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Returnal’s gunplay makes delightful use of PS5’s DualSense controller

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DualSense matters for more than just gimmickry

Selene fires back at hostile creatures on an alien planet in Returnal Image: Housemarque/Sony Interactive Entertainment

Housemarque’s Returnal does some amazing things with Sony’s DualSense controllers, and the technology makes the game better, not just different. This is a step beyond most haptic gimmickry, as the controller’s effects positively impact how you play the game.

The DualSense does a lot of interesting things when you’re playing Returnal, from bringing some of the sounds of your equipment from the screen into your hands through the built-in speaker, or using all those clever motors to make you feel what you’re seeing on the screen. Just wait until you “feel” the rain!

But that sort of thing is expected. We’ve had that level of interaction with Sony controllers since the PlayStation 4, and this is just a better, more realistic version of it.

The magic of Returnal is in the controller’s triggers, and how they’re used to select your firing mode. You bring up your gun to aim with the left trigger button, and when the game begins it’s a single, smooth motion. You pull the trigger, your gun comes up, and the right trigger fires. Simple, intuitive, and how just about every game in the modern era has done it. Nothing shocking there.

But in the early hours of Returnal you unlock an alternate fire mode for your weapons, and the instructions made me anxious. You select the first fire mode by pressing the same left trigger down halfway, and then select the secondary firing mode by pressing the trigger down all the way. That’s just bad design. In the heat of the moment, when I’m losing my cool, I’ll never remember where the sweet spot is for my primary attack. I’m always going to jam the button down and use secondary fire.

That was my fear, at least.

Your controller knows when the ability is unlocked, and the left trigger turns into a two-stage trigger. Push down with your standard amount of force and you’ll bring up your gun to focus your aim. The trigger will stop halfway; there’s a physical block keeping you from moving the button any further, and it’s surprisingly strong.

To fire your secondary weapon you just need to push past the first feeling of the trigger stopping, and jam that sucker all the way down. Your stance will change, you’ll hear an indication from the controller’s speaker, and you’re ready for secondary fire mode, such as a volley of bouncing balls of destructive energy or a lightning attack.

It’s such a weird, but simple, idea: If you have control over how the buttons physically operate, you can change how they react to the player to communicate different ideas. In this case the operation and feel of the controller changes in a material fashion to indicate an in-game mechanic, while making that mechanic easier to use.

It’s not a huge thing, but combined with the rest of what Returnal does well, you begin to see the power of console exclusives; Returnal is doing things with the DualSense controller that I’ve never experienced in a game, and it’s yet another indication that the controller may be the best part of the PlayStation 5 hardware.

Returnal will be released April 30 exclusively on PlayStation 5.