2016 was a truly massive year for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Both consoles received significant hardware upgrades, bringing the total number on the market from two to five. (Not including HDD variations.) In addition, Xbox and PlayStation owners were treated to a host of new features that were absent during launch. Microsoft's Xbox Play Anywhere merged the worlds of console and PC gaming, while Sony decided to bet big on virtual reality with PlayStation VR.
So which console ended up on top? We'll let you be the judge of that. To help you decide, here are the highs and lows that were experienced by both.
In the first three years of its life, the PlayStation 4 was a solid but in many ways unremarkable console. Its pace of improvements was slow and steady - an operating system update here, a new exclusive game there. That pace quickened this year, as Sony moved to more aggressively outline what the PS4's next few years might look like.
On the Xbox side of things, the introduction of Play Anywhere redefined the console as a cheaper alternative to a gaming PC. It's a great system for controller-based games that goes for a grand less than a top of the line PC. Yet perhaps counterintuitively, Microsoft plans to sell a much more powerful Xbox a year from now.
Below, we take an comprehensive look at the state of each console in 2016 and beyond - the hardware, software, games, services and outlook for the future.
Sony's year in gaming was defined by two things: The release of PlayStation VR in October and the PS4 Pro in November. Both pieces of hardware seem designed for a world that may not yet have arrived — a world where people play games in 4K when they're not playing in VR.
The PS4 Pro is a preemptive evolution, designed to keep the PS4 current in an age when graphics processing technology improves at too brisk a clip to sustain a five- or six-year console life-cycle. It features significantly improved graphics processing power and marginally improved CPU speed, which so far has translated to higher-res games and, sometimes, 1080p games running at higher frame rates.
Sony also replaced the standard PS4 with a new, slimmer model this year, for those who care more about shelf space and price than than about horsepower. The Pro goes for $559 and the Slim for $348, though you've been able to find a Slim (or a still-in-stock standard PS4) for under $300 over the holidays.
On the left, the PS4 Pro. On the right, a standard PS4.
The PS4 Pro has also split the PlayStation userbase into first- and second-class citizens. Sony has pledged that all PS4 games will run on both systems, but it's a safe bet that over the next year or two, the Pro will become more of a standard while the original PS4 becomes a poor relation.
We're already seeing what that will look like: The Last Guardian, one of Sony's biggest 2016 PS4 exclusives, runs at an expected 1080p/30fps on the PS4 Pro but the framerate frequently struggles on a standard PS4. The Pro version doesn't feel like an upgrade, it simply feels like how the game is supposed to play. The standard PS4 version feels like a downgrade. Expect that to become more common in 2017.
However you may feel about the jump to PS4 Pro becoming mandatory, it certainly is an upgrade. It marks the dawn of a more complicated age for console gaming, where video game devices receive more frequent, smartphone-like incremental changes, to be yours for the full price of a new machine.
That could be a long-term boon for game developers and better guarantee reverse compatibility for our digital games, and could at least be more cost-effective than it currently is if console makers come up with some sort of hardware trade-in program. Or it could be an expensive boondoggle that counteracts console gaming's appealing simplicity. The answers to those questions will be clearer by the end of 2017.
The Xbox One has dramatically improved since its 2013 launch thanks to numerous firmware improvements that sped it up, improved its store and added backwards compatibility to Xbox 360 games. But the machine remained awkwardly bulky until the introduction this year of the slimmer, white Xbox One S. The new model doesn't have an external power brick and can be positioned vertically with the help of a stand.
The Xbox One S is a better model than the launch console and is certainly the better option for new console owners, but it has not been a necessary replacement for those who already had an Xbox One. It does very little to improve the functionality of Xbox One, save letting some titles output HDR graphics to high-end TVs that can display that colour and lighting technology.
Its support for 4K Blu-Rays may be useful for video aficionados and for those who want to snark that the new PlayStation Pro can't play those discs. Microsoft makes Xbox One S consoles with 500GB, 1TB or 2TB drives, selling them for $300-600 during most of December.
In 2016, Sony also brought virtual reality (VR) to the table in the form of PlayStation VR. PlayStation VR is a viable way to introduce people to the wonders of modern virtual reality, but it only has a couple must-play games and is easily the weakest of the big three VR systems in terms of hardware, software and camera tracking. It could still turn out to be good enough to work as a mainstream-ish way to get a VR headset into your living room, particularly given its lower cost compared with the competition.
But with its current games lineup and functionality, PSVR seems less like an essential piece of tech and more like a novelty gadget, something to briefly break out and show to guests before stowing it back under the coffee table.
The Xbox One does not support virtual reality headsets, but Microsoft has partnered with Facebook-owned Oculus to bundle an Xbox One controller with Oculus' Rift headset. It'd be natural for Scorpio to also run the Rift and, for that matter, the competing HTC Vive. Just don't hold your breath for it to work (officially) with PlayStation VR.
In September, the PS4 got a significant software update that added a large number of overdue features to the console's operating system. Most notably, the 4.00 update added a quick-access sidebar to let you manage messaging, party chat and power settings much more quickly than before. (It doesn't sound exciting, but it's very nice.)
We also got a folder system that made it possible to sort our ever-growing game libraries into something other than a single horizontal line, which is particularly useful given the PS4 Pro's 1TB of storage space. The rest of the year gave us some smaller but no less welcome additions, including the ability to make gifs, easier music streaming, and (praise be) the ability to turn off visual notifications for screenshots.
Folders make it much easier to keep track of everything.
Many of the PS4 software's shortcomings remain — it's still too difficult to manage devices or change output settings, and some settings are still buried in hard-to-find places. Other more niche services like Share Play and PlayStation Now still are often hobbled by stringent bandwidth requirements, though both features are fundamentally good ideas that will hopefully continue to improve over time.
The Xbox One has been in a firmware arms race with Sony all generation, to the benefit of owners of both platforms. Features like a mid-game suspend mode that were once just on Xbox One are now also on PS4. But Xbox One still has some good quality-of-life advantages, including an indicator for download speeds and a more prominent display of system storage capacity, both of which help with managing digital games.
This year, the Xbox One added numerous small perks like group messaging and a system for tracking Achievement rarity (replete with a new sound effect when obtaining a rare one). Microsoft improved voice commands for the console this year by integrating the Cortana system from Windows 10, though the more limited "Xbox do something" commands remain a backup option. They also added user reviews to the system's online store, though that feature can be easily exploited.
The most interesting changes to the system software are so new that they're too early to judge. In November, Microsoft started letting system owners form online clubs that will make finding like-minded gamers easier. They also introduced a "looking for group" matchmaking option that lets you post requests for people to play games with you, though some players have complained that the feature is too deeply buried in the system that most players are unaware of it.
Back in June, Microsoft talked big about the addition of an esports hub called Arena, but it was recently delayed and remains only available to users of the Xbox One Preview program. Arena is intended to let Xbox One owners easily sign up for and play competitive games in tournaments for featured games like Killer Instinct and various EA games.
Sony's PlayStation Network still gets the job done, and it still could do the job better. It still goes down more often than it should, particularly given that Sony increased the price of a yearly subscription this year. More and more games require an internet connection to play, so when PSN goes down, gamers often need to change their evening plans with little warning. Game download speeds are inconsistent and generally slow, as well, which is more and more of a problem in this age of 60GB games and 9GB day-one patches.
As connectivity and bandwidth become increasingly crucial for day-to-day video game enjoyment, it's more important that dedicated gaming networks function properly. Sony's network didn't dramatically improve this year. Also, another year has gone by and we still can't change our PSN names. Give us a break, Sony.
Xbox Live remains pretty reliable and holds up well for streaming and downloading.
The value of Xbox Live Gold, the premium service required for multiplayer gaming, improved this year thanks to a full commitment by Microsoft to offer not just two free Xbox One games a month but also two Xbox 360 titles that play via backward compatibility. That adds up to three free games a month, which, in 2016, included: Dead Space, Mirror's Edge and Far Cry 3 Blood Dragon from the 360 library as well as Sunset Overdrive, The Banner Saga 2 and Sleeping Dogs.
The 360 offerings are generally strong, but the Xbox One offerings can be weak as seen by the inclusion of underwhelming sidescroller Assassin's Creed Chronicles China or WWE 2K16, the latter which was released just before the launch of WWE 2K17.
EA continues its $39.99/year EA access program on Xbox One, with a similar program running on PC (Origin Access) but not on PS4. Most EA releases still get early, time-limited releases on the system, meaning that Xbox One owners have been able to get to games such as Mirror's Edge Catalyst and Battlefield 1 a day or two before their official release, but time limits on those early releases fluctuates from 10 generous hours to sometimes as little as six.
EA continues to put most of its big releases in the "Vault" part of the program, which winds up giving subscribers access to games like Star Wars Battlefront at no added cost (unless you want the DLC). EA added Mirror's Edge Catalyst and UFC2, which were both released in 2016, to the Vault, before the year was up. Titanfall 2, however, has been absent from the service altogether and didn't even get a timed demo through Access.
Microsoft has been able to secure timed console exclusives on DLC for The Division but its most surprising console-war advantage emerged this year with the launch of mod support for Fallout 4 and Skyrim. The games' publisher, Bethesda, has released very limited mod support for those games on PS4, seemingly due to technical and/or approval issues, giving Xbox One users a clear advantage in the size and number of mods they can use.
2016 was another thin year for PS4 exclusives. We got two highly anticipated games in May's Uncharted 4: A Thief's End and December's The Last Guardian. The latter game arrived almost ten years after it was announced, at the end of a development cycle so protracted that it became difficult to separate the game from the narrative surrounding it. The end result was an unusual, flawed, often beautiful experience.
Uncharted 4 was another rip-roaring adventure and one of the most technologically and visually dazzling games yet released on a console, but ultimately fell short of developer Naughty Dog's previous high-water mark, The Last of Us.
In fact, the PS3's Uncharted 2 arguably remains the series' peak. It's probably for the best that the affable adventurer Nathan Drake is finally going to stop leaping from crumbling buildings and settle down to enjoy his retirement.
Take a break, Drake. You've earned it.
Those two games were the most noteworthy of Sony's 2016 exclusives, joined by a terrific Ratchet & Clank quasi-remaster, a silky smooth port of the Vita standout Gravity Rush, and a few PSVR gems like Super Hypercube and Rez Infinite. Early in the year one could be forgiven for thinking that No Man's Sky was a PS4 exclusive, though it also came out on PC.
Sony's exhaustive marketing push was at least partly responsible for building up the expectations that were so roundly dashed by the actual game, though trailer footage and the developers themselves did their share of the legwork on that account, too. Several big 2016 exclusives were delayed into 2017, including the much-hyped Horizon Zero Dawn and the less hyped but lovely-looking Gravity Rush 2.
Lack of exclusives notwithstanding, the PlayStation 4's game lineup felt strong in 2016, thanks mostly to a great run of multiplatform and indie games. Terrific big-budget games like Doom, Titanfall 2, Battlefield 1, Overwatch, Hitman, XCOM 2, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Watch Dogs 2 and Final Fantasy 15 joined a strong run of indie games like Inside, The Witness, Thumper, Oxenfree, Stardew Valley, Firewatch and Hyper Light Drifter to round out an unusually robust year for console games.
Several other major multiplatform games got substantial updates, including The Witcher 3's lovely send-off Blood & Wine and Dying Light's massive The Following. PlayStation Plus subscribers got a few solid free games throughout the year, including Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, Invisible, Inc., Helldivers and Grim Fandango Remastered, though as usual there were no coveted, big-budget PS4 freebies.
Gravity Rush 2, due out in early 2017
2017 is shaping up to be a good year, with Horizon Zero Dawn and Gravity Rush 2 hopefully benefiting from their delays. Kotaku's staff is so hyped for the PS3/PS4 JRPG Persona 5 that it might kill us, so if the site goes offline in April, you'll know why. Other exclusives like Spider-Man, Ni No Kuni 2, Detroit: Become Human and Days Gone could wind up coming out in 2018, or could launch earlier than expected.
All those are in addition to a number of exciting multiplatform games like spring's Mass Effect: Andromeda and fall's Red Dead Redemption 2. (We'll believe that second one as a 2017 game when it actually happens.)
If you owned a PS4 in 2016, you may not have had a bunch of big exclusive games, but you still had a hell of a lot of new, interesting things to play. That's only going to get better next year.
Microsoft isn't nearly as prolific a publisher as Nintendo or Sony. It does reliably get games of exceptional quality on its systems, including what might be 2016's best racing game on any platform, Forza Horizon 3.
The company's publishing output was skimpier than it was in 2015, though, and had only one major release in the first half of the year, Quantum Break, a period of the year Microsoft tends to neglect. Quantum Break stands out, though, for being a remarkable engineering achievement that melds chapters of a video game adventure with 24-minute live-action episodes that play out differently depending on what choices you made in the game.
Microsoft tried launching a new potential franchise this year with Armature and Comcept's ReCore, but great character design and some fun gameplay mechanics were hampered by long load-times and a repetitive endgame.
Quantum Break in-game
Gears of War 4 was well-received and 2015's Halo 5 got an avalanche of free DLC this year, but it's hard to shake the feeling that Microsoft's marquee franchises are getting stale and are generally less exciting than they used to be. This may prove to be more and more of a problem going forward, as Microsoft doesn't have as rich a back-catalogue of franchises to pull from compared to its competitors.
The Xbox One got all of 2016's biggest and best third party releases, including Overwatch, Far Cry Primal, The Division, Hitman, Final Fantasy XV, and FIFA. It got strong indies in 2016, too, including Superhot, Inside, The Witness, and Fru, which will likely be the last good Kinect games (yes, yes, also one of the only good ones).
Highlights to the expanding roster of backwards compatible Xbox 360 games include Red Dead Redemption, Skate 3 and Fallout: New Vegas.
Many will buy a PS4 Pro next year with the intention of "future proofing" their PS4 experience. Of course, the best you can do with any modern gadget is to buy yourself another few years before succumbing to inevitable obsolescence. The speed at which the PS4 Pro will become obsolete remains an open question.
Sony has established a solid enough lead over the last few years that a processing boost and some ostensible support for 4K TVs may be all they need, at least for now. But the PS4 Pro is still not in the same league as a high-end gaming PC, and if the upcoming Xbox Scorpio's announced specs are anything to go by, Sony will soon lag behind Microsoft's horsepower, too.
Nintendo's promising-looking Switch will likely put up more of a fight than their beleaguered Wii U ever did, and both new consoles will hopefully push Sony to make even more meaningful improvements to maintain their top spot.
Here at the end of 2016, the PlayStation 4 is the most powerful gaming console you can buy. Its library of quality exclusive games received only a few new entries this year, but that slow growth is complemented by the best console versions of a broad selection of multiplatform games.
The PS4's future is uncertain, but its present is not. At this moment in time, the PlayStation 4 is a very good gaming console.
Next year will be an odd and eventful one for Xbox and its fans. In June, Microsoft confirmed our reporting and announced that it was preparing a much more powerful version of the Xbox One, code-named Scorpio. The system is set to launch in 2017 and has been positioned by Microsoft as a significant leap in power far greater than that of this year's iterative PS4 Pro upgrade. Microsoft has said that the Scorpio will run Xbox One games and there's no indication that the company plans to cut off Xbox One support, treating this more like a gradual smartphone or tablet replacement.
Microsoft has downplayed the idea that there would be any Scorpio-exclusive games with the caveat that only the new console is slated to support VR gaming. But it's hard to imagine that developers, if given that much more horsepower, wouldn't be tempted to use it for more than just better resolution and framerate. It stands to reason that Microsoft will at some point want to show off what a game designed solely for Scorpio can do, particularly given that thanks to Play Anywhere, those games will also be running on powerful gaming PCs.
One of 2016's bigger gaming industry bummers was the shutdown of Microsoft-owned Lionhead Studios and with that, a possible pause on the Fable franchise. Fans waiting for a Rare resurgence might get to see how the multiplayer pirate ship game Sea of Thieves pans out if it makes a 2017 release. Equally intriguing is the return of Crackdown, which had a brilliant debut on Xbox 360 but a lacklustre sequel, and the return of the late-generation surprise 360 hit State of Decay with the fittingly titled State of Decay 2. Maybe Cuphead and Below will finally come out next year, too?
Oh, and Xbox One will be one of the machines next year that will be capable of playing Red Dead Redemption 2, one of the many third-party games that Microsoft will surely want to ensured is optimised extra-well for Scorpio.