When Microsoft launched the original Xbox in 2001, the oversized console shipped with a similarly enormous controller, half-lovingly and half-mockingly dubbed “the Duke” by fans. The smaller and sleeker “Controller S” was released the following year, which laid the groundwork for the Xbox 360 controller, widely considered to be one of the best ever made. So expectations were high for the Xbox One controller, especially with the Microsoft marketing machine touting that the company spent more than $100 million making over 40 different improvements.
But the Xbox One controller wasn’t much of a leap forward, and in some areas it was even a step backwards. The D-pad was definitely improved and the addition of rumble to the triggers gave a nice kick, but the shoulder bumpers felt mushy and were difficult to hold down. And unlike its competitor, Sony’s vastly improved DualShock 4, it still required a separately purchased (and clunky) headset adapter to use earphones.
But Microsoft has been responding to criticisms and earlier this summer released an updated version that greatly improved the bumpers and added a 3.5 millimeter headphone jack, so an adapter is no longer required. Now they’re taking things to the next level with the Xbox Elite Wireless Controller, a first attempt to woo the competitive gaming market with a high-end product — and it might be the single greatest controller I’ve ever held in my hands.
Everything about the Elite, from the increased heft to the stainless steel thumbsticks to the rubberized textured grips, screams quality. The launch controller felt plastic and hollow, but the Elite feels solid and durable and seems like it will easily last the lifespan of the console. It comes with a hard carrying case that holds the controller’s numerous interchangeable components.
There are three sets of analog sticks: a textured concave pair, taller concave ones, and a smooth convex set, so you can find the perfect match, or even mix them up. There are also two different d-pads: a standard cross and a faceted circular disc, which is perfect for performing sweeping motions in fighting games like Killer Instinct. All of these are easily removable and fall into place with a satisfying magnetic snap. Each trigger also has its own hair trigger lock, and a quick flip of the switch shortens the travel of the triggers, which lets you fire faster in shooters, for example.
Easily the most exciting addition are four slim metal paddles that attach to the back of the controller. I never would have thought that modern-day controllers needed more buttons, but the placement of the paddles — and the ability to customize them to perform any function — is an absolute game-changer. I’ve been testing the Elite primarily with Halo 5: Guardians, using them to perform actions that usually require you move your thumbs off the analog sticks, which can cost you valuable milliseconds (I’m only half joking). It may not sound like a big deal, but the paddles are so perfectly placed and require such a slight press to register that it just feels great in practice, and after a week of extended use, it makes it really hard to go back to the standard controller.
Every one of the controller’s 14 inputs (except the view and menu buttons) can be customized in the free Xbox Accessories app, and it’s as simple as can be. You can adjust the dead zone of the triggers, thumbstick sensitivities, and even the controller’s rumble, but that’s a bit too much tweaking even for me. The app saves a seemingly endless number of configurations in the cloud, and you can store two profiles directly on the controller and change them with the flip of a switch. For instance, you could have a shooter setup saved as profile one and a completely different setup for driving games as profile two, and go back and forth depending on what you’re playing. The app also includes suggested configurations for games such as Gears of War: Ultimate Edition and Forza Motorsport 6, with the promise of more for upcoming games.
So it’s a super-solid, extremely customizable controller that plays great, but here’s the catch: All of these premium features come at a very premium price. The Elite retails at a hefty $150, more than twice the cost of the standard $60 controller. And although the Accessories app does not yet work with the standard controller, Microsoft has stated that button-mapping will eventually support all controllers, so that feature won’t be exclusive to the Elite.
More casual players probably wouldn’t know what to do with half of the features that the Elite offers anyway, so it’s hard to recommend to everyone, especially at that price. But for those who want control over every aspect of their controller or hardcore gamers who are into the competitive scene, the Elite seems like a solid investment. You get what you pay for, and with the Elite’s super-solid construction and endless customizability, you’re getting arguably the best controller on the market.
The Xbox Elite Wireless Controller is available on Oct. 27, or you can purchase it as part of the Xbox One Elite Bundle that includes the controller and an Xbox One with 1TB solid state hybrid hard drive, out Nov. 3 for $499.