Traditionally, motion control has been the domain of the consoles. Between the Wii, Xbox Kinect, and the PlayStation Move, the tech has developed a reputation as an arm-wagging, casual experience—emblematic of the overall shift away from the kind of deep, demanding, rewarding gameplay that the PC as a platform is known for.
With that in mind, you can imagine that we were a little surprised when we heard that Razer—a company associated with competitive, hardcore gaming—was releasing a motion controller for the PC. Is this the beginning of the end?
In a word, no. Whether or not the Hydra is the beginning of anything at all is debatable, but it’s definitely not trying to dumb down PC gaming.
That glowing whiffle ball is the Hydra’s magnetic base station. The controllers must be used within three feet.
When you first lay hands on the Hydra, you can tell that this is a motion controller designed for a more serious audience. It includes two “nunchuk”-style handheld controllers, each with an analog thumbstick and seven buttons. That’s right, seven buttons. By comparison, the Wii’s nunchuk has only two buttons, the PlayStation Move has plenty of buttons, but only a single joystick, and the Kinect—well, don’t talk to the Kinect about buttons. The Hydra is, in other words, equipped to play even very complicated games.
Each of the controllers is ergonomic and significantly larger than the Wii nunchuk, which they otherwise resemble. They’re lightweight—a product of not having any internal batteries, and they have to be used within a 2–3-foot radius of the Hydra’s magnetic sensor—a small, glowing orb that connects to your computer with a USB cable. Even if you wanted to test the limits of the Hydra’s range, you’re constrained by the braided cables that tether the handsets to the sensor. Although we’re glad that the Hydra’s corded design will dissuade anyone from making yet another motion bowling game for it, we didn’t care for the mass of cables it left on our desk.
In all, the Hydra’s hardware is designed nicely. What’s going to make or break it as a successful motion controller is the software support. To get things started on the right foot, Razer enlisted the help of one of PC gaming’s most respected developers—Valve.
Bundled with every Hydra is a copy of Portal 2, Valve’s hit first-person puzzler. The bundled version includes the full game, with support for Hydra motion control, as well as a set of 10 all-new levels specifically designed to take advantage of the peripheral. The added features are a lot of fun and add some extra depth to an already amazing game. With motion control, you can manipulate objects in three dimensions, moving the controller toward or away from your body to do the same in game. You can also rotate portals and stretch certain objects, making for some fun puzzles.
Playing Portal 2 with the Hydra is a lot of fun, but for $140, the Hydra had better work with more than just one game. Razer claims support for more than 125 games, but of course this just means that the Hydra has profiles that allow you to play any of those games without having to configure it manually. There’s a big difference between a game that can be controlled with the Hydra and one that’s meant to be.
For single-player shooters, the controller works fairly well. The motion-based aiming is a bit less precise than using the mouse, so we doubt many people will want to go online wielding the Hydra. Any game that is best played using a gamepad can be played using the Hydra (which, if you take out the motion functionality, is just a gamepad split in half) though the button layout isn’t nearly as comfortable as a dedicated gamepad. Pointer-heavy excursions like real-time strategy games? Forget about playing those with the Hydra—it just doesn’t work.
And that’s really the problem with the Hydra—for an expensive peripheral, the software support just isn’t there. Portal 2 is a great title to launch with, but Razer hasn’t done enough to prove that there’s going to be a large body of software to support the system in the future. Sure, you can use it to play games that weren’t designed for motion control, but that is—by definition—unfulfilling.
Unless you’re a motion-control aficionado, we recommend that you hold off on the Razer Hydra until more games are released that take advantage of its specific capabilities.