Dec 1, 2013

Moga Ace Power, One Week Later

With the advent of iOS 7 a few months ago, Apple finally opened the door to game controller support on iOS devices through a standard controller API. By standardizing button layouts and functionality, Apple had allowed hardware manufacturers to produce officially supported game pads and developers to include game pad controls into their games knowing that all official controllers would be supported. The problem was, no actual hardware existed at the time! Well, that was then and official iOS controllers have arrived! The first such controller is Moga's Ace Power which I picked up when it was released last week. So, what do I think of it so far? Read on to find out.

First off, I'll talk about the hardware itself, how it has integrated into my iOS gaming and some of the particularities of using the Ace Power. I also want to spend a few keystrokes on each of the games I've tried with the controller to compare how particular titles have chosen to support the hardware.

The Moga Power Ace, by and large, fulfils the promise of turning your iOS device into a handheld gaming console. You connect your device via the lightning connector and lock it into place as seen in the photo above. This does mean that the range of supported iOS devices is limited to those that use the lightning connector and are small enough to fit, in other words: iPhone 5, 5C, 5S and 5th Generation iPod Touch, which is what I own. Overall, the device feels somewhat toy-like; a bit like comparing a 3rd party controller to the one that came with your console. I wouldn't go so far as to say that it feels cheap, just that some touches, like the finish or the feel of the buttons land just shy of great. Functionality wise, the Ace Power uses Apple's extended controller layout that should be familiar to any console gamer: two analogue pads, a d-pad, four face buttons and four shoulder buttons. It's like an Xbox 360 controller minus the ability to click the analogue sticks. The layout is good and the placement of controls works well, for the most part. Let's talk about the individual elements.

Analogue Pads
The Analogue pads will be familiar to anyone who has played a games on a Nintendo 3DS. They feel very similar to the circle pad found on Nintendo's handheld and that's a good thing. They work nicely and have good tension, though I do find myself wishing, at times, they had a tad larger range of movement, but this is nit-picking, really.  Their placement is offset, like the sticks of an Xbox 360 controller and this works great when playing a game that has you using the face buttons, like Oceanhorn, but I found the placement of the right pad to be a little awkward when playing shooters like Dead Trigger 2 and Call of Duty: Strike Team.

I haven't made much use of the d-pad yet as I was disappointed to find that none of my favourite platforming and fighting games I own support the controller yet but I did try it out with a few games and I have to say it's one of the weaker points of the controller. It's not terrible by any means, but I find it too clicky and too resistant. I forced myself to use only the d-pad during a play session of Oceanhorn and couldn't get through it. I switched back to the analogue pad after about five minutes. But, since Oceanhorn is really made for 360 degree analogue movement, I don't really think it was a fair test and I look forward to getting better acquainted with the d-pad playing games for which it is more ideal. Finally, looking at pictures of Moga's own line of Android supported controllers makes be wonder why they opted for a circular d-pad for the Ace Power rather than a plus shaped one as found on their other offerings.

Much like the d-pad, the face buttons are fairly clicky, both in feel and sound. I haven't asked my wife about it yet, but I figure trying to read in bed next to someone mashing buttons in a fighting game would be maddening. They also contribute to the, aforementioned, toy-like feel of the device by not fitting as snugly into the controller's face as those of an official console game pad. Neither of these are devastating flaws, though, as the buttons do fulfil their job of being buttons. They work fine, you're likely just used to something nicer if you're a gamer. The same can basically be said of the four shoulder buttons. Thought the top, R1 and L1 buttons are a pretty close match to the bumpers on a 360 controller and are really quite good, the lower, analogue R2 and L2 feel more like flappers than triggers. The R2 and L2 buttons, again, work just fine, they simply don't feel fantastic.

Audio and Miscellaneous
The Moga Ace Power also comes with the Apple required Menu button that, in all games I tested, does exactly what you would think, pauses the game and brings up a menu. No complaints their. Moga were also nice enough to include a small power button that simply trips your device's built in power button and works quite well. The rest of the case design gives you good access to the rest of the buttons on your device including the home button and volume controls, which is nice. Speaking of volume, the hardware will actually patch audio through to a headphone jack on the bottom of the device, which is cool. Since this is done through the lightning connector, your iOS device can detect whether or not to pump audio through its own speaker based on having headphones plugged in or not, works wonderfully. Oh, right, except for one thing! The depth of the earphone plug means that a small plug, like the one on Apple's own ear buds will fit fine but a bulkier one, like the one for my headphones at work won't fit. That being said, Apple's ear buds pump out some pretty great audio and if you've got a device to use with the Ace Power then probably already have a pair.

Portability and Use
Before I get into specific games, I want to talk about portability and form factor and how this thing has fit into my gaming habits. When you don't have a device snapped in place in the Ace Power it can be collapsed to make it easier to carry around., which is good because as you can probably tell from photos, the controller effectively doubles the length of your phone or iPod when in use. This, of course means that if you leave your device in the controller, you're looking at something you are more likely to slip into your bag than into your pocket. Since I'm used to always having my iPod in my pant pocket, I've been carrying the Ace Power in my bag, making it less than ideal as something you whip out for a quick play session while waiting for the bus and can quickly put away when you're done. Snapping my iPod in and out of the controller is just involved enough that I wouldn't try it while also attempting to fumble my bus pass out of my pocket. I have, thus, been using the Moga Ace Power mainly when I have time to sit down and enjoy a few minutes of uninterrupted game time. This is really where I see it fitting in to my iOS gaming. The controller is quite comfortable and I've been able to play games with it for upwards of twenty or more minutes without feeling my fingers cramp up, which is much more than I can say for playing the same games without the controller. I also want to point out a couple last things before getting into the games. If you insist on using a protective case with your phone or iPod, you are out of luck as the Moga Ace Power is designed to hold your device snuggly, so it won't fit a case. And, finally, many reviewers have complained that the controller feels rattly without a device in it and all I can say is, yup. When collapsed, the Ace Power feels a tad loose and will rattle if you shake it. However, once you snap your device into it, it feels completely solid, really like a dedicated handheld gaming device.

This game is the absolute poster child for showing of the Moga Ace Power. Everything in the game, including menu navigation can be done using only the controller which is really appreciated because the width of the controller does make it a bit difficult to reach the touch screen with your thumbs. Oceanhorn's control scheme is compatible with Apple's standard controller configuration which includes a d-pad, face buttons and only two shoulder buttons which still allowing for the use of the left analogue pad for movement. Marrying the production values of the game with the Moga Ace Power controller really makes you forget you're playing on an iOS device!

Dead Trigger 2
Mad Finger Games has also done an admirable job supporting the controller in their zombie killing first person shooter Dead Trigger 2. The Moga Ace Power really transformed the game from one I didn't bother to spend an hour with to one I played every chance I got for two days straight. The free to play shenanigans turned me off of it in the end but the controller integration is really good, in game that is. Unfortunately, unlike Oceanhorn, I found that certain menu actions did require me to use the touch screen to activate, but since I was playing on a portable device, it wasn't a big deal. In game, the controller works great, thanks in no small part to Mad Finger allowing you to completely remap all of the game's commands to any input you want on the controller. Seriously, all games should do this! The only knock against their implementation of this functionality is that the configuration menu seems to refer to the controller inputs by their cryptic Unity Engine names (button 01, 02... etc.) rather than Apple's names (A, B, Up, Down... etc.). Funny thing, actually. For all its control configuration options, the game doesn't let you individually set your aiming sensitivity for the x and y axes. I found the vertical aiming sensitivity much too high so I took advantage of the game's limited need for looking up and down to map these off the right analogue pad and onto the d-pad to stop me from accidentally looking up or down when turning. I also remapped all the controls to something closer to what I'm used to in console games. Seriously, if your game has complex controls, let me reconfigure them!! I love first person and third person shooter and now that developers actually have controllers they can test with , I look forward to playing more games that make even better use of my Ace Power.

Call of Duty: Strike Team
Speaking of configurable controls, this is where Call of Duty: Strike Team starts losing points. I was so excited to play this game. I mean, come on, a well reviewed first person shooter game with controller support and no, aforementioned free to play shenanigans? I'm in! Unfortunately, the control scheme you get is the control scheme you're stuck with. It's pretty good, for the most part, but unfortunately forces you to still use the touch screen to switch between weapons, which is, as mentioned above, awkward. Menus also aren't all navigable without resorting to the touch screen and the game's most novel aspect, the top down tactical mode, is still one hundred percent touch. It's not too big a deal though, as you can, apparently, play through the whole game using only the first person action mode, which is really what playing with a controller is all about anyway. Be advised that much like Dead Trigger 2, I found the vertical aiming sensitivity too high and simply had to try to get used to it as there is no way of changing it independently of the turning sensitivity and no way of mapping it to another button.

Minigore 2: Zombies
There isn't much to say about Minigore 2: Zombies. I've always found that this kind of dual stick shooter works really well on the touch screen, so the controller didn't actually affect my experience with the game much at all. What it did do was get by thumbs off the screen and out of the way, and make the device much more comfortable to hold. This is easily the kind of game I could see myself playing without the controller when on the go and with the controller when I have the time to really sit down with it. I should also note that all the menus, and game functionality is usable with the controller. This is another game that you can play without ever touching the screen. It isn't obvious, so I'll tell you now, hit the B button to get out of the shop.

Nimble Quest
Although the in-game controls work, as expected, controller support in menus is nearly non-existent. Also, the game can only be played using the d-pad, which is really what is best suited to it but it would be nice to have the option of using the analogue pad too. That being said, much like Minigore 2: Zombies, the touch screen controls for Nimble Quest work quite well, so the controller won't revolutionize the way you play but do help to get your fingers out of the way of what you're doing.

Aztec Antics
I'm glad I was able to find a fun platformer to try with the Moga Ace Power. Like Nimble Quest,  Aztec Antics doesn't support the use of the analogue pad and forces you to use the d-pad. As mentioned above, since the d-pad on the Ace Power isn't the best, I would have probably opted to use the analogue pad myself had I been able to. Playing with the controller is still a clear upgrade from playing this kind of game on a touch screen, tough, allowing for the precision needed to make the tricky jumps and hairpin turns Aztec Antics is constantly calling on you to make. This certainly paints a nice picture of things to come and I look forward to more platformer games adding controller support in the future. Two nice things worth noting: All of the minimal menu navigation can be done using the controller (except for accessing Game Centre, weird) and since all you do in this game is run around and jump, developer Bouncing Ball Games was nice enough to map the command to all four face buttons. Thanks Bouncing Ball Games!

Finally, we have gorgeous, flower picking adventure game, Lili. Playing this game without your thumbs in the way should be reason enough to use the Moga Ace Power but unfortunately, support for the controller in Lili is really only a bullet point as it doesn't really work at all. All menu navigation requires the use of the touch screen including opening the pause menu in game as the pause button on the controller isn't even supported. The only use of the controller that is supported is movement and looking around. Lili's controls were really made for the touch screen and the game gains nothing from being played with a controller. If you were hoping the Ace Power would breath new life into this, otherwise, beautiful and charming adventure game that, simply, isn't the case.

So, that's what I have to say about the Moga Ace Power so far. I don't think it's going to be a game changer for iOS gaming, but given how much better some games are to play using it, I certainly look forward to other developers adding support for it to their current and upcoming games.

One last thing to mention is that, with the flick of a switch, the Ace Power's internal battery can be used to charge your connected iOS device! This functionality seems to greatly increase my iPod's playing time, especially when playing graphically demanding games like Oceanhorn or Dead Trigger 2.

If you are on the fence about picking up the Moga Ace Power, I would advise you to wait, or ask for it for your birthday or the holidays. This is only the first of the many iOS controllers to have been announced and as more hardware hits the market, prices will likely go down making it easier for me to recommend this controller outright. If you are really set on picking one up, I must admit, with the right games, it really does feel like a worthy purchase that turns your iPhone or iPod Touch into a serious gaming handheld.

Image from Moga via

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