Why are Some Console Game Controls so Terrible?

One of the “PC Master Race” issues with console gaming is the controls. I certainly was among them, and the more I play on a console, the more I keep coming back to this topic. 2021 was the first year where I spent the majority of my time playing on an Xbox Series console. Everything I tried during that year was okay, or it was still new enough to me that I could not differentiate between good and bad controls. On the PlayStation, I only played Horizon Zero Dawn, and I found it to be one of the best controller input implementations out there. In 2022, I have played fewer games in total in about the same period. Still, a higher percentage of them frustrated me with their implementation of analog-stick movement to the point where I was about to give up or actually gave up playing the game.

Why is it so hard for some developers to figure out an enjoyable controller feeling? Am I the only one noticing this, or are long-time console players just used to it? Let me take a step back and explain.

The first argument PC players have against controllers is accuracy. A controller’s analog sticks cannot compete with the precision of a mouse. That was one of my first worries, too. You may be surprised to hear that this is not what I mean. At least not directly. It is, however, an immediate effect of what I am going to talk about. My frustration stems from motion input delay through, let me call it, “over softening” or weird acceleration “curves”.

An example of “over softening” is A Plague Tale Innocence. It’s a slow-paced game, so the controls do not have to be super accurate. However, that does not mean that looking around with the right thumbstick should feel like Lara Croft wading through a mud puddle. It is slow to respond, it starts gently before reaching its designated speed, and when you let go of the stick, it gradually comes to a halt, very tenderly. Yes, tenderly! In a game as gritty and dark as Plague Tale. Looking around in this game is cumbersome, similar to The Witcher simulating a drunk Geralt, only without the blurry vision. A Plague Tale’s controls are inaccurate because the developers tried to achieve a soft and gentle motion. This implementation’s movement is pleasant to look at when you are not the one playing. It lends itself to excellent presentation videos. As a player, especially one used to a direct mouse and keyboard response, this made the game untenable for me. And I am not alone in this opinion. My sister shares the same resentment. We desperately wanted to know how the story continued, but neither of us wanted to play because of the controls. Good thing it is on Game Pass and did “not cost anything”.

Next on the list are Guardians of the Galaxy and Cyberpunk 2077, both on Xbox Series X, just like Plague Tale. Both fall into the “messed up response curve” category. Guardians is weird in two ways. Firstly, it does not really seem to have a response curve. I slowly moved the right thumbstick further and further until about ¾ of the stick’s available range. The camera speed only changed slightly. Crossing that ¾ mark, the camera suddenly moves unproportionally faster, like traveling at lightspeed. This behavior results in very unpredictable movement. Guardians is partially “saved” by how it handles enemy lock-on and by increasing the look sensitivity to its max value. The latter makes the sudden increase to hypervelocity less jarring. The automatic and sticky lock onto anything when you shoot Peter’s guns prevents you from missing hard all the time due to the higher sensitivity. It is not a fix, though, only a janky workaround. Traversal and gameplay are still more finicky than they have to be.

The second issue is probably a result of performance woes, I assume. In some situations, the camera barely moves, regardless of how far you push the right stick, and suddenly it gets jerked around. It feels a little bit like rubberbanding. Unfortunately, the only viable video options are the 30 fps Quality or Raytracing modes. Switching to the 60 fps Performance mode could maybe solve that issue, but it is too unstable for me.

Which is a perfect segue to talk about Cyberpunk 2077. I might dedicate a separate review to this game where I will discuss that game’s performance in more detail, but I thought it might make for a good transition. Let me quickly say that the 30 fps mode in Cyberpunk is unplayable. The input lag is way too high for my taste, among other things. The Horizon franchise is an excellent example of tuning a 30 fps mode for fluid motion and responsive controls. Therefore, my opinion is based on the 60 fps option, but the settings apply to all video modes.

Before I start complaining, I have to praise CD Projekt Red for separating regular movement sensitivity and aiming sensitivity. Not all games do this and having only one motion sensitivity setting often makes shooting feel off, or exploration be bothersome. In Cyberpunk, you can control both independently. Well, almost, because aiming speed is still tied to the regular look sensitivity. It is implemented as a ratio of reduced rate. You can also set inner and out dead zones, turning delay, and turning bonus to fine-tune the motion handling to your needs further. Too bad, though, that the defaults feel slow for a long time, and suddenly, you start spinning like a washing machine. Like with Guardians, this feels very unpredictable. Unlike Guardians, you do not have a sticky lock-on mechanism during gunplay. No wonder you need articles like this to explain what it all means and tell you to set a lot of stuff to zero. In the end, I managed to make the shooting accuracy manageable and world navigation a bit too slow – but playable enough.

Another offender is 2013’s Tomb Raider reboot, a game I have taken jabs at in other video game reviews. All titles have one thing in common: they’d play flawlessly on a PC with a keyboard and mouse.

Where does that leave me then? First of all, pensive. The games I mentioned are just the four most egregious examples of the many I have tried since the start of 2021. It just so happened that I picked some offending titles in short succession this year. In the grand scheme of things, there is more to the story. It turns out that the Xbox controller is a bit more uncomfortable than the 3rd party Nacon Revolution Pro 2 I use on the PlayStation 4. It is way better than the stock PS4 controller, mind you, but nothing I can play with for hours and hours on end. I’d like to occasionally switch between controller and keyboard and mouse to mix things up – which would also solve my earlier complaints. I do not play for long hours most of the time, but I am limited by the comfort of the input device in my hand and the pain it causes me when I do have time.

Fun story: Cyberpunk 2077 supports mouse and keyboard in its menu, although it is evident from missing key icons (like <RB>, only for the keyboard) that it’s more of a bug than a feature. In gameplay, only the keyboard works, and the mouse does not. It would have benefitted this game a lot if K+M were adequately implemented.

This blog post is more or less just a rant that I wanted to get off my chest. If there is a moral to the story, it goes out to PC gamers thinking about leaving their PC behind (whatever the reason). Think twice. Unless you are 100% certain that the benefits of a PC are of no more value to you, that a console can provide everything you need, and that you are not as bothered by janky controls as I am, it might be better to stay with the more complex, but more flexible PC platform. A console has its charms. I totally get it, which is why I made the transition myself. As is the case with many things in life, you only learn about the pros and cons over time, and in hindsight, you might have made a different decision.

I wish that game developer of all genres would focus more on a low-latency, direct input response with a predictable response curve. The input device is called a Controller. It has control in its name. The examples I mentioned take control away from me and turn it into a guessing game.

I might be a unicorn with my opinion, or I might have stumbled over the wrong games in the wrong timeframe to create a lousy impression. The PC platform has a lot of baggage, but the choice of the input device is not one of them. It is also an accessibility feature that I miss on a console. Many game studios now pride themselves on all the settings they implement for people with disabilities. And that is truly great. But somehow, only very few seem to consider RSI issues and that switching input methods could help someone like me enjoy a game for longer sessions.

Now I went from complaining about terrible controller input handling to lamenting about accessibility. It is connected somehow, but I tend to digress by discussing input methods.

Thank you for reading. I hope it wasn’t a completely pointless rambling and waterfall of words.

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