By: Patrick Morris
Since the release of the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series X something that has been repeated over and over again is that the DualSense controller is the most "next gen" thing about the ninth generation of consoles. Before using the DualSense I would say that if Microsoft would just make an Elite Series 3 with the haptic feedback, resistive triggers, and gyroscope of the DualSense that would be the best controller of all time, but my mind has been changed. After getting my PS5 several months ago and using the DualSense for more than a hundred hours not only do I disagree with the positive consensus but I would even say that the DualSense is the worst new controller since the Dreamcast.
Quick disclaimer, I know that my feelings on and complaints about the DualSense are almost entirely subjective based not only on my feelings about the controller but also the shape and size of my hands. If it works perfectly for you making it your favorite controller ever that's great. But basically all reviews are subjective so let's just keep that in mind moving forward.
The DualSense is jam packed full of pretty advanced features but unfortunately the long list that is the feature set is almost entirely subpar. The touchpad that was almost never used on the DualShock 4 makes a return on the DualSense and thus far has proven to be nearly equally as useless. The built in speaker is another returning feature from the DualShock 4 that is proving to be just as pointless as it was in the controller's predecessor. The size of the speaker driver is constrained by the fact that it has to fit into a controller and the quality of that driver is compromised by the cost of production and the MSRP of the controller itself resulting in an obnoxious sound that always feels more gimmicky than additive.
Two of the headlining new features of the DualSense are the haptic feedback motors and the resistive triggers. Haptic feedback is great in theory and could be great in practice but even first party studios have been unable to shake off the heavy handedness required to communicate information with a traditional rumble motor that they have become accustomed to over decades of game development. As a result the finer feedback made possible by precision haptic motors placed throughout the controller is completely lost making a feature that should feel truly next gen feel more akin to a traditional rumble motor.
Resistive triggers were the prominent stand out when the new and returning features of the DualSense were detailed. In theory the potential that resistive triggers bring to the table is enormous, regrettably it seems as though that for now that potential remains theoretical. Trigger's are one element of every controller in which Sony has always struggled to compete in any meaningful way, but the triggers on the DualSense are excellent. Sony has clearly learned over the generations what it takes to make a great trigger; their shape cradles your finger, the travel distance and path are both finely tuned to be not too long but also not too short and to guide the finger in the perfect curve upon the pull. Where the triggers run into problems is in the resistance. Developers are able to implement different levels of resistance at different points of the pull but what final result ends up being is a well made and well executed trigger feeling significantly worse than it actually is by over complicating something that has been refined for decades. It's yet to be seen whether or not developers will be able to fine tune the way in which they use the resistive triggers to make them more effective but as they stand now they're an underbaked feature working in the detriment to the overall experience of the controller.
While the majority of the newly added features to the DualSense are all subjectively good or bad one stands out as anti-consumer. Adding a built in microphone to the controller not only makes for a worse pack-in chat experience but also the way that it's been implemented is Orwellian at best or both Orwellian and invasive at worst. Upon powering the console and controller on the microphone is on and listening by default. It's possible to change this behavior for the microphone to be off upon powering everything on but the fact that it's on by default requires action that a lot of player's wont take. Just in case you have a PS5 and want to change this setting, here's how you do that really quickly. Sony released a system update in October of 2020 after which players were met with a message that stated:
"We want PlayStation Network to be fun for everyone, which is why we have a Community Code of Conduct. Please be aware that voice chats in parties may be recorded and sent to us by other users. By participating in voice chats, you agree to your voice being recorded. When behaviors that violate the Community Code of Conduct are reported, PlayStation Safety will review the reports to check if there have been genuine violations. These recordings will be used only for safety and moderation purposes by PlayStation Safety."
To be clear I don’t foster any delusions of grandeur, I am in no way under the impression that Sony has any interest in the goings on of my life. But if they are to be believed the best case scenario would result in Sony policing the speech of the users on their platform that will almost certainly be enforced by AI review which as we all know never leads to stifling of the discussion of important issues or mistaken suspensions or bans. And worst case scenario all of that is true and additionally Sony is data mining conversations to sell that data to advertisers. The DualSense's integrated microphone is the single most disturbing part of the controller.
One of the biggest hurdles to overcome when implementing major new hardware features always becomes third party support. Regardless of how good any hardware feature is if it specific to one platform the odds of third parties embracing it are slim to none. As the industry grows publishers are increasingly looking to provide a standardized experience across all platforms. That combined with the fact that developers would have to invest money in developing minor platform specific features that wont radically change the experience leads me to believe that these features will be largely ignored by third parties in the same way the DualShock 4's touchpad and the Xbox One's haptic triggers were last generation.
Features arent the only problems the DualSense has, ergonomically the controller is a bit of a nightmare. I've been playing video game's literally since before I can remember but based off a lack of ergonomic design and radically different controller shapes my grip wasn’t solidified until I was playing the Nintendo Gamecube day in and day out. As a result of this my natural grip that I have to this day is with one finger up on the shoulder buttons on the left and two fingers up on the right. This was never a problem for me with any subsequent controllers until the Xbox one with the aggressive carve of the trigger. Fortunately the asymmetrical stick layout combined with the angle of the handles were able to overcome the difficulty of adapting my natural grip making for a very natural feeling hold…the DualSense doesn’t fare so well.
For a very long time the argument between symmetrical and asymmetrical sticks was seen as a personal preference but after nearly two decades the general consensus seems to favor the asymmetrical layout. While they may have been a PlayStation mainstay since the 90's, by continuing to insist upon the symmetrical Sony appears to be stuck in the past and unwilling to adapt. Giving the most naturally prominent position to the directional pad, an input that hasn’t been used as the primary movement system since the middle of the fifth generation, as opposed to the left stick Sony set the stage for ergonomic difficulty. The result of this decision is one that strains the left thumb to reach the stick rather than placing the stick in the place where the thumb naturally falls. If the dpad and left stick were to trade positions the thumb on the stick would be able to naturally work with the palm and fingers on the back to hold the controller more securily allowing the right hand more freedom to move between the right stick and face buttons.
Had the sticks been asymmetrical the handles wouldn’t have been a problem, but as they were symmetrical it made the handles suddenly stand out as a weak point. Historically controller handles are never either perfectly round nor do they have any hard edges. The handles on the DualSense are mostly round but where the tips of the fingers rest naturally there is a seam that is not rounded but instead features a sharp edge, and that sharp edge continues down the inside of the handle all the way to the bottom where it digs into both the palm and the pinky making the controller very uncomfortable to hold. Gone are the continuously round dull ended handles of the DualShock 4 replaced by something that is a significant step down in both comfort and functionality.
Aside from all of the issues with the feature set and ergonomics the DualSense has other shortcomings as well. The light bar introduced in the DualShock 4 was originally intended to work in tandem with the PlayStation camera for quality of life improvements like split screen orientation based off where players are seated in the room. No developers implemented those quality of life features or anything similar that used the light bar in any meaningful way, as a result it has been relegated to a thin strip of light surrounding the touchpad. While the sentiment around this change was sensible it is still a feature that is consuming battery life while providing no improvement to the end user experience. The PlayStation d-pad continues to be one of the worst d-pad's on the market, and the analog sticks still being not entirely concave means they still fall short of the Xbox sticks, also the ridges of the sticks could be much better. And finally the battery life is atrocious.
But the controller isn't all bad, there are a few good things to discuss and even a few things that are undeniably better than the competition. The share button has been significantly improved from the previous generation making screenshots easier for the masses and gameplay capture significantly more approachable and accessible. An internal battery is still the best way to go, while it may degrade over time it still will create less waste than disposable batteries and less hassle than recharagable's over the life of the controller. USB-C is reaching critical mass and charging via USB-C is something that, at this point, shouldn’t be praise worthy but I will continue to do so until every single device is charging via USB-C (looking at you Apple, Logitech, and Steel Series). And every single controller ever made from this point forward should have a gyroscope.
Despite how incredible everyone has been saying the DualSense is I cant help but feel as though it's one step forward and three steps back. Sony may have fixed a few problems with the DualShock 4 but they've created more problems than they solved. As the DualSense has fallen flat in so many ways I can only hope that Sony is working on some sort of analog to Microsoft's Elite controller that will fix these issues, I'll be there to buy it day one just to stop having to use the DualSense.