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Hands On: Razer Onza

Posted on Tuesday May 10, 2011, 12:15 by James Dyer in Infinite Lives
Hands On: Razer Onza

There’s no denying that Microsoft’s Xbox controller is a glorious piece of engineering. After a brief misstep with the original Xbox’s colossal ‘batarang’, the smaller, svelter model has proved an able gaming companion across two generations of consoles. But it’s not perfect. The digital D-pad is lacking when compared to Sony’s DualShock, the triggers are a tad stiff for twitch shooting and the thumbsticks lack the pixel precision that PC gamers enjoy with a mouse. It’s that last point that I’ve always pined about, especially during heated Call of Duty matches with the rest of the office – most notably when I fail to snipe John with the Barrett, only to have him run up and stab me in the face. Fun times.
I’ve gone through buckets of third party offerings over the years and, by and large, all third party 360 controllers have two things in common. Firstly, they’re all wired, rather than wireless. Secondly, they’re almost all rubbish. The only exceptions to the rather pitiful line-up have been the official CoD controllers from Mad Catz. The (semi) mappable ‘combat’ button on the underside is perfectly placed to replace the left and right stick buttons and the looser triggers on the Modern Warfare 2 variant proved a boon for persistent hard-scopers such as myself.
With all that in mind, it was with some excitement that I first heard Razer’s announcement of the Onza early last year. Longtime purveyors of quality PC gaming accessories (the Naga MMO mouse is a Warcraft staple), Razer has quite a name behind them and their first foray into console gear takes the form of this high end controller – one pad to rule them all, if you believe the hype. The pad comes in two flavours: Standard (£40) and Tournament Editon (£50), and it’s the latter that I put through its paces over the last couple of weeks.
Build quality is as you’d expect from Razer: solid, with a pleasantly rubberised coating, and proportioned to fit snugly in the hand. It also boasts LED lighting, providing an ethereal green glow around the thumbsticks – if you’re into that sort of thing or have trouble finding your controllers in the dark. The pad is wired, of course, as all non-official pads are and while it’s mildly less convenient than the wonder of wireless, the braided cable is more generous than any I’ve seen to date, stretching the 4-5 metres from Empire's TV to couch with ease. Tournament gamers (and FPS nuts) will swear blind that wired is the only way to go anyway, claiming that the minute lag from the wireless pads throw off their aim. Whether that's true or not I'll leave to the MLG masses. The only cosmetic criticism of the Onza is another one that affects all third party pads: the Xbox button is a flat plastic disk with a colour printout of the Xbox logo underneath, which  looks cheap and nasty compared to Microsoft’s embossed metal version. Not a dealbreaker but really, how much can aluminium cost?
The next thing you’ll likely notice about the Onza is the buttons. The Select and Start buttons are set lower than most, which is initially a little off-putting but becomes second nature soon enough. More of an adjustment, though, are the XYAB buttons. Rather than the deeper, spongy buttons you’re used to, the Onza has ‘switch’ buttons with a shallower profile and an audible click on each press. In early sessions with Mortal Kombat, I found myself scared I was going to break them or them through the pad itself - ending up on the business end of numerous fatalities as a result. Once you grow accustomed to pressing more gently, though, the responsiveness of the buttons begins to pay off. Quick combinations (such as those MK requires in order to pull off the more impressive combinations) were made smoother and faster, my thumb dancing ballerina-like between the ultra-responsive buttons. Your mileage may vary here and some will adjust better to the alien feel than others. Likewise with the D-pad, which is a segmented disc that doesn’t quite hit the spot but is certainly no worse than the official pad’s effort and more precise for MK’s demanding fatality inputs. The triggers are loose enough to make twitch shooting a joy and boast a long, curving trigger that makes them easy to grab with even the most uncoordinated digits – though if I’m being picky, I’d probably shave them back by half a centimetre or so.
All of which pedantry take us to the pad’s two killer features – the mappable buttons and the adjustable thumbsticks. My biggest gripe with Mad Catz controllers’ mappable buttons is that each one has only three possible options and if you wanted to, controversially , map X to the left button instead of the right then you were out of luck.  Razer neatly sidestep this restriction by allowing either of the mappable buttons to take on the functions of any other on the pad. It’s well implemented and easy to configure, so much so, in fact, that it’s a shame the damned things are so inaccessible. Both of the mappables are placed on the shoulders, just above the L and R buttons. While this might seem a sensible place, they’re surprisingly tricky to get to without adjusting your grip on the pad itself. While hardly requiring acts of contortion, it does make it hard to believe that it would ever be faster to hit them than, say, the original button whose function you’ve mapped. It’s a real shame as the positioning of Mad Catz’s little buttons on the underside, while a little awkward aesthetically, are perfectly placed beneath the fingers supporting the pad and ultimately more useful as a result - even if their mapping functions are more limited.
Happily, though, the thumbsticks live up to their promise and then some. Only present on the tournament pads, the sticks can be twisted to increase or decrease their resistance to pressure. It may sound daft but believe me, it’s not. The problem with controller sticks is that they they’re short and require a certain amount of pressure to get them moving. By the time you’ve applied enough pressure to overpower the spring, there’s a jump in motion that makes pixel-perfect precision very tricky. Accessories like Kontrol Freek’s FPS Freek have attempted to compensate for this but adding an extra centimetre or so to the stick to decrease the amount of pressure needed to aim and I’ve used these quite extensively myself – trading comfort (they’re murder on the hand after extended use) for increased accuracy. Razer has finally provided me with a viable alternative in the Onza, however. At minimum resistance the stick is about half the strength of the official controller and my Call of Duty game took a noticeable jump in accuracy as a result. Aiming is smoother, the stick more responsive and my K/D ratio took a pleasing bump.
It’s such a simple idea that it’s amazing no one has thought of it before and if only for this one marvellous innovation, Razer’s Onza has now become my CoD (and indeed FPS in general) pad of choice. It’s well worth checking out and, despite some niggles, is a cut above the bulk of 360 controllers currently available. If Razer can only find a more finger-friendly placement for the mappable buttons in a future revision then we may all find ourselves hanging up our wireless MS pads for good.

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