It wasn’t until last year that I finally accepted mobile gaming into my life; all it took was time, persistence, and a free iPhone didn’t hurt. While I’m no stranger to reviewing smartphone/tablet games I could never get behind touch controls for more complex games, and this is where things get complicated for an old dog like me.
Now that Apple has baked controller support into iOS 7 this shouldn’t be much of a problem, at least for compatible devices. While not a perfect marriage by any means we’re at least one step closer with the SteelSeries Stratus Wireless Gaming Controller.
For those that remember my previous review, the SteelSeries’ Free Controller was an excellent Android gamepad with only the barest of iOS support thrown in, a detail they glossed over when touting it as a fully-fledged smartphone accessory. It checked most of the important marks for what a traditional gamer would want in a mobile gamepad, but questionable long-term value and compatibility kept it from being a personal Editors’ Choice.
Compared to its predecessor, the Stratus retains the same miniaturized Xbox/PlayStation-inspired styling and functionality with only the most necessary external changes. With exact dimensions of 4.33”/110mm (length), 1.3”/33mm (height), and 2.66”/60mm (width) it’s a slight bit beefier at 2.64oz/75g compared to the last 1.91oz/54g. There are two additional shoulder (L2/R2) buttons on top and a pause button in the front, along with front LED lights for charging and multiplayer mapping status (up to four controllers on one device) and a on/off switch is found on the right side.
The alterations also include a body that’s more plastic instead of the all-encompassing matte rubber finish that we originally liked, although the contoured shapes for fingers remain unchanged and are just as comfortable. On the outside it does feel a little bit cheaper than before but no less durable, unlike some of its competitors.
Fortunately a guard cover (for bigger hands and better grip) is included along with the same USB-micro charge cable and convenient carrying pouch for safe travel.
This is, in essence, the same controller that can finally play nice with most Apple devices. For reference; the Stratus only works with the current line of iPhones (5/5C/5S), iPads (4/Mini/Air), and the 5th generation iPod Touch. Despite its Bluetooth 2.1 specification it still requires iOS7 to boot. This is worth mentioning because MFi controller support isn’t backwards compatible with older hardware such as iPhone 4/4S, 4th Generation iPods, or 3rd generation iPads.
Initial disappointments aside (because I’m still using an iPhone 4 and had to test using other devices) the Stratus works immediately after pairing with little fuss. In fact, it worked so well the controller is optimally mapped for each game. We tested a number of compatible titles like Bastion, NBA 2K14, and Sonic CD with varying results. Simple one-tap games like Rayman Fiesta Run don’t bring anything substantial to the controller experience, while other point-and-click adventure games The Walking Dead: Season Two are mercifully better for context prompts.
But let’s be realistic, the Stratus works best for platforming and action games that you’d typically play on PC or console. Titles like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Call of Duty: Strike Team benefited the most from a gamepad and during our test the need for tactile feedback was infinitely noticeable. Everything works as it should with no evident performance lag bogging down the hardware; an amazing feat when you consider how dodgy other Bluetooth controllers tend to be even under light duty.
Of course there is no perfect controller and small issues do exist. Chief among them is the price of the Stratus itself, which sits at $99.99 MSRP, though like the Free you’ll most likely spend about $79.99 at retail. Other nitpicks include iffy button mapping that usually involve the pause button not working and the lack of customization to default settings. Average battery life sits around 10 hours from a full charge which is fine for most gamers, but this is also half of the 20 hours you got with the previous Free; not deal-breaking figures but certainly less than expected with 8.5 hours during our testing.
Truth be told, we here at Popzara haven’t been blown away by the first wave of MFi gamepads in terms of quality and value. For SteelSeries, the Stratus Wireless Gaming Controller sits higher in our esteem as they’ve taken an already good accessory and properly remapped it for Apple’s compatible iOS 7 devices. I’d definitely recommend the Stratus as the best choice right now, but you’ll need a bit of faith to overlook the initial asking price and an incomplete (but steadily growing) list of available games.