Game Rant’s Andrew Dyce Reviews the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play

Since Sony first took a step into the mobile gaming market with the PlayStation Portable, fans of gaming and handheld devices have been wondering: when would the company finally get around to bringing both cell phones and portable games together?

Finally, the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play was officially revealed to be, at least on the surface, the answer to fans’ demands. But by combining the two worlds into a single package, has Sony managed to create a device with twice the punch – or one that falls short of becoming a competent offering in either field?

The answer is a complicated one, and may have as much to do with Sony’s support for the Xperia Play in the near future as the hardware itself. Only time will tell how much success or failure is found in the former, but as for the device itself, it certainly makes a good first impression.

Considering Sony’s dedication to handheld gaming with the PSP first, and now the PS Vita, it’s tempting to see the Xperia Play as a PSP family member first and phone second. In reality, those hoping to get a clearer understanding of what the device offers would be wise to think of the Play as a smart phone that Sony’s gaming division is supporting.

At first glance the Xperia Play looks like any other Sony Ericsson smart phone, with an attractive full touch screen display and crisp visuals. The Play is fitted with the latest version of Android 2.3 Gingerbread, and while it may not be the fastest-running or most stunning screen currently on the market,  Sony Ericsson deserves a pat on the back for releasing a device that does so much so smoothly.

The Xperia Play user interface will certainly surprise those expecting a machine that is a gaming device first, utilizing touch controls that never feel dull or unresponsive, and a few inspired features. Sporting both a 5.1 megapixel camera and front-facing VGA camera, the Play’s features are more than competent in taking photos and videos of friends, and the potential for video chatting is promising down the road.

Sony Xperia Play Images

Apple has managed to dominate the mobile gaming market with their integration of casual experiences via the iPhone, and while Sony may be interested in delivering a phone geared towards the more “hardcore” gaming audience, the basic social features of the phone need to be just as competent. Owners will have the ever-growing Android marketplace at their disposal – but the phone also comes with a few surprises.

Most notably “TimeScape,” collecting all of your social feeds – Facebook, Twitter, etc – into a single stream of updates on your home screen. The methods available to upload photos and videos directly to social sites or YouTube is incredibly streamlined, so anyone concerned that Sony Ericsson wouldn’t be putting the demands of the current smart phone market first should be pleasantly surprised.

With lightning-fast shifting from one application to the next, the Xperia Play won’t leave any smart phone fans disappointed. In fact, there’s little implication that the Play is anything more than a smart phone, other than the extremely-noticeable thickness. At 16 mm, the phone is anything but slim, and carries some serious heft to it. In the end, the added size is the one concession that’s been made to turn the Xperia Play into the world’s first PlayStation phone.

As we’ve seen, the phone’s faceplate slides sideways, revealing the standard PlayStation controls: d-pad, face buttons, dual touchpads and even shoulder buttons located beneath the screen. Sony shows that they know mobile gaming from a technical standpoint better than almost anyone, with the controls all feeling and working beautifully. That is to say, aside from the analog touchpads. While it took Sony years to get around to giving fans the twin analog sticks they so vehemently demanded for the PSP, once again the directional controls are somewhat of a nuisance.

Xperia Play Controls

The analog touchpads are theoretically meant to mimic the range of motion from a stick, but whether it was the offered games or merely an acquired skill, several hours attempting to use the touchpads as effectively as the d-pad proved fruitless. On the bright side, the d-pad provided more than acceptable controls for a majority of the games currently available, but for any games that require use of the touchpads – be prepared for a frustrating learning curve.

Stubborn controls are easily overlooked if the game being played is enjoyable enough, and there are more than a few games that should impress early adopters. Players have the choice of selecting games from a few different sources, whether it be through the Xperia Play hub, or by purchasing them directly from the publishers. The Xperia Play has access to all games offered for Android, so with initial games like Asphalt 6, Star Battalion, and Guerilla Bob, the device’s visuals, touch functionality, and accelerometers are used beautifully and intuitively.

But let’s be honest, if you’re interested in purchasing an Android device and have been holding out for the Xperia Play, it’s likely because of the various titles made accessible via the PlayStation Suite. When Sony first announced the PlayStation Suite, they explained their intentions of bringing an experience on-par with their own platform’s content – not smaller, disposable games like Angry Birds.

In theory, the Xperia Play should have been designed for those who take their gaming seriously, and want a phone with all the features we now expect, but with a gaming experience crafted by those who know the industry inside and out – and that’s where the Xperia Play’s delivery falls short. Very short. If you’re going to convince anyone that your platform is the best way to experience mobile gaming, then the actual system providing the content should feel like is was designed by a single team. And sadly, the content delivery and organization of the Xperia Play’s games could best be described as confusing.

Xperia Play Android Asphalt 6

Whether it’s the fact that games can come from the publisher themselves (requiring you to pay via third-parties) or through the Xperia hub, the various menus and subfolders are anything but streamlined. Ports of PS1 titles downloaded via ‘official’ channels will automatically appear in the Xperia hub, while others will not. In shopping for new games the problems continue – with no way of sorting properties according to price, and with more than a few games clocking in at $7 without a demo of any kind, that’s a problem.

Some might say that it’s on the owner to know the intricacies of their device, but spending an hour trying to find a downloaded game to no avail is a problem no matter how you slice it. Many of the games ported to the new device have clearly not gotten necessary adjustments, resulting in a catalog of titles that offer poor use of the Play’s controls, and a rather unflattering look at past properties.

If the goal with the Xperia Play is to provide a cell phone for gamers that will actually deliver a satisfying, PlayStation-quality experience, then an interface that leads to frustration is a serious problem. Especially when they have any other number of platforms available to them. The device itself is more than capable of impressing those who’ve only been looking forward to having a d-pad for their mobile games, but without some serious updates and redesign on the methods through which games are delivered to owners, the future isn’t bright.

The imbalance could be a sign that more time was spent creating a great smart phone than a platform for gaming, which is a good problem to have. With such a strong pedigree in gaming, Sony has every chance to put more energy into smoothing out the wrinkles before frustration turns fans off permanently. But when a company puts out a product that will be going head-to-head with the most popular mobile device in North America, using an operating system that is still trying to catch up, and with game functionality aimed at an even smaller portion of that audience, getting off on the wrong foot could mean disaster.

Clearly they have their supporters, with Minecraft on the horizon for the platform, but a game can only be successful if it’s easy to get access to. Only time will tell if Sony is prepared to deliver on the promise of a PlayStation experience on a smart phone, but if they don’t get around to making the gaming portion of their gaming device fast, the Xperia Play’s many positives could collapse under the weight of a clunky marketplace.

The Sony Ericsson Xperia Play is available now.