When I picked up the PS5’s DualSense controller for the first time, the first thing I noticed was the triggers.
It takes a second to notice, if only because I’ve been using controllers the same way for so long. So when pushing the triggers down in Astro Playroom‘s controller demo — one of the two options available for a hands-on preview in Sony’s Sydney office this week — I wasn’t prepared for the tension.
The triggers stopped halfway. It felt like a hair-trigger switch was flipped, like the ones on a custom PS4 controller or the Xbox Elite controllers. It was a bit weird — shouldn’t the triggers be a bit looser, depress a little further? But it’s a new controller and this is all part of the experience, I figure.
It’s there that the Sony representative stops me. “No no, push a little further,” they say.
And then it clicks: this isn’t the DualSense’s default setting. It’s just what was specifically coded for this section. The tension, tightness and feedback can be changed at any moment.
To test out the Playstation 5 — the first hands-on sessions with the console in Australia — I was given the chance to run through a single level of Astro’s Playroom. The 3D platformer will come pre-installed on every Playstation 5, and it’s really one giant homage to the history of PlayStation.
As you run through each level, for instance, you’ll uncover puzzle pieces. These pieces are then added to a mural in a room called PlayStation Labo — I wonder whether Nintendo was consulted on that one — which has little homages to each Playstation era.
There’s a PS Vita and PSP that turn on, go through a boot up sequence and loading screen when you punch them. There’s some Astro Bots hanging out on a fat Playstation 3; they get launched when you punch the console and the tray flies open.
There’s also little models around for all of Sony’s weird experiments, too. There’s the Sony Playstation mouse, a grey two-button ball mouse that was released to make life easier when playing things like the PS ports of Red Alert, Warzone 2100, SimCity 2000 and other PC-esque point-and-click adventures.
I’m getting a little off track. But it’s worth noting that even in a room that’s basically a virtual achievement hall, Astro’s Playroom still subtly uses the Dualsense’s haptic feedback in clever ways.
When Astro’s Playroom loads into its hub world, one of the things you first notice is the footsteps. Each step causes the Dualsense to rumble slightly in ways that are reminiscent of the early Nintendo Switch games.
In a lot of ways, Astro’s Playroom is one giant tech demo for the Dualsense and its haptic feedback functions. For instance, when you move onto different surfaces — or meaningfully different surfaces, anyway — the amount of rumble in the controller and the sound made changes.
Developers can vary that feedback on a moment to moment basis, too. In one beach level, there’s a segment where you have to slowly walk toward a giant ceiling fan. As the steps become more difficult and your movement slows, the rumble slowly increases.
A later level has Astro sliding and skating around on ice. You can imagine — and probably hear in your head — what the sound of skating on ice is like. In Astro’s Playroom, that sensation actually comes through the controller.
It doesn’t change much gameplay wise in this particular scenario, and how much utility this vibration has more broadly really depends on the creativity of individual developers. For instance, Nintendo’s HD rumble is advanced enough that the Australian devs behind Golf Story used it as a speaker.
Could we see that with the Playstation 5? It’s hard to say, but every part of the Dualsense certainly supports some kind of feedback. Even the touchpad has a surprising degree of responsiveness. There’s a couple of moments, for instance, when Astro jumps into a larger suit. The game doesn’t move forward until you zip the suit up, which is done by swiping up or down on the touchpad. You can swipe faster or slower, too, with the feedback changing throughout.
It’s the kind of thing you’d expect from Nintendo. Even the Dualsense’s physical chassis takes a cue from Nintendo’s Pro Controller — if you look closely at the texturing on the underside of the Dualsense, you’ll see that it’s full of microscopic little Playstation icons.
The homages are sweet, but what matters most is how the tech is used in practice. For Astro’s Playroom, it often varies from one moment to the next. In one scene, Astro transforms into a springy robot and has to navigate by jumping from side to side with the Dualsense’s gyroscrope and the adaptive triggers. Holding down the left or right trigger prompts Astro to generate power for a jump, which also highlights just how much extra resistance can be applied in the triggers.
When you’re in the air, Astro’s movement is controlled not via the D-pad or analog sticks, but the gyro controls. It’s pretty responsive, enough that it immediately made me think about shooters with gyro controls on the PS5. Splatoon 2 won’t ever make the jump, of course. But what would, say, Overwatch 2 be like with gyro controls instead of regular aiming? It’s already possible on the Switch. Blizzard’s already done the hard yards of working out the first iteration, so you can imagine it wouldn’t be too much harder to find a solution for the PS5.
There’s elements using the Dualsense’s microphone, too, in a way that’s awfully reminiscent of the 3DS. The microphone was disabled for the preview; Sony obviously doesn’t want everyone just blowing spittle into a shared controller during the COVID era. But just thinking about the potential immediately reminds me of 3DS games like Hotel Dusk: Room 215, or making music on the The Sims 2 with their weird microphone integrations.
So Astro’s Playroom is a super effective tech demo, although I’m assured by Sony that it’s much more than that. There’s supposedly 5 hours of content, although the first level took me about half an hour to blast through.
The platforming elements aren’t particularly challenging, and most of the gameplay is really just wandering around the environment, seeing what you can and can’t interact with, and just enjoying the different sensations of the DualSense throughout. You can tell the developers had a lot of fun making it though, particularly with all the references and Easter eggs to classic Playstation’s franchises throughout.
What Astro’s Playroom isn’t is a full showcase of the PS5’s graphical power, or a full window into what the next-gen consoles can do. There’s definitely some innovation in how Astro’s Playroom uses the haptic feedback of the controller, for sure. But the game doesn’t answer questions around level design. What happens when consoles don’t have to implement fake corridors and winding paths to buy time for assets to load in the background? And what are all the ways ray-tracing can factor into the next-gen consoles? What difference does the 3D audio make?
Astro’s Playroom features none of that, and headphones (again because of COVID) weren’t used during our preview. I couldn’t discern whether the console got particularly loud or hot during gameplay — it simply wasn’t stressed far enough.
But as a showcase for the PS5 Dualsense controller, Astro’s Playroom was certainly effective. It left me wondering how games like Gran Turismo will utilise the adaptive triggers, or the difference in feedback as you race across dirt, gravel, snow, or different weather conditions. What about games like Elite: Dangerous — how will they incorporate force feedback as you inch ever closer to landing? What about Yakuza: Like a Dragon, which hits the PS5 in March 2021? Something as simple as the timing windows for combat would be an obvious area where force feedback and rumble could kick in. But so would all the various mini-games.
Importantly, too: the Dualsense is much sturdier than the DualShock 4. A friend of mine loves making this point often when comparing controllers, in that you can twist and flex the DualShock 4 slightly by gripping it tightly on either end. The PS5 Dualsense is a bit bulkier feels more solid as a unit, and so it naturally holds up better under more pressure. The bulk makes it a little more ergonomic, too, so if the DualShock 4 was a little too small for you, you’ll be much happier with the Dualsense.
And if you’re worried about accessibility — or games overusing the tension on the adaptive triggers — then you should know that the tension can be adjusted at a system-wide level. The Sony representative explained to me that there are three settings for the strength of the adaptive triggers, and that my session had them set to the strongest setting, although I wasn’t allowed to dig through the UI to see where those settings could be changed (or what difference the changes make).
Anyway, we’ll probably have to wait for years until we can really see what the Dualsense is capable of. Most developers still have to get accustomed to the PS5’s hardware, before exploring things like bespoke controller integrations. But as a stock gamepad, I’d happily and comfortably play regular games with the PS5 Dualsense — and I’m fascinated to see how well it works not just in other PS5 games, but as an alternative for PC and mobile gaming too.