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StarCraft II-playing AI AlphaStar takes out pros undefeated – TechCrunch

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Losing to the computer in StarCraft has been a tradition of mine since the first game came out in 1998. Of course, the built-in “AI” is trivial for serious players to beat, and for years researchers have attempted to replicate human strategy and skill in the latest version of the game. They’ve just made a huge leap with AlphaStar, which recently beat two leading pros 5-0.

The new system was created by DeepMind, and in many ways it’s very unlike what you might call a “traditional” StarCraft AI. The computer opponents you can select in the game are really pretty dumb — they have basic built-in strategies, and know in general how to attack and defend and how to progress down the tech tree. But they lack everything that makes a human player strong: adaptability, improvisation and imagination.

AlphaStar is different. It learned from watching humans play at first, but soon honed its skills by playing against facets of itself.

The first iterations watched replays of games to learn the basics of “micro” (i.e. controlling units effectively) and “macro” (i.e. game economy and long-term goals) strategy. With this knowledge it was able to beat the in-game computer opponents on their hardest setting 95 percent of the time. But as any pro will tell you, that’s child’s play. So the real work started here.

Hundreds of agents were spawned and pitted against each other.

Because StarCraft is such a complex game, it would be silly to think that there’s a single optimal strategy that works in all situations. So the machine learning agent was essentially split into hundreds of versions of itself, each given a slightly different task or strategy. One might attempt to achieve air superiority at all costs; another to focus on teching up; another to try various “cheese” attempts like worker rushes and the like. Some were even given strong agents as targets, caring about nothing else but beating an already successful strategy.

This family of agents fought and fought for hundreds of years of in-game time (undertaken in parallel, of course). Over time the various agents learned (and of course reported back) various stratagems, from simple things such as how to scatter units under an area-of-effect attack to complex multi-pronged offenses. Putting them all together produced the highly robust AlphaStar agent, with some 200 years of gameplay under its belt.

Most StarCraft II pros are well younger than 200, so that’s a bit of an unfair advantage. There’s also the fact that AlphaStar, in its original incarnation anyway, has two other major benefits.

First, it gets its information directly from the game engine, rather than having to observe the game screen — so it knows instantly that a unit is down to 20 HP without having to click on it. Second, it can (though it doesn’t always) perform far more “actions per minute” than a human, because it isn’t limited by fleshy hands and banks of buttons. APM is just one measure among many that determines the outcome of a match, but it can’t hurt to be able to command a guy 20 times in a second rather than two or three.

It’s worth noting here that AIs for micro control have existed for years, having demonstrated their prowess in the original StarCraft. It’s incredibly useful to be able to perfectly cycle out units in a firefight so none takes lethal damage, or to perfectly time movements so no attacker is idle, but the truth is good strategy beats good tactics pretty much every time. A good player can counter the perfect micro of an AI and take that valuable tool out of play.

AlphaStar was matched up against two pro players, MaNa and TLO of the highly competitive Team Liquid. It beat them both handily, and the pros seemed excited rather than depressed by the machine learning system’s skill. Here’s game 2 against MaNa:

In comments after the game series, MaNa said:

I was impressed to see AlphaStar pull off advanced moves and different strategies across almost every game, using a very human style of gameplay I wouldn’t have expected. I’ve realised how much my gameplay relies on forcing mistakes and being able to exploit human reactions, so this has put the game in a whole new light for me. We’re all excited to see what comes next.

And TLO, who actually is a Zerg main but gamely played Protoss for the experiment:

I was surprised by how strong the agent was. AlphaStar takes well-known strategies and turns them on their head. The agent demonstrated strategies I hadn’t thought of before, which means there may still be new ways of playing the game that we haven’t fully explored yet.

You can get the replays of the matches here.

AlphaStar is inarguably a strong player, but there are some important caveats here. First, when they handicapped the agent by making it play like a human, in that it had to move the camera around, could only click on visible units, had a human-like delay on perception and so on, it was far less strong and in fact was beaten by MaNa. But that version, which perhaps may become the benchmark rather than its untethered cousin, is still under development, so for that and other reasons it was never going to be as strong.

AlphaStar only plays Protoss, and the most successful versions of itself used very micro-heavy units.

Most importantly, though, AlphaStar is still an extreme specialist. It only plays Protoss versus Protoss — probably has no idea what a Zerg looks like — with a single opponent, on a single map. As anyone who has played the game can tell you, the map and the races produce all kinds of variations, which massively complicate gameplay and strategy. In essence, AlphaStar is playing only a tiny fraction of the game — though admittedly many players also specialize like this.

That said, the groundwork of designing a self-training agent is the hard part — the actual training is a matter of time and computing power. If it’s 1v1v1 on Bloodbath maybe it’s stalker/zealot time, while if it’s 2v2 on a big map with lots of elevation, out come the air units. (Is it obvious I’m not up on my SC2 strats?)

The project continues and AlphaStar will grow stronger, naturally, but the team at DeepMind thinks that some of the basics of the system, for instance how it efficiently visualizes the rest of the game as a result of every move it makes, could be applied in many other areas where AIs must repeatedly make decisions that affect a complex and long-term series of outcomes.

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Animaniacs 2020: Just sit back and relax, it’s nostalgia to the max

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Enlarge / Come join the Warner Brothers (and the Warner Sister, Dot).

The Warner Brothers—and the Warner Sister—are back, thanks to Hulu. The streamer has rebooted the Emmy-winning, enormously popular Animaniacs, stalwart of 1990s afternoons, for a new generation and a new era.

Animaniacs first hit the small screen in 1993, part of a cohort of cartoons that tried to reach young audiences in a whole new way. At the highest level, Animaniacs was an animated variety show, with the main plot, such as it was, centered on Yakko, Wakko, and Dot Warner, animated creations from the 1930s who spent most of the 20th century locked up in a water tower until their escape in the 1990s. The show’s artistic DNA seemed to be equal parts Looney Tunes and Laugh-In, with a Dadaist streak and a heavy dose of Mel Brooks-style parody woven through.

Animaniacs was, in the end, a pretty weird show, equal parts absurdist and educational. And that suited me perfectly because I was, frankly, a pretty weird kid.

I was in middle school when Animaniacs began airing, right on the cusp of an exceptionally awkward and uncomfortable adolescence. I was the only child of two classical musicians, one of whom was also a politics junkie and total history buff. I could tell you anything you’d like to know about the Hollywood studio system, the music of Georg Freidrich Handel, or the rise and fall of the Soviet bloc, but I couldn’t name more than two of 1993’s Top 40 songs if you’d paid me.

And along came Animaniacs, a kids’ show that didn’t talk down to me. It felt, at the time, as though it had infinite layers. Not only could you get your daily dose of slapstick (and how), but also it had educational songs that actually stuck, wrapped in layers of slyly referential humor that rewarded you for paying attention—and for being able to get the references. Suddenly all that absolutely useless knowledge in my head about 1930s and 1940s Hollywood was useful. In a show carefully designed for the kids and the adults to laugh in completely different places, I was able to laugh in both, and Animaniacs seemed to relish giving me the opportunity.

But as Yakko, Wakko, and Dot themselves are the first to tell you during the pilot episode of the reboot—in song, of course—the world has changed quite a lot in the past 27 years. Nostalgia is cheap and easy; the adults who were once ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s kids are not above lapping it up at any opportunity. But a reference by itself is neither zany nor amusing, and today’s children have a decidedly different media diet and bar for humor than we did. So with constantly connected computers in our pockets, bringing us the latest and greatest in short-form humor on demand at all times, is there still room in our century for Animaniacs to be, well, funny?

I watched the first four episodes this weekend with my 7-year-old (more about her opinions in a bit) to find out. The answer, luckily, is yes—but it takes some time to get there. Much like Good Idea, Bad Idea, you need to see the positives and the negatives juxtaposed in order to get the most out of what you’re watching.

The nostalgia is the joke

Animaniacs was always a deliberately self-aware show that existed to break the fourth wall and frolic in a meta-referential field. That was one of its charms. The new show, however, lays that on so think in the first couple of episodes that the charm wears off. Fast.

The word that appears most often in my notes is lampshading: a trope wherein a creator specifically calls out some ludicrous thing they’re doing (i.e., hanging a lampshade on it) to make sure you know they know that you know. Animaniacs is very thorough with its lampshades: there’s a whole song-and-dance number (literally) in the first segment about how this isn’t the 1990s anymore, in which the Warners explain that their job is pop culture and that pop culture has changed.

Unfortunately, as the Warners also explain, the episode was written in 2018. Traditional TV takes time, even when you design it for a streaming service, and time is not on the Warners’ side when it comes to topicality. In 2020, a trend can hit TikTok at breakfast, be all over Twitter by lunchtime, and be yesterday’s news by dinner, and TV just can’t move that fast.

As a result, Animaniacs‘ jokes about Donald Trump feel deeply passé when the show is thinking about the covfefe era and we are now into the lame-duck period, and a Game of Thrones reference landed with an entire thud. Other attempts to stay topical feel almost ghoulish against the 2020 we ended up having: a segment riffing on the Olympics, for example, serves only to remind us that we cancelled the Olympics this year because of a widespread pandemic.

“Bloompf”

When the show leans into its worst impulses, it seems to become all form and forget its function. A Red Scare setup twice removed—told by a generation of adults who heard about it from their grandparents, rather than by a generation of adults who lived through it—feels pointless. Riffing on an idea from the ’50s by way of riffing on the ’90s becomes such a tangled nest of referents that it’s more dull than entertaining, and it borders on the offensive when it leans on ancient, dried-out stereotypes to do so.

But when Animaniacs widens its scope just the tiniest bit more, it works. Gloriously. Where the show find its feet is not in rehashing everything the Warners already did nearly 30 years ago but, instead, in discovering what the Warners can do now.

The first bit that made me genuinely laugh aloud—a real, hearty laugh—came at the tail end of episode 4, when the Warners don black turtlenecks to advertise a new ultrashort-form video service, “Bloompf.” It is a parody for today broadly, not for a single frozen moment in our fleeting decade, and it’s delivered with impeccable timing and a keen understanding of what, in our current reality, is best lampooned.

To prove their mousey worth, they’ll overthrow the Earth…

I, like many others, was a big fan of the “Pinky and the Brain” segments in the original. The genetically altered, megalomaniac lab mice were so popular that they earned their own spinoff show, which ran from 1995 to 1998. To this day, I can still sing every word of the theme song from their spinoff (which is two verses longer than the version in Animaniacs shorts). I particularly enjoy answering, “I think so, Brain, but how are we going to make pencils that taste like bacon?” in a deliberately atrocious mockery of Pinky’s already-atrocious accent whenever my 7-year-old asks if I know what she’s thinking.

I mention all this to explain how much it pains me to admit that Animaniacs‘ 2020 edition has, in fact, given us far, far too much of a good thing. This is not to say that Pinky and the Brain are unwelcome or that they have run out of creative ideas for taking over the Earth. But the way they feature in every episode, unsparingly, lends a sense of dry, formulaic necessity to their presence.

The opening credits of the whole show, both old and new, asks us to, “Meet Pinky and the Brain, who want to rule the universe,” and that’s all well and good. But in lieu of Goodfeathers flock together / Slappy whacks ’em with her purse in the rebooted opening credits, we have instead the line, our brand-new cast who tested well / in focus group research. There’s a joke there, but not a personality, and that shows.

Animaniacs is at heart a variety show—which I didn’t fully appreciate until the reboot brought with it a stunning lack of variety. The three-act cartoon format always was pleasantly modular, allowing the show’s creators to put together an episode from the palette of many different recurring characters. I liked Slappy Squirrel, felt largely indifferent to the Goodfeathers, and actively disliked Rita and Runt, Elmyra, and Mindy and Buttons (poor Buttons!)—but their presence was, I think, necessary in a way. I hope that season 2 broadens the show’s scope, the same way season 1 broadens the Warners’.

“This is a kids’ show!”

Animaniacs has always been loaded with double entendre and grown-up-friendly humor. That’s true twice over for the remake, which is counting on its original audience to have returned as the adults in the room. (*raises hand* present.) But as Yakko, Wakko, or Dot tend to reminds us after every sly wink at standards and practices, Animaniacs is, in theory, children’s programming. My opinion, therefore, is only half of what matters. Do actual children, who were not alive in the 1990s, enjoy the show?

Well, my kids do, at any rate. My second-grader seems to have found a kindred soul in Pinky, and I half expect her to start saying “narf!” around the house. And we do, indeed, laugh in completely different places, as the cartoon gods intended. For example, I cackled when a sports announcer said, “High jump: now legal in 12 states!” and she laughed when the character attempting the jump face-planted ingloriously. A perfect division of cartoon labor.

That said, your modern kid is also quite likely to have a YouTube-sized attention span. The traditional-length show segments all felt slightly too long for her, especially when they got mired down in stories and jokes she doesn’t quite understand. There is a dearth of catchy, two-minute song segments for which Animaniacs became famous in the first place—which is a pity, because I think she would both enjoy them and learn from them. (As, for that matter, would I.)

A victim of the binge

Which leads to the real feeling I took away from the show. In the end, you have to take Animaniacs for what it is: an artifact of the 1990s, trying to find its way in a world where we might by now be immune to zany thanks to incessant daily exposure. And the most important feature of broadcast programming in the 1990s was: you couldn’t binge it. You had to watch new episodes when they were delivered to you.

Animaniacs is not a great show to binge-watch, but it has the seeds of a great show in it. Go into the reboot with the spirit of the original, then, and take the episodes one or two at a time. They’ll seem better for it, and you’ll get to spread the laughs out longer.

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Review: Synchronic is a time-bending slow burn of a sci-fi thriller

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Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan star as New Orleans paramedics who encounter a series of bizarre, gruesome accidents in the sci-fi thriller Synchronic.

Chances are you missed Synchronic, the latest sci-fi film written and directed by indie filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, when it was released in limited theaters and drive-ins last month. Not only were many theaters still shut down because of the pandemic, the filmmakers themselves made the unusual move of warning potential viewers (via Instagram) of the health risks associated with indoor movie theaters. (“We personally wouldn’t go to an indoor theater, so we can’t encourage you to,” they wrote.)

It was admirably responsible of them, but it did severely limit the audience, especially since the film’s distributor inexplicably opted not to release it simultaneously on VOD—now a common practice in these pandemic times. And that’s a shame, because Synchronic is a smart, inventive, thought-provoking film, featuring standout performances from co-stars Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan.

(Mostly mild spoilers below, with a couple of significant plot twists below the gallery. We’ll give you a heads up when we get there.)

Benson and Moorhead are well-known around the film festival circuit, co-directing the 2017 sci-fi cult hit, The Endless, as well as 2014’s Spring (which made a splash at the Toronto International Film Festival that year) and 2012’s Resolution (which takes place in the same fictional universe as The Endless). Over coffee one day, they came up with the idea for Synchronic. “It was brand-new, completely insane, and made an odd sort of real-world sense,” the directors have said, where the past would be the main antagonist—a very different kind of movie monster. “We could also express how we tend to always be looking forward or backward for happiness, rather than right here in the moment.”

Per the official premise:

When New Orleans paramedics and longtime best friends Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan) are called to a series of bizarre, gruesome accidents, they chalk it up to the mysterious new party drug found at the scene. But after Dennis’s oldest daughter suddenly disappears, Steve stumbles upon a terrifying truth about the supposed psychedelic that will challenge everything he knows about reality—and the flow of time itself.

The film opens with the duo responding to a call concerning a couple in a motel. The couple’s drug-induced hallucinations resulted in the male partner somehow plunging several floors down the elevator shaft, while the woman is in shock and unresponsive, staring in horror at something only she can see. She also has a mysterious snake bite. Steve and Dennis also respond to a call involving a burned body in an amusement park and a drug user who has been stabbed by a vintage sword.

The common factor in all these bizarre calls is a new designer drug called “synchronic.” We learn that it’s similar to DMT (the hallucinogen in ayahuasca), with a molecular structure just sufficiently different for it to be technically legal. But this particular batch was rushed to market amid rumors of a pending FDA crackdown and has some pretty severe side effects. Steve manages to buy up the remaining supply at the local Big Chief smoke shop to get the drug off the local market, but not before Dennis’ 18-year-old daughter, Brianna (Ally Ioannides), goes missing after attending a fraternity party that left one young man dead.

In the midst of all this, we learn the results of Steve’s recent MRI, and the news is not good. He’s got an inoperable brain tumor on or near the pineal gland, a tiny pea-shaped region near the center of the brain that secretes the hormone melatonin, which is tied to sleep/wake cycles, among other functions. (Fun fact: the 17th-century philosopher Rene Descartes believed the pineal gland was the seat of the soul.) That turns out to be significant, since synchronic messes with the pineal gland—hence its unusual effects with regard to how users experience time.

(WARNING: a couple of significant spoilers below.)

Both Benson and Moorhead describe themselves as “armchair enthusiasts of astrophysics, philosophy, and futurism,” among other interests, and they particularly liked the idea of a designer drug that causes people to experience past, present, and future simultaneously (or all jumbled up), rather than in a neat linear progression. When Steve encounters the chemist who created synchronic, the chemist draws an analogy to a vinyl record: you drop the needle on whatever track you wish to play, but all those other tracks are still always there. “These tracks are like time, and synchronic is the needle,” the chemist explains. Steve is also something of an armchair physicist, citing a letter by Albert Einstein to a friend whose wife had died: “the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” Synchronic temporarily shatters that temporal illusion.

But there’s a twist: it’s not just one’s perception of the flow of time that is affected. The drug actually makes you physically experience different time periods. And if that happens to involve a Spanish conquistador attacking you because you just appeared out of nowhere in a swamp, you will suffer a very real death if he succeeds in skewering you with his sword. And teenagers whose pineal glands haven’t yet calcified can actually travel to another time period and get stuck there, which Steve realizes is what has happened to Brianna.

Because of his cancer, Steve has the uncalcified pineal gland of a teenager rather than an adult. So he thinks he can rescue Brianna with his limited supply of the remaining synchronic. One of my favorite elements of the film is how Steve conducts a series of videotaped experiments, gradually figuring out the “rules” at play. For instance, where you are standing turns out to determine which time period you end up in (for some reason, it’s always the past, never the future), and you have to return within a short window of time.

But Steve screws up when he decides to take his trusty doggo, Hawking, back in time with him for one experimental run. Suffice to say that dogs will be dogs, and Hawking doesn’t make it back to the present in time. Instead, Steve gets one final glimpse of Hawking whimpering sadly at his beloved master before the vision fades. And Steve only has enough synchronic left to either rescue Hawking or rescue Brianna. He makes the right call (Brianna), but that doesn’t make Hawking’s fate any less heartbreaking.

It’s the most upsetting scene in the film; I’m still kinda mad at Steve for risking Hawking instead of running that experiment with an animal that was not a beloved loyal canine companion. Yet there’s no denying its power. That moment is permanently seared onto my brain, and it’s critical in terms of raising the emotional stakes. So objectively, I have to applaud Benson and Moorhead for not blinking on that score. I can always console myself by imagining Hawking being befriended by a young boy, and they go on to share all kinds of fun adventures. Hawking still gets to live his best life, albeit in a distant past.

The entire structure of this movie is admirably tight, as Benson and Moorhead continuously add extra constraints to further heighten the tension and build genuine suspense. Synchronic is a smoldering slow burn that pays off with a surprisingly moving, bittersweet conclusion. But I still maintain that Hawking was a Very Good Boi who deserved better.

Synchronic should be coming to VOD in the next few months.

Listing image by Well Go USA

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Xbox Series X/S vs. PlayStation 5: Our launch-month verdict

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Enlarge / L-R: Xbox Series X, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series S.

Sam Machkovech

Though this year’s newest consoles have only been on store shelves for less than two weeks, we’ve already published tens of thousands of words about the Xbox Series X/S and the PlayStation 5. Between months of tech previews, picture-filled unboxings, comprehensive reviews, coverage of some of the biggest launch games, and more, you could spend all day doing nothing but reading our detailed thoughts about Sony and Microsoft’s new consoles.
If you don’t have the time for all that, we understand. That’s why we’ve put together this handy, head-to-head summary comparing the most important features of both systems directly. By the end, we hope you’ll know if it’s time for you to upgrade your console, and which path you should take if it is.

Hardware design

Both the PS5 ($499 with disc drive, $399 without) and the Xbox Series X ($499) are really big. The Series X astounds as a chunky, minimalist cuboid, with a minimum 6″ clearance on any of its sides—making it a nightmare for an average entertainment center’s shelves. The PS5 gets its minimum clearance down to 4.25″, but that comes at the cost of being 50 percent bigger than Series X in total volume. Once you find a place to put either, the other differences boil down to your aesthetic preferences: black monolith with mild green accents, or a curvy popped-collar tower?

Both are quiet (excepting discs spinning in the disc drives) but the PS5 has a slight discernible fan noise, whereas Xbox Series X is literally whisper quiet. While we’ve seen reports about “coil whine” affecting certain PS5 customers, we haven’t been able to duplicate that noise issue.

While those two consoles’ cooling systems are not identical, their silicon makeup is similar enough to explain why they draw very similar amounts of power. Each maxes out at roughly 205W at next-gen games, though they run closer to 190W on average.

Xbox Series S ($299), meanwhile, is as quiet as its Series X sibling (owing to, among other things, an identical 12″ fan system), while shrinking to a form factor on par with 2017’s Xbox One X. The longer we’ve sat with it, the more we’ve grown to like its “Bluetooth speaker” design of a black ring on an otherwise white box—especially as slotted into a crowded entertainment center. Its power draw is also phenomenal, never exceeding 90W on the console’s highest-drawing games.

Hardware power

Put aside all the talk of GCN compute units, RDNA 2 cores, Zen 2 Jaguar cores, and the like. When it comes to running actual games, the Xbox Series X and the PS5 are practically indistinguishable. Third-party titles available on both systems look and run almost identically, and you’d be hard pressed to pick one from the other in blind tests.

Series X power usage
Rest mode 16-30.5W
Rest mode (w/ download) 33-55W
Idle on menu 62W
Netflix 64W
Playing 4K Blu-ray 64-76W
Gameplay (Spelunky X360) 101-104W
Gameplay (Gears 5 XSX) 170-198W
Installing Dark Souls II from disc 70 – 71.5W
Playing Dark Souls II (w/ disc in drive) 103-105W
Series S power usage
Rest mode 8.6-17.5W
Rest mode (w/ download) 16-18W
Idle on menu 31W
Netflix 40W
Playing 4K Blu-ray n/a
Gameplay (Spelunky X360) 53W
Gameplay (Gears 5 XSS) 50-85W
Installing Dark Souls II from disc n/a

Only one title proves an exception at this point: Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. While both PS5 and Xbox Series X target identical graphical settings and not-quite-4K resolutions (and they look good doing so), its Series X version currently struggles to lock to 60fps as well as PlayStation 5 does. That’s not enough data to declare PS5 the “stronger” console, and we’ll be coming back to that question as we compare more third-party games in the coming months.

Compared to their predecessors, games on the new consoles do look better, taking advantage of higher resolutions and graphical techniques like ray tracing (which is especially noticeable in reflections). But depending on the game, the increase in fidelity is more marginal than you might expect for a $500 upgrade. The seven-year-old hardware Sony and Microsoft are looking to replace has aged better than you might have expected, and the mid-generation upgrades that came out in 2016 and 2017 continue to hold up quite well.

Where you’ll see a huge jump in 2020’s consoles is in frame rates. Games like Yakuza: Like A Dragon, Spider-Man: Miles Morales, and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla look quite similar when comparing screenshots across “last-gen” and “next-gen” systems. But the bump from 30 fps on older consoles to 60 fps on newer consoles makes a huge difference when seeing these games in motion.

PS5 power usage
Rest mode 28-32W
Rest mode (w/ download) 42-45W
Idle on menu 67W
Netflix 71-73W
Playing 4K Blu-ray 76-79W
Gameplay (Downwell PS4) 70-76W
Gameplay (Tony Hawk 1+2 PS4) 116-130W
Gameplay (Miles Morales PS5) 156-205W
Installing Knack from disc 124 – 134W
Playing Knack (w/ disc in drive) 116-127W

In the case of some games, like the PS5-exclusive adventure of Demon’s Souls, that extra 60 fps fluidity contributes to atmosphere in incredible ways. But even that game is mechanically identical to its source material, which dates back to PS3. And another Sony exclusive, the surprisingly charming Sackboy: A Big Adventure, is so similar between its PS4 and PS5 versions that we recommend anyone missing out on new consoles rush to play that family-friendly game on their last-gen machines.

All of the new consoles enjoy blistering fast loading times, thanks to the now-standard PCIe 4.0-rated NVMe storage. It’s not quite a return to the “hit power and start playing instantly” days of cartridge gaming, but it’s close.

The PS5 appears to have the loading time edge in some cases (like the aforementioned Assassin’s Creed Valhalla), but the differences across next-gen consoles are minor at this point. Meanwhile, Xbox Series enjoys the benefits of Xbox Quick Resume, allowing near-instant swapping from game to game. on the PS5, you have to endure a (quick) load from the main menu when swapping to a new title, rather than resuming directly from where you left off.

As of press time, though, some Series X/S games choke on this Quick Resume feature. We hope Xbox fixes these edge cases soon, because even with faster storage, PS5 feels sluggish in comparison without its own version of Quick Resume.

One important note: Xbox Series S has been advertised as able to play Series X’s up-to-4K games, only pared down to resolutions ranging from 1080p to 1440p. In action, that sales pitch is mildly misleading, as visual downgrades from X to S also include reductions in shadow resolution, level-of-detail (LoD) scaling, ambient occlusion, and other features, depending on the game. For the most part, we’ve seen identical frame rates between Series X and Series S, which is arguably a bigger deal, but Assassin’s Creed Valhalla remains a striking exception: only 30fps on Series S, compared to 60fps on Series X. Until we compare more next-gen Series X/S games, this issue remains a huge asterisk for the $299 Series S.

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