fall preview 2020

Everything to Know About the Looming PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X Showdown

Which one of these is for you? Photo-Illustration: Vulture, Xbox and PlayStation

When it comes to great new video games, fall used to be a safe bet: It’s when the biggest blockbuster games were released in the hopes of capturing holiday-shopping dollars. However, like everything else, the video-game world is different now. The struggles of a pandemic economy and remote work have severely impacted game development — few games projected for a fall release have committed to a firm release date, and many have been delayed.

It is, however, once again time for a new generation of video-game consoles: namely, the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. If you don’t know where to start or are simply new to gaming, that’s okay — video games are often impenetrable, and they don’t always make sense. Here’s what you need to know about the latest set, along with some tips for cutting through the noise and figuring out what really matters.

When will they come out?

Well, we don’t know yet, but we have a sense: They’re both set for a holiday release window, which means November — specifically the first half of November, before Black Friday, which falls on November 27 this year. This is in keeping with Sony and Microsoft’s release window for their last two consoles; each dropped in North America in November. There is almost always a buffer of a week or two between the competitors.

Why are they coming out?

The current generation of consoles was released in 2013, which means that even games as impressive as The Last of Us Part II are made to run on seven-year-old technology. (While the upgraded PS4 Pro and Xbox One X, released in 2016 and 2017, have better specifications, all games still have to run well on the baseline models, putting a hard limit on the ceiling for the current generation of video games.) It’s about time for a complete technological overhaul and a new wave of games.

Video games already look pretty good. Will they look even better now?

Unfortunately, the kind of advancements we’re going to see aren’t the kind that you’ll be able to appreciate from your browser window. Video games are very realistic right now; any more realistic and things might start to approach uncanny-valley territory. So the biggest advancements now lie in details — things that aren’t necessarily going to improve the quality of video-game trailers but will be more immediately felt as you play.

As such, both consoles are emphasizing a decrease in load times — moments when the game pauses the action while it preps the next part of its world to show you — with the goal of making them virtually disappear. This will be the most immediately appreciable aspect of next-generation consoles, as most games, while keeping interruptions to a minimum, are not yet truly seamless.

“Ray tracing” is another buzzword being touted. When it comes to rendering graphics, what it means for you is more realistic light that behaves more like light does in the real world. Generally speaking, better light means a better image, with more vibrant colors and textures that change how it is absorbed and reflected. Expect the first wave of big-budget games to lean into this, with lots of neon and electricity glowing everywhere.

The tricky part is how hard it is to appreciate a lot of this from YouTube clips and livestreams, which can only approximate the actual effect due to the limitations of internet bandwidth and whatever device you’re browsing the internet on. If all you have to go on is a YouTube window, a next-gen game can look extremely similar to a current-gen one, or a blockbuster action movie with lots of CGI.

In some ways, this is freeing: All the graphical pizzazz in the world does not make for a better video game. Many of the things about better technology that actually improve games — like processing power for more dynamic systems, better artificial intelligence, or more collaborative play — aren’t as easily demonstrable.

So which console will have the best-looking new games?

They’ll both be pretty comparable, but for those who must know: Both have extremely similar specifications, with the Xbox Series X having a slight edge. However, given the complexities of game development, having the most raw power does not always equal the best-looking games every time. Rather, it’s how those resources are allocated, and that’s something that, unfortunately, can only be seen with time.

Which console will have best new games, period?

The first year of a console’s life is often kind of a mess, as marquee features don’t shake out as planned, and things drift toward a lowest common denominator. While there are signs that this generation’s launch might be more substantial than usual, it’s better to play things safe in a launch year — big-budget video games are great at making a splash but rarely offer substance until developers have more familiarity with the consoles a year or two in.

Why should I get the PlayStation 5?

It’s the incumbent. The PlayStation 4 more than doubled the sales of the Xbox One and, putting aside the runaway success of the Nintendo Switch, directed a lot of hype with games exclusive to the console. Titles like Death Stranding, Bloodborne, Spider-Man, and The Last of Us Part II defined big-budget gaming over much of the last decade, and the PlayStation 4 was the only home console you could play them on.

These blockbusters, while only a small fraction of the games released all year, do sell consoles, so momentum is extremely skewed to favor Sony’s machine — and, like in cell phones, you are far more likely to just upgrade in the same family of devices than you are to jump ship (or buy two).

As noted before, most technical specs really aren’t in the service of making games that much better, but the PlayStation 5 is investing in one area that might pay dividends if your home theater is set up to take advantage: sound.

The PlayStation 5 is dedicating a lot of processing power to audio, with the goal of producing games with “3-D Audio” capable of increasing the amount of in-game sound sources tenfold. It’s the sort of thing that, if it works as promised, could do a lot to improve your experience, but it also requires buy-in from the people who make video games, and, even then, it might take some time before developers are able to leverage it to its potential.

Another big change is the console’s DualSense controller, which updates the current PlayStation controls with haptic feedback and adaptive triggers — the latter of which, developers say, allow them to increase trigger tension or block the trigger when a gun is jammed in a shooting game. Like audio, it’s another thing that’s uniquely difficult to convey without sitting down with the console yourself, so its efficacy remains to be seen.

Why should I get the Xbox Series X?

Here is where things get really unusual. Microsoft isn’t giving its latest console the hard sell. In fact, if you currently have an Xbox One, Microsoft’s message is “take your time.” The goal doesn’t seem to be propelling current Xbox One owners into the new generation but to sway anyone who missed out. Xbox Game Pass — Microsoft’s Netflix-style subscription that gives subscribers an all-you-can-play buffet of games to choose from — is a big part of this.

How much will these consoles cost?

Expect these to run anywhere between $500 to $600. Also note that games for these consoles may see a price jump from $60 to $70, something that seems almost a certainty now that NBA 2K21 has been announced at that price point.

Um, are there cheaper versions?

Sure: Both consoles will come with a second, lower-cost model. The PlayStation 5 will come in two varieties, the standard and the PlayStation 5 Digital Edition, which is identical but comes with no disc drive. Currently, the Xbox Series X is only one model, but leaked documents indicate plans for a second, lower-cost model. According to reports, it’ll also emphasize digital gaming but also aims to provide the next-generation experience at lower specs, ostensibly for those who don’t need ultra-HD 4K gaming because their TVs aren’t sufficiently souped up (which is totally reasonable and not necessary for a great experience).

What about the cloud?

Both Microsoft and Sony are actively working on cloud-based gaming services that let you stream games over the internet without downloads, provided you have the controller you need. Sony’s PlayStation Now runs you $9.99 per month and offers a select few PlayStation 2 games, a decent selection of PS3 games, and a lot of PS4 games, and you can currently access it on a PS4 or PC.

Microsoft’s Project xCloud is a similar service, although it’s currently in beta with a smaller library of 50 titles (and not likely to work with Apple products). Its chief difference is in ambition — xCloud aims to let users stream on just about any device, including phones or tablets (just not, unfortunately, Apple products). In September, Project xCloud will be bundled into Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, Microsoft’s $14.99 per month bundled subscription that packages Game Pass with Xbox Live Gold, which is needed to play multiplayer games online. (Similarly, PlayStation owners must subscribe to a service called PlayStation Plus if they want to play multiplayer games)

Both Project xCloud and PlayStation Now are mostly curiosities right now — PlayStation Now, in particular, is best used as a library of downloadable games, as its streaming isn’t always terribly reliable. Keep an eye on them, though: If they’re successful and supported, they could significantly lower the cost threshold of playing new games, and maybe someday you won’t need a console at all.

Okay, okay — which console should I get?

It is far too early to fully answer that question, but there are two criteria you should follow to determine your purchase: the games and your friends.

You buy a console to play games, so figure out which console will have the games you want to play. Focus on the first-party titles, the ones produced by Sony or Microsoft, since most other games will likely be omnivorous and appear on both consoles. Sony franchises like God of War, Spider-Man, MLB: The Show, and whatever comes next from The Last of Us developer, Naughty Dog, will be exclusive to PlayStation. Similarly, Microsoft’s Halo, Gears of War, Forza, and anything from a bevy of acquired studios like Obsidian Entertainment (makers of acclaimed role-playing games like Pillars of Eternity) will remain exclusive to Xbox.

These are narrow lanes, a small fraction of the games released in a given year, but console manufacturers have a vested interest in publishing the most impressive games possible in order to sell their consoles, so exclusive games are often the buzziest. Don’t sign up for HBO if what you really want is a Showtime series.

But don’t forget the old stuff either: “Backward compatibility” is a video-game buzzword to watch out for, one that lets you know whether or not a current-generation console can play games from the previous generation.

Of the new consoles, Xbox Series X will be fully backward compatible, playing all those old games as well as every current Xbox One game (the only exception being games that used the long-forgotten camera accessory, Kinect). Currently, the PlayStation 5 has only been confirmed to be backward compatible with a majority of the most played PlayStation 4 games, which is frustratingly vague and far less comprehensive. The reason this matters is simple: Fewer old games playable on modern hardware means more games that can be sold to you all over again sometime in the future.

Finally, gaming is social, now more than ever. If you’re thinking of getting a console, talk to your friends and family; see where they’re at. While there are a few games that let you play with anyone else, regardless of what box is wired to their TV, most social gaming is restricted to the people in the same ecosystem as you. Consider getting something in the same family as the people you know, so you can play together and have another way to feel connected to the people you care about.

Everything to Know About the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X