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Returnal Features That Were Never Possible Before

Since its release in April 2021, "Returnal" Housemarque Studios' new roguelike third-person shooter, has wowed critics and players alike. In its first day of release, it outsold much of its competition on the market.

You play as Selene, the pilot of a spaceship who is forced to land on an alien world called Atropos. Selene quickly discovers that Atropos is populated with vicious aliens that want nothing more than to kill her. Another strange phenomena surrounding the planet is that death doesn't seem to be permanent here. Instead, Selene finds herself trapped inside a time loop and she must try to fight her way through an ever-changing world that resets with each death.

There are a lot of unique and interesting features that set "Returnal" apart, but some of them are only available because of its home on the PS5. Sony's latest console has several new capabilities (including a few that even the Xbox Series X/S doesn't have), and "Returnal" leverages many of them to do things that simply weren't possible on the previous generation of consoles.

Ray tracing at 4K 60FPS FTW

Being able to play games at 4K resolution with 60 frames-per-second was one of the biggest selling points of the PS5 and Xbox Series X/S. Enjoying premium resolution without having to sacrifice rapid frame rates? Yes, please. The other major graphical improvement over last gen hardware is the addition of ray tracing, which is essentially an advanced (and much more life-like) technology for rendering light and shadows. The trouble is that ray tracing is incredibly taxing on a system and there are only a handful of games on the PS5 that have managed to maintain the promised 4K 60FPS with ray tracing turned on.

The good news is that "Returnal" is one of those rare titles.

"By leveraging PS5's ray-tracing hardware, we are able to deliver high-quality lighting in real time," Housmarque's Technical Director, Ethan Watson, said on the PlayStation website. "Our global illumination system uniquely adapts to the randomized placement of the world, while neon-lit projectiles create that arcade, fever-dream feel our team is known for."

Having this kind of performance is vital to a game like "Returnal." It has fast-paced action, stunning scenery, and "bullet-hell" style mechanics where waves of brightly colored particles light up the screen.

HDR makes makes for a highly dynamic Atropos

The world of Atropos is full of bright lights and vibrant colors juxtaposed against dark caverns and the planet's barren surface. This makes it the perfect game to take advantage of the PS5's advanced HDR capabilities — so long as you have an HDR supported display.

As explained by CNET, HDR stands for "high dynamic range." It makes bright whites and colors brighter and more vibrant while simultaneously making dark blacks and shadows appear much darker. It also unlocks 10-bit panels' ability to display the 1 billion variations of color of which they're capable.

The PS5 can't do this on its own, however. The television or monitor you're using with it needs to be HDR compatible. Some gamers have also experienced issues with getting the PS5 to run HDR and 4K settings at the same time.

It's worth noting that the PS4 Pro is HDR compatible as well. Even so, "Returnal" appears to be taking full advantage of the added range of light and color made possible by the PS5.

Futuristic load times

Load times have been the bane of games and consoles alike for decades. There's nothing worse than dying and then having salt rubbed in the wound in the form of an incredibly slow loading bar. Fortunately for "Returnal," the PS5 utilizes an incredibly fast SSD for its hard drive. This cuts your loading times down to a fraction of what they would have been on the previous-gen consoles.

This is great news for any PS5 gamer, but it's a real windfall in a game like "Returnal." Not only does it have incredibly detailed set-pieces which require processing massive quantities of information, but it's also worth remembering that this is a roguelike. Dying is a major part of the game, and every second you spend staring at a loading screen is a second you aren't blasting your way back to where you were and learning how to advance to the next area.

Feel that haptic feedback

Other than the obvious boost in raw performance, one of the biggest upgrades to come with the PS5 is the DualSense controller. This fancy device has a number of new features, (including a few you might not know about) but one of the most important additions is haptic feedback. It's much more complex than the traditional "rumble" vibration you might be used to. Wired did a deep dive into the PS5 and they explained that the controller's feedback functions via "highly programmable voice-coil actuators located in the left and right grips of the controller."

Since "Returnal" is a PS5 exclusive, the developers didn't need to be able to port it to other consoles. This allowed the dev team to take full advantage of the controller's unique features, building the entire experience around the PS5 and the DualSense in ways other games simply couldn't be.

IGN remarked in its review, "Barring 'Astro's Playroom,' this is the best use of haptic feedback and adaptive triggers so far on the platform, because it actually makes a difference in how you play." The review goes on to state, "Sure, it's cool to feel the raindrops in the controller, but what's even cooler is having that added element of sensory feedback to let you know when your alt-fire is off cooldown, [which comes] in the form of a very specific-feeling rumble in your controller."

Adapts to adaptive triggers

The DualSense's adaptive triggers are another huge leap forward that arrived with the controller. According to Sony Interactive Entertainment's Hideaki Nashino, the L2 and R2 triggers will allow you to "truly feel the tension of your actions, like when drawing a bow to shoot an arrow."

TronicsFix did a teardown of the controller on YouTube which showed how Sony achieved this feat. There is actually a spiral-shaped gear inside the controller, which lifts a plastic limiter "that will change the resistance on the trigger." This is another feature that "Returnal" takes full advantage of.

"L2 will lock halfway when pulled for a zoomed in Focus Aim (this also highlights enemy weak spots in red,)" PlayStation's blog explained. "Pull fully down to activate your weapon's alt-fire mode."

Players have been loving this feature. According to frasco9 on Reddit, "The triggers are so intuitive, it feels so good to hear your Alt-Fire being ready and just pressing L2 all the way through, you really feel like you are firing an ultimate salve." It's always impressive when games manage to turn new hardware features into mechanics which would have been impossible on last-gen consoles.