Made By: Thrustmaster
Available for: Xbox 360/PC
Transparency: This controller was provided free of charge by Thrustmaster for review. Roughly 9-10 hours were spent testing it.
Third-party controllers are in abundance. Go on Google and simply search for ’em and you’ll be greeted by quite a few to choose from, but the important thing is that while there is no shortage of them the vast majority are utterly useless in comparison to the official stuff that comes with your console. In particular the Xbox 360 controller is a thing of majestic beauty that few can rival. And yet Thrustmaster has stepped forth with a new controller aimed primarily at racing fans to do battle with the official controllers. Hurrah for them, and such.
So let’s start with the basics: opening the damn thing. In true fashion the box proved a formidable adversary, but eventually I came away victorious by means of a bloody sharp knife. Inside the box is, of course, the controller itself, which for this review was tested on the Xbox 360, but it can also be used with a PC, and a few bits of paper that explain exactly how to connect the aforementioned controller to your beloved console of choice. These bits of paper are pretty pointless, though, because this is a wired controller meaning all you have to do is plug the USB cable into your console and off you go. Who needs manuals? And for those undoubtedly wondering, no, there’s no wireless version of the controller available, so for the love of all that’s remotely holy try not to get drunk and trip over the damn thing. Unless you were also filming it. In which case put it on Youtube and become famous for the wrong reasons.
Now that it’s out of the box lets see what we’ve got here. The GPX boasts all the buttons you’d expect to see on an Xbox 360 controller, supports vibration (steady there) and of course a connection point for your headset so that you can communicate with your fellow apes. Humans. Whatever. It sports a very simple black design with the Thrustmaster logo proudly stamped on the left and two curving lines to give it a little extra flair. It’s a tad smaller than the official controller in size and is fairly light in the hand, having been constructed out of a sort of cheap feeling plastic. In terms of aesthetics, then it’s not exactly something you’re going to sit there and admire for hours on end, but it looks nice enough and at least the brightly colored buttons contrast nicely with the black finish. It’s also worth pointing out that there’s also an officially licensed Ferrari version of the controller available, which features a red and white paintjob. After that, though things start to get a bit more interesting: the controller also boasts triggers with extra curve that sit higher and have extra tension for better throttle and brake control, 16-bit resolution analog sticks for increased accuracy, shiny lights behind those extra-accurate sticks and two sets of lights on the front of the controller. These two rows of four LEDs each on the front light up as you press down on the triggers, depending on exactly how much force you’re applying, allowing you to judge how much throttle and brake you’re using. Meanwhile the backlighting on the analog sticks responds to actions in-game, so for example while playing Forza: Horizon the lights behind the sticks get brighter as the tyres squeal in protest, or if you’re playing a shooter they’ll pulse when you get shot. Should fancy lights not be your thing then both can be turned off using the two buttons situated on the top of the controller, one for both the LEDs and the backlit-sticks.
Obviously the lighting behind the sticks is purely for visual effect, and they are rather pretty to be behold, glowing a lovely red that compliments the controller nicely, but the LEDs on the front claim to serve an actual function. Press the triggers a little and the first light comes on, a little more and the second switchs on and so on, the concept being that they provide a visual aid so you know exactly how much force you’re applying. It’s a neat idea, but one that suffers from a rather obvious design flaw: how many people actually look at their controller while playing? Let alone when they’re navigating a tight hairpin or something. As such I never found myself using the LEDs in-game, but I did use them a little while just sitting idle to gauge the triggers. Mostly, then, they’re just as decorational as the backlighting on the sticks.
Pretty lights aside, though, the important thing is obviously how it performs. And that starts with the ergonomics of the thing, and damn are they good! The controller fits into my hands absolutely fantastically, and the smaller design ensures everything is in reach. I’d actually have to hazard that the LightBack sits better in my hands than the official 360 controller, which is high praise indeed. Since the GPX is clearly designed with racing games in mind it was with that genre that I decided to kick off my testing of the controller, starting with the newly released Forza: Horizon, which you might already know I was bloody impressed with. Now, there’s two things here that on paper should give us gamers a better racing experience. The first are the two triggers which have a far more pronounced curve than a regular controller that fits the contour of your fingers far better. Their topmost point also sits higher than a regular controller and they have more tension in them, allowing for increased control. The second thing is that the analog sticks feature 16-bit resolution which makes more precise, up to 2x claims the packaging, than what you get on a standard controller, giving us far better control and more range when it comes to subtle corrections of the steering. And the difference that these two things make made themselves apparent while playing Horizon: as I slid the corners in my Mustang the extra tension and curve on the triggers did indeed let me control the throttle far better and the extra precision of the sticks made small corrections far easier. Still, the differences in performance between the GPX and my standard controller wasn’t absolutely huge. But it was then I realised that Horizon wasn’t really the sort of game where the performance of the GPX would best be demonstrated, and so I loaded up my copy of F1 2011, a game that requires precision. You might be wondering why I didn’t load up F1 2012 instead, and the answer is simple: I’ve had far more time with F1 2011 having played it religiously, therefore I know how it handles inside and out, also making it the perfect choice for highlighting the differences between the regular controller I used for all that game time and the GPX.
And quite honestly the first half-hour with F1 2011 was horrendous. I was sliding around like a lunatic and sawing at the steering in the corners. I’d oversteer, try to compensate and go to wide, then oversteer again. Nor could I get a smooth line around long gently curving corners. But after the half-hour everything began to click into place: it wasn’t the controller, it was me. I simply wasn’t used to how sensitive the sticks were or exactly how much pressure needed to be applied to the triggers. And so I essentially began re-learning how to play F1 2011 all over again, and by time I had I was thoroughly impressed with the GPX’s performance: I found myself hitting apexs beautifully and had far better throttle and brake control than before. On F1 2011 the difference between my regular controller and the GPX were far, far more pronounced. I don’t mind admitting that I was genuinely surprised: I was expecting the performance to be better than the standard controller, but not quite by that much. And that performance carried on into Forza 4 and DiRT 3 as well.
So, what I’m getting at here is that for racing games the GPX is indeed a rather fantastic piece of kit. However, once you get outside of the racing genre the advantages of the GPX are obviously less. On shooters, for example, the higher precision on the sticks was extremely welcome for lining up headshots but the extra trigger tension and curve didn’t really make any difference to my playing. On adventure game’s like Assassin’s Creed 3 neither thing made any particular difference to performance, although against I suppose you can’t really go wrong with having more precise sticks in any genre of game. The rest of the buttons on the controller also feel just as good as the regular model, so there’s no complaints there, either. Oh, and did I mention that the D-Pad is actually pretty good? It can sometimes feel a tad unresponsive, but it’s still a step up from the Xbox 360 controller’s D-Pad. Thus far, then, the GPX has shown considerably better performance than a standard controller in racing games and either equal or better performance in other genres. There’s got to be some flaws, though, right?
Yup, there are. The big one comes from the single-pin connection on the controller for plugging in your microphone. While that’s fine for using the official Xbox 360 microphone it doesn’t allow you to plug in certain third-party headsets. For example the Ghost Recon Tritton headset that’s sitting on my shelf at the moment was rendered useless if I wanted to head online and chat to friends as the single-pin microphone connection simply wouldn’t accept it. I can honestly think of no justifiable reason for Thrustmaster choosing to employ this single-pin connection over the one used by the official controller as it limits many gamers, so if you do decide to purchase this controller please ensure that this won’t be a problem for you. Also, if you happen to use a chatpad then you should know that the shape of the GPX controller doesn’t allow for one. At around 100-inches or 8ft (not a precise measurement, but close) the USB cable isn’t exactly huge, something which the packaging doesn’t mention. For myself this was no problem, but obviously if you sit quite far back from your TV this could be a big problem. Finally the size of the analog sticks is slightly smaller than the official controller so some analog stick extenders won’t fit, either.
A pretty hefty list of negatives, then, that mars an otherwise great little controller. Should the above flaws not directly affect you then the Thrustmaster GPX LightBack controller is absolutely fantastic for racing, providing a considerable amount of extra control on the track that any racing fan should greatly appreciate. Outside of the racing the advantages aren’t as pronounced but the extra precise sticks are still a welcome addition to whatever you’re doing, making this controller, at its price, a great alternative to a regular controller. However, obviously if any of those flaws do affect you then you’re probably going to want to steer clear of the GPX.
+ Very precise for racing.
+ Great ergonomics.
+ Same price as a regular controller!
– Some headsets won’t be fully compatible.
– D-Pad was a tad unresponsive.
– Cable could have done with being a bit longer.
The Verdict: 8
A list of fairly substantial flaws ruin this otherwise fantastic offering from Thrustmaster. In particular for racing fans this is a great piece of kit provided that the flaws listed don’t affect you, and outside of racing the controller still offers performance that’s just as good as the standard Xbox 360 controller, or even better, in some cases.