I hate the DualShock 3. It feels like a flimsy, lightweight piece of highly breakable plastic to me. Controllers are important, they are the gateway into console gaming, they are our tools of engagement. As such, a controller can make or break the experience . It needs to be comfortable, it needs to sit in the hands well, to feel well-made and durable to be able to withstand long periods of uninterrupted gaming in spite of those epilepsy warnings that scream 'TAKE A BREAK!'
I'll be the first to admit that my hands are on the large side. I favour a palm position when using a mouse; I genuinely believe that the Nintendo Wavebird had some of the finest ergonomics ever witnessed in a controller and my affinity for the Xbox 360 pad comes from its similarities to the Gamecube's wireless marvel. This isn't about brand affiliation or console loyalty or anything like. My hands are fickle fellows and the instant I cracked my DualShock 3 I cheered. I've been using a chunky third-party one with an X360 button and stick layout and fans to keep my palms from sweating, and the PS3 has been quietly trumping all of my other consoles in terms of play time. Never underestimate the importance of comfort.
Sony have taken that to heart with the DualShock 4. It's fantastic to hold, it really is. Slightly smaller than I was expecting (it's really not that much bigger than its predecessor if at all), it feels nonetheless slightly wider, slightly chunkier, and rather more curvaceous. The spacing between the two analogue sticks has been stretch a little bit to give those thumbs a little more room to breathe, which is very welcome indeed. I'm never going to be the biggest fan of the centred thumbstick layout, but it's far more comfortable here than on the DualShock 3.
The sticks themselves have been vastly improved, with each one now topped with an indented, concave dimple sporting a raised lip around the outer circumference. It makes for greater thumb comfort, lessens the movement of your thumb atop the sticks and thus greatly increases the potential for fine, precise movement of the sticks overall. The deadzone of the sticks appears to have been made a little more stiff, too, lessening the floaty feeling of those of the DS3.
Gripping the controller is a joy thanks to the extended, rounded handles on the thing. The body has actually decreased in size to allow for more grip room, helped too by the controller's more exaggerated curvature, but the DualShock 4 is a weightier proposition than it predecessor, and that's a really good thing. There will always be moments of frustration for those of us who game regularly, there'll always be episodes of tension and skin-of-the-teeth moments. And when the chips are down, you need to know that your controller isn't going to crumble under the pressure or slip out of your hands. But there's some serious build quality at work here, and the DS4 feels robust and secure, aided by a two-tone combination of gloss and matte finishes that look great and didn't feel greasy even in a rafters room stuffed with sweaty journalists and sticky temperatures.
The button layout will be instantly familiar to anyone who's picked up a PlayStation controller in the last two decades, though it's clear that Sony have enlarged the Vita tech rather than just carried over the buttons from the previous DualShock. Buttons are no loner analogue, but no one made any use of that feature anyway, and they feel perfectly weighted, as does the D-pad. It's less mushy than the DualShock 3's and still spanks the floor with Microsoft's offering in that department.
The triggers have been very subtly improved, which is better late than never given the horrible, tumescent nubs on the back of the DualShock 3. Now boasting a trigger-esque curve to each of them, the DS4 just feels more action ready. The slight hook to the triggers are complimented by lessened pressure resistance, making them far less spongy than those of the DS3.
We din't really have a chance to test out the disco light at the back or touchpad in a particularly meaningful capacity, although flicking through one's inventory in Killzone: Shadow Fall looks like the sort of optional complimentary feature that might suit the trackpad nicely. It stands a little proud from the controller itself, and is a button in its own right too, but we'll probably have to wait until Media Molecule get drunk and have a play with it to see any truly inventive applications. It does make for a bit of a stretch, and we can't imagine using the pad for long periods of time. Similarly the moved Start and Select buttons, now Options and Share, are easy to lose and difficult to find again, having been shoved to the back of the controller by the trackpad.
However, all in all, the DualShock 4 is a comfy little fellow. Is it my favourite controller of all time? Well, no, because the sticks are still in the wrong place for supreme comfort for my own personal liking, but anyone who prefers the central position will be hard pressed to be disappointed by Sony's next-gen effort. They've really upped their game. The motion control is still a bit hit and miss, mind -- careening into the hard shoulder time and time again in Driveclub thanks to rather imprecise mo-con over and over was not fun -- but it's the comfiest, most precise PlayStation controller in every other regard yet.