A smart PC gamer knows to utilise the versatility of the PC by tweaking graphics settings, choosing her own hardware combination, using mods.....and yes, by using whichever control peripheral is best for the job at hand.
I own 7 types of control peripherals, and I use all of them for gaming, depending on what game they're best suited to. Below is an overview of each type, with a breakdown of the pros and cons of each.
Naturally, this topic involves a lot of personal preference and subjectivity, though I've tried to be as objective as I could. Also keep in mind that the list of peripherals isn't exhaustive (I don't cover flight sticks, motion controllers or the Steam Controller), as I've chosen to only talk about those that I know well.
No such thing as the perfect peripheral
The perfect gaming peripheral simply hasn't been invented yet. All the existing ones are flawed one way or another. Sure, you'll get by just fine in almost all games with just one peripheral. But if you want the best possible gaming experience (and as PC gamers, that's often what we strive for), you'll want to minimise those flaws by knowing when to match peripheral X with game Y.
Of course, not everyone owns 7 peripherals, and not everyone wants to. In general, you can get an optimal experience in 90% of games by investing in a good keypad, power mouse, and gamepad. If you don't need "optimal" and just want "good", then drop the keypad and power mouse, and just purchase a gamepad to go with your regular keyboard and mouse.
Rules of Thumb
Keyboard - Quantity over Quality
In most cases, however, there are better options. I almost never use my regular keyboard for gaming any more.
What it's not so great at
Imagine getting into a car with a lunatic who did only three actions: slam the brakes, floor the accelerator, do jolting turns. It'd be a terrible ride, right? For the same reason, once you play a racing game with a wheel (or even just a gamepad) you'll never go back to a keyboard.
In a first-person shooter, the WASD limitation of 4 directions (or 8, if you press keys together) isn't a big deal. This is partly because precision of aiming in an FPS is more important than precision of movement. An FPS might make you shoot tiny moving targets in the distance, but it'll rarely require you to move through anything narrower than a barn door.
The other reason keyboards are ok in shooters is because they're anchored to the mouse (the A key moves you west, but swivel your mouse 45 degrees and the A key now moves you northwest). In other words, the keyboard's clunky controls do ok in a FPS, because they use the mouse's superior precision as a crutch.
When you remove the mouse from the equation altogether, such as in a Platform game, the experience quickly becomes clunky. In theory, a keyboard should be perfectly suited to a platformer. After all, most don't use analogue movement (though my own Spryke does), and most require just a few keys: 4 directional movement, jump, and maybe shoot. Yet many people find that platformers on a gamepad just feel more fun and more precise. Perhaps it's something to do with the somewhat stiff feeling of playing with both hands on the keyboard at once.
WASD becomes a particular problem in games where precision of movement and precision of aiming are independent and of equal importance, such as Twin Stick Shooters like Renegade Ops or Waves. Once the mouse can no longer hold the keyboard's hand, the clunkiness of WASD is exposed.
A distant cousin of the twin-stick shooter is the 3D fighting game. Series like Darksiders, Batman Arkham, and Devil May Cry utilise a twin-stick-shooter approach to their combat, frequently requiring you to move in one direction while throwing a projectile in a totally unrelated direction. When you're trying to do this while surrounded by 15 enemies, the coarseness of 8-way movement just doesn't cut it.
Now we come to 3rd person open-world games. The ones that revolve around fighting and/or stealth (eg. Darksiders, Assassins' Creed) are clearly better suited to gamepads. As are the ones that revolve around cars (eg. Test Drive 2 Unlimited). But then you have tricky beasts like the GTA games, where you have cars (way better with a gamepad) and shooting (way better with kb&m).
Honestly, the best peripheral for GTA is one that hasn't been invented yet (maybe Valve's Steam Controller takes us a step closer?....dunno...haven't tried it yet). For now - if the game lets you - consider playing GTA with a gamepad (or wheel), but switching to kb&m for the shooting bits.
What it excels at
It's also a natural fit for first-person shooters. Though this is less to do with the keyboard's inherent strengths, and more to do with the fact that it enables the use of a mouse.
Things to look out for
But my absolute favourite keyboard feature is the LCD panel found on keyboards such as the Logitech G510s. Ever since I first used a keyboard with one of these in 2009, the LCD panel has become my #1 prerequisite feature when choosing a keyboard. If you're a huge big massive PC gaming nerd like me, then it'll probably be up your alley too.
The marketing for these LCD panels usually focuses on the in-game stats that can be displayed here (surprisingly many games provide native support for Logitech LCD panels). But I've yet to find a game where this is actually useful.
The true beauty of these LCDs reveals itself when you pair them with the incredible AIDA64 to display your hardware stats. AIDA64 lets you display just about any info about your PC that you can imagine, and lay it out any way you wish.
With the right customisation, a keyboard's LCD panel is an Overclocker's or PC enthusiast's dream. They're also useful for people who simply want to see their framerates without ugly blocky numbers messing up their game (FRAPS has native support for Logitech LCDs).
I adore my Logitech G510s, even though I almost never use its keys for actual gaming. I'm regularly consulting the LCD for hardware stats, and finely adjusting my system volume is a pleasure with its smoothly rolling volume bar. I've also programmed its macro keys to do things like open/close Steam Overlay, instantly switch from headphones to speakers, or to toggle 3Dvision on and off.
Gaming keypad - The keyboard's smarter little brother
A good gaming keypad also treats you like a highly evolved primate, and actually gives your opposable thumb some useful things to do. On a regular keyboard, your thumb is really only used for two keys (SPACE and ALT). A keypad such as the Orbweaver lets it comfortably command six.
Frankly, gaming keypads can also be better for your health. Regular keyboards - especially if you're right-handed - force your hands away from the torso and into an unergonomic position that places stress on the neck and back. (I know from personal experience how expensive osteopath appointments can get after too many hours spent in this position!) A small gaming keypad can be placed right next to your mouse for a symmetrical position that is closer to the body and ultimately more comfortable.
What it's not so great at
To combat the lower number of keys, most keypads come with a multi-keyset feature that let you multiply the number of available keys by switching between several different profiles on the fly. I personally find this too fiddly to be worthwhile. If you're playing a sprawling strategy game that uses a ton of hotkeys, you might want to use a regular keyboard. Or try combining a keypad with a power mouse.
What it excels at
So, just about any game that plays well with a keyboard (and doesn't have an enormous amount of hotkeys) will play even better with a gaming keypad: first-person shooter, roleplaying games, strategy games. Your fingers will be faster, you'll waste less time looking down, and you'll be more comfortable. You'll likely even find yourself more immersed in the game.
Gaming keypads are also very customisable, usually offering macros and full key remapping. The latter is useful for games that have certain commands hardcoded and/or disallow certain keys to be mapped (a game prevents you from changing the map key from M to TAB? No problem, just configure the keypad to pretend that its TAB key is M).
What to look out for
It also must be mentioned that keypads can unfortunately cause occasional annoyances or glitches. For example, Windows' Device Manager sometimes treats Razer keypads like gamepads, which can cause xbox gamepads to not work in some games until the keypad is unplugged.
Also, the Razer models are dependent on a somewhat intrusive program called Razer Synapse. The core program is good, and using it to configure hotkeys and macros is a breeze, but its insistence on syncing to the cloud and frequent update notification popups get annoying for what should be a near-invisible little utility.
Mouse - When she's good, she's very very good
The mouse's great advantage comes from its ability to cater equally well to a wide variety of movements, from slow and creeping, to jutting and angular. This incredibly precise movement is no doubt enabled by the fact that the mouse engages the fine motor skills in more of your muscles than most other peripherals do.
A keyboard key is pressed by a single finger moving more or less like a simple piston: up and down. The movement of your thumb on a gamepad's thumbstick is barely more sophisitcated. Yet when you operate a mouse, your movement can incorporate a complex network of movements (clenching, pressing, twisting, pulling, sliding...) from just about every muscle from your shoulder and elbow, through your wrist and into the fingertips of all five fingers.
What it's not so great at
What to look out for
I've tried several wireless mice over the years. No matter the brand or PC setup, I've always ended up disappointed. Some had cripplingly short wireless ranges, while others had a habit of conflicting with other wireless devices in the room. The cursors with those that worked without major problems were still noticeably jitterier than with a wired mouse. I've learnt my lesson, and I always stick to wired mice now.
This is the most subjective area, and nothing can replace trying out a mouse in your own hand. But I'll give the best advice I can. For the record, my hands are slender, but with longer-than-average fingers.
The three main grip types are "claw", "tip", and "palm". Most people, including me, use a "palm" grip: a large area of your palm makes contact with the butt of the mouse, while your fingers and thumb gently rest on (as opposed to tightly clamp) either side.
In my experience, the best mouse for a "palm" grip needs to be:
- Asymmetrically shaped (see picture below). This is a must. Once you feel your hand snugly fitting into an ergonomically designed mouse, you'll never go back to a symmetrical (ie. unergonomic) one.
- Have a butt/arch that protrudes generously both upwards and backwards, to really give your palm something to wrap itself around.
- Fairly large (though of course this will depend on your hand shape and size). Smaller mice tend to encourage the "claw" grip, which I find less comfortable.
Unless it happens to be 1987 where you live, you should get a mouse with at least 5 buttons. Buttons #4 and #5 are super useful as "back" and "forward" in browsers and Windows Explorer. And when gaming, it's handy to map them to actions such as "melee", "throw grenade", or "open inventory".
Though if you want to get the absolute best experience, you might want to consider the.....
Power Mouse Swiss army knife
Many games use way more keys than you can comfortably reach with your left hand without taking it off WASD. Here are just a few of the more common ones: J for journal, M for map, Z for prone, F5 for quicksave, I for inventory, ESC for closing a dialog, 1-9 for weapons or hot items, HOME for centre camera, PrntScrn for screenshots.
With a Power Mouse, you can map actions like these to buttons that are always within easy reach. This not only gives you better reaction time in games, but it can also increase immersion by reducing the distraction and tediousness of looking down at the keyboard every time you want to find M for map.
I've even found that by removing this friction, using a power mouse can even change how I play a game. For example, I might find myself switching items from the inventory more, or using a wider combination of weapons and powers.
The benefits of a power mouse go far beyond gaming, too. The next time you're working in this or that software program, take a note of which keys you press over and over. I personally found that when I'm working on my game development in Photoshop, Toon Boom Harmony or Clickteam Fusion, I'm pressing ENTER, ESC, and DEL hundreds of times a day - and none of those keys are particularly close to where my hands usually rest!
I've since mapped ENTER, ESC, DEL to mouse buttons, and the reduction of friction in my workflow has been palpable. I highly recommend it!
Things to look out for
The more buttons the better, though make sure they're placed intelligently. You don't want 10 buttons all clustered around the thumb, because you'll have trouble memorising them and finding them in the heat of the moment. Rather, look for a mouse that has scattered various buttons across strategic spots: a couple at the front, a couple for the thumb, a couple on the other side for the pinky, and so on. By far the best mouse in this regard (and most regards, actually) that I've personally used is the Roccat Tyon.
Customisability & Software
Mice with 5 or fewer buttons generally work out of the box in almost every game and program. Power mice with 6 or more will generally require a utility that lets you map them to keyboard keys. These utilities can vary in quality, with some being more full-featured than others (again, the Roccat stands out in my experience).
If the software that comes with your mouse is somewhat barebones, gaps in functionality can sometimes be filled by using a free 3rd party utility called xmouse. Xmouse gives you a lot of control over your mouse, including several different methods of simulating a keystroke. This is important, and can make the difference between something working or not. For example, you'd want:
- a grenade button to only activate once when you press it
- the fire button for an automatic weapon to activate repeatedly until you release it
- the crouch button to activate once but indefinitely until you release it
When researching Power Mice, be careful to note which buttons are actually mappable. Sometimes a mouse might be advertised as having 10 buttons, but then you learn that the really useful looking button at the front can't be used for anything other than changing DPI, and that the nice little button right by the thumb is locked to a "sniper mode" feature.
So there's a lot to consider. Or not.......just get the Roccat Tyon. It's awesome.
Gamepad - I once was blind, but now I see
I think a major reason so many PC gamers don't realise the benefit of gamepads (apart from mere snootiness and habituation) is that we tend to remember that time we played Halo at a friend's house and were dumbfounded by how bad the controls were. Or we try to imagine how you might even begin to play StarCraft 2 with a gamepad, then give up and weep instead. But the truth is that there are just as many genres where the gamepad outperforms the kb+m.
Unlike kb+m gaming, the gamepad takes a little time to get used to. If you're like I was, it'll take a good few weeks to get used to the tiny movement of the thumbsticks. But once you get the hang of it, a whole bunch of games suddenly become more enjoyable than they ever were before.
What it's not so great at
So gamepads are a big no-no for first-person shooters and third-person shooters. They're also pretty lousy with most strategy games, including real-time-strategy, turn-based strategy, and tower defense games. Those games frequently require you to click all over the place, and this becomes tedious with a joystick that has a very low top-speed, compared to a mouse that can flit across the whole screen in an instant.
The gamepad's limited number of buttons can also be an issue. Most gamepads have about 15 buttons, depending how you count them, which is not enough for most strategy games or many role-playing games.
What it excels at
But the gamepad's big strength is analogue controls that let you use physical pressure to activate a trigger or joystick a little, a bit more, or a lot, depending on your need. This makes them great for racing games (though wheels are of course better), and stealth games, where they let you delicately transition from a slow crawl to a brisk trot as you navigate the shadows.
There's also a lot to be said for the physical form of the gamepad. After all, it's the only device on this list that was designed for gaming from the ground up. Gamepads have a nice compactness and mobility. They're nice to hold, they don't lock your whole body into one place, and their inputs are all tailored specifically for the act of playing. Somehow, they can just feel more fun sometimes, and I think that's one of the reasons Platform games
usually feel better with them.
There's one more category of game that is best played with a gamepad: games that should in theory work well with m+kb, but were nevertheless designed with a gamepad in mind.
Take the Assassin's Creed series: you'd think these games would work well with m+kb because they have few vehicles, slow-paced combat, and rudimentary stealth. Unfortunately, Ubisoft saddled these games (the earlier ones at least - haven't tried the newers ones) with bizarre mouse movement that [unsuccessfully] tries to mimic an analog joystick. As you move your mouse across the mousepad, the movement on screen decelerates until it stops completely...even though you are still moving your mouse. This deceleration is awkward and unintuitive, and no amount of tweaking of .ini files and the Windows control panel can entirely get rid of it. So, unless you want frustrating controls, play Assassins' Creed with a gamepad. Ditto with Watch_Dogs.
Another example is Skyrim. Now, Skyrim does usually play ok with m+kb, but once you play it with a gamepad it becomes clear this is how the game was originally conceived (though it's even better with the Xbox360 Controller KeyRemap mod).
In Skyrim, sneaking is of course better with analog movement, and so is lockpicking. Dual-wielding feels much more natural with two triggers in your hand, especially for melee brawlers. Finally, the UI was designed around a gamepad (though that is rectified by SkyUI). Even archery arguably feels better with a gamepad. Obviously, the accuracy is poorer than with a mouse. But it just feels more appropriate to pull back a bow string by pulling back on a trigger.
The final benefit of gamepads is their vibration ability. Well-designed vibration in a game makes a really nice impact. In some cases it helps with gameplay, as when it indicates that you're losing traction in a car game, or that you're nearing the sweet spot of a picked lock. In other cases, it just adds to immersion, as when a dragon flies over your head in Skyrim, or when you start shivering from the cold (requires Frostfall)
Things to look out for
The wired xbox 360 gamepad is good, except for its notoriously frustrating d-pad. Get the improved Xbox One gamepad instead (works with PC in wired mode), or a 3rd-party Xbox-compatible gamepad such as the Razer Sabertooth (pictured). I really like the Sabertooth, though be aware that you might need to do some one-off tweaking to get it to work properly.
But they just do it so much better. There's something about playing a good driving game with a wheel that just feels....unadulterated - in a way that shooting a gun by clicking a mouse (or scaling a wall by tilting a thumbstick) never will. It's a pure form of gaming that's about as good as it gets.
What they're not so good at
And obviously, a wheel ain't no good if a game don't got cars in it.
Where they excel
It'll surprise no one that steering a car is much more precise and satisfying with a wheel than with a 2cm thumbstick on a gamepad. But the same can be said for the pedals: I find it much more natural and easy to feather the pedals than I do a gamepad's triggers. Also, the mere fact that your feet are involved plays a huge role in making you really feel connected to the car, increasing immersion in the game.
The force feedback (that means vibration by the way - but a good wheel gives a much meaner kick than a gamepad does) is terrific too. Driving over gravel in Dirt 3 actually feels like driving over gravel. Even on tarmac, you can use the slight vibrations of the wheel to judge when you're beginning to lose traction.
What to look out for
A good wheel is a bonafide piece of machinery. It must have size and heft, and its force feedback needs to kick like a mule. It's also going to cop a beating from you as you make those panicked last-second turns, so it needs to be strong, rigid, and grip your desk like a gorilla. A product like that is going to be expensive - there's just no other way around it.
I have a Logitech Driving Force GT, which cost around $250, and I wouldn't recommend anything cheaper than that. It's a good wheel, but it's a bit plasticky in parts, and it doesn't have a clutch or proper H-shaped stick shift. If I had to buy another one, I'd get a more expensive model, such as the G27 pictured above.
One thing to note about racing wheels is that they haven't got a defacto standard like gamepads have in the xbox 360 controller, so game support can sometimes be a bit hit or miss. You can almost always get things working satisfactorily with some tweaking and googling, but you can minimise your headaches by buying a recent model from a big brand.
Wheels can also occasionally interfere with gamepads, requiring you to unplug one to use the other.
Wacom tablet - Yes, Really
A wacom is basically a drawing tablet with a pen that functions as a mouse. It makes freehand drawing about a gajillion times easier than with a mouse, and no self respecting illustrator or graphic designer would be caught dead without one.
Wacoms aren't stellar at replicating regular mouse use, They're passable for Web browsing but I'd never play a shooter with one. But they excel, predictably, at games that require pen-like finesse. They can also be good for games that were originally designed for touchscreens, since a pen is closer to a finger than a mouse is. Let's call these drawing games and touch-based games.
So far, I've only played 2 games that the wacom excels at: Crayon Physics and Flight Control HD. Both are way more fun with a wacom than with a mouse.
My score on one of the levels in Flight Control HD is in the top 1% on the world leaderboards. I've never come remotely close to the top of the leaderboards in any other game. Clearly, my success this time was due to the advantage of using a wacom when most other chumps are using mice ;)
Unless you're the world's most ardent Flight Control HD aficionado, there's obviously little reason to go out and buy a wacom just for gaming. But if you're a designer or artist who happens to already use one, keep it in mind for those occasional games that might benefit from it!