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Stadia's new direct touch controls are (almost) like magic
I think we can all agree that touch screen controls kind of suck. Don’t get me wrong, you can absolutely get by with virtual joysticks and on-screen buttons in most games, but generally, it’s just better to use a controller.
Except when it isn’t.
Case in point: Humankind. When the upstart 4X game entered beta on Stadia last October, I was stoked. Google Stadia is by far the best performing cloud gaming service, but the limited catalog still tips the scales heavily in favor of the unbeatable Xbox Cloud Gaming/Xbox Game Pass Ultimate combo. Having the latest Civ-like available anywhere and everywhere sounded like exactly what I would need to rekindle my crippling addiction to strategy games.
4X games have traditionally been firmly invested in the mouse-and-keyboard tech tree, but I found the idea of playing with just touch screen controls intriguing. With no twitch mechanics or quick response inputs required, it should play great, right?
Well, no. The on-screen joystick essentially controlled a mouse cursor, and the rest of the buttons were basically just replacements for left- and right-clicks on a mouse. The physical Stadia controller behaved in the same way. After struggling for a few hours to convince myself that I just had to get used to it, I eventually gave up and played on a PC.
Months later, Humankind developer Amplitude Studios and Stadia announced that the game would be the first to feature a new “direct touch” control scheme, which essentially turns a tap anywhere on the screen into a left-click. Other actions can be achieved with other types of touch input, like dragging, holding, or tapping with two or three fingers.
Humankind is the first game to support direct touch, which is a game-changer for strategy games.
Amplitude was kind enough to supply a review copy of Humankind and I gotta say, the tech works wonderfully. There is no perceptible input lag, and it feels just like playing any game installed on your device. This feels like a huge leap forward to an input scheme that’s perfectly suited to controller-averse strategy and point-and-click games.
However, there are some significant caveats. The UI in Humankind is hilariously small and borderline unreadable in some cases. Icons and menu options are tiny little boxes the size of a grain of rice. Maybe you’d have better luck on a Galaxy Z Fold 3 or tablet, but playing on my (sizeable) OnePlus 8 Pro put a serious strain on my weak gamer eyes. There’s a button to magnify the screen, but even that doesn’t quite cut it.
I’m also not in love with the choice to use two- and three-finger taps for controls since they don’t really jive with the way people hold a phone in landscape mode. I haven’t yet been able to successfully use my thumbs for two-finger taps, and using my nose for three-finger inputs was similarly ineffective (and really smudged up my screen).
Granted, the game did just come out a few days ago, and a simple update from Amplitude would completely solve most of these issues. More generous UI scaling would make the game much more enjoyable on mobile devices (not to mention TVs via Chromecast, which still use a joystick-controlled cursor).
But will Amplitude bother?
Google’s “if you build it, they will come” approach to Stadia development has largely flopped due to waning interest from game developers. Cool features like State Share (which Humankind fully supports), 4K gameplay, and Stream Connect (allowing you to see your teammate’s point of view in real time) have fallen to the developers to implement into their games. But with such a small audience on Stadia, it generally just isn’t a priority.
Related: The best games on Google Stadia
It’s worth noting that Microsoft has developed a similar technology to direct touch, but hasn’t yet fully rolled it out. As far as I know, it’s limited to just the menu in Minecraft Dungeons, with actual gameplay reverting to a virtual joystick and buttons.
Microsoft has a much bigger incentive to push the tech with tons of first-party games and a Game Pass-centric strategy for the future. That said, Xbox Cloud Gaming performance still lags behind, despite the shift to improved server blades in some areas of the world earlier this year.
Regardless of who does it, I really hope direct touch catches on. There are so many menu-heavy and control-light games that would benefit, and it’s a great alternative to stop-gap measures like the Razer Kishi.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll take just One More Turn™ in Humankind before calling it a day…