Heading into the next generation of home entertainment systems with the PlayStation5 and the Xbox Series S|X there’s been some debate about the point of it all: SSD disks for much faster loading of games are very welcome, of course, but just shinier graphics and better sound in the same games we’ve been playing for the past 10 years don’t make a strong case for upgrading (at least not until SSDs enable types of games that were not possible with traditional hard drives). On top of that, the obvious absence of truly next-generation titles in either system’s lineup on launch day — by “next-generation titles” meaning “games that could never have been made for previous generation’s systems” — does not help Sony’s or Microsoft’s cause at all.
So where’s this one novel thing, this one element of differentiation that would give gamers the reason — or the excuse! — they need to buy into the promise these new systems make? Sony may have an answer to that. For their system, right now, it’s the new DualSense controller.
First, some background
The Japanese company started highlighting the PS5’s controller capabilities early on but, admittedly, with no points of reference to what they might mean in real games it all sounded more like a marketing talking point than an actual competitive advantage for the system. More details were given in April, along with some examples of how the new mechanisms inside the DualSense could be utilized in games, but it was not until Sony’s official controller showcase in August that the possibilities these mechanisms open were understood.
The good news is that consumers will not have to wait a single day more than necessary in order to find out why the DualSense controller is indeed special. Every retail PS5 will offer Astro’s Playroom preinstalled: it’s a complete, proper game that’s made for the exact purpose of getting players acquainted with the new controller’s capabilities. It does not just use those new functions. It’s literally built around them, paying tribute to the PlayStation history at the same time — a clever touch sure to delight quite a few gamers in the process.
Astro’s Playroom is a cute platformer (had to be a family game after all) that takes full advantage of the three new mechanisms of the DualSense: the haptic feedback, the adaptive triggers and the built-in microphone. It does this by making them an indispensable part of the game’s control scheme, so as to strongly encourage players to use all three in order to progress.
The haptic feedback is without a doubt the most impressive of all three. There is a simple way and a complicated way to describe it, but an accurate one is this: it’s like having a touchscreen vibrate under one’s fingers while typing, but… holding it with both hands. Yes, the feedback is that precise: it’s felt through a great number of different points underneath the surface of the DualSense, so close to each other as the letters on a virtual keyboard are. Where current controllers vibrate in just one way and the rumbling is felt through their body as a whole, the PS5’s controller “directs” the vibration in specific points, even distinctly “moving” the vibration from point to point.
This is how the DualSense can offer something no other controller has offered before: the unmistakable sense of different materials coming in contact. In Astro’s Playroom, for instance, the player can tell whether the likable robot is walking on sand, metal or glass. He/she can tell whether Astro meets resistance from water or from mud while walking, can tell whether what he/she just hit something hard or something soft, can tell exactly where raindrops fall on a surface.
The effect is simply amazing and, combined with sound, it can really make the player believe that he/she “is touching” virtual objects just by manipulating the vibration points underneath his/her hands. Yes, it is that convincing.
Resisting the trigger finger
The adaptive trigger feature of the DualSense is nowhere near as impressive as haptic feedback: it’s evolutionary rather than revolutionary in comparison. While the “trigger” buttons on current controllers behave like regular buttons, on the DualSense there are different levels of pressure — a lot of levels actually — recognized in one motion.
As a result, the whole range of motion — from totally neutral to totally pressed — asks of the player to put some effort into the trigger squeezing. One can really feel the tension increase as the triggers are pressed more and more, the resistance behind the player’s index finger becoming gradually stronger. The fact that different levels of pressure are easily discernible allows for precise application of force, as well as for the detection of “points of balance” between different pressure levels.
In Astro’s Playroom the adaptive triggers are used in rather pedestrian ways, such as the control of giant springs under a suit that can help the robot jump further than it normally would. Funnily enough, though, right now it’s easier to imagine more types of games using the adaptive triggers than the haptic feedback, as there are specific types of actions that can be tied to the former feature. The latter is obviously more ambitious and open-ended, but its use requires some thought on the developers’ part in order not to come across as a mere gimmick in actual gameplay.
Voice comms always available and… the elephant in the room
The microphone hidden in the DualSense controller does, of course, exactly what one would suppose it does. Its sensitivity is satisfactory, meaning that gamers won’t have to scream over the controller in order for the PS5 to pick up speech clearly or fellow players understanding what’s being said. In Astro’s Playroom it is the least imaginatively used feature but, then again, there’s only so much that can be done with sounds people can make without them being words (speech recognition is another matter entirely). The microphone will probably be used more for voice communication at a pinch than as an input method tied to gameplay — but one never knows what PS5 developers will come up with in the next couple of years.
Which brings us to the crux of the matter regarding the cool new features of the cool new PlayStation controller: the elephant in the room, so to speak. The haptic feedback is absolutely amazing and the adaptive triggers extremely useful, but how important they will become depends on game publishers and developers. Sony will make a point of incorporating these mechanisms in their own PS5 productions and that is no small thing. But support for the DualSense’s haptic feedback and adaptive triggers will have to come from many game creators in many game categories if it’s to be established as a PS5 competitive advantage — and, since these are features only the PS5 offers, will publishers (especially those leaning heavily on multiformat releases) choose to make the necessary investment?
It’s a question that can only be answered in time. Right now Sony deserves credit for attempting to bring something new to video games control and actually succeeding admirably: the haptic feedback and adaptive triggers can indeed imbue games on the PS5 with a “next-gen” feel that the competition cannot currently match. Rich graphics working together with interactive true dimensional sound and advanced, exciting control can indeed offer entertainment experiences more immersive than those possible on a PS4 or an Xbox Series S|X. All we have to do is wait for the promise made by that combination of image, sound and interaction to come true. Will it take months, will it take years? We don’t know. But the bits and pieces are all there. They just have to come together now.