DualSense PS5 controller review: Gamechanger, gimmick or both?

DualSense PS5 controller review: Gamechanger, gimmick or both?

Posted: 27 October 2020 11:00 pm
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DualSense Review F

Sony has dropped the DualShock for the DualSense, a new controller for its PS5 console packed with next-gen features. But will they get used?

New console launches are often quite underwhelming. There's so much anticipation and expectation that they have little chance of living up to the hype. Especially as existing consoles are on their last legs; grey hairs sprouting from their ports. The promise of more power, better visuals and bigger worlds is so exciting. And then…

And then you play a cross-generation title on launch day and it all feels a bit "meh".

It can often take a year or more for the "next-gen" to come to next-generation gaming. For developers to make games that aren't trying to have a foot in two generations during the transition, learn how to really harness a console's power and establish a fluent dialogue between their software and the new hardware. That's the nature of the beast.

It's why I love the DualSense. It's a game changer for the PlayStation 5 and its battle against the Xbox Series X.

Sony's brave decision to scrap over 20 years of DualShock success and effectively start again with the DualSense instantly pays off because it feels next-generation straight away. Not in a year. You experience it the instant you feel that Haptic Feedback kick in or try to squeeze those Adaptive Triggers. You know it the moment you hear sound transition across the device or issue a voice command to the user interface.

It's impossible to be underwhelmed because the experience is new and fresh and immersive. It matters. But whereas gaming will only become grander as the generation rolls on, I'm left wondering if the DualSense will keep up. There's a risk it could head the other way and fade from game changer into gimmick.

Sony DualSense PS5 Controller

With Haptic Feedback, Adaptive Triggers, 3D Audio speakers + moreBuy at Amazon

What's great about the DualSense PS5 controller?
As mentioned in my PS5 review, the DualSense is more than just marketing talk. Sony has taken the DualSense controller so far beyond the capabilities of the DualShock 4, you can't use the latter to play PS5 games at all. It's just not up to chop, and it doesn't take long to feel why.

The concept of "feel" is vitally important here. The DualSense controller is all about getting across the tangible feel of not just a game's world, but your interactions with it. We can see the world, we can hear the world, and now we can feel the world. And it works.

I tested the DualSense using Astro's Playroom, a built-in platformer free to every PS5 owner that doubles as both game and tech demo. It's designed to show off what the new controller can do.

Haptic Feedback

The strength of the Haptic Feedback, which you can loosely think of as next-gen Rumble, is felt right from the main menu. Just scrolling between options comes with a violent kick; Sony's way of letting you know that Haptic is powerful.

In-game though, the technology starts to shine as soon as you move about on different surfaces. As each foot of your little Astro Bot falls onto the ground as you walk along, a sensation reaches your hands. It varies depending on what the surface is and how hard you hit it. When walking on soft grass, the effect is subtle; on metal it is sharp; on ice, it feels like you're sliding a blade across a frozen surface. It's stunning.

This is especially so given how the vastly improved speakers in the DualSense add to the sensation with a sound equally as fitting.

DualSense Review 2

Adaptive Triggers

It's joined in most of these moments by the Adaptive Triggers. This feature sees the pressure required by your fingers to squeeze the triggers impacted by the action in the game itself. In Astro's Playroom, you find little coloured ropes in places you can pick up and pull. At first, you don't need to squeeze hard as you gather in the slack on these ropes, but as your character strains to yank the rope hard enough to pull it free, so must you on the triggers. The effect is awesome.

Elsewhere, the Adaptive Triggers are combined with the motion controls as the hero character dons a suit giving him springy legs. By pulling on the triggers you can draw the Astro Bot down and it becomes tougher the more you squash the springs towards the ground. You can feel the pressure release as you let go of the triggers, watching as the character shoots into the sky angled in the direction you've motioned the controller. Again, this is sublime, and furthermore, it's accurate. Within minutes I was piloting my Astro Bot across platforms like it was a Mario game.

It's important to note that the bumpers are not Adaptive Trigger enabled. They do have a more trigger-like feel than what we saw in the DualShock 4 and that's welcomed, but they don't get the full Adaptive Trigger treatment.

It's worth noting that the Adaptive Triggers and Haptic Feedback features will also both appear in the new PSVR 2 controllers.

Evolving the DualShock

There's nothing new about speakers in a controller, but I've never heard them sound this good and on-point with the gameplay. Gameplay that involves you talking to the in-built mic or interacting with it in other ways, such as blowing on it, is also old news. It's great you can do it, but it's hardly going to rock the boat of most hardened gamers.

In fact, most gamers will love combining the mic with the new Create button (which replaces Share) to do a voice-over of their best gaming moment before uploading.

The touchpad, like the motion controls, is also back from a successful run in the DualShock 4. The touchpad feels more clicky; more robust; more accurate. It's an underutilised feature, but I'm personally a big fan and hope it can find more consistent use during this generation. But in truth, none of these elements feels as fresh as the Haptic Feedback and Adaptive Triggers.

Gamers may be more split on the move to transparent covers for the D-pad and face buttons. The iconic coloured shapes are gone, while the D-pad has lost its central pivot point to become, effectively, four close-proximity individual buttons. I'll have to update this review on the functionality of the new-look D-pad when more games become available that lean on it for quick, accurate movements. But in terms of the overall aesthetic of clear button approach, I love it. It's elegant, and it feels good to press.

Together, the Haptic Feedback, Adaptive Controls, mic and improved speakers change the way gaming feels in a meaningful way. The DualSense may be expensive, but at least you can see where your money is going.

DualSense accessibility options

The PS5 console has multiple features to help make it accessible to the widest range of players. That extends to the controller. There's a voice to text feature, that allows you to speak into the controller to type a message on screen. And vice-versa, you can write a text message using the touchpad and it will be converted to speech for your party members to hear.

The Haptic Feedback and Adaptive Trigger technology can also be turned off. So, if it's providing discomfort or making gaming more challenging for a user, it can be deactivated.

It's worth noting that the curvier edge to the DualSense makes it compatible with a larger range of hands sizes, too. Below I mention that is a minor negative for those with large hands, but I also have kids and it's great for them!

What's bad about the DualSense PS5 controller?

As mentioned, at $110 the DualSense isn't cheap. This wouldn't be such a dramatic issue if old DualShock 4s were compatible with PS5 games. However, the changes in the DualSense technology mean that's not possible. As far as making use of old DualShock 4 controllers on your PS5, that's restricted to just backwards compatible PS4 games.

What does this mean? In short, if you want to play local multiplayer, there's no way around buying a second (or third, or fourth) DualSense.

The controller's new shape also may take a little getting used to for existing PlayStation fans with big hands. The new shape is very comfortable on the palms and has a nice weight to it; it's so snug you'll have no problems with mammoth gaming sessions. But its curvier shape means your fingers tend to wrap around it more than they did on a DualShock 4.

I have big hands, approximately 19.5cm from the tip of my rude finger to the start of my wrist. My fingers come over the triggers to a point where everything past the first knuckle is hanging over. While this didn't impact my ability to hit the triggers, shifting up to the bumpers felt a bit awkward. I feel it will take some getting used to for some gamers, especially as veterans will need to retrain their instincts now the bumpers aren't as far away from the triggers as they once were.

It's worth noting as well that no paddles come on the DualSense. There was a suggestion at the end of the PS4 generation that Sony was leaning in that direction after it released the DualShock 4 Back Button Attachment. I do feel that is a more niche requirement and most gamers don't need extra buttons to think about, so it's not a great omission.

However, accessing the touchpad in-game still doesn't have that organic, natural movement to it. It still feels like you have to reposition your hand off the sticks or the triggers for a costly microsecond to use it. And I fear it means this great feature may be generally overlooked yet again.

Your move, developers

Which is the overall general worry I have with the DualSense. A worry only time will be able to confirm or squash. Will all these great features actually be utilised meaningfully by developers? We've seen so much great tech go to waste in gaming's history, it has me nervous. Just look at Kinect! It was being used by doctors for surgical procedures for crying out loud, but all gamers got was a dancing Han Solo.

We can rest safe in the knowledge that Sony's first-party games will be a joy on the DualSense, but will third-party developers put in the effort? There are already over a hundred games announced for PS5. When they are making multiformat games, will they invest in giving PlayStation players an enhanced experience by coding specific Haptic and Adaptive Trigger moments into their game? Controller sounds into their audio? Motion controls? And if they do, will it be a generic one-line-of-code-fits-all application. Or will it be meaningful to specific moments?

History has taught us that such innovations can have short shelf lives in gaming before they become gimmicks. Bullet points on the back of shovelware games looking to lure unsuspecting parents. I don't want to be cynical. I want to believe. And I hope Sony holds not just its own studios, but all developers, to a quality standard that lets the DualSense shine in each and every game.

PlayStation 5 pre-order guide

Is the PS5 DualSense controller any good?

Sony can deservedly crow about its achievements with the DualSense controller. It brings with it a new experience that doesn't just change the way you play a game, but the way you're immersed in a game's world. That's a big win and one that, in my opinion, justifies the increased price tag over what we've seen with previous controllers.

But in truth, the legacy of the DualSense will sit with the third-party developers building games for Sony's console. Will they use its amazing features in meaningful ways consistently? Or will its great technological advancements fade into gimmickry?

I asked at the start of this review whether the DualSense was a game changer or a gimmick and the answer is, it's both. Blowing into a mic to impact the game world and moving your controller through space to interact with an object is a gimmick that's been with us, mostly ignored, for a decade or more. But when combined with Haptic Feedback, Adaptive Triggers and nifty little speakers, the DualShock has all the potential to be a true game changer.

I hope that potential is realised.

DualSense Review 1

Where to buy a DualSense controller

The DualSense controller can be purchased from all the likely suspects, both online and in-store. In Australia, EB Games, JB Hi-Fi and Big W are expecting to have stock. Online you can add everywhere from Joyce Mayne to Dick Smith and the OzGameShop into the mix. But don't expect to save much money as there is little margin in the controllers. The only store we've seen consistently offering a slightly better price when it comes to PS5 related products is Amazon.

PS4 DualShock vs DualSense controller

The DualShock 4, as great a controller as it is, always did feel a bit cheap and flimsy. That bright lightbar, generally weightless feel and plastic finish did it no favours. The DualSense, on the other hand, feels substantial. Its body is more ergonomic and it has a hard, heavy feel to it that imparts an immediate sense of power. Yet it's also extremely comfortable to hold for small and big hands alike.

Its rounder shape does lend itself well to more hand sizes, but those with bigger hands may feel a little more compromised hitting the bumpers than they did on the DualShock 4. It's worth noting that the loss of the lightbar does also mean the PS5 controller is no good for VR.

While a part of us is sad to wave goodbye to the DualShock, there's no turning back from the DualSense. There's a definite sense of progression with the new controller.

List of games that use DualSense features

The following is a round-up of what developers have expressed regarding their intentions to use the DualSense controller. This is a guide only and could only represent their goals rather than fact, or only a part of what studios intend to include.

Game Haptic Feedback Adaptive Triggers What developer has confirmed
Astro's Playroom Yes Yes Effectively a DualSense tech demo.
Bugsnax Yes Yes Will feel difference in terrain through Haptics.
Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War Yes No Plan to support.
Deathloop No Yes Triggers simulate weapon jamming.
Demon's Souls Yes No Haptics used in boss battles to convey the impact of a parry.
Destruction AllStars Yes Yes Triggers give different experiences for each car, while Haptics carries across impact of ramming.
Devil May Cry 5 Special Edition Yes Yes Haptics will provide different feels for different weapons.
DiRT 5 Yes Yes Plan to support.
FIFA 21 Yes No Plan to support.
Ghostwire: Tokyo Yes Yes Triggers simulate recoil and Haptics textured surfaces.
Godfall No Yes Features used to get across different weapons without looking and to help in spatial awareness.
Goodbye Volcano High Yes No Haptics used to show difficulty of decisions in-game.
Gran Turismo 7 Yes Yes Triggers simulate acceleration and braking, while Haptics reflect car vibrations.
Heavenly Bodies Yes Yes Has confirmed support.
Hood: Outlaws & Legends Yes No Has confirmed support.
Horizon Forbidden West No Yes Triggers used to help players identify different weapons.
Immortals Fenyx Rising Yes No Plan to support.
Jett: The Far Shore Yes No Strong focus on Haptics.
Madden 21 Yes No Plan to support.
Maneater Yes Yes Plan to support.
Marvel's Avengers Yes Yes Plan to support.
Marvel's Spider-Man Remastered Yes Yes Plan to support.
Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales Yes Yes Haptics uses to add to superhero powers.
MXGP 2020 Yes Yes Plan to support.
NBA 2K21 Yes Yes Adaptive Triggers will simulate energy/fatigue and Haptic will be felt with collisions.
Nour: Play With Your Food Yes Yes Plan to support.
Oddworld: Soulstorm No Yes Triggers used to simulate struggle.
Overcooked! All You Can Eat Yes Yes Plan to support.
Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart No Yes Triggers differ in pressure between weapon fire modes.
Returnal Yes Yes Triggers differ in pressure between weapon fire modes.
Ride 4 Yes Yes Triggers simulate pedal presses and Haptics car vibrations.
Rock Band 4 No No Uses microphone for singing.
Sackboy: A Big Adventure No Yes Triggers convey weight when carrying and effort when using grappling hook.
Solar Ash TBC TBC Plan to support.
The Pathless Yes Yes Triggets will simulate the tension of the bowstring and Haptics help with the timing of shots.
Watch Dogs: Legion Yes Yes Adaptive Triggers used for "hand-tuned responses."

Does the DualSense use batteries?

No, it does not. Like the DualShock 4, the DualSense is charged via USB or in the DualSense Charging Station. It's USB Type-C this time, however. There are pros and cons to this system. It's a much more environmentally friendly approach than churning through hundreds of AA batteries that's for sure. But, it does mean you regularly need to tether your DualSense to the console, which has a tendency to happen at the least opportune moments.

How long does a DualSense charge last for?

Around 7 to 10 hours we're told. It depends on how intensively the games being played make use of features like Haptic Feedback and Adaptive Triggers. That's a decent jump on what we got out of a DualShock 4 controller. However, it's still quite a bit less than what the Xbox Series X controller gets out of AA batteries.

Should Sony make a PlayStation Move 2.0 controller?

Way back in 2010, Sony introduced the PlayStation Move controller and it remains not only a compatible accessory for the PS5, but a vital one. That's because it's the best controller to use when playing virtual reality games with the PSVR headset.

Given the new Haptic Feedback and Adaptive Trigger technology are awesome in normal games, you can only imagine how heroic they would be in VR. With your senses held captive from the real-world, the feel of a game will be so much more intense when you're actually standing in it looking around.

A PlayStation Move 2.0 controller was already well overdue, but now Sony has this fantastic new technology on hand, it's a must.

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