The Xbox 360 controller has been touted as a dream to hold by those who have experienced it, providing a combination of elegant aesthetics, ergonomic design and a familiar button layout with usability ultimately in mind. One of the more subtle features of the controller's wired USB version is its cross-compatibility with Windows XP, allowing PC gamers a console-grade gamepad option for platforming, racing and third-person action titles. With established options such as the stellar Logitech Rumblepad 2, and the older but quality Thrustmaster Firestorm Dual, is the Xbox 360 controller for PCs worth your attention?
Setting up the controller is easy and unintrusive. If you bought the red packaging specifically for PCs, you'll find a driver CD included insise. If you're simply taking an existing wired controller from the console bundle, you'll find these drivers a quick download away. The driver comes without the unwanted visiting in-laws; there is no resource-hogging software that sits resident in memory. For some, such as myself, this is fantastic. For others, they may miss the ability to load up game configurations on the fly. With in-game mapping becoming more and more sophisticated, such tagalong software is becoming less and less necessary.
The most obvious positive of the controller once you start playing is how comfortable it is to hold and use. Lighter and sleeker than the Xbox Controller S, the controller fits in your grasp incredibly naturally with the smart use of contours around the handles. Your mileage may vary of course, but if you found the Controller Type S comfortable, you'll be in heaven here. If you favor the contours of the Gamecube controller, this controller will also fit your hands quite well. As I'm no fan of the molding of the Dual Shock (I'm more a fan of the Wireless Logitech grips), I can't honestly say how Dual Shock fans will receive it but I'm betting it'll do just fine.
After the buzz from holding the controller passes, the gamepad is instantly familiar to anyone who's enjoyed a PS2 or Xbox game in the past generation. The relocation of the Black and White buttons to the shoulder button positions (as "Left Bumper" and "Right Bumper") is smart. The Start and Back buttons have moved as well, sitting above the right analog stick and d-pad respectively. This effectively puts all of the face buttons and inputs in the familiar "plain view" configuration, eliminating the curious hunting for "those small buttons in the corner." Of course, the big Xbox logo button sits in the middle and for PC gamers is completely useless. You don't even get a nice shining Ring of Light for your PC games; it lights up when your computer boots, and then remains dormant thereafter. Aw.
There is one caveat regarding the placement of the Left Bumper and Right Bumper - you may find it difficult to simultaneously use the triggers with the bumpers. A Gamecube veteran might not have an issue, having been trained on the Z-button R-trigger configuration. Your mileage will truly vary here, depending your comfort with using your formidable middle fingers to pull back on triggers. This is something important to consider, as the triggers are very significant in the PC world. It's the first time a prominent controller has featured the truly analog triggers that reared their heads in the Dreamcast controller. The triggers have finally allowed PC users to hold a gamepad and execute truly analog acceleration and braking in racing games, something that was really only available in previous pads by pushing the right analog stick up or down. Though this was better than accelerating via on/off button presses, it certainly was clumsy, and the triggers are very much appreciated here. If you think you'll need simultaneous presses of Right Bumper and Right Trigger a lot, get ready to become used to potentially awkward finger curling.
The rest of the controller inputs are mostly sound. The ABXY buttons don't feel hard and uncomfortable to press on this time around, are analog, and have a good range of depression. The analog sticks have a decent level of resistance to them and of course provide the click functionality, giving you two extra "buttons". The small issues I had with the controller is that the d-pad, while decent, isn't as responsive as others I've used on the PC, or even when compared to the Controller S. There, and on the Logitech Rumblepad 2, you'll find a better range of depression than you will with the 360 controller. It's certainly an upgrade from the Dual Shock and Gamecube d-pads, but if you're looking for something as pleasing as the Gameboy Micro or Sega Saturn d-pads, you'll find it on the Logitech Rumblepad 2.
To test how well the controller plays with different games, I booted up a first person shooter, a racing game, a basketball game and a 2D fighter. I played them first with the 360 controller, then the logitech Rumblepad 2. The candidates? Halo, MotoGP 3, NBA Live 2004 and the incredibly rare Guilty Gear X for the PC.
= Halo =
I explicitly avoid all console first-person shooters because I find gamepad control inferior to the mouse-and-keyboard combination, but to test this pad's credibility I boot up a first-person shooter for use with a mouse-and-keyboard combo and play it with a gamepad. Imagine the irony.
Anyway, after mapping all the buttons to what they would have been on the Xbox version, I set about blasting some Covenant scum. Aiming Master Chief's weapon at 60 frames a second with an analog stick takes a few seconds of getting used to, since the Xbox version runs at 30 frames, but that's an aspect of the platforms as opposed to the actual controller. In addition, the lack of auto-aim in the PC version makes the game harder to play with a gamepad. Otherwise though, the experience was identical to what you'd find on an Xbox when using the 360 controller.
Using the Rumblepad 2 was a bit different. The analog sticks lack the same weight and resistant on Logitech's otherwise great device, so looking with the second analog stick felt a bit wonky. The level of precision found with the Xbox sticks is simply not there. Also, using a regular ol' shoulder button to fire a weapon felt a bit archaic. Functional? Yes, but for the best experience, the 360 pad definitely wins that battle.
= MotoGP 3 =
MotoGP 3 is a battle I expected to tilt in the direction of the 360 controller, and indeed this was true. Using the 360 controller was a dream with this game. True analog braking and accelerating definitely beat out using the right analog stick on the Rumblepad. Add to that the better resistance/weight of the 360 pad, and you've got yourself a hands down winner.
= NBA Live 2004 =
Basketball games have long been the one genre that demanded use of every single button on the gamepad for effective use, and then some. NBA Live 2004 is no exception. Even with the right analog stick relegated to crossover moves, you still needed buttons for jump stops, forced dunks, posting up, direct-passing, et cetera. With the NBA Live series, icon passing - or direct-passing as they call it - is used by holding down a dedicated button akin to a "shift key" functionality, as opposed to the one-press "toggle" method used by 2K sports. This gave the advantage to Dual Shock users and their four shoulder-button controllers. This advantage is now gone with the 360's bumper buttons, and allows for a more fluid basketball passing experience.
Everything about this comparison was a wash. The Rumblepad and the 360 controllers functioned equally well. The less-resistant analog sticks of the Rumblepad wasn't a problem here, since the digital players move at a slower pace than do digital vehicles in racing games and don't require the same amount of precision as does aiming.
= Guilty Gear X =
Alas, there are no readily available Street Fighter games for the PC. Either that, or they're even more rare than this Guilty Gear X port. (Let's not talk about the horrendous version of Street Fighter II that came out for PC in 1994.) Guilty Gear X works fine for this comparison, however; any of you who, by whatever means you used, like to enjoy 2D fighters on your PCs better listen up.
The Xbox 360 controller's d-pad isn't the easiest beast to conquer when playing Guilty Gear X. It's decent enough, but it fails to replicate the precise responsiveness that you'd expect from a truly high quality fighting stick. In comparison, the Rumblepad 2's d-pad feels so much like the good ol' Sega Saturn pad that it almost put the 360 pad to shame. There's not much of a contest here - for 2D fighters, or perhaps any 2D game, the Rumblepad 2 is preferred.
Looking at the controller from an overall use view, it functions incredibly well and adds the bonus of analog triggers to the experience. It's certainly one that's worthy of your consideration if you play a lot of console-to-PC ports and don't like cluttering your desk with racing wheels. It's also great for creating the console experience with your first person shooters, but I'd have to ask why exactly you'd rather do that than use a mouse. The only downfall is for precision 2D commands via the d-pad, and even then, it's not poor; it's simply inferior to what you'd find on the other premiere PC game controller.
If you don't own a decent gamepad and prefer the diamond four-button layout over Saitek's six-button Sega homage, this is a great controller even at the steep MSRP of $39.99. If you've already got a Logitech Rumblepad 2, you may want to consider how much you really want those analog triggers or how much value the 360 controller's added ergonomics mean to you. The Rumblepad 2 is still very comfortable, though not to the extent as Microsoft's new toy. Regardless, you probably won't regret picking one of these up.