There's a certain "something" to well-made consumer electronics – especially the kind we're meant to hold in our hands. A really good phone, a solid keyboard, a mouse meant for beating on. That feeling of quality when you first pick it up, and the way it disappears into your hands as you hold it. That's doubly important with video game controllers. They're consumer electronics devices that you're not just meant to hold, but to really push and wear out. That's the feeling I get every time I pick up a PlayStation or Xbox controller – this thing is meant to be used.
That's the feeling I got the first time I held the Xbox One Elite controller. Even compared to the very well-made Xbox One and PlayStation 4 controllers, it felt a step above. Heavier, more dense, and that beautiful metal d-pad. Add onto that the options paddles and swappable thumbsticks and it was possible for most any Xbox gamer to find a config they dug.
Over on PlayStation, though, we've had to work with what Sony has on offer – the standard PlayStation 4 controller – or go to a third party. Sony doesn't have an "elite" controller. Companies like SCUF are filling in the spaces here, and now SCUF has zeroed in on another market: the countless gamers who grew up on an Xbox 360 and then switched over to – or back to – PlayStation 4 when Microsoft boned the initial release of its Xbox One. The new SCUF Vantage PS4 controller gives PlayStation gamers a way to use the Xbox-style asymmetrical controller layout without having to, you know, buy a whole new console. I've always preferred the Xbox layout, so when SCUF reached out to us I jumped at the chance to see how some of my recent favorite games would play on the "other" controller layout.
The SCUF Vantage is a stellar idea, but with a $199 price tag, it needs to excel in ways even the Xbox One Elite controller didn't.
But a good idea doesn't make for a good product. And with the SCUF Vantage, something's been lost in translation — enough that I felt disappointment wash over me the very first time I closed my hands around it.
Let's start with the basics. For a controller to feel good to use, it has to have good buttons. The buttons should be satisfying to press, and should feel consistent. They should be easy to find, and hard to press by mistake.
The buttons on the Vantage feel cheap when I compare them to any first party controller on any of the three major consoles – controllers that could be less than a quarter the price of this one. The directional pad feels mushy and it was hard to get a good sense of the direction I was pushing. The PlayStation's default pad and even the Xbox One's are both far more satisfying right from the get-go, fresh out of the box.
The triggers, whether I went with the default configuration or the extended sticks, had the same cheap plasticky feel. I switched off the extended triggers almost immediately.
The analog sticks don't feel bad per se, but I'd pick Microsoft's analog sticks over these in a split second. They have a distinctly "third party" feel to them. I chalk that up mostly to to the material they're made out of. They move around nicely, but they just don't feel quite as good.
The paddles, which can be removed if you want, do compete well with Microsoft's paddles. That shouldn't be as much of a surprise, because these back-of-controller paddles are SCUF's bread and butter. This is where the company built its reputation. They feel tougher to press accidentally, and they don't stick out quite so far. (check for "top shelf" feeling) And then there are the side-mounted "sax" buttons that SCUF really wants us to believe are great for battle-royale games. I messed around with them and I couldn't do anything to make them feel more useful or more comfortable. Even after hours with the controller they were still awkward to press.
The overall shape of the controller is the thing I like most about it. The PlayStation controller feels kind of small in my hands, and that's part of why I prefer the Xbox controller. The positioning of the analog sticks feels more natural and isn't quite so much of a strain for prolonged use.
But then we jump back over to the disappointing side. One of the best parts of the Xbox One Elite controller is the material it's built out of. It's just a pleasure to hold. It has this soft-touch coating over the whole thing that keeps it feeling cool even after hours and keeps it from getting sweaty (ew) even during intense gaming.
The SCUF Vantage, by comparison, feels plasticky. Worse, it feels hollow. There's a customization-related reason for this that I'll get into shortly, but that decision means that the controller just doesn't have the solid feeling I'd expect. If I drop a game controller, I'd expect it to bounce and then be able to pick it up and use it without delay. The Vantage feels like it'd break into its component parts if I let it hit the floor.
And boy does it have a lot of parts.
Customization has long been the name of the game for SCUF. A custom-built controller with the SCUF name on it can come with four back paddles, the vibration motors can be removed entirely, and the colors of the buttons, sticks, and casing can be configured into any number of garishly bright combinations. The Vantage continues that tradition, but puts the power in the hands of the user. You can pop the faceplate off and swap out the directional pad, the analog sticks, and the triggers.
It's a cool idea, but it's kind of messy in practice.
The swappable faceplate means that the controller never feels "finished." Other parts either come off too easily or require a paperclip to remove.
The Vantage does come with a case, as I'd expect at this price point, but the case doesn't have a spot for the extra parts. Instead, there's a plastic capsule that has just barely enough space for one set of parts, and the capsule is just meant to roll around loosely. It screams of something that'll get lost, re-purposed, or discovered by a pair of small, curious hands. If those hands belong to a brownie or fairy or some other legendary creature, you have one set of problems, but if it's a toddler, you have a pile of choking hazards wrapped in a fun shell to crack open.
Worst of all, it's almost impossible to get a good-looking controller. Some of the buttons, like the Option and Share button, are not swappable, so even if you switch to super-cool yellow faceplate and jet-black thumbsticks, you're still going to have these silvery buttons glaring at you.
When I look at them on the website, they seem to be advertised a sort of a silvery color. In practice, though, it comes out looking more like a metallic baby blue that smacks of "Dad's Mid-90s Honda Civic" than it does of "Extremely Cool Gamer." The fluorescent-yellow anti-friction rings don't help the look.
As if all that wasn't bad enough, setup is weird, too. Despite this being a PlayStation controller, it doesn't sync up like a regular PlayStation controller. That might be Sony's fault, but it's still tough to excuse. To connect it, you have to have another PlayStation controller or the PlayStation app on your phone handy, just because. To sync it, hold down the Share and PS buttons until it goes into pairing mode. Then head over to the PlayStation settings screen, go to the Bluetooth Devices screen, and find it there and sync it up.
The controller's audio bar, something the company advertises on the main page, is apparently only usable in USB wired mode, according to the help documentation. For most of us who might want to use this thing, that means a big chunk of the controller's face is just going to be dead for the life of the device.
Remapping the paddles and sax buttons is easy enough. Flip the controller into remapping mode through a switch on the bottom, and then hold down an existing button and one of SCUF's add-on buttons and it'll map the sax or paddle to the button you chose.
I don't know what to do with this thing. At the retail price, it should be best-in-class on every level. Instead, it loses out for me to controllers that go for 70% and even 20% of this thing's retail price. The face buttons are miserable. The material feels cheap and looks ugly. The extra sax buttons are, for me, unusable. And some of the functionality is dependent on people using controllers in a way very few people actually use controllers. Oh – and despite this being a Bluetooth controller, SCUF says it has no news on PC compatibility.
When I pick up the SCUF Vantage, the first thing I think is, "where's my PlayStation controller?"
Ultimately, I think the ultra-customization is this device's greatest downfall. While I'm sure some people take out their vibration motors, that's a tiny minority of players – the kind who are going to order a custom controller anyway. Those players are going to look at this thing and find it too rickety for their needs. If I took this back to SCUF for changes, I'd ask them to glue the faceplate on. Make the sticks swappable through less invasive means. Maybe just stick with one set of triggers. Make me the best Xbox-style PlayStation controller you can, instead of trying to serve every possible use-case and fashion crime.
Disclaimer: We received a review unit from the manufacturer for review. I spent a couple hours each with Spider-Man, Red Dead Redemption 2, and Tetris Effect before starting this review.
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