Sony Ericsson’s Xperia Play, the “PlayStation phone,” lacks the games it needs to make an impact.

As a gamer, I’ve been excited and apprehensive about this phone and its ability to offer something that goes beyond your average tap-and-drag smartphone offering.

The Xperia Play delivers that, for sure, but it still has a way to go before it stands a shot at replacing the PlayStation Portable or the DS in my gadget collection. Still, if it gets decent games soon, could be the start of a lucrative line for Sony.

Price: Amazon is running a deal for $99.99. Otherwise, it’s $199.99 on a two-year contract; $499.99 full retail.

Specs: The Play has a 4-inch touchscreen, weighs 6.17 ounces and has a 5MP rear-facing camera and a VGA front-facing camera. It sports a 1GHz processor and an Adreno 205 graphics processor, has an 8GB micro SD card and supports up to 32GB of microSD support. The phone is 3G and supports WiFi, Bluetooth and GPS. The phone charges with a micro USB cord, and has no HDMI port.

When closed, the Play looks like a normal, serious, professional phone — something Sony has highlighted in its ads.

So when I opened the slide-out gaming pad, I was relieved to find myself in familiar territory. The phone has a directional pad, two touch pads meant to emulate analog joysticks, Sony’s gaming buttons, a “Select” button, “Start” button, and two shoulder buttons that flank the volume rocker control. Anyone who’s played on a PlayStation Portable or a PlayStation will know exactly what to do with this phone.

Battery life depends on what you’re doing. Sony Ericsson says you can expect up to 7 hours and 40 minutes of talk time or 5 hours of solid gaming from the phone. You should probably expect to have to charge it every night.

The phone isn’t hooked up to the PlayStation Network or the PlayStation Store.

Phone: The phone on the Xperia Play is an Android phone. I found that the sliding game pad makes it a bit bulky to hold to your ear; the Play weighs in a little over 6 ounces. While it is kind of uncomfortable to hold on long calls, it’s light enough that anyone excited about gaming on the phone would probably be willing to overlook its heft. And, perhaps because of the girth, the phone never feels flimsy, even when you slide it open. The phone slides open pretty easily, but not so easily that I ever found it accidentally opened in my purse.

Call quality was clear and the Android 2.3.2 operating system offers all the normal features of a Gingerbread phone. The cameras are so-so, taking somewhat fuzzy photos and audio. The phone oddly lacks a camera button.

As for software, the phone comes pre-loaded with several apps, including Google Maps, Search, Voice Search, YouTube, VCast Apps and Tetris, which does not take advantage of the Sony controls.

It also has six game titles designed for use with the game pad.

Gaming:The game play is, of course, what makes or breaks the phone. And the verdict? Well, I’m still deliberating.

It certainly won’t replace your PSP or your DS. While this integrated device is easier to carry around than a handheld, it just doesn’t measure up to those.

That said, the gaming quality is much better than I would have expected from a multi-purpose device. Sony Ericsson got the feel of this device right. Gamers will appreciate the familiarity of the controls, and it’s easy to forget mid-game that you’re playing on your phone.

On the games optimized for the Play’s controls, the game play is mostly smooth and intuitive for anyone familiar with Sony’s controls. The D-pad and four function buttons work well to navigate through games. The touch-pad joysticks, on the other hand, take some getting used to and don’t offer much control, and the shoulder buttons are a bit too sensitive for gaming on the go.

Then, there’s the screen. While it’s plenty large, isn’t nearly bright enough to play comfortably for a long period indoors or out. And the screen glare makes it tough to play in the sun.

The phone also lags sometimes with graphics-intensive games, such as Asphalt 6, the Gameloft racing game that comes with the phone. A couple of the games also have long loading screens that can’t be skipped. While that’s not the Play’s fault, Sony Ericsson should think about the fact that the players will more likely turn to the Play for short, quick gaming to pass the time.

What’s really holding the Play back, though is the lack of really good games. While many of the games are entertaining enough, the only classic Sony title ported to the Play right now is Crash Bandicoot. The other Play-optimized titles that come with the device are: Madden NFL, Bruce Lee Dragon Warrior, Star Battalion, The Sims 3, and Asphalt 6. There are a handful of other Play-optimized titles with a good mix of genres, but nothing for gamers to get excited about.

The only title to watch right now comes from Mojang, the brains behind Minecraft, which revealed that the Play will be the first to get the mobile version of its popular game. They’ll demo the game at E3 next month.

More classic Sony games are coming down the pipeline — and will likely be announced at E3 — but on launch day, the Play has some pretty slim pickings.

Bottom Line: The Xperia Play is a step ahead of any other sort of combo gaming/phone device out there, but its success relies completely on what optimized games Sony releases in the near future. I’m hoping that we’ll hear about some great titles at E3 next month to help the Play live up to its full potential.

Are you excited for the Xperia Play? Or do you think it’s just a gimmick?

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