As a decidedly retro-looking WrestleMania approaches, what could be more fun for a wrestling game fan than THQ's WWE All Stars? And with the release and continued updating of Marvel vs. Capcom 3, what could be more welcome than controllers featuring six face buttons and a floating D-pad?
Well, as usual, Mad Catz is ahead of the curve when it comes to gaming hardware. Its WWE BrawlPad and BrawlStick cater to both wrestling and fighting game enthusiasts with a bevy of features and smart design. The pad comes with your choice of WWE All Stars artwork, either Hulk Hogan and John Cena or The Rock and Triple H. The stick is Rock/HHH only. Both are available for either the PS3 or the Xbox 360. This is a review of the 360 BrawlPad, but many of the principles apply to the arcade stick as well.
The construction of the BrawlPad is sturdy, but a little lighter than the default 360 pad. It doesn't sit in the hands quite the same way, but both the D-pad and the buttons are large and easy to reach. The bumpers have been relocated to the face, serving as the C and Z buttons did in the classic Sega six-button layout, or as buttons 3 and 6 do in the Capcom arcade configuration. The triggers are up top, but they aren't actually triggers anymore, having a substantial, almost clicky resistance. There is a cable running out of the top of the unit and a 360 headset port in the expected location at the bottom.
The BrawlPad is head and shoulders above the stock 360 D-pad for fighting games.
In order to accommodate a range of play situations, Mad Catz has included a small but easily accessed switch that will change the D-pad's function quickly and on the fly. If you're navigating the dashboard or playing an Xbox Live Arcade title, just leave the pad as is. If the game requires the use of either analog stick, a flick of the switch will allow the D-pad to act as a substitute for either the left or right stick. Of course, you won't get full analog control, but when do you ever go at less than full speed anyway, champ?
And speed is also the name of the game when it comes the buttons, which can individually be assigned one of two turbo speeds. A light near the Start button will let you know turbo is in effect, but if you want to conceal that fact from the opponent you're massacring, you could always try hiding the LED with part of your hand.
The BrawlPad is excellent for games with digital control, such as XBLA titles. In fact, the very first time I used it in Pac-Man: Championsip Edition DX I was rewarded with a new high score. Not bad. The precise digital movement also helps significantly when you're typing out an unlock code or a message to a friend. It's head and shoulders above the stock 360 D-pad for fighting games, too, but we'll get to that later. First, let's not forget the reason there are two wrestlers staring up at you.
Oddly enough, though the controllers are perfectly passable for WWE All Stars, they will limit you in two areas: taunting and targeting. The game itself does not allow you to configure your layout, so you will have to make a compromise or two if you are playing in highly competitive matches with three or four players. The game uses the left analog stick for movement, the right stick to lock on to the opponent of your choice, and the D-pad for taunting. Looking at the images of the Mad Catz controllers, you probably think you're out of luck, but having played through all of All Stars over the past few days, I can tell you that taunting is of next to no use in such a fast game. Targeting, on the other hand, can be key.
Fortunately, the smart design I mentioned earlier comes into play - though in this particular case, it doesn't quite save the day. The aforementioned switch on the back of the unit allows quick switching, remember, but there is also another trick. This doesn't affect taunting, but, really, the only way you're going to get a taunt out in All Stars is if you're cowering in some corner, so in those cases, it wouldn't be a big deal to flip the controller switch back-and-forth. Targeting, however, is something that is often done under high pressure, so while the BrawlPad is fine for one-on-one action, it is less than ideal for keeping your guy in contention in a handicap situation. But by holding the Back button, you can temporarily make the D-pad function as the right stick, enabling a quick change of focus from one opponent to the other.
Seeing as most people use their left thumb for both Back and the D-pad, this can be a bit of a feat to pull off, but it is doable. Of course, in WWE All Stars it's more likely that your target will automatically be changed for you, since you are constantly being attacked, so it can be a moot point.
So, good for All Stars, great for the arcade. But what about fighting games? As you might expect, the BrawlPad, with it's floating D-pad and big buttons spaced closely together, is wonderful for Street Fighter IV and Marvel vs. Capcom 3. One of the MvC 3 missions I had consistently failed to beat using the stock controller quickly fell before me when I came at it with this pad, and I was able to pull off all my flashiest combos (such as they are) in-game. The secrets are in the huge well the D-pad sits in - allowing for fast, fluid, unhampered movement - and the ease in which you can adjust your right hand from a position where you are playing with your thumb to one where you are tapping the buttons with your first three fingers. The stock 360 pad, with its infamous cramped D-pad and four face buttons just doesn't measure up for Capcom brawlers, and that is reason enough for most people to look into something like the BrawlPad.
For games that benefit from precise movement and accurate inputs, the Mad Catz BrawlPad gets the job done, and being able to use it for games that normally require an analog stick makes it that much more useful. Whether your opponent is The Ultimate Warrior or the Eater of Worlds, Galactus, why not look into every advantage?