It’s no secret I’ve had my opinion of custom/third party controllers swayed within the years since I’ve started writing reviews. Initially, when I was a younger man, the concept of customized controllers was fraught with substandard materials. Cheap parts meant that if you showed up late to your friend’s party you were going to be stuck with some knock-off Nintendo controller that felt like crap and was prone to tech issues.
The process evolved, and third party peripheral makers – Mad Catz in particular – upped their game significantly. The war changed: gone were the days of manufacturers crafting discount models of controllers to attempt to undercut the first-party option. Now third party options were the superior model for a superior price.
With the new Elite Controller, Microsoft has made its claim for the throne. Again, first party manufacturing looks to be the best feeling, best looking, highest quality, and more significant game experience in the market share. However, with great quality comes great price. Are people willing to shell out $150 for a single controller? Can you make a controller that is double the standard price tag worth the purchase price?
The immediate thing that anyone looking into the controller is going to notice is the look of the thing. From a first-timer perspective the additional triggers and switches, along with the inverted d-pad, might seem a little daunting. Not to mention with the new muted black/grey color scheme for everything (including the signature red/blue/green/yellow face buttons) makes the thing look pretty menacing. All of that is just to make this thing look like a stealth fighter, a lethal combination of looks and mechanics. What really matters is how the thing feels and functions.
For my money, the priority is on the overall feel of the controller. It needs to feel ‘right,’ for a lack of better terminology. In my mind that breaks down into three primary factors: weight, shape, and texture. The Microsoft Elite controller for the Xbox One knocks it out of the park on all three counts. The Elite is a bit heavier than the standard Xbox One controller, due primarily to the fact that it utilizes metal for a majority of the moving parts, rather than the thick plastic base we’re used to. That extra heft is an easy way to make it feel more like a quality item out of the gate. To quote Jurassic Park lawyer Donald Gennero, “if it’s heavy, it’s expensive.”
The second factor is the shape. Now, from my point of view, Microsoft already kind of nailed the shape of the Xbox controller when they got to the 360 generation. The Elite just takes that one step beyond. It fits perfectly into my hand, and when I say “perfectly” I mean to the point where the added four trigger switches on the back of the controller instinctively fit against my ring and pinky finger pads without any thought or adjustment required.
That’s something I would say carries through for everything else in this review of the Elite. Everything feels extremely well-thought out and meticulously planned. It was engineered at a higher level than I’ve ever experienced to be (to date) the perfect controller.
Lastly, the grip, or “texture,” of the controller. We’re used to the smooth feel of hardened plastic by now, over the course of many, many generations of gaming controllers… so anything new can feel a little weird. That being said, a rubberized grip to the back half of the controller’s two “wings” is simply the best addition to the feel of a controller since Mad Catz’s MLG Pro Controller with it subtle rubber-grip sensation.
It is textured in a way to offer additional grip and offers a change of pace that instantly feels good. Like slipping into the leather bucket seat of a sports car, the rubberized hand-grips of the Elite feel… well, to crib a line from another movie: “money.”
Aside from the slick look and the luxurious feel of the controller, there is plenty of function to follow the form.
Each of the mobile pieces, posed for customization, are metal in machining and magnetic in nature. This means that swapping the joysticks or the d-pad on the controller, or even just removing the additional trigger switches on the back of the controller is simple. It also feels clean and, well, awesome. It was enough, the first few times, to make me giddy about the controller. Everything snapping together smartly as though it knew what you wanted. There’s no chance of slipping up; everything just comes together smoothly, beautifully. It’s elegant and one of the many things about the controller that earn it the “Elite” title.
Speaking of the magnetic, swappable pieces of the controller, Microsoft has decided to reinvent the wheel. The D-pad has been a controller mainstay since the Nintendo Entertainment System. It’s been prominently featured on every console since we moved on from the joystick-and-single-button control-layout.
Microsoft has decided to innovate on this design with a new concept: a sort of bowl/half-pip for your thumb to nestle into while you’re rocking between the standard up/down/left/right actions. When I first saw it, my immediate thought was: “Fighting games!” However, after a few short rounds of Killer Instinct I decided this wasn’t the best use.
Instead, I find it replacing my standard D-pad configuration for menu navigation and weapon selection in the majority of games. It’s not what I originally thought, but it is a massive step forwards. A bold decision by Microsoft to try something new and different, which isn’t completely useless or unnecessary… plus, let’s be honest, it looks pretty bad ass.
After spending quite a bit of time trying out the various offerings for d-pad options and thumb sticks offered in the kit provided with the purchase of the Xbox Elite controller, I wound up going back to my initial layout the inverted d-pad and the standard (short) thumb sticks. So, it might not seem like I was getting much out of the “customization” of the controller, however, there’s another key component to this controller that I instantly fell in love with and use on the regular: Adjustable trigger throw distance.
On the back of the controller, just above the addition of the magnetic paddle switches, there are two green slide-switches that allow you to adjust the throw distance of the right and left triggers. This means that you can decrease the duration over the traditional controller making it more of a “button” than a full pull.
This has proved invaluable since the launch of Halo 5: Guardians. Switching to short-throw triggers is basically like giving all your guns in any shooting game a hair trigger, improving not only your reaction and shot time, but ability to react to any “twitch” situation with the utmost priority. Given that most of my game time these days is split between shooters and racers, it is fantastic to know I can switch back at any time as well. Increasing the throw distance on the triggers means you get the full range of motion that we’re used to, allowing you to feather and fine-tune your throttle in simulation racing, as needed, per tradition.
This is easily my favorite feature of the controller. Form and function all in one glorious combination of multi-functional utility allowing gamers with diverse tastes to swap control schemes on the fly for their particular gaming genre that day.
To that end, it’s also worth mentioning that on the front of the controller there is a switch that allows you to change between two pre-set control profiles. This means that with the flip of a switch you can completely change what everything on the controller does, suited to the player’s personal preferences. It’s not a feature I’ve used too often, seeing as I only need one control scheme per game for my preferences, which is set by the game itself, but it is handy to know that should the day come when I want to entirely change my controls per situation I have that option. Or, that if I have a friend that wants to play with a super stupid layout whenever they “tag in,” that we can do that without having to spend 10 minutes in the menu between each hand-off.
Alright! So we’ve talked enough theory – let’s get into practice. For my purposes, I figured there was three main genres where this controller could truly shine: Fighters, Racers, and FPS.
I ran through different control configurations and playstyles in Halo 5: Guardians, Killer Instinct Season 2, and Forza 5. I won’t break down into a full beat-by-beat on each of the games, but let’s hit each to talk a little about the expected and final results for each genre and where the controller shines or loses points.
Halo 5 is easily my favorite experience with the controller so far. the concept of adjusting to a shorter-throw on the trigger switch might seem simple, but it feels like it’s made a world of difference to my game. Not only that, but the feel of weight in the controller harkens back to the day of playing Goldeneye on the N64 after the inclusion of the rumble pack. Without the extra weight everything just feels off… somehow, you’re less invested in what you’re doing and there’s some kind of a mental disconnect. I need that weight. It feels like intent. Halo became a much more competitive game for me when I started to play with $150 worth of steel and hardened plastic form-fitted for slaughter.
Not to mention I greatly preferred moving the “stick click” abilities (like sprint and crouch) to the paddles on the back.
Forza 5 was another golden opportunity for the controller to shine, and it did not disappoint. Here, again, the weighting and the rubberized grip just felt a lot better, like the difference between grabbing the race wheel of a Lamborghini as compared to the faux leather grip of a Ford Fiesta. Not to mention that the paddles increased intelligently my control options. The paddles on the back became my shift paddles, mimicking high-end race wheels in the real world, which felt like a no-brainer. It was as good as you can get for control outside of the purchase of a legitimate racing wheel.
Finally, Killer Instinct. My attempt to make the inverted D-pad really sing. There’s no way I can say that the pad wasn’t accurate and didn’t make sense for attack motions (dragon punch action, or the quarter circle on reaction), however, it somehow felt a little too rigid in its accuracy. For someone that isn’t methodical with his inputs, it was hampering some of my “rock and win” action for fighting moves. That is obviously a niche complaint, and the intent is obviously for the pad to be as accurate as humanly possible… which my failure proves works. So chalk the “fail” in this category up to player preference, which is easily bypassed by a swap of the D-pad face included in the kit.
Before I conclude, there’s two small addendums I want to add to this review regarding the ‘luxury’ items that were included, those being the braided USB cable for recharging/connecting to PC and the travel case.
Obviously, the standard Xbox One controller doesn’t come with these, but they aren’t really needed, either. It’s not often I take my controller out of the house, and even if I did so it likely would require its own personal clutch. That being said, it is a neat way to store everything and makes your controller look and feel a little like a custom sniper rifle with its own individual padded suitcase. You can look like a real bad ass pulling the thing out and setting up for your preferred competition game if you’re heading the pro route.
The braided controller cable, too, was not really needed. Mostly, you just grab a standard USB-to-microUSB cable and connect to the console or controller, but a braided cable is just that little bit of extra nice that lets you know Microsoft appreciates that you put up the money for an Elite experience.
So now we get to the big question: Can you – or, rather, should you – justify the cost of two controllers for one premium controller?
If you can afford it, I cannot recommend this controller highly enough. The customization is smart, not gimmicky. The weight is superb. The feel of it is flawless. This is, for my money, the perfect gaming controller. I’ve often claimed that the X360 controller was the greatest controller ever made. When the Xbox One launched I was honestly a little underwhelmed. It still felt great, but it lacked that extra oomph that made the 360 my preferred controller over the course of history.
The Elite not only resolves all of my small gripes with the standard controller but dives deep into the recesses of my brain to confront a series of complaints about every other controller before it that I didn’t even know that I had. It is, quite simply, a perfect combination of attention to detail and gaming nirvana.
So, if you can, you absolutely should nab one of these for yourself. You will adore it and you will cherish it as your new best friend in gaming for years to come.