After a lot of hype and an awkward Super Bowl ad, Sony Ericsson finally introduced the Xperia Play to the world at Mobile World Congress 2011. Since then, however, we've yet to get a proper gaming impression of the phone, at least until this afternoon, when a few CNET editors headed over to a Sony event to get their hands on it. Our colleague Dan Ackerman had a chance to handle it, too, and compared the gaming experience with that on the iPhone. Here, we'll focus a bit more on the feel of the controls.
It's clear that even though the Xperia Play is not technically a "PlayStation Phone," Sony made great pains to emulate the PlayStation controls with the Play. You get two four-way directional pads--one with the usual D-Pad arrows and the other with Sony's own buttons--along with left and right shoulder buttons, plus the Select and Start keys. These keys act and feel as expected--they press down easily and are spaced evenly apart so that I wasn't scrambling to find the right button, much like how it feels on my PlayStation controller at home. The overall heft of the phone is much thinner and lighter than that of the PSP, which makes it feel a bit more fragile at first. I soon got accustomed to that however, and managed to immerse myself in the game (It was Gameloft's Asphalt 6).
The biggest problem with the Xperia Play is its so-called analog controls. Instead of two joysticks, you get two inset touch-sensitive circles, which act as a strange virtual analog control. Obviously this is meant to keep the phone slender, but we wonder if it wouldn't be that difficult to have a flat analog pad similar to the one on the PSP. As you might expect, the touch-sensitive circles just don't have the same physical feedback as real joysticks, and it was a bit of a pain to keep swiping at it when I was maneuvering around sharp corners on the Asphalt race track. However, I unexpectedly grew to really like the touch-sensitive circles for smaller side-to-side movements. In fact, I ended up using the touch-sensitive circle for most of the race, and only going to the D-Pad when I had to drift sharply.
However, I fear the odd touch analog controls have too steep of a learning curve. This was especially apparent when I was playing an RPG called Dungeon Defenders. I had to use both analog controls to move the character and change where it's facing. Adjusting to one touch control was bad enough, but two? I spent quite a bit of time just trying to learn how to get across a room properly, much less learning all the other controls. That said, I don't think the analog controls were so bad in Air Attack, a retro arcade game in which you fly a plane and shoot at enemy aircraft. Sure, it was easier with the physical D-Pad, but it didn't take that long to get used to swiping about on the circle. It seems to me that the analog controls on the Xperia Play are suited to some games more than others. In the end, though, I really prefer a physical analog pad.
The key for me was gameplay immersion. As soon as I got into a game, I was swept in, and the controls were secondary. After a few minutes, my right thumb would hurt after an intense bout of button mashing. I realized that this is rarely the sort of experience that you would get on an iPhone or other smartphone--that sort of visceral physical button experience is missing. Real gamers know that part of the joy of gaming is its intensity--the sore thumbs, the blisters on your hands, the sweat from your palms--and the Xperia Play does deliver at least a little bit of that. It's just a shame that it doesn't deliver more.