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PlayStation 5: Does the new Sony console deliver the next-gen dream?

The Digital Foundry perspective on the big reveal.

Yes, we finally saw the console, we know what it looks like and how gigantic it is - but crucially, yesterday's PlayStation 5 reveal also delivered software and lots of it. It was our first opportunity to see the extent to which Sony and its partners delivered on the vision set out by Mark Cerny in the articles and presentations we'd seen so far. What we got was technologically astonishing in several places and diverse in scope, encompassing both console exclusives and an array of cross-generational releases. It was a flavour - a taste - of the next-gen experience to come a few short months from now.

Sony certainly didn't make it easy for us though, kicking off proceedings with a bizarre Grand Theft Auto 5 trailer pulled from PlayStation 4 footage, while delivering the whole presentation via bandwidth-challenged, poor quality streaming at 1080p30 - a baffling decision when 4K media was (and is) available. Similar to the PS4 Pro livestream from 2016, it was difficult to fully appreciate everything Sony had to offer. It was like trying to sell a Blu-ray movie to the masses by showcasing a badly re-encoded hooky DVD in its place - and it was particularly impactful to the first PS5 title we saw: the new take on Marvel's Spider-Man, featuring Miles Morales.

Thankfully, the quality of key titles shone through the macroblocking and we saw a definite pay-off to the specs reveal delivered by Mark Cerny a few months back. After the GTA5 episode and the Spider-Man teaser, we swiftly moved into proper showcase territory, kicking off with one of the highlights of the event: Ratchet and Clank on PlayStation 5. A closer look at the trailer asset reveals a native 4K resolution, and a basic density of detail far beyond its already impressive PS4 and PS4 Pro predecessors. Indeed, there's a good argument that what we're seeing here is significantly beyond the fidelity of the Ratchet and Clank CG movie - it's a breathtaking example of art, technology and imagination coming together to produce something that looks simply fantastic.

The Digital Foundry team convenes to present their thoughts on the official reveal of PlayStation 5.Watch on YouTube

From a technological perspective, perhaps the real breakthrough is the game's dimensional rift mechanic, which sees Ratchet and Clank teleporting nigh-on instantly through very different domains at full fidelity with no sign of streaming issues or pop-in - validation perhaps for Sony's super-specified solid-state storage solution, capable of streaming up to 5.5GB/s of data. Interestingly, slight hitches are noticeable, something we'd expect to see Insomniac clear up by launch, but also adding further to the authenticity of what was delivered. It's work-in-progress code, after all.

And yes, we also saw judicious use of real-time hardware-accelerated ray tracing - the kind of technological leap we could only envisage in the most optimistic scenarios possible when we first started to ponder next-gen console specs back in 2018. And yet there it is, in a game we expect to ship with the machine's launch, running at what the pixel counts suggest is indeed full native 4K (no mean feat when RT is involved). Developer Insomniac talked about ray tracing effect's on Clank's chrome-like finish but the game's lavish reflections work - particularly on the ground - may also lean into hardware RT.

How can we tell? Screen-space reflections (SSR) are a hallmark of this particular console generation, and while they do look good, visual artefacts and discontinuities are easily noticeable. Partially obscured objects on-screen don't provide the visual data to deliver fully accurate reflections, while anything that isn't being rendered on-screen at all can't be reflected. Ratchet and Clank side-steps these issue and looks wonderful as a result. However, there do seem to be some limits to the reflection implementation: not everything gets reflected, suggesting that hardware RT may have its limits.

Insomniac's Ratchet and Clank looks brilliant and showcases PS5's graphics horsepower and state-of-the-art storage technology.Watch on YouTube

From there, we move on to Gran Turismo 7, which offered up much of what we would hope for from a Polyphony game - a loving attention to detail, a beautiful presentation, 60fps and an eye towards technical detail. The small gameplay slice we saw delivered a new rendition of the classic Trial Mountain stage - a staple of the franchise since the original Gran Turismo on PS1 (though it skipped Gran Turismo Sport). We need to see more to get a better view of the engine enhancements Polyphony has made, but once again, it does seem that we're getting some utilisation of the PS5's hardware accelerated ray tracing features, this time on the reflective effects seen on the bodywork of the cars - though curiously this does seem to cause some kind of low resolution aliasing on edges in certain cases. For the most part, it looks like a native 2160p presentation, but we'd need to see more video to rule out a reconstruction technique such as checkerboard rendering.

It was also heartening to see what look like ray traced reflections manifest outside of the first-party juggernauts. While it's difficult to fully confirm with a limited sample of footage, Annapurna Interactive's Stray exhibited excellent reflections work without the typical artefacts of SSR. Io Interactive's phenomenal-looking Hitman 3 also presented stunning reflections - though whether it's based on ray tracing or on the planar reflections technique used in Hitman 2 remains to be seen (this brute-force method effectively re-renders the entire scene within the reflective surface). Meanwhile, Capcom's Pragmata seemed to exhibit a similar approach to the RT work seen in DICE's Battlefield 5 - screen-space reflections are used, but where blanks arise from missing visual data or obscurance issues, ray tracing is used to fill in the void.

Elsewhere, another aspect of the Cerny presentation paid off spectacularly. One of the key features of the new GPU is the Geometry Engine, giving developers unprecedented control over triangles and other primitives and easy control over geometry culling. There's nothing new in terms of principles here - it boils down to removing the need to render triangles that end up being invisible in the final frame. The less geometry you process, the less work there is for the GPU, meaning that resources can be used elsewhere. The immense richness in detail seen in idTech 7 and Call of Duty Modern Warfare's IW8 engine owes much to culling. However, the next-gen geometry engine does this at the hardware level, while opening the door to primitive shaders, which helps to streamline the entire process.

This is next-gen. Horizon Forbidden West ended the software showcase and quite simply, it looked astonishing.Watch on YouTube

Alongside Ratchet and Clank, Bluepoint's Demon's Souls remake and Guerrilla's astonishing Horizon Forbidden West showcase a richness in detail unparalleled on current generation consoles - and after the beautiful Unreal Engine 5 tech demo, perhaps an emphasis on precision detail will emerge as one of the hallmarks of the generation. At the same time, the emphasis on extreme detail also highlights the priorities of most of the developers showcased here - while Microsoft is talking about 4K 60fps and even 120fps frame-rates as the design targets for its hardware, the vast majority of the titles in yesterday's PS5 presentation were concentrating on 30 frames per second instead.

Based on media from yesterday's event, Counterplay Games' Godfall is the only 100 per cent confirmed title from the line-up to target a native 4K60, though possibly Resident Evil 8 may also follow suit - it's not possible to tell from the assets released. While we're on the topic of pixel-counts, Astro's Playroom presented at 4K60 - though some clips in the trailer drop down to 1792p, suggesting a dynamic resolution solution. Meanwhile, Sackboy: A Big Adventure - another game targeting 60 frames per second - reveals areas rendered at 1512p. Of course, all of the titles we saw were work-in-progress and final code may alter.

We also took a look at Demon's Souls, Kena: Bridge of Spirits, Little Devil Inside, Pragmata, Ratchet and Clank, Returnal and Stray - and all of them appeared locked at native 3840x2160 with no evidence of reconstruction as we know it. Horizon Forbidden West also checks out as full 2160p, but we can't quite rule out some kind of temporal reconstruction (it is very, very clean, however). An exception is Destruction All-Stars, which is native 4K for much of the trailer, but also includes a few 1080p shots too. While the jury is still out in the absence of higher quality assets, what we've seen so far across the board shows little to no evidence of the use of variable rate shading - a technique Microsoft is championing as a key efficiency driver in next-gen rendering.

There's one final takeaway from the games revealed last night that bears mention. While PlayStation 5 was the focus, a range of the games we saw straddle the generational divide - and there will be PS4 versions. In some cases, that's genuinely surprisingly bearing in mind the quality of the visuals. In particular, Kena: Bridge of Spirits looks phenomenal, raising the question of how these titles will scale down to existing consoles. Going into the cross-gen period, we anticipated that the 'easy win' for developers would be to increase resolution, frame-rate, and a boost to precision in effects work.

Square-Enix's Project Athia looked beautiful. Are we seeing the return of Final Fantasy 15's Luminous Engine?Watch on YouTube

Kena: Bridge of Spirits - and possibly Oddworld Soulstorm - seem to take a different approach, aiming for a level of fidelity that looks difficult to match on current-gen systems while targeting what we assume would be the same 30fps frame-rate. It'll be fascinating to see how these games shake out on existing consoles - though for the record, we did get to play Soulstorm last year at E3. It was running on PC and it was sitting comfortably at 60 frames per second. The adherence to native 4K in these titles also poses interesting questions for Xbox Series X ports - if these games are already running at ultra HD resolution, where do developers go in pushing visuals still further?

Yesterday's showcase was packed with content and excitement and it's a credit to Sony that it came up with an innovative approach in delivering slick production values in a crazy world where a traditional E3-style showcase was impossible to put together. Its smart PlayStation CG interludes and developer/exec inserts worked well, while the user interface tease (it's at the 44 minute mark) reminded me of the PS3 UI - hinting at an attractive, special place to be in addition to being the ways and means of navigating your way around the console.

Beyond the poor stream quality my only criticism of the presentation is the continuing 'trailerfication' of big console reveals - with the bulk of the content consisting of random snippets of a game that tell you very little, giving you no time to understand the nature of the product or crucially, how it plays. The presentation started off well with a closer look at Ratchet and Clank but once we were beyond Gran Turismo 7, a chance to sit down and enjoy some games took a back seat to watching trailer after trailer - and with that, the chance to deliver a genuine 'moment' for a big console reveal rapidly diminished. Horizon Forbidden West delivered a jaw-dropping conclusion to the software showcase, but a chance to appreciate more of the game could have delivered something even more potent.

The Digital Foundry team recently revisited February 2013's PlayStation Meeting - the event where PS4 was first revealed. It didn't have anything like the level of game content we saw yesterday, but it more effectively introduced the new console and what made it different. Crucially, it delivered the Killzone Shadow Fall 'moment' - a glorious section where the execs stood back and allowed the developer to introduce a game that looked like nothing we'd seen before, running 100 per cent in real-time on actual hardware. Fundamentally, we had the time to enjoy the game for what it was and by extension, what the system could deliver. It wasn't just a window into the future of gaming but into the kind of experience we'd be enjoying once we'd unpacked our console, loaded up an actual next-gen game and sat down to play it. It's a lesson I think Microsoft has learned the hard way following its recent software showcase - and I look forward to seeing what they have for us in July.

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