Most gamers for most of the time are happy with the standard controller offerings from Microsoft, chilling back on the sofa with their controller in hand as they shoot their way to glory. This isn’t enough for some gamers however, some want more than just the standard offering, some want a tool to complement their competitive nature, a tool that will help them squeeze every 0.1 into that K/D ratio. And it’s for gamers like these that MadCatz have released their new Tom Clancy branded Pro Gamepad for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. MadCatz were generous enough to send us one of the Xbox 360 variants to put through its paces and boy, it didn’t disappoint.
Starting with the basics, the shape of the controller is clearly influenced by the standard Microsoft offering, but on the whole is more angular with a distinctive feel. Ergonomically it works perfectly and is comfortable to hold for hours on end. The front has a soft, smooth rubbery feel to it and while it doesn’t have any give should you apply direct pressure, it feels wonderful soft on the balls of your hands. There is a non-slip pistol grip on each of the sides; these can feel gimmicky the first time you pick up the controller, but after a few hours of playing with the controller their presence can be appreciated. The grips keep the controller firmly anchored in the palms of your hand with no pressure required at all, and amazingly the rubberised texture causes no distraction.
Billed as the ‘Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Future Soldier’ Pro Gamepad the device obviously wears its branding on its heart. The top middle of the controller has a shiny plastic panel with ‘Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Future Soldier’ printed on it should you forget the tie-in of the controller during a particularly long session. The front (rubbery) panel carries the Ghost Recon Future Soldier blue skull design over the right, with the thematic feel completed with the rest of the blue design to the left. Under each of the analogue sticks are four LEDs that shine with a blue tint through the clear plastic; while we imagine that this is meant to finish off the whole Ghost Recon look, in actuality they add very little - apart from the inherent sense of leetness any gamer receives by being in close proximity to an LED.
The TC Pro Gamepad is a wired solution with slightly more weight than you would get on a standard wired controller. The cable is of good quality, braided and three metres long. The cable responded well when we put it through a few basic stress tests, showing no signs of delicacy as we scrunched and tugged but still being flexible enough to not have an adverse impact. There is a quick release connection quite close to the USB end of the cable, although as with many of these release connections it still feels as though the USB port would take a hammering before the cable disconnected.
Returning to the analogue sticks, these are comfortable to use and feel as though they have a touch more resistance than the sticks on the standard controller. Tipped with concave rubber the sticks can feel a little slippery during casual examination but perform solidly during actual gameplay. Perhaps the most interesting feature about the sticks here (ignoring of course the shiny blue light) is the ability to slow down the tracking of either stick by using the ‘PrecisionAim’ technology which is built into the pad. Essentially, with the press of a button you can slow down the tracking of either analogue stick, the intention being that you can now snipe with pinpoint accuracy. In use however, as you would expect, using the functionality in multiplayer to help you line up shots usually ends in a comical death, albeit with less floor to ceiling and more slow-mo nooooooooooooooooooooo. It’s a total corker of a feature in single-player however, the slower tracking matching less frenetic action perfectly. The moral of the story is very much that you need to be able to snipe/no scope/whatever in the first place before you would get any ‘leet’ use out of PrecisionAim in multiplayer, and even then it’s a situational tool intended to be flicked on during the last second of a tracking aim rather than used constantly. Still, an interesting advantage should you learn to add it to your arsenal and it can potentially have wider use away from its intentions (I drool at the idea of going back and using it during some of the more difficult Prototype movement challenges!).
The biggest benefit to the Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Future Soldier Pro Gamepad from PrecisionAim though comes not from the technology itself, but rather from the humble button that you use to turn it on. This button is located on the underside of the pad, just to the side of the grips around where the tip of your middle finger should be. The idea, clearly, is that you can tap away at these buttons while still keeping your thumbs fully on the analogue sticks; while we have already seen that PrecisionAim isn’t always the best idea, these magical rear buttons don’t only give you that as an option. Oh no. You see, above both of the buttons is a mini switch with four options - the one near the left grip gives you D-Pad down, left up and PrecisionAim for the left analogue stick while the one near the right grip gives you X, A, B or PrecisionAim for the right analogue stick. Being able to map weapon switch, grenades, items, etc (depending on what game you are playing!) to these buttons is a masterful stroke, not only saving you fractions of seconds but also by allowing you to remain in full control of your character via the use of both sticks. Once you have drilled this in to your muscle memory you will find this a wonderful addition to a controller and you will find it hard to go back to one without this functionality.
Moving away from the fanciness and back to the more mundane examination, the D-Pad itself warrants a mention. At first glance it appears old-school, a simple cross on the face of the controller. However, if you play around with the D-Pad and move it around under your thumb it screams that it is just a well gated variant of the standard D-Pad offering rather than one with solely the eight directions we crave sometimes. Moving from side to side or up to down doesn’t give the kind of physical feedback you would hope for if you were intending to use this pad for fighting games, although the simple cross does work well enough for use in standard games allowing you to tap quickly the bit that you need.
So, the only bit of the pad that we haven’t yet presented would be the buttons and triggers. Starting with the death dealers, the triggers work excellently with the right trigger especially feeling like it is on a hairline. The added responsiveness this gives you allows you to squeeze in that first shot microseconds faster, which is always a good thing. This does mean that you will have to get used to the triggers in driving games, but it really doesn’t take long and doesn't appear to be an issue. The face buttons themselves stand out a little further than the ones on the standard offering, and feel ‘sharper’ around the edges. Responsiveness in all of them was good, with the A and the X button in particular feeling like they had been designed with constant pounding in mind.
With all that in mind, the amazingly named Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Future Soldier Pro Gamepad is a bit of a trooper. The improvements it offers are incremental in the main apart from the fantastic rear buttons. It’s not a perfect pad by any means, but almost every part feels like a significant upgrade from your standard pad, and it comes looking cool with shiny lights as well. Will it make you a better gamer? Not on its own, but we are comfortable in saying it should see you on the way and give you a nudge the right way in your K/D ratios.