By Jared Newman | Monday, June 6, 2011 at 12:04 am
Let’s get something out of the way: I cannot justify buying Sony Ericsson’s Xperia Play. For as much as I love video games, I’m 28. And that seems a bit old to be carrying around a smartphone with its own set of game controls.
But that didn’t stop me from cracking a huge grin when I slid out the Xperia Play’s set of buttons and touch pads for the first time. This Android handset is the mythical “Playstation Phone.” If only it existed 10 or 15 years ago.
As a phone, don’t expect great things from the Xperia Play, which sells for $200 through Verizon Wireless. The game controls add significant bulk to the frame, which is already made slippery by its slick plastic backing. It doesn’t help that the Play’s sliding mechanism responds to only gentle pressure, so the frame begins to separate when gripped tightly in portrait orientation. Oddly enough, landscape mode is only available for the home screen when the game controls are out.
Sony Ericsson mostly left Android 2.3 Gingerbread unaltered for the Xperia Play, although there are some minor visual changes in the form of fading transitions between apps and menus. Swiping from one page to the next is like butter, but only if you leave the home screen widget-free. For more on Android’s latest smartphone OS, check out Harry’s Nexus S review.
For hardware, the Xperia Play packs a 1-GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, an Adreno 205 GPU, and a 4-inch display. There’s also a front-facing camera for video chat and a 5-megapixel rear-facing camera that took some great pictures when I tried it. The hardware is capable enough for basic tasks, but the processor starts to show its age when browsing the Web. I happen to have an HTC Sensation, with a dual-core 1.2-GHz Snapdragon, on hand for review elsewhere, and the difference in smoothness is night and day.
Although the Xperia Play hardware is mostly adequate, it has one fatal flaw in its display. Thanks to an obnoxiously hyperactive auto-brightness feature, the screen tends to get darker and brighter on a whim. Even with brightness cranked up all the way, the Xperia Play’s light sensor can make the screen go dim. And no, you can’t turn auto-brightness off, so you’re stuck with this puzzling design choice unless a firmware update comes along.
But the Xperia Play isn’t supposed to be a dynamite phone first and foremost. It’s supposed to be a killer gaming machine. Whether that’s true for you depends on how you plan to use it.
When the Xperia Play arrived, I promptly ignored the half-dozen games that come pre-loaded on the device. Instead, I headed straight to the Android Market and loaded the phone up with every classic game console emulator I could find.
Tiger NES and Tiger SNES worked wonderfully, allowing me to map each button one-by-one to the layouts of Nintendo’s old controllers. The small buttons take some getting used to, but within minutes, I was tearing through Mega Man 2 as if I was back in my childhood bedroom. Once I’d navigated Heat Man’s stage of disappearing blocks and deadly lava, I knew Sony Ericsson got the gaming buttons just right.
I wish I could say the same for the touch pads at the center of controller. Yes, eventually I did wade into the Xperia Play’s pre-loaded library, and tried the games designed for analog input. Using touch pads to simulate the function of physical thumb sticks is about as accurate as you’d expect — in other words, not much better than a touch screen on a smartphone. I had greater success using the D-pad on the racing game Asphalt 6 and the aerial shooter Star Battalion. The use of touch pads instead of analog nubs, like the kind on Sony’s PSP Go, was either a huge oversight or an unfortunate compromise.
I didn’t love the six games that are included with the Xperia Play. The publishers who have signed on all bring their own unique weaknesses to the table. Gameloft’s titles crib heavily from more established franchises. Electronic Arts’ games are solid, but rely too often on the touch screen. (The Sims 3, for instance, is best-played without the gamepad.) Crash Bandicoot was a great game for the original Playstation, but it’s 15 years old now, a point made obvious by the game’s lack of visual fidelity and the need to save your progress at pre-determined locations.
All controller-optimized games appear in an Xperia Play app. From here, you can also purchase more games, but only through Verizon’s V-Cast app store, which is a mess. There are no user reviews, app pages take a long time to load, and sometimes, apps are much more expensive. Gun Bros., for instance, costs $7 through V-Cast. It’s free in the Android Market. Fortunately, if you download an app from the Android Market, it’ll still show up on the Xperia Play app, with support for the phone’s game controls.
The V-Cast hassle underscores a bigger problem with the Xperia Play: It doesn’t feel like a cohesive Sony gaming platform. The game store has been co-opted by a wireless carrier. There are no social features to connect players, and there’s no unified achievement system to keep players hooked. Sony’s gaming division, meanwhile, seems to have distanced itself from the whole affair. Despite the Xperia Play’s rumored “Playstation Phone” moniker, the only sign of Playstation branding is in the single PS1 game that Sony lent to the phone’s U.S. version. (A few other Playstation games are available overseas, but none of them are classics.) This may change when Sony brings its Playstation Suite to the Xperia Play, but details are murky for now.
So when I’m playing the games that Sony Ericsson and Verizon Wireless want me to play, I don’t feel the excitement. My childlike giddiness only emerges when I’m back in an emulator, indulging in legally-questionable content that makes money for nobody.
Therein lies the quandary for Sony Ericsson: If you’re not into the classics — and I’m guessing Sony Ericsson’s teenage target audience isn’t — the Xperia Play will feel undercooked as a gaming device. If you are, and you’re willing to carry around bulky, imperfect hardware to have the classics at your fingertips, then you’re a better gamer than I.