We are about a year into hardcore shooter gaming played with the PlayStation Move — an experience that, from day one, is assumed to demand one play it with something that resembles a rifle, without ever asking if we really should.
This is partly because of how different turning, looking, and aiming become when using a rifle attachment in a Move-enabled shooter. You have to use your torso, not your neck (in real life) or your thumbs (a standard controller). For a beginner, training yourself to play this way requires a real commitment. For everyone, holding a posture that enables fast-twitch reaction can be tiring.
One device has creatively addressed these limitations with a design that eschews a more realistic visual aesthetic for optimal ergonomic control. But the Flex-Fire still doesn't answer why gun peripherals are necessary. I'm not sure they ever will be.
In PS3 motion gaming, Sony's official Sharpshooter is the leading attachment. It's a full controller with all of a DualShock's buttons placed ergonomically on its chassis, a custom layout that accounts for its $US40 price (peripheral only, no controllers). There are, of course alternatives out there. This is now the third I've tried, including CTA Digital's abysmal, $US60 assault rifle, to the suboptimal $US20 SkillShot from Nyko. The $US29.99 Flex-Fire, by Colorado-based Prodagen, is easily superior to both in price and performance.
The Flex-Fire disassembled; a Move controller is set into the barrel and a Navigation controller into the grip.
That's not exactly a high bar but Prodagen does deserve credit for recognising the biggest limitation of gun-peripheral gaming on the PS3 and building a product to address it. The Flex-Fire's patent-pending feature is its articulated barrel, which allows the user to make faster, more minute aiming adjustments without turning his entire body or moving the entire apparatus.
While your aim is very accurate and can be tuned without overcorrection, users will see the most difference in looking and taking corners. With a rigid attachment, this exercise requires a small movement — one's thumb on the Navigation controller's analogue stick — coordinated with a much larger one, moving the barrel of the gun, which represents your eyes. Moving the gun is either a two-armed proposition or something that involves moving your back. Doing this with a Flex-Fire is much easier, as aiming/looking can now be manipulated with just one hand. With rigid guns I still get into situations where I'm staring at the sky or the ground inexplicably, usually panicking when a grenade is tossed my way. With the Flex-Fire, I took corners and moved to cover much more quickly and naturally.
A side effect, but also a significant benefit, means there's less of a need to keep recalibrating your weapon as your posture changes throughout a long gaming session, or if you lose your calibration during an intense shootout. Because of the Flex-Fire's barrel, you can keep on fighting and put off recalibrating until a good savepoint or the end of a match.
Your posture also can be more unorthodox. I played it in a seated position (a chair) as well as standing, but if you have a couch with a deep recline to it, the Flex-Fire's bendable barrel makes it more functional from such a position than other rigid peripherals that require you to move your back if you keep your hands in a standard firing pose.
But it's in the rest of the layout where I have to wonder if, innovative though its design is, the Flex-Fire is even necessary. The Move navigational controller is housed in the Flex-Fire's pistol grip. The Move wand itself snaps in place up in the barrel. Unless you have a game with remappable controllers (I was playing SOCOM 4: U.S. Navy Seals, which doesn't), it means you'll be triggering your fire up on the barrel, not down at your trigger finger on the Navigation controller, where it feels most natural.
It's worth pointing out that Resistance 3, out now, does feature this remappability, so you can fire it more traditionally with the Flex Fire if you're thinking of playing that with an attachment.
For me, the point of having a gun attachment is that it fires like a gun. That familiarity is fundamental to the appeal of using such a peripheral. Especially as it means that holding the thing as I would a regular firearm means all of my aiming and firing is done with my left hand, whereas without the attachment I'd be doing that with the Move controller in my right. Either I'm going to hold the gun unnaturally or I'm not going to use my dominant hand for the dominant task.
So while my performance may have been marginally better with the Flex-Fire's arrangement, it's also definitely better with the Move controllers unattached, though I am not melting anyone's faces by any means. True, firing like you're a detective wrist-flicking his flashlight around isn't a particularly realistic gesture, but firing a bendy gun whose trigger is on the barrel is only moderately more so.
There are people who don't share the same taste, and they probably have a greater appetite for Move-enabled gaming, where I understand many elite MAG players have gravitated to take advantage of the fast-twitch aiming. If so, they'll find a peripheral that provides good structure — its stock is longer than the one on the Nyko I tested. And unlike other attachments where the Navigation controller is set underneath the barrel (to accommodate a functioning trigger), with the Flex-Fire you're not moving your hand off the barrel to jump, take cover or do whatever tasks are on the triangle and square buttons.
Rotating the front of the barrel 45 degrees results in a more comfortable grip with the Move controller's face buttons still accessible to your thumb.
Most importantly, all of the buttons on both the Move and the Navi controller are accessible from a comfortable posture. This may sound like a baseline expectation, but I was tremendously disappointed to find that wasn't the case on the Nyko (where certain button combinations were impossible). The ergonomic posture is more comfortable when you rotate the barrel shaft about 45 degrees counterclockwise (for a left-handed user.) This makes the Move controller's buttons accessible to your thumb while the barrel rests in a more natural hand position.
The rest of the Flex-Fire's construction is sturdy and the attachments snap into place with a little effort. There's a small rattle coming from the stock; everything else is solid. Though the Move controller locks into place in the barrel, there is a plastic half-ring clamp to secure it. Its hinge is a thin piece of plastic threaded through a hole in the barrel housing, and I could see this being torn off either in frustration or by an enthusiastic youngster. When you set the Move controller into the barrel, be sure to test the exterior buttons that hit the Select and Start buttons, as sometimes you can slightly misalign it without noticing.
For those who — and I have no idea why — want to fire with a rigid gun using the Flex-Fire, there is a spring-loaded rod that threads into a housing on the front of the barrel, locking it into place. Unlocking it can be done on the fly without looking.
It strikes me that the Flex-Fire is something that will appeal to the extreme ends of the experience spectrum in Move-enabled shooter gaming. Those who have never tinkered with the controls but have some strong grounding in shooters (particularly multiplayer) will find a shallower learning curve and some comfort in holding a familiar posture, even if it feels a little backward for how they'd fire a normal weapon. Experienced Move gamers will likely find the most payoff in this, especially those who have already adapted to the solid control sets of Killzone 3 or SOCOM 4 using a Move wand and a navigation controller without attachments.
But it raises the question of what this or any attachment offers over the current experiences. It is not a perfectly ergonomic rifle attachment, thanks to the trigger effectively being on the barrel of the gun. It's better than a rigid peripheral, and it provides some additional stability, but for my taste it's not better than just using a Move and Navi unaided.
The Flex-Fire claims players have a 19 per cent winning edge using this peripheral over those who don't, but I'm always sceptical of such claims. It's not a device that will democratise FPSes and create a new army of skilled marksmen out of hapless n00bs. Nothing but tons of in-game time, strong map knowledge and instant familiarity with controls will deliver proficiency. But of the Sharpshooter alternatives I've played with, the Flex-Fire is certainly the one that respects the real challenge of Move gaming, and does the most to help you meet it.
The Flex-Fire, by Prodagen, will be available for purchase the first week of October; the company is taking pre-orders on its site right now.