E3 2013: A PS4 controller that is finally worth holding

by Scott Nichols

I have been quite vocal over the years about my hatred for Sony’s dualshock controllers. The analog stick placement is wrong, the triggers feel wrong, just everything about their controllers from the original PlayStation up to the PS3 has been a miserable experience that a begrudgingly endure for the occasional exclusive game.

Heck, I don’t even finish most PS3 games these days, games I genuinely love, because I hate that controller. I got halfway through Akrham Asylum on PS3, then bought a second copy on 360 to finish it because I just couldn’t stand using the PS3 controller anymore.

So people were understandably taken aback when I said that I loved the PS4 controller that I got to try at E3 this year. It looks fundamentally the same, so has that much really changed?

The short answer is yes, that much really has changed. I was skeptical too just by looking at it, and actually cringed when I looked at the hands-on stations for Thief and noticed a PS4 controller sitting there. The cringe was noticeable enough that one of the developers asked me if something was wrong. I told him no, a lie at the time but once I picked up the controller it turned out to be true. The PS4 controller is very right.

Let’s start with the outside and work our way inward, shall we? First of all, the handles for the PS4 controller are far more straight and tube-like than the PS3 dualshock, giving your ring and pinky fingers a more natural curve to hold onto. The handles are also a little longer, so the end of the handles isn’t digging into your palms like the PS3 controller does.

The handles are also spaced a little further apart on the PS4 controller, so it doesn’t feel as cramped to hold the controller. Moving inward on the controller, the wider spacing also means that the analog sticks are slightly further apart. On the PS3 controller I usually feel like my thumbs are resting unnaturally on the analog sticks, and reaching too far when moving the sticks. The spacing on the PS4 controller feels much better, and even makes it tolerable that the left stick is in the lower position.

Speaking of analog sticks, the resistance on both sticks is a vast improvement. PS3 analog sticks feel loose and flimsy, but the PS4 sticks are much closer to those on the 360, with just enough resistance so that it feels like there is weight in moving the stick. This makes more subtle movements easier, and just feels more natural to control.

The analog sticks also now have a slightly concave tip, so your thumbs rest in pockets instead of sliding off or a rounded edge.

The triggers have also been improved. The R1 and L1 shoulder buttons on PS4 do not protrude from the controller quite as far, so your index fingers more naturally rest on them simply by holding the controller and following its curves. The R2 and L2 buttons are an even bigger improvement, now using a concave design so your middle fingers rest nestled in a little cup. The R2 and L2 triggers are also recessed from the edge of the controller, more like the Gamecube’s triggers, so your middle fingers don’t feel like they are stretching unnaturally to reach them.

The newest feature though is the touch pad, which sits right in the center of the controller and is the reason why the analog sticks and handles have wider spacing. The entire touchpad can be pressed like a giant button, which most games seem to be using as the default pause button. It’s a little mushy to press, but it works well.

The touch pad itself was also used in my Thief demo in an interesting way. Thief uses a radial inventory menu, which normally you would navigate by holding a button and using the left stick to select an item. As an alternative, you can simply touch on the touch pad, then slide your finger in a direction to select that item on the radial menu. The touch pad’s placement isn’t too much of a stretch for either thumb, so I can see swipes and simple gestures becoming a useful tool in PS4 games. Even if it is just as simple as sliding your finger down to scroll through menus and long text boxes.

I will say that I would still prefer the left analog stick and d-pad to be switched on the PS4 controller, and for that reason the Xbox One controller is still better overall, but I can at least see myself playing PS4 games without hating the controller. That is a huge improvement, and Sony deserves a lot of credit for the redesign.