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Controls: The Current Achilles Heel of Console Gaming

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I own Call of Duty: World at War on both the PS3 and the PC. Why? A few reasons (aside from the fact that it turned out to be a pretty enjoyable game). For one, most of my friends can't be bothered to learn to use a PC well enough to troubleshoot the myriad issues that can come up when trying to run games on different hardware configs, and actually setting up and connecting to online matches is still simpler on consoles. Therefore, we play together on PS3. The PS3 also has the draw of collecting trophies for your online avatar, but that's a separate article entirely.

However, despite the solid framerate, performance, and comparable visual polish, I prefer to play it on the PC for two primary reasons: controls and their configurability.

The Mouse Rules The House
While Treyarch made strides in improving console FPS controls, put simply, first-person shooters will never play as well with a controller as they do with a mouse and keyboard. Make all the arguments you want about subtle lateral movement with the analog stick; when it comes down to it, sniping and 1v1 clashes in FPS games are determined by who can aim better, faster, and more accurately. In this regard, the controller will never, ever touch the mouse, unless maybe they replace the right analog with a swappable trackball, something I've lobbied for in the past. However, I've heard no plans of developing any such device.

With the omnipresent USB ports on the PS3 and already available keyboard support, why the hell aren't developers supporting mouse input for games like this? Unreal Tournament embraced using a mouse on the PS2 several years ago. With the glut of FPS games on the current crop of consoles, it eludes me why nobody is including support for this configuration.

What's sadly ironic is that the opposite is being made possible, as the use of console controllers on PCs is being enabled via programs like SwitchBlade. Beyond that, Turning Point: Fall of Liberty and Brothers In Arms: Hell's Highway seem to actually encourage using controllers with the PC iterations. What the hell? PC gamers are just as devout about their platform as everyone else, and I have a hard time imagining them embracing this affront to one of their system's remaining key strengths. Despite my enjoyment of PC games, if more console games embraced the mouse/keyboard setup, I'd probably do most of my gaming there (except real-time strategy and MMOs, which the PC still firmly rules).

Let Me Decide What This Button Does
Further, the inability to remap controls within the available control schemes is simply idiotic. Between Rainbow Six Vegas 1 and 2, Ubisoft decided to swap the buttons for throwing grenades and switching on thermal/night vision. Why? I have no friggin idea, but it's led to plenty of times when my teammates have accidentally suicided by dropping a frag at their feet when all they really wanted was to see better in the dark. Does the PC version have this limitation? Nope, you can reconfigure all the controls to suit any preference. Omitting that option from the console version was utter laziness and a failure on the part of the developer.

Another example of this goes back to World at War. On the PC, you can remap all the controls any way you want. As such, I have the buttons for reloading and interacting with the environment mapped to different keys. I understand that the fixed number of buttons on the controller poses certain limitations here — though if they had keyboard support for the PS3 version of the game, this would all be moot — but the L2 button (normally used for throwing secondary grenades) would be ideal for repairing barriers in the popular Nazi Zombies mode since it doesn't use that button anyway. As it is, I have to hold down the square button to do this, meaning I have to reach across the controller and aim/shoot/defend myself with one hand while repairing the barrier with the other. It's unintuitive and clumsy, and the lack of player choice in control configuration is an asinine design decision. If people don't want to modify setups, they don't have to, but it's a much bigger pain in the ass for people who want the option and don't have it.

Yet another case comes in comparing Burnout Paradise to Midnight Club: Los Angeles. Both are remarkable games in their own particular ways, but guess which one I actually still play anymore? MC:LA. Why? They let you remap every goddamn control in the game to suit your liking, including seemingly frivolous options like putting the top down on your convertible (it's similar Test Drive Unlimited's option for a button to put your windows down). Burnout Paradise held my interest long enough to rack up about 53% of the trophies (i.e., about four days), but short of the pending cops and robbers expansion content, it's not worth the claw-hand-inducing cramps from having to hold down R2 and L2 for gas and brake, respectively.

Granted, the programmers didn't pioneer this design mentality; other games like MotorStorm, and even Sega Rally on the Dreamcast have done it before. However, Criterion could have remedied the problem by allowing you to reconfigure your controls for Burnout, or at least have the pre-set option to use the right analog stick for gas/brake instead. Of course, I spend most of the time holding that stick up constantly to put the camera in a usable position so I can actually see what's in front of me (you'd think that would be important in a game where crashing is such a huge setback), but being able to pre-set camera angles in racing games would probably be asking far too much, since that feature seems to have come and gone within the span of Need for Speed: V-Rally 2 on the PS1.

Then there are games like Army of Two and Conflict: Denied Ops that use L2 and R2 for primary weapon use, contrasting against the L1 and R1 setups for many other similar games we all play. Would it really add that much development time to a title to add the ability to just switch around some buttons so I didn't have to re-memorize basic functions whenever I switch discs?

I have to commend the people at Factor 5 who, after getting slammed in reviews of Lair for the terrible controls, offered a patch that enables players to use the dual analog setup as opposed to the shabbily executed Sixaxis configuration. At least they took the players' best interests to heart, despite the fact that it was too late to salvage sales of the game.

There's a Place For People Like You
With all the emphasis on visual and aural pizzazz in games these days, forgetting about the importance of controls and their customization is both neglectful and irresponsible, especially when you do it for one platform and not another. Intuitive, responsive, and configurable controls are key to the gaming experience. If you want to ignore that, go make movies instead. They'll love you there.

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About Mark Buckingham

  • I am just waiting until MIT releases their hand/brain controlled mouse, until then, nothing is good enough

  • Rob F

    If this were truly an issue beyond your limited scope more developers would do something about it. Why BC continues to lend space to your awful opinions and analysis is beyond me.

  • Mark

    Thanks Rob, nothing constructive, just whining, meaningless criticism with nothing useful behind it. Load times and mid-level saves have been complained about in the past and guess what? THEY FIXED IT in countless titles. Sixaxis functionality got a number of complaints and has been relegated to optional status in virtually every title out there now. Why should someone voice something they take issue with when they can sit around hoping developers will read their minds? Better to suffer in silence, right Rob? Friggin’ brilliant thinking.

    If you’re so weary of my “opinions and analysis,” it must have been excruciating keeping your mouth shut until now, since I don’t seem to remember you piping up about the anguish my words caused you before. Why do you keep reading then? Do you also keep slamming your hand in a door, hoping it’ll feel good one of these times?

    Yeah man, Pong rocked. God forbid we say or do anything to try to evolve/improve a hobby. I’m not interested in your opinion if this is the best you could do, and since clearly the feeling is mutual, how about you keep it to yourself?

  • Rob F

    I’ve read and commented on your work before, and it still surprises me they let you contribute. Your stuff is like a car crash– it’s hard not to take a look at least every once in awhile.

    Developers have never, and likely will never take anything you say to heart. And they certainly won’t change the way they design their games as a direct result of work like yours.

    I don’t care if you don’t like my opinion; this issue is minor and insignificant at best… [Personal attack deleted by Comments Editor].