versions of games. For reasons not known to the consumer, the PS5 can’t simply update a game to the current generation, unlike how PC or Xbox machines work. Instead, the PS5 version of a game needs to be downloaded anew as a separate file, rather than simply updating the existing PS4 game on your hard drive. While the PS5 has finally made the distinction between the versions easier, it’s still a logistical headache to have to wrangle two different files of the exact same game. It’s a clear signal that Sony has not prioritized upgrading games to its newest system as much as its competitor
The PS5′s DualSense controllers are also turning out to be less of a first-party gimmick than initially feared. Third-party studios often seem to adapt its rumble and adaptive trigger features for the PS5 onto their multiplatform games, as well as full-court support from all of Sony’s first-party teams. While I don’t enjoy these features (the vibrations and triggers both hurt my hands after more than a half-hour of use), they are often well received by critics, and celebrated and desired from players. The PS5 can sometimes feel like the luxury item Sony positions it to be, thanks to the controller, the console design and the catalogue of first-party games.
The PlayStation brand has found itself in an interesting position, somewhat akin to Nintendo, as the PS5 is almost wholly dependent on the strength of its upcoming exclusives, particularly the upcoming “God of War” sequel. Insomniac Games is quickly positioning itself as the crown jewel of Sony’s stable of developers, supporting the PS5′s first year with three titles, including their upgraded and remastered original Spider-Man game. Given that pedigree, it’ll be a safe bet the studio’s upcoming Spider-Man sequel and new Wolverine title will be massive hits. At least for the next two years, the PS5 seems to be a safe investment.
And if you’re anything like me, the PS5 already justified its entry fee thanks to the strength of its launch year titles. “Demon’s Souls” alone justified the PS5 at launch. For me, it was only going to get better, and it has.
Xbox Series X and Series S
The PS5 has the better games for now, and that’s probably the most important thing. But the Xbox experience is objectively better.
While Sony plays catch-up in the ability to boast an evergreen catalogue of games (and Nintendo doesn’t even try), Microsoft stands as the only major player making big investments in consistency throughout the generations — and, specifically, making sure your investment into the Xbox ecosystem doesn’t depreciate. Just last week, Xbox announced more than 70 original Xbox and Xbox 360 games would be added to its catalogue of hundreds of others, all backward compatible and many seeing performance boosts. While this came with the sad news that Xbox had reached the limit of its backward compatibility program (due to technological and legal reasons), this still gives the latest Xbox consoles the largest multigenerational library on the market today.
The value of being an early Xbox Series X|S owner only started to be delivered in November 2021, with the release of the near-perfect racing game, “Forza Horizon 5.” “Halo Infinite” releases early December, but its multiplayer is available now, and players of the beta test flights came away with universal praise that the series is back and better than ever. I’ve also played the campaign in a preview period, and I’m confident “Halo Infinite” is well on its way to recapturing the magic of the franchise’s first games. Both brands play to the historic strengths of Xbox: pristinely polished games primed for multiplayer and strong online communities.
The allure of the Halo brand can’t be understated. It not only launched the original Xbox 20 years ago from an upstart to a real contender in the games industry, but also helped grow the Xbox 360′s market share for years. With last week’s announcement of “Halo Infinite” multiplayer being free and available weeks ahead of the game’s full launch, I’ve already had friends who never considered an Xbox in the past year finally start looking for one. It’s the double-barreled value of “Halo Infinite” along with a host of Microsoft-supported technical upgrades to games, like automatic high-dynamic range colors, frame performance boosts and free cloud data storage across consoles, PC and smartphone platforms.
Xbox Games Pass also continues to be a huge value proposition for many. Personally, I either already own the games I’d want on the subscription service, or I’d probably never be interested in the games at all. But checking every month or so to see if there are any new titles worth visiting has been a fun ritual, and it also guarantees I get to try out any first-party games at launch at no additional cost. Considering the stable of studios Microsoft acquired through its titanic acquisition of Bethesda Softworks, there’s going to be a long future of being able to try out high-quality, high-budget games for a low monthly cost.
But facts are facts, and far more times than any other console, my Xbox Series machines were usually in sleep mode until just recently. Revisiting older experiences has been great, but new experiences hold my attention more intensely and for longer periods. I often use the Xbox consoles as a repository for many multiplatform games, whether that’s “Destiny 2,” “Fortnite” or one of the many open-world titles by Ubisoft I still enjoy. But those are often one- to two-hour jaunts, once or twice a week, compared with the hundreds of hours I spent on “Demon’s Souls” or even the Nintendo Switch.
The release of “Forza Horizon 5” really turned things around, as the Xbox has now become my daily driver for games. Thanks to the Xbox’s signature Quick Resume feature, it’s easy to hop on a quick, five-minute race on Forza, and then return to grinding out progression on “Halo Infinite,” or even take a break to revisit the backward-compatible Dead Space trilogy from the Xbox 360 era. And there’s no confusion between console versions here. If an older Xbox game has upgrades on the newer consoles, you will have the latest version of the game, no further installs required. If the PS5 feels like a luxury item on the hardware front, the Xbox, with Smart Delivery, Quick Resume and a much more intuitive user interface, feel luxurious on the software level.
The Xbox took a long time to prove itself this generation, and it’s only begun to stand on its own two feet. The PS5 started 2021 with momentum, but the Xbox is finally catching up.
I would recommend the PS5 if your favorite genres include third-person, narrative-heavy, action-adventure games. Sony’s first-party output has left little doubt that it’s the brand’s core strength as the quality of these games often ranges from good to excellent. Xbox lacks these experiences outside of the ones provided by third parties.
But if you’re the kind of player who mostly plays multiplatform games like the Call of Duty series, sports games or “Fortnite,” it’s easy to recommend Xbox as having the more robust feature set. You’re still going to get future big releases like “Elden Ring,” and Xbox has found its runway when it comes to releasing exclusive titles. Future titles in series like Doom, Elder Scrolls and Fallout will be a boon for the console’s health once those teams finish their work, thanks to Xbox’s acquisition of Bethesda Softworks.
Regardless of your preference, both PlayStation and Xbox consoles had an overall better year than the launch years of their predecessors, the PS4 and Xbox One. Xbox is finally regaining its footing this generation, and PlayStation did not take for granted the momentum it had coming off the PS4 and its excellent run. There’s actually never been a better time to be a console player.
Now if only more people can get their hands on either one.