When Astro runs over sand, for instance, each footstep softly shuffles through the controller as both sound and vibration. Walk on glass, and the footsteps tap-tap-tap with both light shakes of the controller and tinkling sound effects in your hands. When Astro gets blasted with wind, the full-controller rumble is met by the sound of a breeze. And though the controller rumbling is very similar when Astro slides across the ice a few minutes later, the “skkkkt” sound of skates cutting across the rink creates a completely different sensation.
Later in the game’s Cooling Springs area, when you put on a robotic frog suit, you have to compress the suit’s spring-loaded legs with the triggers (which offer a strong, springy resistance in this section) while adjusting your jumping aim by tilting the controller. Here, each degree of controller rotation and spring squeezing is met by a clicky sound effect, perfectly matching the clicky vibration in your hands.
A new standard
In terms of sheer rumbling precision, the DualSense’s haptic feedback reminds us of the heavily promoted “HD Rumble” feature on the Nintendo Switch Joy-Cons. That’s not that surprising, since both controllers make use of tech provided by Immersion Corp. The DualSense’s increased surface area perhaps provides for a little more precision in the slight gradations of rumble strength and apparent location, but it’s a subtle difference.
It’s the subtle sound design of the DualSense’s speaker that lets Sony blast past Nintendo in terms of sheer controller “wow” factor. Matching different levels of controller vibration with subtle sound effects handily multiplies the kinds of sensations you get from the controller. Once you feel and hear it in action, you’ll wonder why it has taken so long for console-makers to advance to this effective level of synesthesia, over 20 years after the 1997 launch of Nintendo’s Rumble Pak.
The catch, of course, is that Sony has put this feature into a platform with an emphasis on 3D audio design via its Tempest Engine (which we aren’t testing just yet). Will DualSense’s speaker fit into this vision? Or will players have to pick between one or the other?
And will other developers bother with the careful sound design needed to coordinate controller effects with on-screen action? It’s easy to imagine first-party Sony fare cashing in on the dual aural-rumble potential (we can only imagine the impact this would have on the likes of Gran Turismo) while third parties largely ignore the feature for cross-platform titles.
For now, though, Astro’s Playroom makes a hell of a first impression for a controller that’s full of pleasant surprises above and beyond what we’ve come to expect from the now-standard dual-stick design. Here’s hoping more games similarly make the most of the controller’s many unique features.