I know they’ve sold a lot of units—big techy launch things always have and always will—but there was no avoiding the fact that this month’s next-gen console launches felt a little...muted.
Sure, you could blame some (or even more than some!) of that on a global pandemic and associated economic downturn, a little on an underwhelming slate of launch titles and even spare a dash for the distractions that came with a monumental US election.
But even placing those factors neatly to the side for a moment, things still felt off. For a while now video game consoles have been involved in a high stakes game of diminishing returns, each new generation of hardware slightly less ground-breaking than the last. In the 1990s we went from side-scrolling pixels to a universe of 3D in one jump, and collectively lost our minds. By 2013, the gains being made by leaping to a whole new era of consoles were shrinking fast. In 2020 we’ve gone from expensive open worlds rendered in 4K to...more expensive open worlds rendered in 4K.
It’s not much of a jump, and that feeling sure wasn’t helped by the fact Sony and Microsoft released consoles in 2013, but then went and released two more in 2016.
When the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X were released, I was not impressed. For starters, it was some PC-upgrade type bullshit! I bought consoles precisely to avoid having to upgrade every 3-4 years, but here both Sony and Microsoft were, dropping iterative improvements of the same machine only three years after the originals were released.
I wasn’t down with the way this created a tiered system among a console’s userbase, where the same game, running on the same company’s platforms, could offer such different results. Take Red Dead Redemption 2, for example: of the four consoles on which it was available, it was somehow both worst and best on Microsoft’s hardware (Xbox One and Xbox One X respectively).
And now, in 2020, I’m even less of a fan, because these half-assed upgrades have robbed me of what little interest I could have mustered for the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X among all that other stuff I mentioned up top.
Do you remember back in 2005, when the Xbox 360 and PS3 launched, and the big thing was that they could display in “HD”, and you thought that didn’t mean much and didn’t care, until you played a game on a big screen at 1080p and thought, “Holy shit this is nice”?
4K is exactly like that. Even as recently as the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X’s launch, I was dismissive of it, maybe because I wasn’t that interested in seeing the same games I could play on a PS4, maybe because I didn’t have a 4K TV at the time.
I’ve since got a 4K monitor, though, and it took me about five minutes of playing stuff like Death Stranding and Horizon Zero Dawn at those resolutions to make me say, “Holy shit this is nice.”
Indeed it’s one of the biggest video gaming tech improvements I’ve seen in years, right up there with SSD load speeds. A transformative experience that, had I been seeing it only now in new consoles—at a time when more affordable 4K TV purchases are going through the roof—would have made me think, yeah, OK, cool, these are next generation consoles.
Only it’s not, because that card was played back in 2016, leaving this year’s launches to feature stuff like...faster loading times? And some fancy resume abilities? Those are cool and welcome features, don’t get me wrong, but are they really the kind of things that get you excited for a whole new generation of consoles?
They sure aren’t for me. The PS4 Pro and Xbox One X came in half-assed and stole that thunder already, setting a precedent where I don’t look at the PS5 and Xbox One X as new machines at all, but simply the next iterative improvement, like the Pro and One X were to the PS4 and Xbox One.