SteelSeries Stratus XL Wireless Gaming Controller Review: The MFi Controller That Will Make A Believer Out Of You

By Alex Riviello , Updated Dec 24, 2014 04:31 PM EST
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As the first bluetooth controller for iOS, the original SteelSeries Stratus (which launched this past January) immediately became one of the most popular Made For iPhone/iPad (MFi) controllers around. A serious controller in a market full of lightweight, plasticy competitors, it easily stood out from the rest. There was just one problem with the Stratus- it’s tiny. It offers a case that snaps onto the back to give it a little more grip and is handy to lug around in your bag, certainly, but it was so small that it could disappear into your hands.

This new SteelSeries Stratus XL corrects that mistake, offering a full-sized controller that’s on par with anything the current leading consoles have put out. It’s a heavy-duty device that looks like some mad desginer took an Xbox One controller and melded it with the analog sticks of a Dualshock 4, placing them low and together. There’s a responsive d-pad, four face buttons, two shoulder buttons, and two triggers- something the original Stratus lacked. There’s also a pause button right in the middle of the controller for when the fight gets too much for you.

The buttons are all pressure sensitive (although in practice not too many titles take advantage of this), and the concave analog sticks have really nice grips on them that ensure your thumbs will never slip off. On the top of the controller are two small buttons that allow it to sync it to bluetooth and check the battery life, which is said to last 40 hours on two AA batteries.

Yes, it runs on batteries, which may make some people groan, but the controller really does last forever. They claim that the batteries will last 40 hours but with an entire week of heavy gaming with it’s still ticking. The original SteelStratus lasts a mere 10 hours, although of course that uses rechargable lithium-ion batteries.

The Stratus XL doesn’t offer a clip to place your phone that other devices like the MOGA Rebel do, which could be a dealbreaker for some. If you don’t have a iPad or a case with a stand for your iPhone you might find that it’s hard to get the right angle to see your device while playing it, trying to lean it on various objects in order to get into a comfortable gaming position. My dinky little ten dollar case with a built-in stand worked wonders, however.

From a technical standpoint, this is an amazing controller. It’s comfy and so responsive you will lament only being able to use it for iOS devices, because this would be incredible to use with your PC.

It's undeniably a terrific controller in its own right, but do you really need one for iOS gaming? That’s entirely up to your gaming preferences of course, but there’s absolutely no denying that certain games just don’t work as they should with a touchscreen. First person shooters, platformers, console ports- some types of games simply need the precision of physical buttons or they become frustrating messes. It’s no fun chasing a floating analog stick along the surface of your phone, or hitting the wrong on-screen button by accident when a complicated game is cluttered with icons. 

There are over 400 games that support MFi controllers, but that’s a mere fraction of the 150k games available in the App store, and of those supported the compatibility differs greatly. The best games recognize the controller and change the UI of the game to show what each button does, while some seem to support it as an afterthought. There is no real standard, despite Apple's wishes and plans.

Nevertheless, I tried the Stratus XL out with almost 20 games that support MFi controllers and came away incredibly satisfied with how it performed. Some titles like World of Tanks and Wayward Souls work so well that I simply cannot imagine playing them without the Stratus XL anymore. Wayward Souls in particular- as well as the touchscreen works, the precision the controller brings makes the game that much easier to get further in the game.

If you’ve picked up Oceanhorn thanks to that current Holiday sale you’ll want to get this as well. Action RPGs simply don’t play right without a controller.

Console ports like A Bard’s Tale and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas almost require a controller, unless you’re a fan of a cluttered, impossible on-screen controls that clutter the action. Telltale’s games like The Wolf Among Us and Game of Thrones support MFi as well, changing the interface from a larger touch-sensitive one to something approximating the PC/console releases. It makes for much faster decision making, something you’ll need when lives are on the line- which can happen quite frequently in Game of Thrones (go figure).

Other great titles like Badland, Nimble Quest and Into the Dead support MFi but it doesn't even seem worth the trouble to pick it up, since they use one-touch controls that hardly require anything more.

So there are a ton of games that utilize the controller well, but it doesn’t come cheap. At $69.99 the Stratus XL is even more expensive than the next-gen controllers of Sony and Microsoft, and without vibration or touchscreen features, either. Still, it’s $30 cheaper than the launch price of the original Stratus, and unlike many other MFi controllers this is a heavy duty device that feels like it can be knocked around. Not that you’d want to with such an expensive piece of equipment, of course.

Really the only thing holding this controller back is Apple itself. It’s almost impossible to find games that support MFi controllers in the App Store, and while SteelSeries has a list of compatible games on their own site it doesn’t offer any idea of how well each game works. 

Hopefully Apple can help out gamers by at the very least letting us know which games are compatible with MFi controllers in their Store listings, and a section of the Store devoted to games that are supported would be incredible. They could also encourage more developers to utilize it, although no matter how you cut it MFi devices seem to be destined to be niche products, especially at their  current prices. 

But for those of us addicted to iOS gaming these are game-changers, and the Stratus XL feels like it's performing some dark magic in the way it makes familiar games feel new and responsive. Of all the MFi controllers on the market this may be the finest- just make sure you have some way to prop up your phone before you dive in, and be warned that there's no way to go back once you have. 

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The Stratus XL was reviewed from a unit provided by SteelSeries. It’s currently available for purchase at Apple stores, Sprint stores, and SteelSeries.com for $69.99. We will soon be publishing a list of compatible titles and thoughts on each!

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