The PlayStation 4 controller – the DualShock 4 – is the thing that you’ll be playing with most when your new console arrives next Friday, so it felt natural that we’d kick off our week of pre-release PS4 coverage with a closer look at the control pad. It is, after all, the most integral of input devices for the majority of game experiences on the machine.
While the DualShock 3 offered a solid and familiar button layout, aside from the sixaxis controls – our namesake – and wireless functionality, it didn’t really do enough to evolve the design of the PlayStation control system, perhaps due to Sony’s worry of deviating too far away from the tried and tested formula. The “Boomerang” prototype they first showed alongside the PS3 was very poorly received, and they quickly returned to their existing designs.
Now though, Sony just get it. They know control systems, and know what players and developers need to get the most out of their games. It’s a much better fit in the hands for example, with the DS3’s handles now feeling stubby in comparison. And those elongated appendages – perfectly curved for the palms and with a grippier texture than on any other PlayStation controller, for those sweaty palm moments – are just the start of the many improvements that the latest iteration of Sony’s controller brings.
Buttons are naturally one of the biggest factors of any controller and Sony have really made some stunning improvements here. They’re all extremely responsive, with digital rather than slightly spongy analog face buttons making for quicker inputs, despite losing some of the precision with the strength of your tap. Though this didn’t seem to be a widely used feature, we’ll have to wait until further down the line to see how this affects games such as platformers which strive on this subtle form of input.
The digital pad remains much the same – if it ain’t broken, then why try to fix it? – and again, these buttons feel even more responsive and well, clicky, than a DualShock 3, though it’s understandable that this may change over time as years of use wear these down.
It’s really the triggers that are the biggest improvement in terms of button inputs. L1 and R1 remain much the same, though they’re rounded at the front and a bit more exposed, but it’s the back triggers – L2 and R2 – that change the game completely. Not only do these now concave rather than convex, curving up at the back so your fingers remain firmly and comfortably in place, they’re also a lot more springy, and overall a better shape for various genres. For first person shooters, R2 will now be the go-to “shoot” button.
And then there are the two new buttons. Options isn’t much of a change, effectively just replacing the start button but also offering a way to open up option menus on the UI for games and apps, which the triangle button often did before. It’s a smart renaming, and really makes sense, but doesn’t bring much else to the table. Share, however, is a fantastic addition, allowing you to take screenshots, upload videos or broadcast your gameplay at the tap of a button. We’ll be covering those sharing features in a further article so won’t go into full detail right now.
But the biggest and newest button on the DualShock 4 doubles as something that game developers are all quite keen to utilise in some way: simple and intuitive touch controls. With the recent rise of mobile gaming and Sony’s efforts with the PS Vita’s front and back touch inputs, it feels natural that there’s a big space dedicated to swiping, tapping and dragging in the largely empty space in the top middle of the pad.
There’s some real great use of this – while some games treat it as an oversized select button, Killzone Shadow Fall’s single player adapts a quick-select wheel to it, with simple swipe switching between different options for your OWL drone. Assassin’s Creed IV on the other hand utilises it for dragging the map around the screen, with muscular memory leading you to discover the precise pinch to zoom features – it’s certainly more natural than using the sticks, if a bit difficult to get used to.
Those sticks are even better now, fine-tuned to controlling movement with similar advancements in terms of resistance and grip as the triggers. They’re concave which fits the hands much better, without your fingers slipping off so easily, which makes it great for all kinds of games.
The DualShock 4 also brings audio into play, allowing you to directly plug in a microphone, headset or a pair of headphones – even your standard iPhone headphones will work for both sound and chat. Having headphones plugged into the jack negates the need for you to sit closer to the TV while trying to play games in peace as you can reroute all game audio to wirelessly transmit to them through the controller, though the fact that you’re unable to adjust the volume levels via quickly accessible system-wide settings is an oversight, with options in games and apps needed to adjust levels each time.
The built-in speaker offers some smart use of separate audio, something which Nintendo started with the Wii. This means, in Killzone Shadow Fall for example, that audio logs will now play through your controller, essentially creating a more three dimensional form of sound.
My only real worry before spending time with the DS4 was that the lightbar on the top would be far too intrusive, shining against your TV. Thankfully, this is only really a problem while the screen is black, though darkened horror games may suffer through this. What it offers makes it all worthwhile as it frees up some of the HUD in Killzone, which uses it as a visual representation of your health bar, going from green, to yellow and then red depending on how hurt you are. Obviously, it all ties into motion controls, but we’ll cover that when we take a closer look at the PlayStation Camera.
It’s a controller which really works over a variety of genres, with the redesigned triggers and sticks suited to first person shooters such as Killzone or Call of Duty and the responsive face buttons making way for frantic combat systems in platforming adventure games like Knack. The new sound and control options really bring you into the game too, and it’s just a really well thought out experience.
There’s just so much to talk about with the DualShock 4 and it’s only when going through all of them that you realise how many different features there are. That’s the beauty of it – while you’re playing, all of these features combine to create a very natural and familiar method of control, so while it may seem as though there are far too many forms of input, it’s up to games to utilise these well. The touch pad in particular negates the demand for more buttons.
Ultimately, it’s a comfortable experience and after playing for a good while it doesn’t ever become cumbersome to hold. Controllers are essentially the bridge between you and complete immersion in the game world and the DualShock 4 does a great job of this, though it might take some getting used to at first. It’ll be really exciting to see how developers use all the new technology, but rest assured that Sony have crafted a near perfect framework for games to utilise.