The importance of a good controller is often sadly overlooked, by both games companies and gamers alike. Many a console has been compromised by having a poor quality controller and the entire smartphone market is looked down upon by most core gamers simply because the controls are so poorly suited to action games. But in almost all cases a console’s default official controller is the best, with the exceptions being specialist controllers for specific genres such as beat ’em-ups or racing games.
A deluxe model joypad though is almost unheard of for consoles, and the biggest question hanging over the Elite Controller is who exactly is going to buy it. Given the £119.99 price tag Microsoft presumably made it with hardcore and professional gamers in mind, but as long as you have the money it offers a useful advantage for everybody.
In terms of basic form factor the Elite Controller is exactly the same as the standard Xbox One controller. It’s considerably heavier (in a satisfyingly expensive-feeling way) and instead of cheap, cold plastic the body is made of a nice warm matte rubber finish, with diamond-pattern grips. But the device itself, including the triggers and bumpers, are exactly the same shape across both controllers.
Surprisingly, the face buttons are also the same, although they’re no longer coloured and their names are barely visible – no doubt because Microsoft assumes that anybody spending £120 on a new controller knows where the ‘A’ button is. The most obvious visual difference though is the D-pad, which is now a large circular device with the eight compass points bevelled into it. But don’t worry if you don’t like the sound of that, because you can just take it off and replace it with a more traditional D-pad if you prefer.
The two key selling points with the Elite Controller are its precision and its customisability. As such, the other most obvious visual difference is that on the back it has four metal paddles. But these two are completely removable if you don’t intend to use them, since each is held in place by magnets. They can pop out by mistake when you’re handling the controller, but given how you hold it not when you’re actually using it.
The paddles are similar in concept to gear shifts on a high end race car, but they’re not just intended for driving games. What they actually do in a game is entirely up to you, as you’re able to customise them to replicate any other button or trigger.
The most important part of any joypad though is the analogue sticks, and the Elite controller has three different options: the standard concave Xbox 360 design, convex DualShock style ones, and extra long arcade-like sticks that almost make the D-pad improvements irrelevant.
And while the triggers aren’t metal like the other inputs they do have an optional hair trigger, that you can turn on with one of the green switches at the back of the controller. This means you barely have to touch the trigger and it will register as you pressing it, which is clearly aimed at serious shooter fans. The bumpers don’t have the same option, but they’re much smoother and less ‘clicky’ than the standard controller.
Also included in the package is a carrying case for the controller and all its interchangeable parts, as well as a USB cable for connecting and using it with a PC. Surprisingly though the controller isn’t rechargeable – you have to pay another £25 for a battery pack and charging station if you want that.
In order to customise what the buttons do there’s an app that allows you to bind any of the buttons or controls to whatever function you want in any game. Which in itself is a huge boon for those frustrated at the lack of customisable controls in games in general.
It’s not the most user friendly bit of software we’ve ever used but you can store two set-ups at once, switching between the two with a button on the front of the controller. You can also go much deeper in terms of changing the sensitivity and dead zone of the triggers and analogue sticks. Although surprisingly you can’t set up macros, such as fighting game combos.
Some games, particularly Microsoft published ones such as Halo 5 and Forza Motorsport 6, have their own in-built set-up, but for the last few days it’s Star Wars: Battlefront we’ve been playing the most with the Elite Controller. And while we could certainly see the benefit of the hair trigger when getting a bead on enemies it’s the precision of the analogue sticks that really impressed us in Fighter Squadron mode. Moving in 3D and tracking your opponent as they wheel through the sky is appreciably easier when the sticks are this accurate.
The Elite Controller is excellent, and near perfect in design and execution. But while it is clearly better in every way than than any other joypad for the Xbox One or PlayStation 4 we shouldn’t overstate the difference it makes. There might be improvements across the board, but, beyond simply being more comfortable, they’re generally subtle ones that only more experienced gamers will appreciate. Given the price that means you need to think long and hard about whether this is something you actually need.
But since the controller is usually your one and only interface with the game you’re playing even a small improvement is extremely important. Whether you’re a pro or an ordinary gamer that welcomes any advantage, the Elite is the Rolls Royce of video game controllers.