Five years, and still not quite done.
It wouldn’t be wrong to say that the Xbox 360 has possibly one of the best controllers to ever grace any home video game system. In terms of grip, responsiveness, ergonomics, sturdiness and weight, Microsoft pretty much nails it and strides ahead of Playstation 3’s light, small, toy-ish Dual Shock 3. Personally, I have always chosen to play games on the Xbox 360 rather than the PS3 only because of the controller – I still haven’t gotten used to the Dual Shocks, and they are terrible for FPSes. However, the Xbox 360 controller isn’t perfect. Hell far from it, and one of the biggest unanimous complaint against it is its D-pad…if you can call it that.
The D-Pad, which is nothing more than an 8-way directional ‘circular pad’ with an embossed plus sign, has been found to be quite useless as it’s sometimes unresponsive and always clunky control mechanism makes it really hard to be used for anything in-game. You can pretty much forget about 2D platformers, and it does not work quite well for item selection in other genres as well. The complaints have not gone unheard, however, as Microsoft releases this special edition controller, in the hopes to right the wrong caused by, what we assume, when the lead designer decided to bunk the day when the final design was approved. It took them five years, but I guess you need a breather from all the problems and trials the Xbox 360 had been surrounded with during its launch and after (aka Red Ring of Death).
Called nothing but simply a Special Edition controller, the new 360 gamepad has a rather strong visual appeal with its extremely sleek chrome-silver finish. As you can see from the pictures below, the pad has a very single tone color scheme, with even the face buttons replaced from its recognizable color pattern. The main body appears to be using an entirely new material – the silver coat of paint is very much felt in the hands, its smooth and yet slightly rough surface gives it a very premium feel to it.
The two biggest changes from the regular controller are the analogue sticks, and of course the D-pad. While it may appear that the analogues have received a more hollow middle, the depth is only added by an extra layer of rubber on the top. It also appears to have a pointy middle. Do the changes convert to better control over the sticks? Well, not really. I did not feel I was an improved player during my sessions with Bad Company 2 and Halo: Reach. I even tried the normal controller immediately after playing with the SE one and did not find I was aiming better.
The main attraction of the controller is, of course, the revamped D-pad. The shiny new D-pad is much profound in its new avatar, almost making it feel as if it’s a very prominent part of the controller. The D-pad is a transformer, as in it can convert from its good ol’ uselessness to a more regular 4-way direction pad, by turning it anti-clockwise. When we got away from ‘OOoo’-ing by repeatedly turning the knob to see the cool transforming effect, we quickly put it through its paces with Pac Man and Street Fighter IV.
And? Well, not really, no. Not at all.
You see, even though the controller gives a pronounced feel to the directional buttons, the mechanism behind is the same ‘circular pad’ found in the normal controller. As such, it does not really give better control over the directional keys at all. It’s just a lot more felt, and a lot clickier. But that’s about it. I was still scoring better in Pac Man with the analogue sticks, and I wasn’t still managing to pull off a Haduken in Street Fighter IV. Using the normal D-pad and the new D-pad felt exactly the same.
It’s sort of disappointing that Microsoft could only muster this in all of the five years that it had time to sort it out. But I guess a proper working version is better left for the new console; it’s too little too late already. On the bright side, Microsoft is not charging premium for the controller. It is still the same price as a normal play & charge kit, which is much welcome. I would recommend this controller for those who are on the lookout for one with a charge kit. It’s incredibly sleek and sexy to give it a pass. For others, it offers nothing above the value of a normal controller and wouldn’t really change much to give it a miss.