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The Razer Hydra: Beyond Futility, the Journey’s End

View Nelson Schneider's Profile

By Nelson Schneider - 02/09/13 at 06:35 PM CT

A month ago, I began a quest in search of a motion-control solution for the PC that was comparable to Nintendo’s Wiimote and Nunchuck combo for playing FPSes. While initially it seemed my quest was one of pure futility, fraught with a confusing mixture of terrible PC controllers, big price tags, and questionable hacks, fate, it seems, was on my side. While on my Amazon.com account page processing the return of the god-awful Splitfish SFX Evolution that I bought on a whim, something on my Wish List caught my eye: Someone on Amazon Marketplace was selling the Razer Hydra for $65.

While I had initially dismissed the Razer Hydra as out of the question based on the fact that Steam, the leader in impossibly cheap software sales, is STILL selling the thing for $140; the current Razer Hydra model is not wireless; and self-proclaimed fat-faced reviewer, Aaron Steinmetz, said the controller is not good for playing “Borderlands,” the game that specifically started me on this quest; I decided that $65 was a low enough price to at least give it a shot. Breaking down the cost of the only other viable motion-controller setup for PC – actually forcing the PC to recognize a Wiimote Plus and a Nunchuck – leads to $40 for the Wiimote, $20 for the Nunchuck, $20 for the USB sensor bar, and $15-$25 for a Bluetooth dongle, for a total of ~$100, not to mention the hours of troubleshooting-instead-of-gaming. The only reason the Wiimote and Nunchuck combo might seem more cost effective is that many people already own a Wii, and thus would already have the most expensive portion of that setup lying around their house. Thus the $100 pricetag most retailers have attached to the stand-alone Razer Hydra (as opposed to the “Portal 2” Bundle) is actually comparable to the hacking route, with the discounted prices available from certain places like Amazon Marketplace putting the Razer Hydra nearly on par with standard wireless Xbox 360 controllers.

The Razer Hydra itself is an interesting-looking piece of tech. The base station is a thick, black plastic disc with an orb mounted in the middle. The disc plugs into a PC via a mini-USB cable. When connected, the base station’s orb pulsates with a green glow. While it’s possible to turn off the glow in the official Razer Hydra device driver, I found that it never actually remembers this setting between system reboots. I was expecting the glow to be annoying, much like the glowing orb on the end of a PlayStation Move, but it’s actually not, specifically because the base station doesn’t move and the relatively short cord leading to the Hydra nunchucks themselves mandates placing the base station close to the player. In my situation, the base station sits in the exact same location on my footstool that the USB sensor bar occupied when I experimented with GlovePIE, leaving the thing completely out of my field of view when looking at the TV screen. The Razer Hydra base station also doubles as a storage dock for the Hydra nunchucks, disabling them while they rest on it and recalibrating their orientation once they are removed. It’s nice that the Razer Hydra includes an easy way to recalibrate the controllers, even though they NEVER actually get out of synch unless the base station accidentally gets moved during use.

The Hydra nunchucks attach to the base station via a 6-foot proprietary cable (while this may seem long, it’s actually not, when compared to the 9-foot cable on a wired Xbox 360 controller). This cable is wrapped in braided fabric and fused to the bottom of both nunchucks, but detachable from the base station. Each nunchuck features four face buttons, two trigger buttons (one of which is analog), a central mini-button, an analog joystick (with a clickable stick-button), and a full range of motion sensing capabilities. The motion sensing in the Razer Hydra works via magnetism, with a weak magnetic field emanating from the base station allowing it to detect the location, orientation, and movement of the two nunchucks. While I was initially concerned about this magnetic field technology, considering that the base station sits awfully close to my crotch and testicular cancer is not something any man wants to deal with, my worries were put at ease by the FAQ on the Razer website which specifies that the magnetic field generated by the Razer Hydra is actually 20 times weaker than the Earth’s magnetic field that everyone on the planet inhabits everyday. Ergonomically, the Hydra nunchucks feel a bit imperfect. They are awfully long and pointy, with the molded grips placed a bit too far back to make reaching the buttons and sticks easy, requiring the user to kind of ‘choke-up’ on them a bit. The four face buttons on each nunchuck are also a bit on the small side and slightly too close together. However, all of the buttons offer a nice ‘clicky’ feel that is much more pleasant than the ‘spongy’ buttons used by some manufacturers (like Nintendo with their DSlite or Sony with their DualShock 3 triggers).

Upon installing the official Razer Hydra driver from Razer’s website, I was disappointed to note a complete lack of customizability. It is possible to adjust some things, like sensitivity and the glowing orb on the base station using this stock configurator, but doing anything like setting up custom keymappings is out of the question. And while the Razer Hydra driver includes control layouts for dozens of games, including “Borderlands,” the one pre-built layout I tried wasn’t actually any good.

This is where Sixense comes in. Sixense is the company that developed the Hydra technology in the first place, but later partnered with Razer to create the actual hardware. Sixense currently has a Beta version available of a free program called MotionCreator 2, which is the keymapper that is missing from the stock Razer Hydra driver and, when run, actually supplants the stock driver entirely. Within MotionCreator 2, it’s possible to fully customize any ‘supported’ game’s interface (and in this case, ‘supported’ just means, “Sixense actually made a few layouts and included them with the software”) or add custom support to an unsupported game. MotionCreator 2 actually has pre-built support for significantly more, and newer, games than the stock driver and seems to be just as stable, leading me to believe that Sixense is using Google’s definition of the term ‘Beta.’

Where MotionCreator 2 and the Razer Hydra really shine when compared to the hackery of GlovePIE and a Wiimote is the fact that MotionCreator 2 only applies controller layouts when the designated program is active. The ‘default’ configuration makes the Hydra act kind of like an airmouse, but as soon as a supported game is launched, the software switches control schemes, completely eliminating the frustration of trying to start a game in Steam while using an overly-sensitive FPS aiming layout. This program-specific control is accomplished through the ability to assign a specific layout in MotionCreator 2 to specific executables within the operating system, thus whenever I focus Windows on the ‘borderlands.exe’ window, MotionCreator 2 knows to stop applying the ‘default’ layout and apply the “Borderlands” layout, and vice-versa. Of course, there are numerous “Borderlands” layout included, which can be activated or deactivated in MotionCreator 2 via checkboxes. The main difference between the many layouts available for the same game is the way the Razer Hydra interprets mouse movement. There’s Mouselook, which keeps the cursor stuck to the center of the screen (but tends to get out-of-whack easily); Freelook, which slides the cursor to the edges of the screen whenever possible; Hybrid, which combines Mouselook for the center of the screen, a deadzone, and Freelook for the edges of the screen; and more arcane settings like Akimbo, which splits Mouselook and Freelook and assigns one to each nunchuck. Out of all these possible configurations, I found Hybrid to be nearly identical to the experience provided by a Wiimote and Nunchuck – and it works really well.

It’s true that the MotionCreator 2 interface isn’t for the faint of heart… but then again, neither is GlovePIE. Comparing the two, MotionCreator 2 is much, MUCH easier to learn and use than GlovePIE, has a better GUI for making changes, and relies far less on the goodwill of random hackers to provide functioning scripts to edit. I was able to look at the included “Borderlands” layouts and figure out how to build my own from scratch in about 4 hours… which is about a quarter of the time it took me to get GlovePIE working while still not understanding it.

The end result of tinkering around with MotionCreator 2 to create a Razer Hydra configuration layout is nothing less than breathtaking. The Hydra has enough buttons to make configuration feel less cramped than the Wiimote and Nunchuck, the Hydra doesn’t freak out and lose my aim if I accidentally move my foot in front of the base station, it’s easy to tweak the sensitivity, and overall feels like a complete experience. With a good Hybrid-style layout, everything in-game is a breeze: aiming, moving, jumping, turning… I’ve never been able to turn around as quickly in a FPS as I have when using the Razer hydra! The only down-side to using the Razer Hydra is that it’s necessary to remember what keyboard key is mapped to what button on the controller, since games that call-out specific buttons in the interface will assume a Hydra-wielding player is using a keyboard and mouse.

In the end, after all of that work, exploration, experimentation, frustration, and disappointment, the first answer given to me by the few members of the Glorious PC Gaming Master race who deigned to answer my question was the correct one: If you want motion-controlled aiming for FPSes – or motion-controlled ANYTHING, for that matter – on a Windows PC, the Razer Hydra is the only way to go. Though the price may seem steep compared to Nintendo’s offering, in reality, the two are comparable, while the experience of using the Razer Hydra on PC is so much simpler and pleasant than trying to brute-force Nintendo’s stuff into compatibility.

But I am still left with several looming questions:

Why didn’t Razer just price the Hydra at $70 in the first place? It is WELL worth that price and would have been cheap enough to sell more units to curious gamers who might take a risk for $70 but not $100+.

Why haven’t the official Razer Hydra drivers been updated since October 2011, and why don’t they include MotionCreator 2? The current stock drivers alone would have provided a sub-par experience.

Why hasn’t Sixense updated MotionCreator 2 since January 2012? The software is great already; they just need to put on a final coat of spit and polish before releasing it as a non-Beta build.

I suspect the answer to the above questions all comes down to this final question: Why don’t more PC gamers AND PC game developers realize how great a controller like the Razer Hydra can be? I haven’t even tried “Portal 2” with the Razer Hydra – a game with built-in native support for the controller – but the experience with even an unsupported game is amazing. I have never been a FPS fan due in large part to the controls. Thanks to the Razer Hydra, I might find myself playing a few more games in that genre… but only on PC. It seems that, once again, the PC has become the only correct platform on which to play FPSes, but this time it’s NOT because of the keyboard and mouse.

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View Jonzor's Profile

Jonzor

Wrote on02/19/13 at 02:51 AM CT

There's a difference between correlation and causation. At least, to everyone but the guy who wrote that article. Just because console numbers are bigger doesn't mean the mouse/keyboard is in "trouble" of some sort. Where's the article declaring the death of controllers because the Wii sold a bajillion units?

The article CAN work for arguing that the PC as a PLATFORM is losing FPS gamers... but it's laughable to think we're going to pin some sort of FPS migration to the CONTROLLER.

Anyway, I'll buy into the demise of the mouse/keyboard when professional Counter Strike gamers using an Xbox controller during tourney play.

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Matt

Wrote on02/18/13 at 03:36 PM CT

@dbarry_22 I don't see the relevance of your comment, it doesn't address any of virtues (or problems) of the Razer Hydra for FPS on the PC. It just trolls on one brief mention of Borderlands that @Chris made. Perplexing.

On another note, Arstechnica just published an interesting piece that suggests keyboard and mouse is losing the FPS market. It makes complete sense and with more support for controllers on PC in Steam and with controllers like the Razer Hydra it's only time till keyboard and mouse users are even more of a minority.

http://arstechnica.com/gaming/2013/02/sorry-to-say-it-but-keyboard-and-mouse-are-losing-the-fps-market/

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View Nelson Schneider's Profile

Nelson Schneider

Wrote on02/17/13 at 12:25 PM CT

That's interesting. The only difference in movement I noticed between bob-on and bob-off was the view moving side to side while sprinting... which has no effect on aiming since it's impossible to shoot while sprinting.

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Jonzor

Wrote on02/17/13 at 01:20 AM CT

No, playing with a mouse has some built-in crosshair movement to simulate the character breathing/swaying.

A mouse/keyboard combo just works so well I was able to compensate.

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Nelson Schneider

Wrote on02/16/13 at 05:58 PM CT

I didn't actually notice any waggle in the crosshairs before I used that hack. Maybe it doesn't affect mouse aim, only controller aim?

I undid the hack because it didn't give me any benefit and it also mysteriously disabled the sound of my character's footsteps.

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dbarry_22

Wrote on02/11/13 at 04:38 PM CT

I doubt it's his controller giving him the edge in Borderlands since he hacked the game to get rid of the natural waggle on the cross-hairs.

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View Chris's Profile

Chris

Wrote on02/10/13 at 12:31 PM CT

Well, I can't offer any response to lack of updates, but I can support Nelson's claim that the Razr Hydra works fantastic - his Borderlands prowess is impressive.

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