Ahead of the launch of the Xbox Series X, Microsoft announced Smart Delivery, a feature that would allow console owners to “buy a game once and play the best versions across generations.” I immediately dismissed the concept.
I foolishly declared it little more than a marketing buzzword and was convinced that Sony’s PS5 would have an identical equivalent, likely with a less gimmicky name. Well, this week I’ve been forced to eat my words after experiencing the Xbox's feature firsthand.
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The PS5’s approach to cross-gen releases and backward-compatibility in general has been one of my few criticisms of the console since its release last November. And now having tried out the Xbox’s Smart Delivery system for myself, these issues are only exacerbated.
It may only be a small feature — one that most players won’t regularly use — but Smart Delivery is something that the PS5 could really benefit from. I’m hoping Sony will replicate it very soon for its own console.
Smart by name, smart by nature
In Microsoft’s own words (opens in new tab), Smart Delivery aims to ensure that “you always play the best version of the games you own for your console.”
What that means in non-PR speak is that if you boot up an Xbox One game that has a native Xbox Series X version or has been optimized for the next-generation Xbox, your console will automatically inform you of that upgrade and offer you the chance to upgrade at no additional fee — assuming the developer has enabled Smart Delivery of course.
Smart Delivery is extremely intuitive to use. Earlier this week I inserted an Xbox One copy of Borderlands 3 into my Xbox Series X, and straight away, a pop-up window informed me there was an Xbox Series X edition of the game available to play.
The feature is also future-proof. For example, when the native Xbox Series X version of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt launches later this year, my already installed Xbox One copy will be automatically upgraded at just the mere touch of a button.
At first, this might not sound that impressive. After all the Xbox Series X is a next-gen console, so you’d expect it to be able to handle a cross-gen upgrade without giving the user a headache. But that's an expectation the PS5 can't meet.
The PS5’s handling of cross-gen games couldn’t be any more different to Xbox's Smart Delivery. It’s the furthest thing from smart.
The PS5 views the PS4 and PS5 versions of a game as two entirely separate products, even giving them completely separate virtual trophy lists and PlayStation Store listings. What this means in practice is that you can very easily download the PS4 edition of a game by accident, even if you’ve bought the next-gen version.
That’s what happened to me earlier this year with Resident Evil: Village. I begin downloading the game and when my progress bar just had a few percentages left, I realized the console had actually started automatically downloading the PS4 version, not the PS5 one.
This required me to cancel the download and start fresh, this time ensuring that the correct version of the game was installing. Was it a big deal? Not especially, but considering the PS5’s biggest rival has a system designed to avoid such a situation, it does feel like something that could have been ironed during the console's development phase.
The PS5’s handling of cross-gen and backward-compatible games, in general, is pretty shoddy. For starters, there are a handful of PS4 games that don’t function correctly on the PS5 (including the excellent Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate), whereas the Xbox Series X can run not only the Xbox One’s entire library but also select Xbox 360 and original Xbox games.
Furthermore, on the PS5, owners of games such as Marvel’s Avengers and Yakuza: Like a Dragon have run into significant problems after these titles received a post-launch next-gen upgrade. Players of the former had to literally install both the PS4 and PS5 versions of the game on their system in order to transfer save files — an annoyance that Xbox Series X owners were able to avoid due to Smart Delivery.
Does it matter long-term?
Of course, it should be acknowledged that Smart Delivery is a feature that will become less useful over time. This current period of almost every major release being cross-gen will not last as we venture into 2022 and beyond.
We’re already seeing this year that certain developers are starting to omit a free next-gen upgrade with games scheduled for a fall release, and next-gen exclusives like Returnal and Deathloop will only become more common in the coming years.
Right now we’re only six months into the lifecycle of the PS5 and Xbox Series X. Once we’re a few years beyond release, Smart Delivery will become a feature that is less and less relevant. However, in the here and now, it’s irritating that something as simple as installing or playing a cross-gen game on PS5 can come with so much baggage.