The humble game controller has changed an awful lot over the decades. From the blocky NES controller with just a D-pad and two buttons, they spouted prongs to grip onto (the N64, of course, mutated all the way to three), then ballooned in size with the Dreamcast and original Xbox until more sensible heads prevailed, while beginning to rumble, to waggle, and gaining analogue sticks and triggers instead of digital buttons. Now Sony are taking the bold next step with the DualSense, a controller that does all of the above and more.
The two tone design surely won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it matches the PlayStation 5 nicely and follows on from the design direction that the PlayStation VR first hinted at. It is nicely stylised though, giving the look of having white plastic plates bolted onto a smooth matte black core, and will surely lend itself to more custom colour pairings.
But this controller is about much more than looks. Simply put, the DualSense offers a huge leap forward in how much force feedback it gives you. In adopting Linear Resonant Actuator (LRA) vibration motors instead of the traditional rumble motors, it allows for more directional and targeted vibrations to better match the positional events occurring in game and not simply send rumbles through the entire body of the controller. Instead of being either on or off, these motors can vibrate at different strengths, letting the DualSense pull similar tricks to the Nintendo Switch Joy-Con, where tilting it can simulate multiple Astrobots bouncing around inside.
More revolutionary are the Adaptive Triggers, though, able to push back or add resistance as you try to pull them closed. It’s remarkable. Genuinely. The internal gearing doesn’t seem able to create a hard stop – at least not in the PS5 games that we’ve played – but can create the feel of second notch in the trigger as you pull back, a light squeezing texture, or resist and then give in, only to keep the gears spinning to create the kind of violent rumble of the DualShock 4.
The technical gubbins needed to create these new effects have seemingly led to a bulkier form compared to the DualShock 4, and those with smaller hands might find it a touch more unwieldy. Conversely, those with larger hands might find it a bit more comfortable to hold. The triggers have a wider profile, the shoulder buttons are a bit fatter for a more certain press, and all of the face buttons and D-pad directions have the kind of feel as you depress them that you expect from a Sony gamepad. Maybe they’re a shade tighter than the buttons found on the DualShock 4.
The DualSense also lifts a few ideas right out of Nintendo’s playbook. The built in loudspeaker returns from the DualShock 4, seemingly with better audio quality, but it’s now joined by a microphone as well. That’s great for quick and easy voice input for when you’re searching through the PlayStation Store or wanting to send a quick message, for example, but they also potentially have roles to play in game as well. Astro’s Playroom can sometimes having you blowing into the microphone, and that gimmick is joined by Astro’s footstep sounds being piped through the controller as well as through the TV. It can add more dimensionality to the sound, which Sony are pushing with the PS5, but it’s an effect that could easily become obnoxious if overdone. I soon turned the volume down to around 40%.
All of these features are pretty punishing on the battery life. The DualSense sports a battery that’s 1.5x the size of that found in the DualShock 4, but its features push that battery harder, leading to a battery life that’s roughly equivalent. We clocked just over 9 hours of gaming before it died, playing a mix of PS5 and PS4 backward compatibility games.
The other weakness of the DualSense experience comes through playing backward compatibility games on PS5 and the way it translates the vibration patterns intended for the DualShock 4 to the new motors.
It seems to just take each burst of DualShock rumble and outputs it as a half strength buzz in the LRA motors. You get a directional left and right buzz in the grips, but not the nuance that developers learnt how to create for the DualShock 4, where rumble is generated through asymmetrical weights spinning and a single quick on-off pulse could create a gentle nudge compared to a full throttle rumble.
So, in GT Sport, where you’re racing down the middle of the track, the DS4 will often send a light single rotation through one of the motors, which the DualSense then presents as an out of place phone-style buzz that’s brief, but is the exact same strength as when you’re riding the kerb. You have the same effect in a shooter like Apex Legends. The weight of a pistol shot is now the same as a machine gun, a jump feels the same as a heavy landing.
This could theoretically be modified in a system update by Sony, but it’s a bit of a disappointment for those eager to revisit PS4 games on the new console, especially when titles like Days Gone and Ghost of Tsushima will now run at 60fps. It’s also surprising when Astro’s Playroom demonstrates the ability to create similar rumble effects through other means. Should Sony revisit this aspect, then great, but until then I’d suggest keeping a DualShock 4 around for your PS4 games.