Astro's Playroom & DualSense controller first impressions

Just over two weeks away, the PlayStation 5 promises to revolutionize gaming with technologies such as its modern-era CPU and GPU, lightning-fast SSD storage, and all new DualSense controller.

While there’s still a lot about having a PlayStation 5 in our homes we can’t talk about just yet, we can now give you our first thoughts on the possibilities the console brings thanks to being able to discuss two of its elements: the DualSense controller, and the game that comes digitally bundled with every system, Astro’s Playroom.

To delve deeper into both of those topics, EGM editors Mollie L Patterson and Josh Harmon chatted about their experiences.

Mollie L Patterson
With only weeks to go until the launch of the PlayStation 5, both you and I have had a chance to go hands-on with the console early.

The first of the experience we’re really allowed to talk about is Astro’s Playroom, a game that comes pre-installed on every system. Being someone who really can’t play VR games, I didn’t have any real knowledge or attachment to the character from Astro Bot Rescue Mission. I also had certain expectations for the game going in, given both that it’s a free pack-in, and what Sony had previously put together for The Playroom, a similar release on PlayStation 4. And yet, Astro’s Playroom really caught me by surprise.

Before I give my thoughts, though, did you have any feelings one way or another about Rescue Mission, and what were you expecting from Astro’s Playroom?

Josh Harmon
I honestly can’t remember whether or not I ever played The Playroom or Rescue Mission, which is probably a solid indicator of my attachment to the character.

But either way, when I booted up Astro’s Playroom, I was expecting something akin to a glorified tech demo. We’re only allowed to talk about one of the four main areas in the game today, but even within that context I think it’s safe to say the game exceeded my expectations. Is it going to be dethroning Mario anytime soon? Not by a long shot. But as a way to teach you about the PlayStation 5’s unique features, it works. It’s a real candy-coated-vegetables situation.

What’s been your initial reaction?

Mollie L Patterson
It’s funny, because you hit on a number of the things I was going to say. I really though we’d be getting a collection of minigames showing off the new features of the console and the DualSense controller, but while those moments definitely do exist and are integrated into the game, they certainly aren’t all it has to offer.

This is a legitimate platformer—again, as you say, no Mario—but it’s actually fun in a “huh, this is a fully-realized game” kind of way. I think what helps is that no one section ever seems to overstay its welcome. The area we can talk about, Cooling Springs, has four main locations, and in each, it felt like I was always being introduced to a new gameplay idea or type of situation different from what I had just been doing.

Josh Harmon
Yeah, Cooling Springs is a pretty nice mix of different styles of platformer. There’s a more open area at the beginning, that’s much more about exploration in a small sandbox (or at least a sandy beach) to find the hidden collectibles around. Then you move into sections that are more sidescrolling, or gimmick-driven, or traditional 3D platforming in the “fall off and get sent back to a checkpoint” sense. And it all pretty much works for me.

I guess the lead we’re burying a bit, before we get to some of the specific DualSense features Astro’s Playoom is supposed to show off, is that this is the first next-gen visuals we’ve experienced live, on our own TVs. From that sense, how do you feel about the game’s graphics as an intro to next-gen? Are you already erecting a shrine to Mark Cerny?

Mollie L Patterson
My answer to that is a little complicated. I think, as an introduction to the wonders of next-gen, it’s—not. To be fair, we’re hitting this from both angles—you playing on a 4K television, me seeing what the experience with be like for those still on 1080p—so maybe I’m just not able to fully appreciate the game’s visuals and effects.

However, while I was really impressed by the gameplay in Astro’s Playroom, I don’t know that I’ve seen anything here that couldn’t have been done on the PlayStation 4. I mean, having almost zero load times between the different areas absolutely couldn’t have been done, but this isn’t a graphical showcase to me in any way—though I’m not sure it needed to be.

And yet, I think Astro’s Playroom is a fantastic introduction to the PlayStation 5, in a way I totally wasn’t expecting. Before I gush about that, though, how did you feel over there in the future world of 4K?

Josh Harmon
Speaking purely to the visuals, I do think there’s a little something extra that couldn’t have been done on the PS4, but it’s subtle. Are all the round edges just a teensy bit smoother? Yes. Does everything just seem crisp and clean and run as smoothly as I could hope for? Yep. But I think I agree that it doesn’t really feel like a whiz-bang intro to next-gen in any kind of jaw-dropping way. But it does look good, and the load times (or lack thereof) are great.

Which kind of speaks to my larger point: I suspect that the most noticeable improvements on PlayStation 5, at least for a while, might not be graphical, but experiential. That means load times, of course, but it also means the DualSense features Astro’s Playroom makes a really great effort to show off. I suspect (if we’re feeling the same) that’s a big part of what you wanted to gush about, so I’ll let you kick us off there.

Mollie L Patterson
It’s not! I know you really want to get to the controller, but before we do, I have to talk about the themes and collectables that have been scattered throughout the game.

I was playing through Cooling Springs, minding my own business, when suddenly I unlocked the GPS unit for the PlayStation Portable—something I never in a million years would have been expecting. There’s a ton of references to the past 25 years of PlayStation that have been put into the game, as least from what I’ve seen so far.

There’s also, scattered throughout each area, robots with cameras filming other robots re-creating scenes from various PlayStation games. Some of those call-outs are the expected ones, but others are really deep cuts, and part of the fun of playing is finding those scenes and trying to identify them.

I’ve not sworn loyalty to any one console maker—well, except Sega, but we know how that went—and yet I found myself actually getting a little emotional at all of the PlayStation nostalgia. It’s easy to forget just how many games I’ve played over those 25 years, and how much PlayStation consoles and handhelds were a part of that. So, having those constant reminders made Astro’s Playroom feel like a passing of the torch to the new generation.

Although, don’t think you’re slick Sony—I instantly saw that you gave Astro a PSP to play with during one of his idle animations instead of a Vita.

Josh Harmon
I don’t think you’ll be alone in loving that focus on PlayStation history, but you’re definitely alone in this chat. I thought the collectibles were just eh, though I did like the little vignettes from PlayStation games. I won’t spoil them, but the little bearded Robo-Kratos on a boat with a tiny Robo-Atreus is A+, especially the way he grunts when you smack him.

But yes, I do want to gush about the controller stuff, because it’s just so darn cool. It’s kind of impossible to sell just how neat a couple of the DualSense’s features are. The improved haptic feedback might be a little bit easier, since anyone who’s used the Switch’s Joy-Cons with 1-2 Switch knows a bit of what to expect. The rumble, if you can even call it that anymore, is just so granular that you can feel each section of the controller separately, and it’s put to great use in Astro’s Playroom.

But the real wow moment for me is the dynamic resistance in the triggers. Maybe my expectations were low because I remember Microsoft touting something similar before the Xbox One’s launch and I never even noticed it, but this is the real deal. A couple sections in Cooling Springs put Astro in a spring suit, and at that point you jump by pulling either of the triggers down and then releasing. The level of resistance is just surprising and, for lack of a fancier word, cool. I don’t know how other games will use it, but I think there’s a lot of neat opportunities. Did you not love that as much as I did?

Mollie L Patterson
Well, I need to be honest about something upfront: my time with the DualSense was tainted by the fact that, so far as I’ve been able to find, Astro’s Playroom has no way to invert the Y-axis for camera controls, meaning I was fighting with seeing the world properly half the time.

That said, I’m now more of a believer on the functions Sony has built into their new controller, though I’m still not totally sold. I never understood the big deal about the Xbox One’s triggers, but I definitely understand it here. The different levels of trigger activation have some real potential, but the question now is going to be what how that’s used and how much effort devs will put into a feature that can’t be directly ported to another platform. One thought I had was maybe using the deep push (or whatever it’s called) to instantly confirm those “Hold X to [activity]” prompt devs seem to love for whatever reason.

I also really want to talk about one of the experiences I had with the rumble, but it’s something I can’t yet, as it came in a different area. It was seriously crazy, though, and the sensation of rumble the controller was able to give was one I’m not sure I’ve felt before.

I do have to say though: as someone who loved the DualShock 3 (even if I’m in a small club), and really likes the DualShock 4, I feel like the DualSense is a bit… heretical, maybe? It’s an Xbox controller. Let’s be honest here. That’s not a bad thing, as I’ve come to appreciate the Xbox One pad as an alternate controller design, but it feels really, really weird being the default PlayStation controller to me.

Oh, and losing the trademark symbol colors on the buttons is sacrilege.

(Update: After speaking with Sony, I’ve found the way to invert the Y-axis camera controls for Astro’s Playground. The process requires using an option outside of the game that we’re not able to discuss just yet, but it’s there.)

Josh Harmon
I love the DualSense. I wasn’t sold on it at first, but mainly because it felt a bit small. But as I’ve gotten more used to it, I find it very comfortable to use during marathon sessions (and for the purpose of these impressions, I only mean marathon sessions of playing the same small section of Astro’s Playroom, obviously).

I get your complaint, that the more streamlined shape loses the iconic, bulbous, cartoon-nose style of of the DualShock 4, but it just feels more ergonomic. And it’s definitely not just an Xbox One controller. For one thing, the DualSense has a functional D-pad and easy to use shoulder buttons. (That’s not to mention the placement of the analog sticks, the touchpad, and a few other things that set it apart.) I really have a hard time seeing it as anything other than the best of all worlds.

Also, while I know Astro’s Playroom isn’t exactly the best way to test out the built-in microphone, I do think that could be a game-changer. Hilariously, though, I was using a headset when I actually needed to use it here, meaning the controller mic was disabled, and the game didn’t know how to account for that. I must’ve blown for about three minutes, trying to get the little pinwheel to spin and jump start my ice platform, before I realized what was happening. It was definitely my only big hiccup with how the controller was integrated into the game.

I know we’ll have a lot more PlayStation 5 coverage in the coming weeks, but is there anything else you’d like to leave our readers with today?

Mollie L Patterson
Well, we’re allowed to also talk about the hardware itself in basic design, so I think that’s a good topic to end this on.

I had very mixed feelings on the design, and I still do. I think it’s going to need time to grow on me, so I don’t just want to make a snap judgement yet—especially since there have been other consoles I thought were ugly at first which grew on me over time. (Hey PlayStation 2.)

But—and I know how shocking this will be—the PlayStation 5 is big. Really big. I don’t even have a concept yet of how it’s going to fit into my home environment, beyond its temporary position of towering over everything else on my desk. I had thought I might go the horizontal route, but I need to move the consoles on my desk around a lot, and I’ve been having trouble keeping the stand attached in that orientation.

Josh Harmon
I think the design is growing on me a little the more I look at it. I’ve been using it horizontally and only had one stand disconnect.

But yes, it’s one thing to read about the dimensions of the console, and quite another thing to see it in your entertainment center. I can’t yet say if the PlayStation 5 will be the next big thing, but I can definitely say it’ll be big.

Stay tuned to EGM for much more coverage of the PlayStation 5 and its games in the coming days.

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