Who would have guessed that one of the most eye-catching video game consoles ever made would also be one of the least exciting?
While Microsoft spent the year turning Xbox Game Pass into a must-have subscription service and Nintendo released a shiny new Switch, Sony’s main focus was putting out impressive video games and trying to make sure everyone who wanted a PS5 could get one. While the second part of that ambitious plan hasn’t quite come to fruition just yet, there’s no denying the PS5 saw some incredible game releases this year, fully capitalizing on the power of the alien spaceship-looking console.
That’s good. That’s exactly what people buy video game consoles for—to play games. It’s just that the Xbox Series X/S released great games in 2021 as well, many of which can be played for free on day one with a modest subscription fee. And while the Xbox Series X/S picked up where the Xbox One left off, inheriting an operating system filled with proven features, the PS5 started all over again with a new operating system. PS5 users are still waiting for features like themes and customizable game folders, features Sony’s previous console added years ago.
Despite a strong start, it feels like the PlayStation 5 is playing catch-up. But let’s begin this year in review on a much brighter note.
With launch-day releases including Astro’s Playroom, the Demon’s Souls remaster, and Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, the PS5 came out of the gate with a strong lineup of exclusive games, especially compared to the Xbox Series X/S, which launched with no console exclusives whatsoever.
But that was 2020. This is 2021, which started off a bit slow in terms of first-party Sony exclusives. Most of the PS5 releases in the first quarter of this year were either multiplatform fare or next-gen updates for PS4 games. Sony’s first exclusive PS5 game of 2021 was Destruction Allstars, a derby-style competitive driving game that completely failed to find an audience. Not the most uplifting start to the year.
Things started to heat up for first-party Sony games in April. First came the release of annual baseball outing MLB: The Show 21, which for the first time in franchise history was also released for Xbox consoles. Not only that, it was released on day one for Xbox Game Pass. The historic cross-console release was due to an agreement penned by Sony and Major League Baseball back in 2019, and not some feel-good cooperation agenda between the two console makers.
MLB: The Show 21 is nice, but one of the best PS5 games of the year came out in late April. Housemarque’s roguelike Returnal was the first big PS5 hit of 2021, and for good reason. No game of its ilk has ever felt and looked quite as good, making the third-person shooter feel like something completely new, almost alien in origin. Even folks who don’t get roguelikes (it’s me) felt Returnal’s irresistible draw.
May brought a couple of high-profile third-party games, including Resident Evil Village and an outstanding version of Square Enix’s MMO darling, Final Fantasy XIV. The next big first-party PS5 exclusive, however, did not come out until June 11.
Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart may not have brought anything new to Insomniac’s beloved franchise—the story was essentially a rehash of the original Ratchet and Clank with a pair of new characters. What the game does do is showcase the PS5’s power in glorious fashion, filling the screen with particles and objects while Pixar-quality characters run about shooting things. Completely transforming levels instantaneously with the push of a button. Swapping between highly-detailed worlds one after another in rapid succession. It’s the game you slip into the console when someone asks you, “What’s so great about the PS5?”
One could also pull out Ghost of Tsushima: Director’s Cut or Death Stranding Director’s Cut, two gorgeous PS4 games made even more so on the PS5. These two re-releases were Sony’s final first-party offerings of 2021, released in August and September respectively.
Being one of the shiny new systems on the market, Sony also got all of this year’s major third-party releases. That includes PS5 console timed exclusive Deathloop, Square Enix’s surprise hit Guardians of the Galaxy, and something called Hades.
Despite reports in July about how hard it is for independent developers to work with Sony as opposed to Microsoft and Nintendo, the PlayStation 5 managed to score its fair share of great indie games in 2021. There’s the aforementioned Hades from Supergiant, of course, and the delightful Chicory: A Colorful Tale. PlayStation console exclusive Kena: Bridge of Spirits is one of the best games of the year, and Innersloth’s worldwide sensation Among Us arrived on PS5 just this month.
Between all the first and third-party games released this year and the entire PlayStation 4 back catalog, PS5 owners had no trouble finding great games to play in 2021. It was much, much harder to find a PS5 to own. A year and change since the release of Sony’s latest console, it’s still rare to see one on a store shelf. With supply issues due to covid-19 and other factors causing a semiconductor shortage expected to last well into 2023 and online sales getting hijacked by bots, purchasing a PS5 at retail price remains a massive pain in the ass.
Despite the shortages, the PlayStation 5 is Sony’s fastest-selling game console ever. The company announced the milestone in July, citing 10 million consoles sold to that date. Sony expects to end 2021 having sold some 15 million units, with a further 22 million expected to sell in 2022.
Despite the strong sales, the PlayStation 5 and Nintendo Switch were both outsold by the $300 Xbox Series S over Black Friday weekend this year, thanks in no small part to the low price tag of Microsoft’s lower-end console, the value of Game Pass, and Sony hardware availability.
While the software powering the PS5 has received some handy upgrades this year, like the ability to easily add super-fast SSD storage, little has been done so far to make the whole thing more user-friendly.
First off, backgrounds. As mentioned previously, one of the PS4’s core features, custom backgrounds, has not made the jump to PS5. Instead of being able to edit our own menu pages, hovering over a game gives us a full-screen wallpaper of that game, as if advertising the game we already regularly play. It feels like the PS5 is always trying to sell me something, some new expensive DLC add-on. It’s a series of billboards.
I do appreciate that Sony included accessibility options so I can invert colors, adjust fonts for readability, and make the backgrounds lighter. I just wish it didn’t look so dumb doing it.
The PS5 OS needs more customization options. We should be able to replace the ad backgrounds with our own stuff. Along those same lines, being able to find our saved videos and screenshots more easily would also be helpful.
New ideas like activity cards that show you which goals you are close to accomplishing in the games you are playing are very cool, but so far I’ve not seen many games that make the effort to use them properly. Genshin Impact tells me I am close to completing the prologue, but instead of telling me how, the activity card tells me it will take about five minutes and gives me an in-game quote about some god taking away my only kin. That’s not really helpful. Take me to where I need to be in-game, tell me who I need to talk to or what I need to fight. I was expecting something more useful than the “you’re nearing an achievement” messages the Xbox family uses as screensavers.
The good news is that earlier this year Sony introduced a PS5 Beta program, which will let certain users access upcoming dashboard changes and offer their feedback, similar to the Xbox Insider Program. Hopefully, with a little player guidance, the PS5 operating system will get a whole lot better.
2021 saw a lot of buzz about Xbox Cloud Streaming, part of Xbox Game Pass that allows subscribers to stream games directly to their phones, computers, and Xbox consoles over the cloud. Sony’s had its PlayStation Now streaming service up and running since 2014 but has failed to make similar noise. Part of the problem is that PlayStation Now launched way early, back when internet connections and stability weren’t quite up to snuff. The other part is Xbox Game Pass, a force so powerful that it makes streaming games over the internet seem cool and viable.
That’s fine. Sony has plans, according to reports earlier this month, to integrate PlayStation Now with its existing PlayStation Plus service, creating a three-tiered competitor to Xbox Game Pass rumored to be launching in spring of 2022. Whatever Sony does with this new service, code-named Spartacus, it’s going to have to do it fast and hard if it hopes to catch up to Xbox Game Pass’ seemingly unstoppable momentum.
Now that the PlayStation 5 has established itself as a hardcore game-playing machine, it needs to set itself apart from the competition. The rumored streaming game subscription service is not going to do that. If anything, it’s a sign that Sony is indeed playing catch-up to Microsoft and feels it needs to ape Xbox in order to compete.
What could certainly help is the next generation of PlayStation VR. Sony is the only one of the big three to embrace virtual reality (Labo VR does not count). As of right now, PS5 owners still have to acquire a special adapter to use PSVR on their consoles, but reports indicate new and improved hardware is coming next year, with increased resolution, eye-tracking, haptic feedback, and inside-out tracking, meaning users won’t need a PlayStation Camera to record their movement.
2022 is also the year Sony stops offering free upgrades from its PS4 games to PS5, following hubbub stemming from a proposed $10 upcharge for February’s Horizon Forbidden West. While this could be bad news for folks clinging to their PS4 consoles, it should mean more gaming experiences designed and released exclusively for the PS5, showing off more of what the console can do and making better use of unique features like haptic feedback and adaptive triggers.
If all else fails, 2022 will at least be the PS5’s most colorful year yet, as Sony begins selling colored console covers after spending the first half of the console’s life keeping third-party companies from doing the same. Sure, the Xbox Series X has Game Pass, but does it come in pink?
In fact, forget everything I said about playing catch-up and needing to set itself apart from the pack. The pink PlayStation 5 is going to be 2022’s console of the year. You heard it here first.