Control+ Kinda Sucks

Recently we’ve seen lots of Technic sets get an “App-Controlled” label slapped on them. Exactly which set came first I can’t remember, but among the first was 2019’s PoweredUP 42099 4×4 X-Treme Off-Roader. This was followed not long after with the 42100 Leibherr R9800 Excavator, and since then we’ve seen a bunch of new sets get the same treatment. Late 2020 saw the release of the 42124 Off-Road Buggy and, more recently, the 42129 Mercedes-Benz Trial Truck. And later this year theres a big, £400+ Cat D11 Bulldozer.

My LEGO dark ages were bookended with Technic – it was what I played with last before turning into a moody teenager, and what I picked up again 10 years later as a moody adult. I love the more intricate mechanical side of LEGO construction and for me the best builds are those that integrate both System and Technic parts. The old Model Team sets have a fond place in my heart for just that reason. All that is to say I’m not trying to take cheap shots at some aspect of the hobby I don’t like.

Yes, on the face of it, a single app for every Control+ Technic set makes sense. Instead of shipping a dedicated controller with every set, why not make use of the fact that the vast majority of people now own smartphones which are exponentially more powerful and easier to recharge than anything LEGO could feasibly hope to mass produce as a toy. It saves on batteries, it saves on plastic waste, and from a business point of view it saves money.

Unfortunately it’s also terrible.

The problem with smartphones is that they are thin, slippy glass rectangles designed to fit in your pocket and for the last 10 years or so they’ve been haemorrhaging buttons and ports like they’re going out of fashion. Gone are the days when you could tap out a message under the table while maintaining eye contact with your teacher — one wrong move with an iPhone and congratulations, you’ve just called the police.

The thing that makes a controller a controller is the ability to use it without looking at it because it has tactile buttons and curved handles and knobbly bits. Anyone who plays PlayStation or Xbox, uses a computer keyboard and mouse or even drives a car knows that for all but the most precise of inputs your eyes are looking at the thing you’re controlling and not the controller. Essentially, a good controller is an extension of your body.

Screenshot of the Control+ App for the 42124 Off-Road Buggy

And this is the crux of the problem. There are no physical controls on a phone. No chunky bit that sits in your palm, no shoulder triggers or analog sticks or anything that makes using a physical pad an enjoyable experience. The virtual joysticks are so ridiculously tiny and over-sensitive that you have to keep your eye on the screen at all times or your finger will slide off them. And of course if you’re looking at the screen, you can’t see where you’re driving the car.

You can see this frustration starting to play out in the reviews people are leaving on the store, and it’s not really surprising. As sets get bigger and more expensive, so too does the disappointment factor with your brand new £500 paperweight. The CAT D11 and Liebherr Excavator both look incredible, but without the useless Control+ elements they would be half the price. Similarly, the buggy had so much potential: classic RC styling, interesting new parts, and those amazing tyres all completely let down by the control system. For me at least, until proper physical controls are available for the Control+ system these sets are simply not worth it. Power Functions we miss you </3