Is the Xbox 360's Thumbstick in Gears of War 2 Too Sticky?

Playing Epic's Gears of War 2 fresh from blasting Godzilla-sized aliens in Insomniac's Resistance 2 is turning out to be more revealing than I expected. In case you don't know, Gears of War 2 is an Xbox 360 exclusive tactical third-person shooter. The camera floats just up and slightly behind the protagonist's plasteel-armored no-neck as you scoot through tracer-fields and hunker behind wreckage, maneuvering a weapons reticule around with your thumb and pulling a trigger on the gamepad to lob grenades or spray bullets at alien enemies.

The Xbox 360's gamepad has two of those mini-joysticks, which you actuate with your left and right thumbs. They're a pair of tiny nubs you can tilt about 45 degrees from center or roll around in a 360-degree analog arc. By contrast, the PS3's gamepad, which hasn't changed much since the original PS1, has a similar pair of thumbsticks, but the "grip" nubs on the end are slightly convex (where the 360's are slightly concave). The distance from the nubs to the rotating ball is also slightly greater on the PS3 than the 360, and the "reach" from dead center to fully extended feels slightly further, the gradient perhaps a trifle finer.

So what? Well obviously subtle degrees of difference in the physical side of the total interface equation can have a disproportionately significant effect on how the game feels when you're trying to make fine motor movements. I've noticed this before playing games on either system, but I've just ignored it and adapted. I played through the original Gears of War wielding the Xbox 360's gamepad against both the 360 and PC versions, without so much as a quibble or quarrel about the aiming aspect of the control scheme.

For the most part, Gears 2 with the standard Xbox 360 gamepad aims perfectly fine. As for the least part, though, something feels slightly off when fine-aiming.

Maybe I'm noticing it more coming off Resistance 2, but it's definitely there. Popping in Gears 2, my finger-memory's trained to the loose, easy feel of the PS3's thumbsticks. The resistance from dead center on the PS3's gamepad is less than it is on the 360, making it easier to get the ball rolling, so to speak.

That's important, because if you have to apply more pressure to a joystick to move from dead center, there's an increased chance you'll end up overcompensating and shifting too far one way or another. In shooters, particularly shooters where you engage enemies at a distance, a fraction of a fraction of physical thumb motion is the difference between a precision headshot and tattooing blank space with wasted bullets.

If you're in a joystick's dead zone (dead center) and zeroed on an enemy and the enemy suddenly moves, the trick is obviously to follow the enemy. In games like Gears 2, where you hit is important too, so shots to the head sap life quicker than arms, legs, or gut. It's prettied-up Duck Hunt, with the duck carved into pieces and able to take cover and return fire or shrewdly flank and rush. Trouble is, the Xbox 360's gamepad takes slightly more motion to get its aiming reticule moving at all. Coupled with its higher resistance, this can lead to overcompensation and sloppily jostling the reticule back and forth just to line things back up properly. A certain amount of that's game design, i.e. intentional difficulty, but given how evasively able the enemies here tend to be, it feels like a slight hardware design defect you're always fighting to fine-motor around.

In Resistance 2, by comparison, I have very little problem keeping my reticule trained on sprinting, zigzagging enemies with the PS3's thumbstick. There's still plenty of skill involved, but it's measured strictly against the enemy's tactical acumen (often completely worthless in Resistance 2, incidentally, but for unrelated, programmatic reasons) and not the tensile quirks of the gamepad's thumbsticks.

Nitpicking? Maybe. I'm a fine motor movement junkie. I'm used to pixel-precise shooter controls with a keyboard and mouse. I'm also a piano player, so I tend to have stronger wrists and fingers than most, which affords me exceptional digital control in console games. And yet I'm noticing the issue in Gears 2, and try as I like, I can't seem to un-notice it.

I have found that bearing down on the thumbstick and rigidly locking my fingers around the back of the gamepad helps a little, but that gets uncomfortable quickly, and I'm sure there's a prescription for carpal tunnel waiting on the counter at the far side of the game's elaborate multiplayer provisioning.

But don't misread this as some tetchy attempt to be provocative and knock Gears 2, which so far seems much better put together than the B+ of a game the original was. I just want to put it out there, since the game hits in two more days. And I'd really like to know what you think. Am I just a fine motor movement snob? Or am I noticing an issue, however trivial, with the underlying design of the Xbox 360's gamepad itself?

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