But while the console’s design is a futuristic departure from PlayStations past, more relevant to the actual gameplay experience are the changes to the controller, which this time around Sony is calling the DualSense.
This pad is bigger, broader and heftier than the one that came bundled with the PlayStation 4, feeling rounder in the hand, but with the familiar layout we’ve known for 23 years and a larger version of its predessecor’s touch-sensitive central pad. Inside is technology powering several new tricks.
The controller’s vibration feedback has been enhanced dramatically so that, rather than merely shaking, it can deliver a range of nuanced haptic sensations. It’s something like the HD Rumble Nintendo has on its Switch controllers, but even more detailed.
In Astro’s Playroom — a game which is pre-installed on every PS5 and serves as an introduction to the controller’s capabilities — every footstep of your little robotic avatar can be felt in the controller, and the texture changes depending on the material underfoot. You also get a scraping sensation has it skates along ice, or the feeling of dust and debris as it struggles to walk into a desert wind.
The illusion is helped along by sound emitting from the controller’s speaker, which was possible on PS4 but seems to offer a lot more sensory information now it’s paired with tactile feedback. Under the speaker there’s now also a microphone, which Astro’s Playroom asks you to blow into to move a pinwheel but which will realistically mostly be used for quick voice chats when you’re not wearing a headset.
The most impressive new feature is something Sony’s calling Adaptive Triggers, which allows the tension of the L2 and R2 shoulder buttons to change depending on what’s happening in the game. This not only allows for game developers to make the triggers easier or harder to press, but can add tactile information by putting bumps and resistance throughout the travel of the triggers.
For example, imagine you’re kick-starting a motorcycle; the initial push of the trigger might be quite easy, but then you hit a static point and have to push harder to start the engine. Or maybe you’re pulling back a bow, where the action becomes increasingly tighter as you pull and snaps back when you let go. It’s easy to see how the technology could be used not only to enhance the sensation of what you’re doing, but to give you feedback that clues you in to a puzzle’s solution or helps you understand the action required.
In Astro’s Playroom there’s a long section where you need to tilt the controller and pull the triggers to coil and release a robotic spring, and the striated texture of the triggers combined with the vibration and springy sound made for a surprisingly tangible experience. In this specific scenario I did find my index finger got fatigued from the extra tension, so I have to imagine this feature could cause some issues for those with arthritis or other hand mobility concerns, but I’ve confirmed the effects (both the tension and the vibrations) can be lessened or turned off if desired.
Of course, the PS5 is far from the first console to bake gimmicks into its controller, and history would suggest there’s every chance these features could be ignored by the wider development community. Especially where a game is being developed for several systems, creating vibrations and trigger behaviour for the PS5 specifically might not be a major priority. Still, even if the technology only ends up being used in exclusive PS5 games, it adds an interesting new dimension not possible in the previous generation.
Tim is the editor of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald technology sections.