Ever since I started playing games on my PS4, one thing about the console’s controller has always stood out to me. It makes a lot of noise. Audio feedback is nothing new or unique to the DualShock 4, but it’s particularly…noticeable on the thing. Like the controller is nudging you and shouting, “Hey! I’m over here!”
At least, that’s how it used to feel. As is often the case with newfangled technology, Sony launched the PlayStation 4 and all its related gizmos with a bunch of snazzy features in tow that amounted to little more than a bunch of unrealized potential. And since the company took one of its biggest leaps of faith with the DualShock 4’s redesign, a lot of gamers’ criticism has focused on the thing. Exhibit A: the pesky light bar that won’t turn off because of virtual reality.
Delivering audio cues like music or sound effects through a controller’s speaker, on the other hand, didn’t seem like anything to write home about. Nintendo has been using its Wii (and now Wii U) controllers this way for a while now — funelling choice chirps through, say, a player’s Wiimote to bring them closer to the action on-screen. But for whatever reason, the way audio was fed through many of the early games I played on my PS4 felt intrusive or distracting in comparison.
The beautiful indie game Transistor, for instance, gave me the option to hear the voice of its eponymous character through the DS4. Since the character (spoiler alert!) is a giant talking sword being wielded by protagonist Red, I guess the idea was to enhance the whole immersion factor of playing the game. She’s holding the sword and presumably hearing its chatter from around where her hands are, so you could too. You get the idea. It was neat in theory. But Transistor’s top-down perspective and tactically fraught, XCOM-style gameplay didn’t square with the DS4’s vocal flourish very well. The rest of the game’s perspective just seemed too distant and disembodied in perspective.
Other games have used the DualShock 4’s speaker more gracefully than I think Transistor did, but only because they dialed back the controller’s audio entirely. Infamous: Second Son had a few promising ideas with the way it had the DS4 buzz and ring to mimic phone calls, or make a sort of whooshing vacuum sound whenever superhero protagonist Delsin Rowe would suck up energy from neon signs or clouds of smoke. Advanced Warfare, this year’s Call of Duty, defaults to a setting where the controller makes all the clicking sounds you hear when swiping through the menu screens to choose your loadout between missions. Both of these games featured audio cues that added nice little touches, but not much else.
As with any hardware feature, the question of its value comes down to how it’s used by an actual game developer to make something interesting and, hopefully, fun. So far, I’ve seen two games bring out the DualShock 4’s talkative side in ways that are genuinely cool: Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor and the new-gen version of Grand Theft Auto V.
Shadow of Mordor uses the DualShock 4 in a similar way to Transistor at face value. It’s a high fantasy game where you play as a dude (Talion) with another dude (Celebrimbor) living inside of him in spirit form, so, again, there’s some otherworldly banter to be had. Whenever you face a loading screen in that game, Talion hears echo-filled flashbacks — bits of remembered dialogue with his murdered wife or her father that emanate from the controller if you’re playing on the PS4. Whenever you step into the wraith world to activate Celebrimbor’s magical powers, meanwhile, the more ghostly sound effects will come through the DS4 as well. The controller also makes a leaf-rustling sound whenever Talion is hiding from enemy orcs in a bush, and some miscellaneous sword-clashing clatter during the showdown moments with nemesis orcs. Unlike Transistor, Mordor’s mixture of stealth and combat is delivered from a perspective that’s up close and personal enough that the sounds of rustling leaves and clashing bits of metal added to its immersion, rather than detracting from it.
Individually, most of the DS4 sounds in Mordor are all just flourishes (and potentially annoying ones) like the ones I listed above. They worked well for me, but I also loved Shadow of Mordor enough to overlook some of its irritating qualities. The one DualShock 4 audio cue I unequivocally fell in love with, however, was the tinny ringing sound it would make whenever I was in the middle of a swordfight to signal that Talion’s special orc-killing powers were charged up and ready to use. That meant it was time to start doing this:
Mordor’s violence is so frenetic and visually captivating that it can be hard to keep track of everything that’s going on during a tense bout of Talion-on-orc combat. The DS4’s chime is the perfect way to call something to the player’s attention without pulling them out of the action completely.
As for Grand Theft Auto V? Well, gosh. It’s such an expansive and varied game that I’m pretty sure I still have a lot more to discover about how it works on the PS4. But two things have stood out to me so far about the game’s unique use of the new DualShock. First is the way that it broadcasts police banter through the DS4 mic whenever the havoc I’m wreaking gets chaotic enough to warrant a wanted level. Angering the cops has always been one of the best parts of GTA V (or pretty much any GTA game, honestly), but hearing the cop calls through a separate speaker than the rest of the game’s action makes it easier to tell what it is they’re saying. This makes evading the authorities more fun in turn, since I can tell how and where they’re looking for me better than I could before.
And then there’s the first person mode. Oh god, the first person mode in GTA V. So alluring. So frightening. So ridiculously distracting. There’s already so much going in on the game that trying to take it all in from such an intimately personal vantage point can be more than a little overwhelming. That’s a good thing, though — you’re supposed to feel like you’re managing a billion different tasks at any given moment in Grand Theft Auto. And the sound makes it so much better.
Playing GTA V in first person changes the game in many substantial ways. But for my purposes here, let’s just focus on one small tweak I immediately noticed in the PS4 version. Whenever you make or receive phone calls in first person mode, the voice of the person on the other side of the phone comes through the DualShock 4 speaker. The voice of your character, meanwhile, stays on the TV screen. Like the subtle way a character’s head bobs up and down as you run around the city of Los Santos, the small change to phone calls in the game adds a fresh layer of depth and realism to the whole experience of playing GTA V.
This probably sound like a small detail. It is, on one level. But that’s what makes it so great. Because hearing the input and output of a mobile phone in this way makes perfect sense once I started to think about it. I mean, the two characters aren’t in the same room together or anything. That’s the whole reason they’re talking on the phone. They should sound like they’re disconnected in physical space, and only able to communicate through some fuzzy technological pathway. Hearing it for the first time suddenly made the entire world of Los Santos just sort of…fit together in its new perspective in a way I didn’t expect. The world came to life in a new and fascinating way that it hadn’t previously — at least not to the same extent.
Before playing GTA V and Shadow of Mordor on the PS4, I saw (or heard, more accurately) a lot of promising ideas for how to use the DualShock 4’s unique assets to better a game. But these are the first two that felt like they brought something more than good ideas to the table. The DS4’s audio cues just made the games more fun, plain and simple. I hope more developers take some inspiration from Rockstar and Monolith to help their work come to life on the PlayStation 4 as well.
UPDATE 8:24 pm: Some readers have commented saying that the phone calls in GTA V work the same way, audio-wise, whether you’re playing in third person or first person. This hasn’t been the case in my experience — the game swapped back and forth depending on whether I was playing in first or third person, and only played the audio of the person speaking through my DS4 when in first person. I’ve updated the post for clarity.