Version tested: Android
Video games and mobile phones have, until very recently, enjoyed a rather dysfunctional relationship. Basic Java-based efforts played on woefully ill-suited numerical keypads were the order of the day not so long ago, and even when industry veteran Nokia attempted to remedy the latter issue with its gaming-centric N-Gage, the general public was curiously apathetic.
Gaming on phones didn't really come of age until the launch of the Apple iPhone, a device which has succeeded in turning sectors of society previously disinterested in video games into rabid Angry Birds fanatics. Before we plunge into an in-depth analysis of Sony Ericsson's Xperia Play – a handset with the unique selling point of a dedicated gaming interface – it's worth noting that the iPhone is largely devoid of physical buttons.
So one could be forgiven for writing Sony Ericsson's 'PlayStation Certified' challenger off as another N-Gage, but that would be to miss two crucial points. Firstly, this device has the considerable reputation of Sony's gaming division to draw upon, and secondly, it's running Google's Android operating system – a mobile platform that has made a habit of giving Apple a bloody nose and is dangerously close to achieving numerical supremacy in the smartphone arena.
When you consider the hype and expectation surrounding the launch of the Xperia Play, it's surprising that first impressions are decidedly downbeat. Despite tipping the scales at a rotund 175 grams, it's created almost entirely from cheap and glossy plastic, and exudes all the sophistication of an omnibus episode of The Only Way Is Essex. The 16mm thickness of the Xperia Play also counts against it in this era of rapidly-thinning smartphones.
Another area of the device that is noticeably lacking is the LED backlit LCD screen. At four inches it's certainly large enough, and the 480 x 854 resolution ensures pin-sharp image quality, but the brightness is below par and colours have a tendency to look washed out. Super AMOLED technology – like that seen in Google's very own Nexus S handset – would have delivered a more striking visual impact.
On the subject of internal parts, gadget fiends are certain to feel aggrieved by the lack of a dual-core processor. Although the Xperia Play's 1GHz CPU performs admirably in general tasks, it lacks the future-proofing of a more advanced chip. By the end of 2011, this phone is likely to be seen as something of a weakling – in the Android arena, at least.
The negativity quickly dissipates once you slide open those glorious PlayStation-style controls, however. Although we've seen gaming interfaces on mobiles before (on the N-Gage and the under-appreciated Sagem MyG-5), they pale into insignificance next to what's presented here. In short, imagine if the bottom section of the PSPgo was wrenched from its moorings and slapped onto an Android mobile. That's essentially what you're getting with the Xperia Play, and the results are predictably exciting for passionate mobile gamers.
To keep the phone's thickness down, Sony Ericsson has given the buttons a very low profile; all physical inputs reside in shallow dips within the casing, and despite the lack of travel, they perform well. The two touch-sensitive discs that lie between the D-pad and those iconic face buttons are intended to replace the dual analogue sticks of the legendary PlayStation pad design. These too work better than you expect, and the lack of tactile feedback provided by moving parts is mitigated by two small recesses marking the centre of each pad. As soon as your thumbs lock on to these subtle dips, everything else becomes second nature.
Some elements of the Xperia Play's refined gaming interface fail to pass muster, however. The L and R triggers feel flimsy and indistinct, and their location makes them difficult to press with any degree of certainty, especially when you're in a particularly fraught gaming situation.
Since the launch of the Nintendo 3DS – which can only manage a pathetic three hours with wireless and its much-hyped auto-stereoscopic 3D effect switched on – battery stamina has become a hot topic amongst mobile gamers. The Xperia Play's 1500mAh power cell is pretty standard for an Android-based smartphone these days, and with general phone use will require at least one charge a day. If you're looking for figures to illustrate pure gaming stamina, Sony Ericsson has pinned the Xperia Play's staying power at around five hours. Our tests revealed a slightly lower total, but not by much. It's worth bearing in mind that 3D graphics tax the phone's CPU more than 2D, resulting in a shorter play time between charges.
With 60 games available at launch, the release of the Xperia Play is one of the best-supported in the history of video gaming – in statistical terms, at least. However, those figures are somewhat misleading. Many of the titles up for grabs are merely existing Android games that have been hastily retrofitted with support for the Xperia Play's slide-out interface.
Of those 60 titles, the majority won't present much of a surprise to seasoned Android players. Former PSP Minis favourite Age of Zombies and gorgeous-but-shallow fighter Bruce Lee: Dragon Warrior are games that show off what the hardware is capable of, but Asphalt 6: Adrenaline, Dungeon Defenders, Need for Speed Shift and FIFA 2010 have all previously been available on the Android Market.
While this diminishes the impressive scale of the launch lineup, one thing cannot be refuted: these games play markedly better on the Xperia Play's unique control setup. Whereas before you might have found yourself grumbling and cursing at the ill-defined and imprecise touch-screen interfaces, with this new device such irksome issues are banished.
While we can appreciate that some mobile players will be over the moon to learn that they can now play Gameloft's finest Android titles with a proper d-pad, seasoned gamers are likely to be more interested in the promise of faithful emulation of 32-bit PlayStation classics. Confusingly, Sony Ericsson has chosen to hide this option in a menu that is totally separate from the core gaming interface (which is automatically triggered when you slide open the phone).
To access vintage 32-bit gems from Sony's past you need to launch an entirely unrelated application called PlayStation Pocket. Currently up for grabs are Crash Bandicoot (which comes pre-installed), Destruction Derby, MediEvil, Jumping Flash, Cool Borders 2 and Syphon Filter. Emulation is fast and faithful, although some of the games look a lot rougher than we remembered. We also sincerely hope that the current retail price of £3.99 per game is going to drop; compared to iOS and Android titles, the average mid-nineties PlayStation effort hardly seems worth five times the price.
That said, it takes little imagination to see just how essential the PlayStation Pocket service could become should Sony Ericsson bring across some of the legendary format's seminal slices of brilliance. The tantalising prospect of sampling Xperia Play editions of Gran Turismo, Final Fantasy Tactics or Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is enough to make the average gamer salivate with expectation, and the fact that many of these gems are already being circulated on the PlayStation Network bodes well for a quick and easy rebirth on the Android Market. [Editor's note: the connection between PlayStation Pocket and Sony's PlayStation Suite service for all Android phones has yet to be fully explained.]
One aspect of the Xperia Play's gaming portfolio that so far hasn't been bellowed from the rooftops by Sony Ericsson's PR is emulation. Such reluctance is perfectly understandable, given the shady nature of ROM-sharing and the like. There's also the small matter that such activity is potentially counter-productive to Sony Ericsson's mission to make as much cash as possible – as evidenced by the recent removal of the excellent PlayStation emulator PSX4Droid from the Android Market, an event that no doubt had something to do with the Xperia Play's impending launch.
However, the fact remains that retro gaming emulators are freely available on the Android Market, and they open up an entire world of gaming brilliance. You're never more than one click away from SNES, Mega Drive, Game Boy Advance, Spectrum, Amiga, C64, Master System and N64 emulation, and when bonded with the Xperia Play's dedicated gaming interface, these esteemed classics are truly brought to life.
The Android interface
During the course of this review we've spoken almost exclusively about the Xperia Play's gaming credentials, but it's easy to forget that this is a telecommunications device first and foremost – despite the 'PlayStation Phone' publicity.
Thanks to the inclusion of Android 2.3 – also known as Gingerbread – the Xperia Play is very much at the vanguard of Google's mobile OS. Like rival manufacturers HTC and Samsung, Sony Ericsson has chosen to 'skin' the OS with its own user interface. The results are reasonably positive, although they fall short of HTC's intuitive and jaw-droppingly gorgeous Sense UI.
Like all Android devices, the Xperia Play is highly customisable. You can re-arrange the layout of your five home screens in any manner you desire, and real-time widgets offer at-a-glance updates on a whole selection of different topics – be they your Twitter timeline or the latest news. Android is buttressed by an app store that now boasts a staggering 200,000 downloads, many of which are games.
Android's year-on-year growth is nothing short of stunning, and more users means increased support from developers. It's this fact that should enable the Xperia Play to avoid sharing the same unpleasant end as the N-Gage; because its fortunes aren't tied up exclusively in its own retail performance, it's virtually guaranteed a flood of apps and games in the future. Android's future is looking rosy, and the Xperia Play will benefit from at least some of that good fortune.
There are drawbacks to Android, however. Because it's such a versatile piece of software, you can expect to see at least one application 'force close' event per day, possibly even more. Compared to the relatively rock-steady iPhone, Android often feels shaky and unreliable - although by the same token it's arguably a more vibrant, exciting and (possibly most importantly) open platform. In a battle which echoes the "Genesis does what Nintendon't" Sega of America campaign from the early nineties, Android and iOS both have their positives and negatives, and while they tussle like two burly kids fighting for the last slice of pie, the rest of the market is struggling to pick up the scraps.
Using the Xperia Play
After numerous months of idle speculation and finger-crossing, it was almost inevitable that the 'PlayStation Phone' would fail to live up to the almost impossible level of expectation - after all, this isn't the PSP2, and was never intended to be. There are elements of the Xperia Play that are very disappointing: the bulky design, the below-par screen, the fragmented manner in which games are presented; it's clear that there's plenty of room for improvement in whatever device follows in its footsteps.
However, gazing into the future is doing a disservice to what we have in the present. The Xperia Play may have its faults, but as a platform that fuses both telecommunications and gaming, it's one of the best we've seen so far. The physical controls are fantastic, and the mere thought of playing Final Fantasy VII or Gran Turismo on our phone has us skipping around the room like excited schoolchildren. Add to this the blissful prospect of carrying around 30 years of gaming heritage in your pocket thanks to the Android Market's repository of emulators and you've got one hell of a portable gaming paradise.
The biggest bonus is that unlike PSPgo or 3DS, the Xperia Play is always going to be at your side, because it's a core lifestyle device; the kind of thing you check your pockets for when you leave the house, right after your keys. This is one element which has contributed vastly to the success of gaming on the iPhone, and there's a good chance that Sony Ericsson's latest mobile could benefit equally.
The Xperia Play certainly deserves to be a success – if only to prove that physical interfaces are still relevant to modern mobile gamers in a world where Angry Birds can accrue millions of downloads within the space of just a few days. But whether or not Sony Ericsson has the determination, drive and capability to make it one remains to be seen. If the company can ensure a steady flow of 32-bit PlayStation titles and encourage developers to produce exclusive games which take full advantage of the Xperia Play's unique control setup, then it stands an excellent chance of avoiding the cruel fate which befell Nokia's equally-hyped N-Gage all those years ago.