After I took my PS5 out of its box and did the predictable “Woah that really is big” (not unlike a poorly-acted scene in an adult movie involving a broken boiler and a towel that won’t stay in place), my eyes fell upon the DualSense controller.
While I was, and still am, torn on the two-tone color scheme, I did like the feel of the new controller. Everything felt solid yet tactile. I liked the look of the clear buttons. The touch bar gave off a nice click. And the addition of a microphone mute button was neat.
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Actually using the DualSense controller with the bundled Astro’s Playroom on the PS5, designed to showcase the new controller’s haptic features is very impressive.
The clever switching between different levels of haptic feedback to communicate the different surfaces Astro is walking on felt fantastic. And there’s the cliché of really being able to feel the difference between walking on sand compared to hard metal surfaces.
The DualSense controller features a mechanism in the triggers that can adjust the resistance in each one to somewhat replicate the direct force needed to, say, pull a trigger on an actual gun. Or they can replicate the crunchy tension of pushing down on a spring before releasing it.
It’s up to developers to make the most of the DualSense haptics. But it’s still a very impressive way to make games actually feel more tactile. As an aside, If you're pondering the PS5 DualSense vs DualShock 4 debate, the new controller comes out on top for sheer innovation alone.
Bigger isn't always better
The more I used the DualSense, though, the more my initial positive impressions lost their sheen. Now before I go any further, I do really like the DualSense controller, and I think it’s probably the best one Sony has ever made; I liked the DualShock 4 but it felt a little cramped with a kinda pointless touch bar.
However, while the DualShock 4 might have been a little small for my taste, the DualSense is now a little too big. While its arms/wings/hand rests fill my palms nicely giving me a solid controller to grip, in action it feels a tad unwieldy.
I found that over time the extra bulk made it a little tiring to use. Everything felt like it was just a little bit of a stretch to reach. And in games like Demon’s Souls where precise movement and well-timed button taps are needed, this isn't ideal.
In comparison, the new Xbox Wireless Controller bundled with the Xbox Series X hit that perfect sweet spot of feeling substantial but still economic for precision control; of course, I have a preference for asymmetrical joysticks, so I might be a bit biased here.
In some ways, using the DualSense is like sitting on a plush sofa at a nice hotel — it’s initially comfortable but lacks the familiarity of your regular spot. And that makes the controller a tad difficult to get on with over extended gaming sessions.
This became clear to me when playing Hitman 3. This final instalment in the rebooted Hitman trilogy is stuffed with excellent environmental and level design — so much so that I spend a disproportionate amount of time poking around in missions area rather than assassinating targets in creative ways.
But while I can play an open-world game like Red Dead Redemption 2 on an Xbox Wireless Controller for hours on end, after a lengthy Hitman 3 mission on the PS5, I didn't feel like pressing on. I attribute that to the DualSense controller being a little tricky to get comfortable with, not the game.
Maybe I need more time with the controller. After all, the PS5 is only three months old. And without a huge amount of true exclusive games to play at this stage, or PS5 indie games, I’ve been bouncing between it and various other gaming platforms.
Hampered by haptics
But then we have the tricky issue of the advanced haptics on the DualSense. As clever as they are, and they are very smart, they can be a bit distracting.
My colleague and gaming guru Marshall Honorof has mentioned this when the PS5 launched last November. I had initially thought he was being a little fussy, being a very keen gamer compared to me, a filthy casual. But Hitman 3 shot home his critique of the DualSense.
When things go wrong in Hitman 3, such as a botched attempt to knock out a guard in order to literally steal the clothes off their back, they go wrong in a big way. This means the hide-in-plain sight game turns into a chaotic shoot out with masses of heavily-armed security guards encroaching on a rather ill-equipped follicly-challenged assassin.
Now Hitman 3 isn’t designed for fast-paced third-person shooting. But it still uses the DualSense’s haptics to put resistance on the right-hand trigger when you come to fire a gun. In this case, unlike other controllers, when you pull the trigger, a round isn't immediately fired off. Rather, there’s some tension and you have to hit an actuation point for Agent 47 to start making the lead fly.
It’s smart and a very cool feature, that adds a little more realism to a game about cloned agents of death. But because it’s something radically different from the precise yet simpler haptics on the Xbox Wireless controller, I started thinking about the feedback being applied rather than becoming immersed in the action.
Coupled with the soupy feeling movement and aiming of Agent 47, this made it difficult to pull off a precise headshot while under pressure.
I’m not very good at games in general — just ask our audio editor James Archer, who’s literally shouted at me for poor Apex Legends performance. But in one instance I emptied the magazine of a submachine gun at an alerted guard only to miss: Every. Single. Shot.
I’m bad, but not that bad. And I blame the DualSense’s trigger tension serving as a distraction and thus the ruination of my already shoddy aim.
There's a very distinct stutter-step in my mind when I pull a DualSense trigger in Hitman 3. The lack of smooth actuation, as was the case with controllers of yore, and a sudden push back of tension monetarily yanks me out of the game and back into my basic and cold apartment. I’m no longer an elite sanctioned murderer, but a slightly overweight man wrapped up in a blanket.
By the time my mind is back in the game, I’ve overcompensated with my aim and seconds later get riddled with enemy bullets.
Sorry DualSense, but I'll stick with the Xbox Wireless Controller
After a while, I got used to this, and the advanced haptics started to feel good without stealing my attention. But as soon as I go and use another controller, I have to effectively relearn to take these DualSense features in my stride. So while I really like the DualSense controller, I just don’t love it, at least not yet.
Now, all this could be on me. Those of you lucky enough to have found where to buy the PS5, may be utterly in love with the DualSense.
I'm thrilled Sony did something new with its PS5 controller, while the Xbox Series X’s Wireless controller simply got the smallest of tweaks and is arguably a bit dull.
However, familiarity might breed contempt in other aspects of life, but when it comes to gaming, I simply can’t ignore the wonderfully familiar and comfortable feeling of using the Xbox Wireless controller.
Thanks for being boring with it, Microsoft. Sony, let's see what you can do with the PS5 Pro.