The Razer Hydra PC motion controller delivers silky-smooth, responsive motion control, but its overall performance is highly dependent upon which (and what types) of games you play—and your own willingness to put up with the learning curve it imposes.
What it is
The Razer Hydra essentially combines the features of a gamepad and motion controller into two ergonomically shaped controllers, vaguely similar to the Wii’s Motion controller and Nunchuck combo.
Each Hydra controller is similar to a large, more ergonomic Wii ‘Nunchuk’ with a thumbstick and a total of eight available buttons: 5 buttons around the base of thumbstick, as well as 1 bumper, 1 trigger, and the thumbstick itself (which can be pressed).
The Hydra isn’t wireless and it’s designed to be used relatively up close to your PC—within 2-3 feet, or about the distance most of us PC gamers probably sit from our monitors. The base station doesn’t require line of sight to operate with the controllers so you could tuck it behind a monitor if you were so inclined; however, the base station also serves as a holder for the controllers so it’s best to place it somewhere convenient if out of the way. The Hydra’s cables are easily long enough to lean back in a chair and get comfortable.
The Razer Hydra offers ‘true 1:1’ motion control which is supposed to be accurate to within a millimeter of movement—in other words, accuracy more in line with your tried-and-true PC gaming companion, the mouse.
The Test drive
Out of the box the Razer Hydra claims to be compatible with more than 125 games but doesn’t mean it actually works well with all of those games.
First and foremost, the Hydra controllers are comfortable and ergonomically friendly. The buttons are well-placed and generally easy to reach, even for smaller hands (my 7-year old son had little difficulty adapting). And the Razer Hydra, unsurprisingly, works very well with Portal 2, both the regular game and the extra levels included with the controllers. The bundled Portal 2 content clearly demonstrates that if a game supports the Hydra directly it can deliver a good experience nearly on par with that of a keyboard and mouse. But while the new Portal 2 levels certainly demonstrate a lot of interesting game play potential for the Razer Hydra, without Wheatley and GladOS along for the ride they don’t have much personality. (Portal 2 lovers desperate for some Portal 2 DLC aren’t missing much.)
World of Goo is another game that works well, which shouldn’t be too surprising since it’s available for the Wii and its simplistic game play make it well-suited to a motion controller.
But other games proved to be a mixed bag.
Left 4 Dead 2 worked in as much as I could move and look, but the weapons switched endlessly and made the game unplayable. Sixense, the company behind the technology powering the Hydra, is still looking into the problem—it’s been reported by other users as well (maybe just gaming writers who, like me, likely have way too much crap connected to their PCs...)
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings was fairly playable after adjusting to the controls. However, The Witcher 2 also brought to light another much-needed feature in the Hydra’s drivers: the ability to customize the controls. By default, button 4 on the right-controller is mapped to the quick save function, which makes it much too easy to accidentally (and repeatedly) save a game when you don’t want or need to.
And the left-controller (in general) seems to be the source of some of the problems I experienced with various games–all of them on the ‘supported’ list in the Hydra’s software. Turning or raising the left controller is frequently mapped to a weapon switch or other attack. In The Witcher 2 the controller seemed overly sensitive and caused a lot of needless sword drawing—even on a ‘Medium’ sensitivity.
Similarly, Batman: Arkham Asylum started promisingly but the left controller again marred the experience, causing Batman to repeatedly swoosh his cape, crouch, and arm batarangs at inopportune moments. I was able to adjust to a certain degree in order to mitigate this somewhat, but not enough to make me want to play the game with the Hydra instead of a mouse and keyboard.
Arkham Asylum also revealed another weakness in the Hydra that will plague early adopters. During the tutorial phase of the game, Arkham Asylum only tells you the keyboard commands for various actions—hence learning (or relearning) how to play requires you to memorize the Hydra’s configuration (viewable from its software applet) and your own process of trial-and-error. Not a show stopper, but an annoyance nonetheless.
The bottom line is that the Hydra works well when it is compatible with and 100% supported by a game. Even then, however, your mileage will vary and (at least for now) you have no way to configure or customize the Hydra’s controls, so you’re forced to relearn how to play your games and probably suck at them for a while as you adjust.
Plenty of potential
Fortunately (according to Razer’s own FAQ) upcoming drivers for the Razer Hydra will enable you to customize the Hydra’s configuration—and this should help the Hydra achieve some of its potential. Simply being able to ‘turn off’ or tweak the controller settings for The Witcher 2, Left 4 Dead 2, and Arkham Asylum would have probably made those games much more playable and enjoyable with the Hydra. As of this writing, however, suffice to say the Hydra generally won’t lure me away from a good gaming keyboard and mouse.
The Hydra is a bit of an odd controller to place in the PC gaming landscape. It’s generally superior to a standard gamepad and certainly well-suited to games where a gamepad might be the weapon of choice: racing games, fighting games, many casual games, and (somewhat debatably) some 3rd person action games.
And the Razer Hydra offers most of the accuracy and much of the flexibility of a keyboard and mouse while allowing you to kick back from the desktop and relax a little more, much as you might do with a gamepad. The Hydra’s right controller would make a great controller for Magic: The Gathering—Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 if that game’s user interface supported the mouse better (the fault here being the game’s and not the Hydra’s).
One other potential benefit of the Hydra is for gamers with kids. Again, the controllers—when they work—can make some games more accessible and/or enjoyable for gamers-in-training. (My 7-year old, for example, had little difficulty adjusting to the Razer Hydra in Portal 2, although he can play equally well with a keyboard/mouse.)
When the Hydra works with games well-suited to it, it’s a pleasure to play with—and when newer drivers are released that allow you to customize the controllers the Hydra will be a more compelling piece of technology.
But for now, unless you’re prepared to pay $140 for the privilege of dealing with the frustrations of early adoption, I’d (at least) recommend holding off until new Hydra drivers are released. It may also be worth waiting to see if Razer releases a standalone version of the Hydra (sans Portal 2 content) at a reduced price point.
Razer Hydra features (courtesy of Razer):
- (Per controller, 2 included in each Hydra set)
- Thumb-ergonomic analog stick for fluid control
- 4 Hyperesponse action buttons
- Rapid-fire trigger and bumper for faster in-game response
- Non-slip satin grip surface
- True six degree-of-freedom magnetic motion tracking
- Lightweight, anti-tangle braided cable
- Low-power magnetic field, low power consumption
- Ultra precise sensor for 1mm and 1 degree tracks
- No line of sight to controllers required
- Low latency feedback