If you’ve read any video game blogs recently, you’d probably think that mankind is perched on the precipice of some monumental event unparalleled in human history—except maybe for the one that preceded it seven years ago when Microsoft first released the Xbox 360. The last few weeks have supposedly ushered in a new generation with the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. And now that they’re both out of the hands of an elite group of tech bloggers and available for anybody who was eager enough to pre-order one or desperate enough to wait in line all night at Best Buy, many consumers are left wondering: which one is better? With Black Friday and CyberMonday upon us, the question has new force.
Hundreds of thousands of words have been devoted to caressing every nook and cranny of these two machines with a fetishistic relish in service to this question. If you really want to dig through them, you can find many interminably long reviews that dissect everything from how long it takes to boot up apps on one device or the other to how many pixels each new version of Call of Duty: Ghosts manages to pack onto the screen. Almost all of this writing is inherently manipulative, manufacturing meaningless controversies (see: “resolutiongate“) out of thin air to make something seem much more interesting than it actually is. Because the truth is, there is no answer to the question of whether the PS4 or Xbox One is somehow “better” than the other, no matter what standard you use. The real issue comes down to the games.
In terms of their pure functionality as devices they’re both fine, sure. The PlayStation 4 has a perfectly attractive menu interface that lets me navigate to Netflix in a slightly more convenient fashion than its predecessor does. While the Xbox 360 had just one HDMI port, the Xbox One now has two. As gadgets, these are the kinds of leaps forward that the next-gen consoles have delivered to their loyal fans.
At the end of the day, a video game console is only as good as the games that are available for it. And while both of these systems seem like they could run truly amazing games some day, they’re not doing so right now.
There are a small handful of next-gen games already available, to be fair. But the majority of content you can find on the PS4 and Xbox One is available in some other form, on some other system, for significantly less money. Maybe you’ll be making a trade off between playing “Assassin’s Creed” with slightly less visual fidelity on the Xbox 360, but I don’t think the graphical boost you’d be getting to transition to the Xbox One is worth the $560 it would cost you.
Sony is asking gamers to shell out $400 for a system that gives them access to three brand new games: Killzone: Shadowfall (a bland first-person shooter), Knack, (an equally bland family-friendly platformer) and Resogun (a stylishly modern spin on Asteroids-like shoot-em-ups). The first two of these PlayStation 4 offerings have been panned by critics.
Microsoft handled the launch of the Xbox One slightly better in this regard considering that it launched the console with more than one exclusive game that is genuinely enjoyable. But even the exclusive Xbox One games feel like the same kind of mid-level stuff you could expect from the last generation, only with better graphics. Forza Motorsport 5 is another racing game, but prettier. Dead Rising 3 looks better than Dead Island does on the Xbox 360, but as another unimaginative open-world zombie-killing ordeal, its gameplay ages about as quickly as Dead Island’s does. Ryse: The Son of Rome almost gets away with how repetitive its “Gladiator”-esque hacking and slashing is by being so visually breathtaking, but there are only so many times you can repeat the exact same gestures for disemboweling opponents before it starts to feel like window dressing.
I was almost ready to write the next-generation consoles off entirely, to be honest. But then I played Zoo Tycoon on the Xbox One. Most of the gameplay is classic sim game stuff—you build and decorate different facilities and manage the little critters therein. But there’s one mode that’s lets you actually play with the virtual zoo animals with the new and improved Kinect camera.
The device is now so powerful and precise that I didn’t even have to focus on the camera itself when playing. Instead, I could just look through the screen at the baby chimp in front of me. We made faces at each other. When I put my hands over my mouth, he did the same. I winked, he winked back. I had to remind myself for a moment that this wasn’t something that was alive, but a long tangle of code reaching through my television screen.
These are the crazy, beautiful moments that make me believe that we really are on the verge of a new generation of something, without truly knowing what that thing may be. At the moment it’s just playing with adorable animals, because who doesn’t want to do that? But even when I still keeping company with the baby chimp, my mind started buzzing with the new kinds of stories artists will tell with this technology, the complexity of relationships that we as an audience will be able to build with something that was once so inert as a television screen and a black box.
Of course, this puts gamers and game developers alike in something of a bind. Publishers, businessmen that they are, only want to go through the trouble of bringing games for a platform with enough of audience to make it worth their time. In this chicken and egg scenario, Sony and Microsoft are asking their fans to invest in a promise and little else.
There’s something exciting about playing a part, no matter how small, in the creation of culture. But does it really have to be so expensive? And cost aside: have these companies shown that they deserve the blind trust their legions of fans place in them? The fact that there is still a video game call “Killzone,” and that Sony felt confident enough in it to launch one of its most important products of the past decade with something called “Killzone,” shows how little the game industry has grown creatively. A new generation might prove to be a sign of progress in terms of the chronological passage of time, but clearly it says nothing about maturity. I’ll believe everything Sony has promised if the PlayStation 5 doesn’t launch in a decade or so with yet another Killzone.
But, of course, it will. Anther Killzone is about as inevitable as another Call of Duty. Maybe the developers could subtitle this one “Killzone: Deathshooter,” in case there was any lingering doubt about what mediocre experience lies within.
Then, at least it will have an even higher resolution. But who knows what the future will hold then?