Now that both the PS5 and Xbox Series X are here, it's only natural to compare the two new consoles. We can say, for example, that the Xbox Series X has more powerful specs, the PS5 has better exclusive games at launch and that both consoles are perhaps too big and bulky for their own good. But when it comes to controllers, the PS5's innovative DualSense has absolutely dominated the conversation - even though the new Xbox Wireless controller is, for my money, a much better peripheral.
Check out my colleague Mike Andronico's piece on Astro's Playroom to learn more about the DualSense and its innovative features. Not only does the DualSense look and feel quite different from the DualShock 4; it also offers extremely robust haptics, which can mimic everything from the resistance of a spring to the spinning grains of sand in a desert wind.
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The DualSense is an impressive piece of tech, but does it really add anything to a game? I would argue that the DualSense's haptics, while interesting, put an extra layer of distance between the player and the game. Meanwhile, the Xbox Series X's controller stays laser-focused on what's important: the action on screen and your connection to it.
Xbox Series X controller design
To get a sense of what makes the Xbox Series X controller so good, all you have to do is pick up an first-generation Xbox Wireless Controller, aka the Xbox One controller. The Xbox Series X controller is nearly identical to its last-gen predecessor, from its staggered analog sticks to its long hand grips and colorful face buttons.
In fact, there are only a few differences between the Xbox One and Xbox Series X controllers. The Series X model has textured grips and shoulder buttons, which are more comfortable than their predecessor’s. The D-pad has a more circular design with distinct interstitial buttons. There's also a "share" button in the center of the controller's face, which lets you create screenshots and video clips more easily.
Aside from a few aesthetic touches and a USB-C charging port instead of micro-USB, those are the only differences you'll find between the two controllers. As such, there's no learning curve, and no period of readjustment. You just grab an Xbox Series X (or Xbox Series S; they're identical, aside from color) controller and start playing Xbox games, just as you did before.
There's an argument to be made that Microsoft missed a chance to innovate; after all, look at how different the DualSense is from the DualShock 4. But remember: the DualShock 4 wasn't the standard go-to controller for PC, Mac, Android, iOS and a variety of streaming devices in addition to its home console. The Xbox One controller is arguably the most versatile and user-friendly controller ever made; why would Microsoft change a winning design?
Where the DualSense falls short
Perhaps I'm just set in my ways, but after playing both Astro's Playroom and Spider-Man: Miles Morales with the DualSense, I don't quite get the appeal. The subtlety of the haptic effects is interesting, but it doesn't integrate seamlessly with the games. When I'm tapping along a metallic surface in Astro's Playroom, I stop to consider how the DualSense feels in my hands. When I'm web-slinging through Harlem, I wonder why the right trigger is putting up so much resistance against my finger.
In other words: Every cool thing the DualSense does takes me out of the game, at least for a few seconds.
To get philosophical for a moment, the purpose of a controller is to put as little distance between you and the game as possible. Just as a pianist needs to read sheet music, a gamer needs to focus on the screen. Stopping to consider your input is jarring. It's why great controllers make their layouts easy to memorize. It's also, I'd argue, why great controllers tend toward minimalism rather than cramming in a kitchen sink's worth of features.
The DualSense has innovative haptics, a built-in mic/speaker, a completely redesigned appearance - it's not the kind of thing you can just pick up and immediately intuit. Besides, the DualShock 4 had some legitimate problems - the oversized, underutilized touchpad being one of them - that the DualSense has done nothing to fix.
While Mike and other journalists have argued that developers could do some truly remarkable things with the DualSense in the future, I wonder how many of those features will draw players further into their game worlds, and how many will make them stop and say "Oh, that's cool." The latter can wear out its welcome very quickly.
Xbox Series X imperfections
Granted, Microsoft could have taken this opportunity to fix a few long-standing issues with the Xbox Series X controller. It still relies on disposable AA batteries out of the box, meaning that you'll either have to dish out for an expensive rechargeable battery pack or keep being wasteful. (Let's not think about how many batteries an Xbox controller could conceivably go through in a seven-year console lifespan.) There are no rear-facing triggers, which players have been requesting for a while, and are currently available only on the Xbox Elite controller models. And I personally could have lived without the share button, but I guess we'll see how many players wind up using it.
The Xbox Series X controller is a perfect example of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" design, and that's just fine with me. My opinion about the DualSense seems to be in the minority, and that's fine; after dozens of hours using it, I've gotten used to the new PS5 peripheral, and it's not a bad piece of hardware at all. But given the choice, give me textured grips and simple haptics every time.