Until this ALT Avatar Motion Controller review, it didn’t occur to me that there’s something inherently wrong with using a gaming keyboard: after all, it’s second nature for my fingers to navigate between W, A, S, and D. The trouble is, even models lauded for all their gaming features are designed for typing first and playing second, based on a layout that hasn’t changed much from century old typewriters.
The best PC controllers solve many of these issues with considerably more modern configurations, from comfortable, ergonomic layouts where you never need to reposition your hands to the granular control of analogue sticks and triggers. Unfortunately, this also means giving up the precision that comes with using the best gaming mouse, which is usually a no-go for anyone into shooters or strategy games.
Made by PLA Labs, the ALT Avatar Motion Controller blends the best of both worlds, with your rodent in one hand and a unique gamepad in the other. But before we get into the thick of it, this is a crowdfunded item that comes with all the usual caveats. When you pledge to a tier on Indiegogo, it’s an investment in the idea of a product and not an outright purchase. Plans can change even following a successful campaign, and there are no guarantees. With that said, PLA Labs is led by Edward Larkin, the creator of the mouse bungee and former Razer consultant, giving it a level of credibility many others lack.
Even though we got our first look at the device back in February 2022, the ALT Avatar Motion Controller has been in the works since at least 2015. I found it difficult to fathom how I’d end up using it because it strays so far from what I’m used to, but the reality is a little different.
Its ambidextrous design is universal, but it doesn’t sacrifice comfort in the process. As a right-handed gamer, I use it in my left hand with my thumb on the right analogue stick, index finger central, middle finger placed on the tyre-like wheel below, and my pinky sat far left. My palm naturally fits below the hump as it has curves in all the right places.
Tastes will differ depending on your gaming setup, but the glossy grey trim surrounding a matte black chassis and white branding looks a little dated. If the retro flair doesn’t hook you, the RGB LED rings beneath each analogue stick bring a splash of colour, but you’re stuck with a single shade across all three and no animations are available just yet. If nothing else, the lighting is practical and helps you find the ALT Avatar Motion Controller in the dark.
Another blast from the past is its micro USB connection, which is a remnant of its lengthy development. It’s a minor gripe since it doesn’t affect how the ALT Avatar Motion Controller performs and everything you need is in the box, but it’s much more difficult to whip out another micro USB cable if you misplace the original than it is to grab the nearest USB-C. Fortunately, Larkin says he’s in the process of updating the next round of samples to the latest port.
Beneath the pad are four clear rubber feet to stop it sliding across your gaming desk, and they do an excellent job since it doesn’t budge an inch. Even though I’ll rarely flip it over to admire the underside, the techie in me particularly likes the small window showcasing a bit of the motherboard – so much so that it makes me want a completely clear case version at some point down the line.
One of the analogue sticks is a little more fragile than I’d like, popping off the stem slightly too easily. It stays in place well enough when gaming, but becomes a bit of a flight risk when storing the pad away. The other two analogue sticks are much firmer, however. The controller is entirely customisable if you don’t mind sourcing the parts yourself and cracking it open, so there’s scope to tinker should you run into any issues.
This early sample comes with an ALT-branded flash drive with everything you need to get started, from instructions on how to use the device to the software you need to set it all up. Most videos are already available on plalabs.com so you can take a look for yourself, with more on the way before shipping starts.
It feels somewhat unfair to pit the software, called PLA ALT, against programs from established brands like Razer Synapse or Corsair iCue since it’s made by a much smaller team and still a work-in-progress, but these apps have set the standard of what to expect. Currently, there are a couple of irritations, such as the inability to resize the window to something more manageable on my 4K gaming monitor. You’ll also want to save the app somewhere you’ll remember, as my Windows Start Menu can’t seem to find it when I search for it.
Aside from some crinkles that need ironing out, PLA ALT is pretty intuitive and split into five sections: Profiles, Lights, Programming, Wheel, and Macros. Profiles lets you create as many configurations as you fancy, since you likely won’t use the same controller scheme for Call of Duty as you would for Assassin’s Creed. Lights gives you the ability to customise the colour and brightness of the LEDs, but you’re confined to just one setting across all three. And Macros is the third self-explanatory header where you can record multiple functions under a single action.
The Wheel section is dedicated to the grippy ring below the central stick and lets you add two keybinds, swap between digital and analogue steering for racing games, and adjust the sensitivity for actuation. Generally, the default threshold is just fine for me, but it’s nice to have the choice.
Programming is where the magic happens. You’ll spend most of your time in this menu configuring what each of the eight directions does per analogue stick. This could be as simple as W, A, S, and D for up, left, down, and right movements or adding your default grenade or jump buttons. You can even adjust the sensitivity of each axis, either cutting out accidental diagonal presses or making them easier to hit.
Within a single profile, you can set up eight different configurations in what I’d call sub-profiles. Much like the DPI on a gaming mouse, you can cycle through these on-the-fly by pressing the white LED buttons around the central trigger. Personally, I find these useful when switching between different FPS games, but I imagine it’s also useful with MMO games where you have plenty of spells under your belt.
If you want to get more advanced, you can add a second function to each trigger that activates after you reach a certain pressure. For games that don’t play well with full analogue inputs, a good example would be making a half-press W to move forward and a full tilt shift+W to sprint, but your options are only bound by your imagination.
Combining the sub-profile system with the pressure-sensitive dual functions of each analogue stick and the wheel gives a whopping total of 130 commands per individual profile, and you don’t have to contort your hand to activate any one of them. And to make it a little easier to grasp, I’m told the software will ship with a pre-made Shooter profile to cater to FPS enthusiasts.
The main goals of the ALT Avatar Motion Controller are to do away with the need to reposition your hand constantly across a keyboard without sacrificing your mouse in the process, and it succeeds on both fronts. Every flick of a stick sits within your natural grasp, it feels far less taxing to use than its clicky counterpart, and you even have more space to swing your mouse.
It’s certainly quieter than the clicks and clacks of the best gaming keyboard, but it’s not completely silent. With all but the most delicate of movements, you hear a distinct thwack as the wheel and each stick meets its furthest point. It’s far from intrusive and can actually come in rather handy if you set pressure sensitive secondary functions, but it’s worth noting in case you need to share a room with anyone.
That said, it’s not a landslide victory in favour of the ALT Avatar Motion Controller. Another goal is to cut down on the amount of time it takes to embed muscle memory when learning how to play games by typing, but the gamepad itself requires a fair amount of patience to set up control schemes and learn them per game.
Your mileage may vary but I found the amount of controls a game requires plays a role. PLA Labs primarily pushes the ALT Avatar Motion Controller towards FPS games for a reason, given they’re simple in layout and share many basic similarities, such as movement, grenade, melee, weapon swap, and secondary gadgets. It only took me a couple of days to return to form in Rainbow Six Siege and Halo Infinite – although that might not be saying much with my skill ceiling.
It’s by no means impossible to branch out into other genres, but more complicated controls in RPGs and MMOs demand you spend more time in the software preparing first, followed by trial and error to find your own comfort zone. Even playing an action-adventure game like Gotham Knights tripped me up more than I care to admit, making me feel just as clunky as when I first transitioned from console to PC many moons ago.
There’s a moment of pride when you’re finally comfortable enough to simply play without needing to hop in and out of the software, but it can be a big undertaking getting to that stage. Thankfully, the amount of time it takes to learn each game decreases with each one you familiarise yourself with.
Don’t think of the ALT Avatar Motion Controller as the killer of gaming keyboards. PCs will always be multi-purpose, and you can’t exactly type away with the pad. Plus there are several control-clustered games that still feel better played by pressing keycaps.
However, wrapping your hands around the best PC steering wheel transforms racing games by making you feel like you’re on the racing track. A great flight stick enhances space simulators by giving you unrivalled control over your shuttle. Similarly, The ALT Avatar Motion Controller makes FPS games so smooth that you won’t fat-finger your grenade button in the heat of battle or inexplicably melee when an enemy takes you by surprise.
The $349.99 USD price tag is tough to swallow for an additional peripheral, but it’s the cost of innovation as there’s no other product on the market quite like this. If you act quickly enough, you can grab one for a discounted price over on the official Indiegogo campaign page, but we must stress this comes with all the usual caveats of crowdfunding projects that we highlighted earlier. You might need a healthy dose of fortitude to stick with it while you learn, but the payoff is worth it if you’re mainly into shooters.
Much like how steering wheels and flight sticks enhance certain genres, this gamepad innovates FPS games without ditching your trusty mouse