Two months with an Xperia Play

With the Xperia Play, has Sony created the ultimate mobile phone and gaming device? Having owned one for two months, Mark delivers his verdict...

When rumours of a PlayStation phone starting circulating last year, I decided straight away that I had to have one. I was one of those naive souls who bought a Nokia N-Gage way back in 2003, and thought it was the best thing ever until I was ridiculed for looking like a complete numpty when actually using the thing as a phone.

I also became so sick of removing the battery every time I wanted to change whatever game I was playing, that I finally stopped using it altogether. Surely Sony, with all of its expertise and knowledge, would be the company to make the concept of a phone and games machine work, right? Well, almost.

I upgraded my contract with Vodafone early to get an Xperia Play, even though I had heard mixed reports about whether the machine was worth owning. Most of the articles and reviews I read seemed to indicate it was a pretty decent gaming device, but perhaps an average phone. I could live with that – after all, I was never rich enough to get myself an iPhone, and my previous handset was a Samsung Galaxy S, which although very decent, had a battery life roughly equivalent to a Sega Game Gear. It also hadn’t worked so well since I dropped it down the toilet. Don’t ask.

This isn’t a tech website, so I won’t go into massive amounts of detail about the mobile phone aspects of the Play. It is a perfectly serviceable Android phone with all the features you could want, but not a lot more besides. It has a five Megapixel camera which is pretty good (although it doesn’t take HD video), the screen is perfectly sound, if a little dull compared to others on the market, and also shows some colour bleed occasionally, due to a slow refresh rate.

It works perfectly well for your typical mobile tasks, like playing music and video (although you may need to get hold of an app for the latter), using Facebook and Twitter, and Internet browsing. Oh, and you can make calls on it, too. Whatever will they think of next?

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All in all, it isn’t going to blow your socks off with amazing features or a luscious screen, but it does its job well enough. If it were just a phone, it would be a mid-range product, a cheaper alternative to what the iPhone provides.

Of course, it isn’t just a phone, and that’s what we’re really interested in; how does it perform as a gaming device? Slide out the remarkably PSP Go-like control pad, and the fun side of the phone makes its presence known, and it’s actually a pretty good, if  schizophrenic, experience.

Firstly, set your expectations accordingly. This is 10 times better than the old N-Gage, with a large widescreen gaming area and enough space on the included memory card for plenty of games. If you are only used to portable gaming on an iPhone, then you will also be treated to a superior experience, as the physical controls really do make a big difference, and make gaming feel much more console-like.

As I said earlier, though, this is no PSP, and the sense of missed opportunity is everywhere.

For people new to the Xperia Play, there are basically four different gaming experiences you can have on the phone, three legal, and one a little more… dodgy. To start with the simplest first, the device, of course, supports all Android games via the standard marketplace. There’s nothing much more to be said about that, apart from that these will use the phone’s touch screen, and that Tetris is included for free – and it’s a decent version of the game.

Next comes the more interesting ‘Xperia Play optimised’ Android games, which can only be purchased on this phone, and are launched from a specific app or automatically when the control pad is slid out. Again, some games are included for free: Asphalt 6, Bruce Lee and Star Battalion are the best of these. Other titles, like Backstab and Nova 2, are designed specifically for the Play, and available for around £3 each.

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iPhone gamers should know what to expect here. These aren’t console gaming experiences, but are, in general, well worth your gaming time, certainly for the money. Think original PS2/Xbox level graphics that are smoother but less detailed, with perhaps around three or four hours’ gaming time, and you wouldn’t be too far off the mark. With Tegra dual-core processors becoming standard on other devices, and the odd game chugging along slowly on the Xperia Play hardware, however, and it’s possible the Android gaming side of the phone may get a little left behind soon.

And then we come to the most interesting part of the device: Playstation Pocket. A separate app launches one built-in game, Crash Bandicoot, and a store to purchase a few others, currently including Syphon Filter and Destruction Derby for £3.99 each. A couple of games seem to be added each month, but so far the selection is very limited, and overpriced, really, compared to what the Android marketplace offers.

Crash Bandicoot works very well on the phone, though, and is a very good choice for inclusion, since it looks great and controls well, although the small screen can make judging some of the jumps frustrating. The emulation for all these PSone titles is flawless, with the option to quit and save at any time obviously a big bonus for mobile gaming.

Sales figures for these titles are currently very low, however, sitting at fewer than 500 downloads for the majority of them, and fewer than 50 downloads for the games released a week or so ago. I can’t help thinking that, rather than launch the service with some lesser-known games from 1995, they should have wheeled out the big guns right away. Tekken 3, Resident Evil 2, Metal Gear Solid and Wipeout 2097 for £3 each would surely have got more people interested. Mind you, Sony’s tactic of charging double for these platinum games on the PSN Store means this was always unlikely.

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The final method of gaming on the Xperia Play is emulation – always a tricky thing to talk about, because it’s a legal grey area, made even more difficult since the majority of emulators have now been removed from the Android store. Of course, you may already have downloaded them on a previous phone, or have other ways of getting hold of them.

If so, then you’re in for a treat, as retro gaming has truly found its home on the Xperia Play. Games like Super Mario World and Super Probotector on the SNES or Sonic 3 and Streets Of Rage 2 on the Mega Drive play absolutely perfectly with the pad, and look pixel perfect on the screen.

Of course, it has to be said that you need to own the games mentioned to legally download the roms for them, and I’m certainly not going to tell you how to get hold of them, but for me, this is the main selling point for the phone. Donkey Kong Country on the bog is a moment of exquisite bliss.

If all this talk of separate apps and different gaming experiences has confused in any way, then join the club. This segregated method of playing games is the worst thing about the Xperia Play. You get used to the different apps after a while, but why this wasn’t streamlined much more is anyone’s guess. I presume Sony didn’t want its PSone games getting confused with the Android Marketplace games, but in reality it’s just messy, and will presumably get worse when Sony start offering non-PSone games through its PlayStation Suite, which will be compatible with other devices, including the forthcoming Vita, as well as the Xperia Play.

Talk of this brings me on to the main reason why I can’t wholeheartedly recommend the device as a PlayStation phone; its lack of PSN functionality. It almost seems like SCEE has taken a hands-off approach to the device, letting Sony Ericsson take the lead and only providing the control pad.

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Just imagine if you could link the phone up to your PSN ID, re-download PSone games you have already bought for your PS3 or PSP, and play them on the phone, or perhaps even play your PSP games on the Xperia, too?

Okay, so the hardware of the Play probably wouldn’t support this, but if an Xperia Play 2 ever launches, then this should surely be considered. After all, with the Vita probably out by that time, being able to play original PSP games on this device shouldn’t impact hardware sales of the new system. Even viewing your friends and trophies through the hardware itself, rather than having to download a separate app, would have been a start, and at least made the device feel more like the PlayStation-certified piece of hardware it purports to be.

Nevertheless, I’m glad I purchased the Xperia Play, and as well as using it for normal mobile tasks and entertainment, it’s also fun to slide that pad out and play a bit of Crash Bandicoot in bed, or Backstab my way through my lunch break. As a gaming phone, it really is second to none at the moment, but I just cant help thinking that it could have been even better, and that the device, if it had been held back a few months, could have been the perfect mix of great phone (by upping the camera resolution and adding a better screen), and great portable gaming console (dual core processor and PSN integration).

As it is, this is no PlayStation Phone, but thankfully, it’s also no Nokia N-Gage.