We've seen plenty of the upcoming Sony Xperia Play phone, otherwise known as the PlayStation phone, but less so far of its gaming capabilities. I finally got a chance to spend some hands-on time playing games on an Xperia phone at this week's Game Developers Conference, and while it's closer to a handheld gaming console than one might have initially thought, it's still a far different animal than Sony's current PSP or upcoming NGP, and in fact feels a bit more like gaming on an iPhone or iPad than anything else.
That's in part because many of the first batch of games optimized for the system comes from game makers such as Gameloft, a major producer of games for the iPhone and iPad. That means you'll see titles such as Asphalt (from Gameloft), Bruce Lee: Dragon Warrior, and Galaxy on Fire 2, all of which were at today's Sony event, which was billed as the Xperia Play's U.S. debut.
Having played all three of these games previously on the iPhone or iPad, the experience was very familiar, even with the completely different control scheme. Instead of a set of onscreen and accelerometer controls, as on the iPad, the Xperia phone slides its screen up to expose twin four-way directional pads (actually, one is a traditional D-pad, the other Sony's four familiar PlayStation buttons, but the effect is the same) and central touchpad with two indented circles at either end that simulate the effect of analog thumbsticks.
The different games adapted to the Xperia work in different ways. Galaxy on Fire 2 was able to use both the D-pads and analog touch controls, but also kept its original on-screen controls, as you'd see on the iPhone. That was probably the most impressive gameplay demo, with a very smooth frame rate and responsive controls. Bruce Lee looked and felt a lot like the iPad version of this fighting game, but this time there were no on-screen controls, and no analog controls--you could only use the D-pad controls.
Asphalt on the iPhone/iPad was a generic but pretty auto racing game, and the Xperia version felt very similar. With the split-second timing needed to steer a speeding vehicle, this was probably the best test of the Xperia's controls. The analog controls felt under-responsive, and you really needed to lean on them to make a sharp turn. The D-pad controls ended up feeling much more natural for steering, and were no doubt helped by the tactile feedback actually pressing a button gives you--both the iPhone/iPad onscreen controls and the Xperia's analog sticks have the same problem with lack of tactile feedback.
As an Android phone, there's no doubt the Xperia's game library will grow quickly, but Sony will also have to convince game makers to produce Xperia-specific versions of games that take advantage of the unique controls and hardware. The launch lineup currently stands at about 50, with more on the way, and a handful (including a version of the PlayStation classic Crash Bandicoot) will ship preloaded on the phone when it launches on Verizon in the U.S. this spring.