First Looks// Sony Ericsson Xperia Play

Posted 21 Feb 2011 16:45 by
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Nobody in the technology industry has been able to talk about Sony for the last year or so without bringing up its rumoured commitment to mobile phone gaming. It might be fair to say that the Xperia Play has had more interest than the company?s other upcoming handheld, the Next Generation Portable.

? Pfff, yeah, right. But seriously, everyone?s been talking about this PSP Go-looking Android phone - most of all Sony Ericsson, which is beating its corporate chest about the device changing the landscape of mobile gaming forever and ever. I was able to get some hands on time with it, and I?m currently undecided as to whether I agree or not.

First off, the build of the Xperia Play itself. It?s a nice and weighty device, with satisfyingly clicky buttons and a very responsive sliding touch screen. If you?ve ever held a PSP Go in your hands, you?ll feel right at home here save for a crucial difference. Holding the Xperia Play is actually more comfortable than a Go, thanks to the extra real estate for your hands to rest on.

The analogue nub (that once required your thumb to be quadruple-jointed on a PSP-3000) has been ditched in favour of two circular touch pads that replicate player and camera navigation. On inspection, these nipple-esque pads don?t exactly make the Xperia Play very classy, but they are rather responsive when used, and provide a better experience than a touch-screen based virtual analogue stick. That?s because of the discreet ridges that run around the pads, making for something of a physical resistance that is sorely lacking in software solutions on iPhone.

Unfortunately, I didn?t really get to use the analogue pads to their full potential. Out of the seven games that will come pre-loaded onto every new Xperia Play, only one of them seemed to have been tweaked to allow for analogue control. That was Star Batallion, a third-person space shooter. The other games - Madden, Bruce Lee, Asphalt, Sims 3 and Tetris - only used the D-pad, which despite its clickiness didn?t seem nearly as responsive as it should.

While the majority of these games were Android-based mobile phone games that had been tweaked to take advantage of the handset?s controls, one title stood out to be the key reason behind Sony?s new platform. Crash Bandicoot, a PSOne game.

None of the systems at the event seemed able to run Crash properly - a menu appeared saying that the phone had to download additional content from the internet (seriously, I?d have thought these guys would have at least installed the games on the system for me to play). But I?m told the emulation works very well (of course).

But I?ve played the game countless times before. I?ll have another chance to see if it?s truly able to play these games without a hitch. The real purpose of Crash Bandicoot?s existence on the Xperia Play was to highlight the intriguing new PlayStation Pocket application. It?s essentially a hub for all of your PlayStation-branded games using a familiar XMB-style background and touch-screen menu filters.

There are two problems I see with this, though. For one, every gaming application has a place on the Android main menu. Sony?s PlayStation Pocket only lists aforementioned PlayStation-branded titles (so, Crash Bandicoot) - so what?s the incentive to use it to play games over the main menu.

Navigation is also quite poor, but this just may be my gripe about how the Android platform does things - if I press a button to see all of my applications, I don?t expect a dashboard to pop up, only to have to press a virtual button on the touch screen to actually get where I want to go. Sony should have taken the opportunity to create a bespoke interface with Android and make something really quite intuitive.

The second, more serious, problem comes in that gamers who already have content purchased on the PlayStation Network will have to rebuy all of their PSOne titles for the Xperia Play. That?s practically a dealbreaker, because the whole point of Sony?s Qriocity integration is to have the same login and service benefits across a number of devices. For Xperia Play to fall at the first hurdle is really quite disappointing in that respect.

I?ll be certain to get my hands on the device again soon - and hopefully the questions about software and integration can be better answered, because that?s the one thing that?s bringing the Xperia Play down at the moment. As a hardware product, it?s lovely to hold and the gorgeous screen quality is a serious asset.

It really does have the potential to truly kick-start gaming on the Android platform, but Sony needs to decide how it is going to make the Xperia Play feel like a PlayStation Phone in its software. The UI needs to be seamless, and at the moment it just seems like an Android phone with a redundant hub application stuck inside of it.
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