A common problem with touch-screen games is in its on-screen controls. Many mobile developers fall at the first hurdle with this control system. The most common genre that is vulnerable to this problem are stick shooters or D-pad platform games. Titles such as these require precision-based controls that touch-screens fail to give. Something more tactile is needed, and luckily SteelSeries has delivered a solution to this problem with the release of their mobile gaming controller called the FREE.
Calling this controller 'FREE' is a little confusing. For one thing, it certainly isn't free. The FREE is part of a range of peripherals from SteelSeries that fit under their “Freedom to Play” message, where you have the freedom to play wherever you are. Carrying a separate controller around with you may be a little overkill for most of us. Thankfully though the FREE is small enough to fit in your pocket at a mere 10.8cm long x 5.5cm deep and 2cm thick, which is fairly small for a button-rich control pad that is smaller than most fully featured smartphones, let alone tablets.
Once out of the box and in your hands the FREE is surprisingly comfortable and light to hold. Its rubber and plastic materials create a solid and premium feel that will no doubt easily withstand a few drops to the floor. Aside from two shoulder buttons, all the buttons can be found on the top side of the controller, with its button and stick layout closely resembling a PlayStation DualShock controller. A standard D-pad is located on the left side of the pad, four face buttons line the right side, two function/sync buttons sit in the middle of the pad and underneath those are two tiny analogue sticks.
The FREE comes with carry pouch and micro-USB charging cable
All buttons and sticks have a reassuring press and button travel to them, for some maybe too much travel. Oddly, the shoulder buttons depress in the middle rather than at the edges of the controller. The risen dual analogue sticks are small yet comfortable to grasp with my average sized thumbs, however those with much larger hands may have to adopt a claw-like pose when handling both the sticks and shoulder buttons.
Charging this Bluetooth enabled controller is done by plugging in the bundled micro-USB cable. These days, everyone has access to a USB port, with micro-USB chargers coming with most current Android smartphones and tablets, so you'll never find yourself without the ability to charge the FREE back up - which will take up to 2 hours. From a fully charged battery the FREE can last over 20 hours (with casual use), which is more than enough for most mobile gaming sessions, as your phone or tablet will most likely run out of battery before the controller does. It is worth pointing out that the FREE can also be used whilst charging, but at the restriction of the cable’s length (1m) and the location of a powered USB port.
Syncing the FREE to your device is fairly straight forward. Switching on your Bluetooth enabled iOS or Android mobile or tablet, PC or Mac device and then holding down one of the controller's function buttons will pair up with the controller. The FREE comes with two mode types that can be toggled by holding down the two function buttons in the middle. One mode is for use with Android, PCs and Macs and the other is for iOS only devices.
At a size smaller than your own phone you can take the FREE controller almost anywhere
Once paired you are ready to use the FREE, and it is at this point you soon realise one of the controller’s fundamental flaws, its limited compatibility and support in games. Using the controller with a PC or Mac will be less frustrating, thanks to most games having the ability to change from standard keyboard controls to the buttons on the FREE controller. Sadly the same cannot be said on iOS and Android platforms with support in games being at the discretion of the mobile developers that make them.
There are a collection of supported titles on the Apple App Store and on Google Play marketplace. Some iOS titles that support the iCade peripheral will also work with the FREE, which increases the line-up of titles, but with thousands of mobiles games out there, support for third-party controllers like the FREE is very limited. It is frustrating to have some stellar mobile games out there that could be enhanced with a physical controller, and I hope in time that more developers will notice these controllers exist and include support for them in their games.
When you do find a game that works, using the FREE is a million miles better than using on screen touch controls. Lag over Bluetooth is non-existent and all games I tested were immediately responsive. First-person shooters become playable again and platformers are no longer frustrating and unresponsive - you can even jump diagonally now without issues!
Oddly, games that support the FREE on Android have not been mirrored on iOS, such as zombie shooter, Dead Trigger, or Riptide GP. On iOS you are mostly limited to endless runners, vertical shooters, a few platformers and the odd unique indie game. If only EA, Gameloft amongst many others offered support for these controllers in their mobile games. Playing Need for Speed or FIFA on an iPad with a FREE controller just makes perfect sense!
Temple Run (iOS), Counter-Strike (Mac) and Retro Racing (iOS) are all compatible
Software support can be fixed in time though, but there are a number of small niggles that effect the FREE as a whole. First is that the FREE uses the iOS keyboard for it to function, so as long as the controller is connected the on-screen keyboard will not show until it is turned off. Having a toggle switch somewhere on the pad would have solved this issue. On Android this issue isn’t present because, like on PC and Mac devices, the input of the FREE is handled differently.
Second is the price of the FREE. For £50 this controller is a little steep for a majority of gamers. You would have to be a pretty dedicated gamer to hand over fifty notes to swap a touch screen for a physical controller, especially where compatibility is still very limited out there. If your gaming is done on a PC or Mac then there are better full size controllers available, with an Xbox 360 controller being a prime contender here, and at half the price too. If a sub £25-£30 price point could be reached then I could recommend the FREE much more, as it solves my main frustration with touch screen gaming and gives the ability to use it with many other platforms too.
The FREE controller from SteelSeries will not replace the console and controller experience, but with technology and mobile hardware improving year on year, touch screen gaming is becoming quite a familiar standard. Having a physical controller will help enhance the increasingly common portable gaming experience, and with the release of Android-based platforms such as the Oyua and NVIDIA’s Project Shield (both utilizing controllers) we will certainly be seeing increased support for controllers in at least Android titles, and hopefully on iOS too.
Publishers and developers: if you are reading this, a little more controller support in your mobile games, please!