The highly anticipated Xperia Play – otherwise known as the mythical ‘PlayStation Phone’ – is finally with us, and despite Sony Ericsson’s insistence that it should be judged as a smartphone first and foremost, we’re willing to bet that the gadget-hungry general public are more interested in how it holds up as a mobile gaming platform.
With that in mind we’ve put this ‘PlayStation Certified’ Android handset through its paces over the last week and our conclusions are below, but the general impression is incredibly positive. Apple’s iPhone may have spearheaded a touch-screen revolution in the mobile phone gaming arena, but the Xperia Play proves conclusively that there’s still a place for proper buttons.
Although Sony Ericsson decided against plastering the iconic PlayStation logo on the exterior of the phone, when you slide open the Xperia Play’s gaming interface you can’t help but think of the PSPgo, the revised edition of the popular PlayStation Portable handheld that was launched by Sony in 2009.
The layout is incredibly similar, and for gamers that’s most definitely a positive thing. The recessed D-pad and buttons don’t have much travel, but they’re highly responsive and emit a satisfying ‘click’ when pressed.
The PlayStation’s famous dual shock analogue sticks are imitated by the twin touch-sensitive pads that sit neatly in the middle of this control configuration. Seasoned gamers may find the lack of physical feedback problematic, but the small dip in the middle of each pad serves as an excellent reference point, and saves you from having to glance down to check where the pads are in relation to your fingers.
What we have here is an almost perfect physical gaming interface, with only the flimsy shoulder triggers proving to be a disappointment. They’re awkwardly placed and feel so delicate you almost become scared to push them with too much gusto.
Because it’s based on Google’s world-beating Android OS, the Xperia Play benefits from connectivity with the Android Market, which is well-stocked with all kinds of games. Most of these titles don’t make use of the Xperia Play’s physical controls, but since the launch of the phone 60 games have become ‘Xperia Optimised’ and you can expect that number to increase very quickly.
The handset comes pre-loaded with a neat selection of games, including the FIFA 2010, Star Battalion and the brilliant-looking Bruce Lee: Dragon Warrior. Other games – such as Asphalt 6, Cordy and Battle Bears – are just a download away. If you’re already a dedicated Android gamer then you may find that some of your previously-purchased titles have been updated with support for Sony Ericsson’s new phone.
As well as Android games, the Xperia Play also comes with the ability to play 32-bit PlayStation titles via the PlayStation Pocket application. Naughty Dog’s Crash Bandicoot comes pre-installed, and a handful of other games are available. The selection is slightly underwhelming at the moment, but once some of Sony’s biggest franchises become available it’s going to be a lot more appealing.
It’s also worth noting how well the Xperia Play functions with the flood of retro gaming emulators currently available on the Android Market. 16-bit machines such as the Nintendo SNES, Sega Mega Drive and Commodore Amiga are all replicated perfectly, and when twinned with the Xperia Play’s excellent controls, these emulators really spring to life.
Many critics have been rather scathing of the Xperia Play’s smartphone credentials, citing underpowered hardware, a washed-out screen and a rather ugly case design as the reasons for their negative stance. However, as a gaming system the phone is a complete success. It offers both touch-screen and physical controls, meaning that it’s just as happy playing finger-friendly fare such as Angry Birds as it is playing twin-stick FPS blaster Modern Combat 2: Black Pegasus.
While Apple’s iPhone has the advantage in terms of games at present, if Android’s continued growth is anything to go by that situation may begin to change, and the Xperia Play is the ideal handset to benefit from such a shift in power. If you consider yourself to be a serious mobile gamer, then it’s well worth considering.
Damien McFerran is a tech and video game journalist who has contributed to Eurogamer, Pocket Gamer, GamesTM and Retro Gamer. He’s also the editor-in-chief of Nintendo Life, one of the net’s biggest Nintendo-centric websites