A year ago, the next generation of console gaming was supposed to have arrived. The Xbox Series X (and Series S) and PlayStation 5 strode boldly onto the scene, with massive chassis and even bigger promises of games with better graphics, shorter loading times, and revolutionary new breakthroughs.
But a year in, and that next generation of gaming has yet to arrive. There are still too few consoles, and more importantly, too few games that truly take advantage of them, leaving the first year of the PS5 and Xbox Series X more of a beta test for the lucky few who have been able to get ahold of one, rather than the proper start of a new era of gaming.
A complicated mess of factors have led to the next-gen bottleneck. The physical consoles themselves are still nigh-impossible to buy, which naturally limits the number of customers who own them and can buy games for them. That in turn means that there’s little incentive for developers to aim for exclusive next-gen titles that truly harness the power of the PS5 or Xbox Series X. Why limit yourself (and your sales) to the handful of next-gen console owners when there are millions of Xbox One and PS4 customers to whom you can sell copies of games?
Adding to the mess has been the fact that industry-wide delays (many of which are due to similar pandemic-related issues as the broader supply chain problems) have also seen tons of next-gen optimized or exclusive games moved out to 2022 and beyond. Meaning even if you can get ahold of a console, there are still relatively few blockbuster titles to actually play on them.
With the exception of a handful of true next-gen exclusives, like Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, Returnal, or Microsoft Flight Simulator, virtually every big “next-gen” release has been available on older consoles and PC. Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla was on Xbox One and PS4, as was Call of Duty: Vanguard, Battlefield 2042, and Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy.
And that’s a trend that’s set to continue for the foreseeable future: Halo Infinite and Forza Horizon 5 are playable on an original Xbox One from 2013 right alongside the cutting-edge Xbox Series X; a first-generation PlayStation 4 from almost a decade ago will get the same Horizon Forbidden West and God of War Ragnarok games as an impossible-to-find PS5. Microsoft has already pledged to aim for concurrent Xbox releases on its first-party games. And most Sony first-party games have been a successive series of reading the fine print after each announcement, only to discover that they weren’t PS5-exclusive titles that would actually take advantage of the processing power and SSD speeds.
It’s no wonder that on Sony’s list of the most-played PS5 games from the console’s first year, just a single title — Demon’s Souls— is a true PS5 exclusive. And that’s a remake of a PS3 game from 2009.
To be clear, there are always transition periods. A year into the Xbox 360’s and PS4’s lifes pan, and there were still plenty of major cross-platform titles. Huge titles like Dragon Age: Inquisition, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, Forza Horizon 2, Grand Theft Auto V, Dark Souls II, and Destiny all tried to cross the generational divide. Not all those ports were effective — Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, for example, had an infamously watered down version of the Xbox One / PS4 game, a hint that developers were already starting to hit the wall of what the older consoles could do.
But there were also already big, next-gen-only games that were taking advantage of the extra power of the new hardware, games like inFamous: Second Son and its neon-particle-fueled powers, or Sunset Overdrive’s hordes of soda zombies. And even some big third-party titles were starting to embrace the newer consoles, like the Xbox One and PS4-only Assassin’s Creed Unity.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing that new games are available to a broader audience, either. But much like we saw in the last generational transition, when a game in 2021 has to be built to take into account the finest hardware that 2013 had to offer, those games are going to be held back in tangible ways. Horizon Zero Dawn’s dev team has already been frank about how memory streaming limits impacted how freely the game’s mechanical prehistoric creatures could roam or interact with each other. It’s the kind of feature that the PS5’s ultra-fast hardware should theoretically solve. But with Horizon Forbidden West now set to launch on both Sony’s current-gen and next-gen consoles, it’s not clear that the sequel will be able to offer that kind of functionality, either. (Game director Mathijs de Jonge claims that they “didn’t really think about hardware limitations” in an interview with Singapore News Live.)
The same might be true of Halo Infinite’s semi-open world: how much of the virtual walls that divide up Zeta Halo into discrete playing areas in the upcoming game are design choices, and how many are due to the eight-year-old hardware that Microsoft is trying to support?
Even the consoles themselves have taken some time to work through growing pains: both Sony and Microsoft have had to make multiple updates to smooth out the rough edges of their software, and basic features, like the Xbox Series X’s 4K dashboard or the PS5’s option to add additional storage, are only just now becoming available. If you’re just picking up an Xbox Series X or PS5 a year in, you managed to miss out on a lot of software awkwardness of the past year.
The delays actually work in Sony’s and Microsoft’s favor in some ways here: these kinds of early issues are common for new consoles, and the supply issues mean that there’s more time to sort a lot of them out before the majority of gamers get ahold of them. And even if the next-gen experiences aren’t quite here yet, there are still good reasons to pick one up, whether it’s just futureproofing or the fact that they do offer some nice perks in making old games look and play better. Load times are faster in games that have been optimized for the PS5 and Xbox SSDs, and games do look nicer, with bonus ray-tracing perks, more consistent 4K gameplay, and faster frame rates.
It’s all but guaranteed that the PS5 and XSX will eventually get to the point where there are real, compelling reasons to pick one up over a current-gen console beyond faster frame rates or ray tracing on the same games. But where things stand now, the two consoles are just extremely pricey performance mode unlocks for games that you can already play on a console you already own; the experiences they offer now are still closer to a souped-up PS4 Pro or Xbox One X than the true leaps of which they’re capable.
It’s certainly frustrating that over a year in, it’s nigh-impossible to just walk into a store and buy a PS5 or Xbox. And if you don’t have a PlayStation or Xbox already, it’s an especially problematic limbo, given the fact that buying any flavor of Xbox One or PlayStation 4 at the nadir of its time in the spotlight feels foolish. But for the millions of folks who do own a previous-gen console, you’re still not missing out on much yet while you’re stuck endlessly waiting for a PS5 or XSX to appear.