Ever since the introduction of dual sticks, video game controllers haven’t changed that much. There’s been the addition of share buttons and some ergonomic tweaks, but the way you interact with and experience games is largely the same. That’s what makes Sony’s DualSense controller so interesting.
Introduced alongside the PlayStation 5, the DualSense is a controller that looks fairly familiar on the surface. But it’s also one that comes with an enticing idea: that the feelings in your hands can further immerse you in a game. The DualSense’s biggest innovations are new haptic vibrations and rear triggers with variable tension, which can do everything from simulate walking on a sandy beach to let you know when your point guard is tired.
When used right, the DualSense actually makes games better.
At its most basic, the DualSense looks like a slightly futuristic take on the DualShock 4, the PS4’s controller. The layout is basically identical, save for some variation in the placement of the share and options buttons, a redesigned home button, and slightly larger triggers and touchpad. It has a built-in microphone and headphone jack, some nice textured grips on the back, and it charges via USB-C. You’ll get roughly the same battery life as with a DualShock; on average, I’ve had to recharge my DualSense after every seven or eight hours of use. (There’s also a separate charging option if you purchase a charging dock for $30.)
From an ergonomic standpoint, the new controller is slightly larger and heavier than its predecessor. It hasn’t bothered me, but it could be an issue for some users. The reason for that change in size, though, is because the biggest changes to the DualSense are under the hood. The controller now offers haptic feedback, similar to a modern smartphone, which means it can create more subtle vibrations to simulate real-world sensations. Along with this are new triggers with variable tension, which means they can offer various degrees of resistance when you press down on them.
That’s a lot of buzzwords. What does it actually mean for games?
Let’s start with the vibrations. Rumbling controllers have been around since the Nintendo 64, but they haven’t offered much variation. Your controller shakes when there’s an explosion or you get punched. It doesn’t usually add much to the experience. The DualSense is different. The controller’s vibrations can be big and brash, like a typical gamepad, but it’s also capable of much more subtle and specific sensations.
The best examples can be found in Astro’s Playroom, a 3D platformer that comes bundled with the PS5. You play as a little robot venturing through a range of environments, and each one offers up different tactile sensations. You can feel the crunch of sand as you walk across a beach, the cracking of glass as you smash through a panel, the pitter-patter of raindrops on an umbrella, or the elastic tension as you pull on a loose cable.
Even more impressive: often, you can feel these sensations coming from different parts of the controller. For instance, a huge gust of wind can come in from the left, and you’ll feel it moving across your hands, while the vibration from footsteps will alternate left and right accordingly. Add in the sound effects from the controller’s built-in speakers, and it can be incredibly immersive. It can make mundane activities, like splashing in a pool of water, into something satisfying.
Of course, while Astro is a great showcase — something akin to what Wii Sports was for motion controls — the PS5 needs more than that for the haptic feedback to become more than a gimmick. At launch, the results are mixed. There are a few other games that make good use of the vibrations, though none are as impressive as Astro. In launch title Bugsnax, for instance, you can feel the light rumble of thunder in the background, letting you know a storm is approaching. And in Sackboy: A Big Adventure, you can feel boulders rolling around you or the pop of a bubble when you jump on it.
Disappointingly, two of the PS5’s biggest launch titles don’t really exploit this feature. Both Demon’s Souls and Spider-Man: Miles Morales have what feel like fairly standard vibrations, which don’t come anywhere near the subtlety of Astro. Demon’s Souls even offers two options — normal versus immersive — but the only difference I could spot was some extra rumbles when you swing your weapon.
The same largely is true for the DualSense triggers. Astro is the best showcase here. When you fire a bow, you’ll feel resistance in the trigger, mimicking the string being pulled back. There are also sequences where you control a spring-powered robot, and you have to press harder to compress the spring and make it jump. Again, the PS5’s other big showcase games don’t make use of this at all. I’ve played hours of both Demon’s Souls and Miles Morales and haven’t experienced anything that utilizes the new triggers yet.
But other developers have already made some creative use of them. My favorite so far is NBA 2K21. If you post up near the rim, the tension activates, so you’ll have to push a bit harder to get into position; the bigger your opponent, the greater the tension. There’s a similar feature to represent stamina. Over the course of a game, players will naturally get tired, and the more exhausted they are, the more tension you’ll feel when pushing the right trigger to sprint. This is especially helpful because it’s a constant physical reminder of the state of each player.
Other games use the triggers more sparingly. In Bugsnax, for instance, you use a camera-like scanning device to search out creatures. In order to scan an animal, you push down on the right trigger, and it gives a satisfying “thunk” as if you were using a disposable camera. I particularly like how Fortnite utilizes the triggers, giving different amounts of tension depending on what weapon you have. Pulling the trigger to fire a pistol will give a little bit of resistance, while an assault rifle requires just a bit more, and a shotgun even more than that. It makes the act of firing a weapon much more tactile.
The hit-and-miss nature of PS5 launch games makes it hard to predict whether the DualSense’s unique features will catch on in the long term. But the potential is there. Astro’s Playroom makes a clear and obvious case for the DualSense, but the one-off features in games like 2K21 and Fortnite also show that the controller can be additive in smaller doses. For now, at least, I’m just excited to play just anything with a bow-and-arrow in it.