Hands-On With the Game-Changer That is PS5’s DualSense

When I’m done with an hour’s worth of Astro’s Playroom, I put my DualSense controller down on the table and I look at it. My brow furrows. My head tilts. I probably look like my Alsatian does when he’s trying to grasp the new dog food commercial on TV. Somebody in the demo room notices this and asks “what?”

“It’s… two things,” I reply, struggling to articulate.

“I was just now thinking about how I’m going to have to spend huge chunks of my reviews talking about how a game FEELS. It also seems to me that critics are gonna have to become a helluva lot more descriptive than ‘the game will do a rumble when you do X’.”

Hands-On with PS5 & DualSense

I’m pretty sure the word ‘rumble’ is going to die of irrelevance this generation, folks. You can probably dasvidaniya ‘vibrates’ as well. Shut the gate on ‘shock’ while you’re at it. Those clumsy words used on their own can no longer convey the wonderful nuance of what a DualSense can really do in your hands. If I was to use any of those three words “as is” in any future PS5 game review, it’d be like trying to inform the readers of Wine Connoisseurs Monthly that the new Sav is going to be “wet to the taste” on their tongue.

In short, it occurs to me that the control pad game has been changed irrevocably. And believe you me: I went into my PS5 demo session mighty jaded. I rolled up to PlayStation Australia like the grizzled, 35-year veteran that I am. I strode through that door already sniffing for smoke, eyeballing for mirrors and keen to unmask some overhyped marketing bullshit.

I expected gimmickry – what I met was a gadget that’s going to be seriously difficult to compete with.

And you’d better believe I’m not the type to use the term ‘game-changer’ lightly. I think the last time I dropped it was when I plonked that first Oculus on my head (and then kissed the sky). I can’t even remember another time when I would have said it before then. The advent of memory cards… maybe? The first time I wrapped my mitts around a dual analogue stick controller?

Without further ado, let me walk you through what I can (per embargo restrictions) share about the experience of playing Astro’s Playroom on PS5. Likewise, it’s important to note that I went into Astro’s Playroom pretty dirty that I was going to be playing a glorified tutorial platformer instead of Spider-Man: Miles Morales.

Even with that bitterness swirling around inside me, I picked up the DualSense controller and was delighted, like a child, in five seconds flat.

Let me try to explain it to you. The title-screen of Astro’s Playroom has this subtle lighting effect around the logo that washes from left to right. Sure enough, I can feel that wave-like pulse trickle from my left palm and fingertips across to my right fingertips and palm. It’s a sensation that’s nothing like the crude brute force of a DualShock 4. If a DualShock tried to achieve something similar, the effect would feel like a clumsy blast of left motor spin, right motor spin. With the DualSense it’s almost like a horizontal shiver that bubbles right across the length of the controller.

While I’m marveling at that, a little Astrobot dude drops down to plonk on each of the letters in the word Playroom before jetpacking off, stage right. This time I feel every individual imprint of his feet across my hands. Eight letters. Eight tiny, unmistakably individual boot steps that do a mini hopscotch “across” one side of my DualSense to the other.

I challenge you to not mutter “wow” when you feel this moment for yourself.

From there I drop into what I’d call a pretty vanilla platforming experience. The visuals are lushly detailed and gorgeous – an idyllic, hyper-saturated beach setting that puts me in the mind of a next-next-gen Sonic Adventure. As I make my way to shore and get my coin securing kleptomania on, a few more sensations ripple through the controller and blow my mind.

First of all, I’m aware of being able to discern – purely through touch – when my Astrobot avatar goes from thumping along a hardwood pier to slogging along a sandy beach. In this case, sharper and way more precise “stabs” of his footfalls give way to duller thuds that feel like they radiate over a slightly wider surface area. It’s also worth noting that the sound coming through the DualSense’s improved controller speaker does a lot to sell these sensations, too.

Curious, I punch a bunch of enemies, hoover up a small collection plate’s worth of coins and go testing out other surface materials. I know these coins will earn me PS-centric collectibles and such, but I’m way more hooked on testing out these haptics.

Sure enough, I find a spot further in the demo that has ground comprised of a white linoleum looking surface that’s also bordered by a substance more approaching polished marble. They feel completely different to walk on. I position my Bot so he can straddle both – to walk along with each of his feet landing on both types of flooring. The subtle differences can be instantly felt on the left and right hemispheres of the DualSense.

Likewise, through the controller I can also feel some stuff that Astro grabs with his arms. A mechanic layers in that effectively asks me to attach grab rope-like objects and yank them backwards out of the ground (think: power cables in the ground or even an enemy’s dreadlock strand of hair). They’re thickly braided things that produce a scraping sensation as they’re dragged. Layered on top of that ‘scrape’ is a distinct bump whenever a new knot of the braid pulls loose from the ground. Very impressive stuff.

I feel something similar in the new L2 / R2 triggers a bit later on. 3D platforming gives way to 2.5D fare that feels like LittleBigPlanet lite. I use the touchpad to physically zip Astro up into a spring suit. As I carefully push my index finger upwards, I feel every individual tooth of this virtual zipper as they links together into a solid, closed chain.

Testing the system, I only do a half zip before removing my index finger from the pad. The metal pulltab drops inertly and I feel this almost imperceptible little clink through the DualSense, right as the metal tab taps against the closed zipper track. I do this, like, six times. It’s the little things that amuse me.

Eventually I do zip into my suit and test out the new adaptive triggers. First of all, an on-screen representation of my real-time inputs reveals that they’re incredibly responsive – the slightest finger tap of a tease gets recognised. In ‘normal’ mode they will feel almost exactly like L2/R2 on your Dualshock 4. In Astrobot’s ‘spring’ mode however, the physical feel of them changes. All of a sudden there’s a millimetre or so of what feels like a deadzone. The rest of the “play” in the trigger feels solidified, roughly twice the usual tension your fingers usual expect when they pull.

The gameplay gist here is to pull in on both triggers as their physical tension increases in tandem with the compression of your on-screen “spring stomach.” Releasing them gives you a decent jolt and pings Astro in whatever direction you dialed in (by tilting the controller left and right). It’s novel stuff…until the bottomless pits and slightly unforgiving checkpointing comes along.

There are other DualSense functions and feelings to speak of, but this article is getting a bit long. Also, covid-19 ruined my ability to test some things.

Quick example; the sections where I was asked to push in the big “microphone enable” button on my DualSense had to be skipped. Having a bunch of journos steer a hovercraft by blowing air (read: saliva) into a shared controller was rightly flagged as a bad idea.

No, what I’m going to do is round this article off with a pretty surprising declaration, Astro’s Playroom has risen greatly in my esteem. It’s gone from being an icon on the PS5 UI that I planned to open once and then try to delete – like that bloody Singstar one on my PS3 – to now being something I’ll play and likely replay many times over.

It’s the collecting of the 90+ PlayStation peripherals that are going to hook me in. I was shown the entirety of them unlocked in my demo, and while I’m not at liberty to go into finer detail, I need to register how impressed I was with the fan-service they represent. The level of detail in their 3D models are off the charts, every niche peripheral you can think of in Sony’s 25 years appears and they all have points of interaction.

Basically, the theme here is: “punch the cool items from your misspent youth to make them open up and/or trigger some slapstick comedy onto unsuspecting Astrobots.”

Secondly, I really think Astro’s Playroom is the perfect proof of concept for the DualSense. I plan on keeping it in close reach, much like I physically do with my PSVR headset on PS4. The concept between these two bits of hardware is kind of similar – they’re both chunks of plastic that somehow magically deliver a ‘there-ness’ experience that can’t be easily explained or quantified to another person in mere words.

My favourite thing to do is to put my PSVR onto the head of any of my wife’s non-gaming pals who visit our house. Without fail, their just faces light up in awe at this new experience. Minds blown. Every. Single. Time.

Pretty soon, I fully expect to be doing something similar by putting a DualSense in their hands instead. The reactions are going to be on par — just as priceless. November 12 cannot come soon enough.

I can’t wait for you to feel how this new generation is going to play out.

Adam Mathew attended a socially distanced hands-on event as a guest of PlayStation.

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Adam Mathew
Adam Mathew
I grew up knowing and loving a ludicrous amount of games, from dedicated Pong console onwards. Nowadays you'll find me covering and playing the next big things. Often on Stupid-Hard difficulty. Because I'm an idiot.

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