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REvolve Controller Preview

By Jeff Buckland, 2/25/2013

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Last fall, I realized that the mild wrist pain I had felt over years of playing games, browsing the internet, and writing articles was becoming more than an annoyance. I haven't gotten it officially diagnosed, but the numbness and pain tells me that I have a Repetitive Stress Injury or RSI. You've probably heard of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, which is a form of RSI - I'm not sure that's what I've got, but it became something I had to act upon if I wanted to continue doing my job properly. I quickly figured out that the wrist movement of using a mouse in a PC game caused my wrist issue to flare up the most, so I looked for solutions - changing positions, taking breaks, changing sleeping positions, wearing braces, and using devices like this handshake mouse. All of those other things each helped a bit, but the mouse alternatives didn't. Eventually, I decided to try a trackball - specifically, the Logitech M570, and while it hasn't been a miraculous cure for my RSI, at least it's not getting worse.


I noticed something else, though, which was that playing games on a 360 or PS3 controller gave me no pain or numbness. The problem is that I'm primarily a PC gamer and write articles mostly about PC games here on AtomicGamer, and a gamepad simply doesn't cut it in so many of these games. I was excited to find out about the REvolve Controller, an upcoming product that takes a standard consoel gamepad's design and replaces the right analog stick with a trackball. In theory, it's the best of both worlds: the comfort of a gamepad and the precision of a mouse in one handheld device. And after using a prototype, I can say that this controller can very easily live up to those lofty ideals, but it comes with a few caveats that I'll spend some time spelling out.

First things first: before we go on, I need to quickly launch into a defense of the trackball as a legitimate piece of PC gaming hardware, so yes, I'm going to be equating the precision of a gaming mouse to that of a trackball. If you have little-to-no experience with a trackball and have deemed it to be an inferior control method, then I doubt the REvolve will do much to change your mind, but what I can say is that as someone who despised having to aim with anything but a mouse over the last decade, after getting up to speed on a trackball out of necessity, I can say that it is just as speedy and precise as a mouse - especially with some tweaks to sensitivity, just like you would do with a mouse. I don't mean that it's "roughly" or "kind of" as good as a mouse in the same way that an analog stick can eventually be decent in the hands of a dedicated console gamer; I mean that a trackball will give you the exact same lightning-fast spins and pinpoint accuracy of a mouse. If you still don't believe me, well, I can't prove it to you with words on a web page, but if you are even remotely considering an alternative to the mouse, I invite you to try a trackball for a few weeks. You might be surprised. (But you will need a good few weeks' time, just like some might have forgotten we all needed in order to get good with gaming on a mouse.)

Alright, back to the REvolve.

Now, unlike what we've seen with attempts to do something similar and make it work directly on the Xbox 360, the REvolve controller is not made to work on a console, nor will it likely ever. REvolve is made for PC, where the full resolution and motion of a trackball can be harnessed, as it works exactly like a real mouse plugged into your PC. But this controller will have two USB plugs, as it also works as a joystick, and the easiest and most compatible way to do this is with two separate ports. The second one gives you a generic game controller in Windows, and from there you can use third-party software to either emulate keyboard bindings, or to emulate a 360 controller. Yes, there's a difference, and it's very situational based on which game you're playing.


The games that will work best with the REvolve controller are the ones that have few enough keyboard functions that you can map them all to buttons or directions on the D-pad or left stick. On the REvolve, that's four face buttons, four bumpers/triggers (the triggers are digital buttons on the current prototype), four D-pad directions, and then you can go with analog control on the stick if you're mapping it to a 360 controller or duplicate the four D-pad directions. Plus Select, plus Start, plus the left stick click, plus a separate dedicated button added to this controller for R3/right stick click. That adds up to 20 separate functions, and with the free JoytoKey software those can be mapped to keyboard keys or mouse buttons. Or, using another free program called x360ce, those joystick functions can be mapped 1:1 over to 360 controller bindings for the games that support 360 controllers but not generic joystick controls.

Borderlands 2

The first game I tried was Borderlands 2, because I knew that this would wind up being one of the games that was most compatible with the REvolve controller. Why? Because it supports both the mouse and keyboard as well as an Xbox 360 controller simultaneously. Supporting both inputs at once gives gamers the most compatibility, so all I did was load up x360ce to make use of the game's built-in Xbox 360 controller support and I was off. Before long, I found myself playing the game just like I would using a gamepad, with the proper on-screen button prompts and all. But the key difference in this case? I had a thumb trackball rather than an analog stick for looking around, and after a short period of adjustment, I was pulling off critical hits and fast spins just like I would on a mouse or dedicated trackball.

So what's the point of bothering with all of this if your mouse and keyboard are serving you just fine? Well, if what you have makes you happy, if you're pain-free, and you're not interested in trying something new, then there really isn't a point. But if your wrists are starting to creak or you just want to kick back and free yourself from the mouse and keyboard once in a while - without giving up on precision aiming, I mean - then the REvolve controller starts to look a hell of a lot more interesting.

Dishonored

Arkane Studios' latest action-RPG also includes support for simultaneous mouse and gamepad usage, so I got another very smooth experience. Everything was already mapped by the developers, so again, it was just a matter of using the x360ce profile I had set up for Borderlands 2 and just firing up the game.

Skyrim


Unfortunately, Skyrim was a little more difficult. The issue here is that this game doesn't support both mouse-and-keyboard and gamepad profiles simultaneously, so if you want to use the REvolve's trackball, that means the rest of the controller has to emulate keypresses, not joystick controls. It took a while to set things up right in JoytoKey and rebind in-game functions to the buttons and directions on the controller. Still, it worked! I got WASD mapped to the left stick (without true analog movement, but Skyrim has a separate stealth mode you can toggle over to, so it's not a big deal), and then proceeded to bind the mouse buttons and various keyboard functions around the controller. I was able to pretty easily mimic what you'd normally get with a 360 controller. While it did take a bit of knowledge and some time, the thing is, we're PC gaming here. You tweak things to get the most out of your system, and your input methods shouldn't be any different.

Think about this for a second. This means that if you've got a powerful-enough PC in your living room, you can get Skyrim in 1080p on your TV at 60fps, loaded up with as many mods as you dare to install, and you're still getting to kick back on your couch and play.

Time to get crazy

While Peter at REvolve seemed hesitant to recommend I go too far towards the bleeding edge with this controller, I decided I owed it to you, the reader, to find out if it was worth even trying. So, can we actually play strategy games on the REvolve? What about other games that were never meant to work with anything remotely like a gamepad? The idea probably sounds silly, but you might be surprised what range of games are perfectly compatible with this controller.

I started with Path of Exile, ten feet away from my TV on the couch, with just the REvolve in my hands - the laptop was way out of reach. I couldn't bind every single function, but I was able to get a bunch of my abilities and flasks onto the buttons and the D-pad. I also got some Minecraft going, and while that could be played directly on Xbox 360, you can't use modpacks like Feed the Beast on the 360. As long as I wasn't having to chat with people on my server, Minecraft played great. Finally, I also got Space Pirates and Zombies going, which worked amazingly well since it doesn't rely on too many keys for normal play.

Pushing it too far


RTS games became a real challenge. In Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion, I found the limit of what a gamepad with a trackball could do, as I quickly found myself running out of binds. The way I'm accustomed to playing this game, I needed at least 1 through 4 along with Ctrl, Alt, Shift, QWERT and ASDFG to become as efficient as I am with all the normal keybinds, and that just doesn't work with the REvolve.

So there, I successfully found the limit, but it seems the limit may be even further past what the REvolve controller's creators intend.

Downsides

Most of the issues I found with the REvolve have to do with the unit I tested being a prototype. The ball falls out of the socket rather easily. The DPI for tracking is low. The mouse is reversed on the Y-axis, making it difficult to control any kind of on-screen cursor (even though I did find another third-party utility to fix this temporarily for my testing). But all of this stuff is planned to be fixed between now and the final release of the REvolve, which according to the official site, is estimated to happen a little later this year for a very reasonable price of $40.

Beyond that, the biggest downside I see is that this controller takes a bit of work and knowledge to set up; sure, it's just a USB connection and no drivers are required to make the REvolve work as a joystick and a trackball, but technically, that's two separate devices, and no actual games support it right out of the box. It's not being made by a big corporation, so the creators will rely on you to download and install third-party (free) software, figure out how to use those programs, and then set bindings either in that software or directly in your games in order to make everything work properly. It'll also require you to understand and even care about the control schemes that games support simultaneously. That's going to be entirely too much for some users to bother with, but for those willing to put in a little bit of time setting things up, I think they'll enjoy what REvolve has to offer.


The creators just announced that the number of pre-orders they have gotten for the wired version of this controller weren't high enough to go into full production. But there's hope that this design does see the light of day, because they're going back to Kickstarter (after a failed bid last year), this time with a fully wireless version of the REvolve controller. Since one of the most interesting uses of a controller like this is the ability to do PC gaming from your couch without a bulky keyboard and mouse, wireless sounds like it'll make a good product even better. If you're interested in a new way to play a ton of your favorite PC games, check out the official site and look out for the Kickstarter campaign starting soon.

Disclaimer: This preview is based on an engineering sample provided to us, which we returned within a week.


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