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Gamescom 2013: PlayStation 4 & Xbox One Controller Shootout

Manny takes a close look at both new console controllers.

by Manny Brown Sep 6, 2013


  • Outside of the willy-waving CPU/GPU/RAM horsepower debate surrounding the new batch of consoles from Microsoft and Sony, one area that has an actively quantifiable effect on the desirability of their new hardware are the controllers.
    As anybody that owned an Atari Jaguar or an Amstrad GX4000 can attest, holding a badly-designed slab of plastic and micro-switches can make all the difference when it comes to deciding where to spend your precious entertainment time, and a poor controller can overpower even the best-designed of games.

    With Microsoft setting a high bar on the 360 and Sony leaving themselves plenty of room for improvement over the rather flimsy Dualshock 3, Gamescom represented the first large-scale battleground between the two.

    On the show floor, the Xbox One controller was readily available at both the Microsoft booth and a smattering of third-party publishers, whilst the Dualshock 4 was a rarer beast to find outside of Sony’s own stand. Whether that scarcity was a result of Microsoft spending marketing dollars or a simple decision made by each of the publishers will remain unknown, but behind closed doors it was a decidedly more even spread. The Dualshock 4 featured prominently with some of the larger publishers, and it was the controller of choice for the majority of smaller, independent developers.

    But are they any good?

    The following impressions are based on roughly 7-8 hours play on each system, covering a large gamut of titles and genres on both. Forza 5, FIFA 14, Knack, #Driveclub, War Thunder, Peggle 2, Resogun, Warframe, Assassin’s Creed IV, Hohokum, Call of Duty: Ghosts, Battlefield 4, Need for Speed and many others were sampled, along with the ultimate test of comfort and ergonomics for any next-generation gaming controller - Zoo Tycoon.


    Xbox One

    The first thing that hits you when picking up the Xbox One controller is just how light it is. Sure, all of the pads at Gamescom are tethered to their respective systems with charge cables rather than battery packs, but the Xbox One controller is nonetheless surprisingly airy without feeling fragile or insubstantial. It’s solidly constructed and certainly feels premium, with the new slightly-rubberised plastic shell offering a heck of a lot more grip with a pleasing matte finish. Some might miss the smoothness of the 360 pad, but the Xbox One materials, for my money, offer a much more tactile experience.

    With the battery pack now incorporated into its body and the angle of the grips pointed slightly inwards, the natural resting position for the fingers is across the sparse rear of the controller rather than packed into a ridge, which seems to improve both stability and comfort for my average-sized meat mittens. The front of the controller is flatter and feels a little more compact, with the four main buttons spaced closer together but otherwise exhibiting exactly the same feel as before. The guide button is familiar, and the two new ‘Menu’ and ‘View’ buttons nestle just below.
    the Xbox One materials, for my money, offer a much more tactile experience.
    Getting down to the really important stuff, it’s worth noting that the Xbox One’s analogue sticks are a little different this time around. As well as sporting a gnarled ridge around the top of the thumb rest (which felt a little strange but not uncomfortable), Microsoft’s sticks are now a little looser than they were on the 360. We’re not talking Dualshock 3 levels of floatiness, but there is a change here that can be readily appreciated. In practice, the lighter resistance didn’t make much of a difference to accuracy levels in any of the games I sampled, and so I suspect most players will acclimatise pretty swiftly.


    Moving on to the directional pad, it’s a pleasure to finally use an Xbox Controller that has a functional example of such a basic input system. The Xbox One d-pad is almost flat to the surface of the controller and sports a fast and accurate cross-shaped design, with an appreciable “click” accompanying each of its eight directions. It was almost impossible for them not to improve this area of the system of course, but regardless, this works better than expected and should provide much-needed accuracy across all sorts of genres.
    I don’t think many people will be too unhappy with that evolution.
    Moving on to the top of the controller, there are again some noticeable, positive differences. Microsoft’s new set of trigger-based rumble motors were seemingly disabled for the most of the games I played, but the triggers themselves were comfortable, much better rounded against your fingers and provided a slightly fuzzier degree of resistance than before. The shoulder bumpers are carved out of a much larger piece of plastic and sit flush against the rest of the design, providing a much more tactile ‘click’ this time around.

    The overall impression I got from the Xbox One controller is exactly that of Microsoft’s stated aims. This is an unmistakable heir to the 360 pad, but with a smattering of small and subtle alterations that improve on the experience and give it a bit of character. It’s comfortable and accurate, familiar and improved. I don’t think many people will be too unhappy with that evolution.


    PlayStation 4

    Out of the gate, there’s a huge difference in build quality and form factor when handling Sony’s upgrade to their Dualshock 3. The Dualshock 4 is made from a rigid shell that eliminates the annoying flex that plagued their Playstation 3 variant, while the rear of the controller is crafted from a textured plastic that adds grip and feels great to the touch. Again, some might miss the smooth feel of the previous generation’s controllers, but I’ll wager those folks will be few and far between.
    The shape of the new Dualshock largely adheres to the classic Sony design, but with a few crucial tweaks.
    For a starter, it’s a heck of a lot wider than the compact nature of the Dualshock 3. As a result, Sony’s new controller feels much less cramped, mainly thanks to larger grips and increased spacing between the analogue sticks (you’re unlikely to bump your thumbs together on this one). The classic button layout on the face of the controller remains unchanged however, and the buttons themselves feel pretty much identical to the previous generation.

    All that extra space is in service of the other major addition: a clickable touchpad that sits front and center above those analogue sticks. Utilising the touchpad during gameplay was a little awkward at first, but with practice it could be quickly reached on either thumb without adjusting grip on the back of the controller too much. The games I played mostly employed the touchpad with broad swiping motions for activating special abilities, or else they simply used it as a touch control for navigating around the in-game map.

    Usage was optional in all instances, although the touchpad does seem accurate enough to hopefully inspire developers to put it to interesting use further down the line. Multi-touch gestures are supported, and there’s just enough room on the controller to make familiar actions such as pinch-to-zoom comfortable and intuitive. It’s not game-changing stuff at the moment, but a welcome addition nonetheless.


    Moving on to the rest of the improvements, Sony’s redesigned analogue sticks deserve to be singled out as the most important change for the Dualshock 4. Their height and range of travel has been vastly reduced from the PlayStation 3 standard, whilst resistance has increased to roughly match those found in the 360 controller. Indeed these new sticks feel pretty much the same as the Xbox variants, making shooters and action games suddenly spring to life with accuracy and speed.

    The same can also be said for the new triggers and shoulder buttons, which are similarly revamped and analogous to their competition. The curved trigger design is a godsend compared to the tapered and spongy PS3 variant, with the range of travel and resistance performing well in all the genres I tested. The L1 and R1 shoulder buttons are similarly improved, with a larger design and a slightly springier and more tactile feel. The d-pad remains pretty much the same as the PS3 Controller, which is to say fully functional and speedy to use.
    Overall then, the Dualshock 4 is a night-and-day contrast with its predecessor.
    It feels like a premium, sensibly-sized PlayStation controller with vastly-improved ergonomics, analogue sticks and triggers. With sensible build quality and a complete overhaul of the parts that were roundly criticised on the previous iteration, Sony has done its homework here and produced something the majority of console owners should be happy with.

    Conclusions
    After handling both controllers for considerable lengths of time, probably the most important point is that there wasn’t a single style of game that felt wrong on either. Fighting games and quick-selection mechanics now feel absolutely fine with Microsoft’s directional pad, whilst first-person shooters and action games have the accuracy they need from Sony’s tighter analogue sticks and triggers. There’s no more compromise necessary from developers or shifting control schemes to suit each system. It’s an even playing field.

    In an age of tech companies raising their construction standards to meet that Apple-fuelled quality bar, it was also a pleasure to see a smattering of that philosophy coming through in both the controllers. Both of them feel expensive and less like toys than ever before, and although their respective designs won’t revolutionise their place in the living room, the materials and attention to detail should satisfy those of you with a hunger for the upper tier.

    And sure, I’ve no doubt that die-hard fanboys will discover their favourite parts of each controller and proudly trump those as the all-important differentiation that marks their investment as superior to either the green or blue alternative, but where those arguments were grains of truth surrounded by a lot of hot air in the previous generation, they can be safely ignored this time around.

    Both controllers are excellent, and that’s a pleasure to discover.

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