GDC11: Xperia Play Hands-On

When I found the Xperia Play on the exhibition floor at GDC 2011, I almost couldn’t believe it. The mythical Playstation Phone, here, in the wild — available to actually play.

I grabbed a spot at the table and picked up the phone, which has a slide-down game pad where other phones place a keyboard. The rest of the phone is a lot like other Xperia models, with an Android 2.3 Gingerbread operating system and a touchscreen.

It was the game pad that concerned me, and I wasn’t disappointed. The Play feels great in your hands, taking all the right cues from mobile gaming and marrying them with the things Sony learned from years of good controller and portable design. The buttons, too, are soft and highly responsive. There’s nothing cheap about the way the hardware reacts under your thumbs, and that’s a great feeling.

My interactions with the touch screen were a little more limited. I wasn’t able to figure out how to quickly switch between game pad and touchscreen controls in-game, which was a bummer. Certainly there’s a way to do it, but I couldn’t figure it out. In the meantime, though, the touchscreen was reactive with the game pad out, so controls that are screen-only still work just as well as they otherwise would have.

The first game I tried was Bruce Lee: Dragon Warrior, a 2.5D fighting game that has been available on other mobile platforms, like Apple’s iOS, for about a year. I promptly got my ass handed to me in the very first fight — I’m not much for fighting games anyway — and that was frustrating, but the controls felt really solid while I was getting pummeled. Bruce Lee handled as if he was coded with the Xperia Play in mind: the phone’s controls work and feel just as well as any other standard handheld.

Dragon Warrior also looked a lot better than it does in its iOS version, which was a plus, although it wasn’t stunning in graphical terms. But it’s clear the Play does have some power behind it, and its visuals are respectable — if not earthshaking.

Giving up on Dragon Warrior, I moved to one of Gameloft’s preloaded Xperia Play games, Star Battalion, a third-person space piloting game. Accompanied by a pair of wingmen, I took on a group of huge spider-like walker machines in a skirmish not unlike the Battle of Hoth, right down to the snowy landscape.

Here, the Play really excelled. Responsive controls made piloting a blast and extremely easy, with the buttons and the ship reacting exactly the way they were supposed to. Gameloft has made use of all four face buttons along with the Play’s shoulder buttons, so I had all the capabilities I’d normally have on a portable. Add in the occasional touchscreen functionality and there was a lot of control to be had for Star Battalion.

Easily the best part about the Play is that it utterly vanquishes virtual controls, which may well be the bane of mobile gaming. Buttons represented on a touchscreen are universally terrible, although less so in some games than in others. But they always weaken the experience: They crowd up the screen with interface and your thumbs, making it difficult to play the game. There’s also the loss of tactile sensation, making actually using the controls a pain.

The Play is the answer to all those concerns, and it really does a lot to elevate mobile gaming. Combining tactile controls with the touchscreen basically gives players the best of both worlds and makes every game currently available on the Android Market a whole lot easier and more rewarding to play. There’s a perfect way to play mobile games, and right now, the Xperia Play is it.

I did have one complaint about the control scheme, however. In addition to a standard directional pad, the Play includes two touch-sensitive pads that serve as analog sticks. These just feel…well, weird is about the best way to describe it. They’re meant to simulate sticks, and are therefore flush with the game pad, but the way they work is a little counterintuitive. You’re supposed to use them as though there are sticks beneath your fingers, which would move with them. So ideally, your thumb stays in the middle and then push up or down as if you were tilting the control sticks.

This is fine in theory, but in practice, it seems to contradict the way touch and fingers are built to understand tactile control. I was constantly tempted to swirl my thumb sideways over the stick as if I was spinning something, or to push redirect as though I was using a regular touchscreen. There really wasn’t enough time to train my brain to pretend there were sticks beneath my thumbs, and so I found the virtual sticks more or less useless or confusing. With a little more time I’m sure I could get used to them, just as I did when analog sticks first hit the market. But on the show floor, they were too alien and counterintuitive.

Still, I greatly enjoyed the little time I got to spend with the Play. Here’s hoping that Sony Ericsson finds a good way to keep the price down and make the Play readily available to a wide audience, because it has the capabilities of elevating a fast-growing sector of gaming to a whole new level. And that’s not even taking into account the forthcoming Playstation Suite app from Sony, which is going to open up at least Playstation games to the device, as well.

Suddenly, playing games on a phone just got a lot more serious.

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