As Valve aims to secure a place on your couch with the Steam Box, a lot of consideration has been given to how we would accommodate it as we move away from our desks. There are already plenty of inelegant PC couch gaming solutions, ranging from laptop surfaces to a variety of bizarre cushion / seat / gaming-surface hybrids. All of them aim to bring the desk setup to the couch. Valve has decided to go another route entirely and nixed the mouse and keyboard altogether. Its solution is the Steam Controller, a touchpad-driven controller that provides a unique combination of traditional controller feel with some pretty impressive haptic feedback tech. For the most part it works, but not as seamlessly as I had hoped.
The very first thing you will notice when you unbox your new controller is its size, and the two prominent touch pads located on either side. It’s larger than the Xbox One controller and shares the heft of the Microsoft unit. Build quality is top notch, and despite its girth, it feels very secure in the hand. The touchpads are placed well and can be accessed easily enough. I’ve even had a couple of female gamers with smaller hands give it a spin, and despite its size, they liked the feel of it.
So you don’t need massive man hands to drive the Steam Controller. In part this is due to the larger, bulbous grips. Holding it feels a little foreign at first for this reason, and you need to adjust your controller grip controller in order to access the touchpads, but after a few hours the setup begins to feel natural. This is a comment you’ll see repeated here a few times; the controller needs to be given time for you to adjust to it, and make it your own.
All the buttons you’d expect from a modern controller are present, with ABXY, back, forward, bumpers, triggers, and a “home” button all found in their expected positions. There are also two additional flipper-like buttons on the underside, as well as an additional digital button input when the triggers are fully pressed.
The analogue stick and both touchpads also have clicky button responses when pressed. Seventeen mappable button / trigger functions and one home button is an impressive number for any controller, but they don’t all feel as good as they could. The ABXY buttons are smaller than is usual – a concession made in order to accommodate the pads. As a result, they feel a little clumsy, and I have mishit a few times as a result.
Another issue is the triggers: their range of movement feels a little too short. It’s not a massive reduction when compared to PlayStation’s DualShock or an Xbox controller, but there is a need to adjust to the different feel, and this mars initial impressions of the controller.
The make or break of Valve’s controller is going to be the touchpads. The technology here is undeniable, and it’s not until you feel them in hand that you really understand just how much effort has gone in to making them feel right. Both pads are completely mappable, and can emulate every control scheme you can think of, including joysticks, mice, trackballs, scroll wheels, touchscreens, d-pads, and keyboard keys. Exceptional haptic feedback makes all most of these emulations feel solid and responsive. Even weeks later, the sensation that I am spinning a trackball via the pad is still impressive.
All inputs can be tailored to best suit your needs: sensitivities, feel, haptics, mapping, and any number of fine tuning options can be tweaked for every game in your Steam library. This is actually where the one of the controller’s core issues lies, and it’s a problem that I doubt any engineer can ever elegantly resolve: every game will require some tweaking from the user, because the Steam Controller is not simply plug and play.
It’s not that it doesn’t work when plugged in because it does, but you will need to tailor it for your needs for every game. If you’re happy to spend anything up to an hour fine-tuning a game this is not a major issue, but it’s not something that most people will want to deal with. Being too finicky and too laborious to set up for the casual player is going to be one of the Steam Controllers biggest hurdles to overcome. Even someone as anal as myself found the constant requirement to remap and rebalance the controller for each game a little tiresome, and then there is always that urge to go back tweak it some more to make it feel a little better.
Which brings us to the next issue with the controller. As a keyboard / mouse replacement, the Steam Controller is not always up to the task. This is not always the fault of the controller itself, but rather, some games won’t let it emulate both an analogue controller and the mouse/keyboard. For example, in games like Fallout 4, rather than emulating the mouse on the right touchpad, you instead get joystick emulation which feels clunky, unwieldy, and more akin to mouse emulation some third-party console mouse solutions provide. And when games do allow full emulation, the experience ranges from excellent to lack-lustre.
Grand Theft Auto V is a great example of a game where the Steam Controller shines. The in-car action is perfect with the analogue stick, and the on foot/shooting sections can be easily wrangled with mouse emulation on the pad. The game is exponentially more fun and responsive on the Steam Controller when compared to a standard controller, and using it is far more preferable to swapping between controller and mouse as many PC users do.
First-person shooters are where the controller really needed to shine, but sadly it merely glimmers with flashes of brilliance. In fast-paced competitive shooters in particular, it struggles. The emulation is spot on, but some fine control is lost as you are limited to what your thumb rather than hand, arm, and wrist can do. It’s infinitely better than using a standard controller, and can work in a pinch, but will never be the preferred control method. Other first person games, however, work fine. First-person mystery The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and first-person puzzler The Talos Principle feel great, and play perfectly.
The Steam Controller also gives players the option to play mouse-locked games from the couch. I played a variety of point and click adventure and turn-based strategy games this way, and they all felt solid and precise. Isometric RPGs Pillars of Eternity and Divinity: Original Sin also played very well with the controller, and their controller profiles required the least amount of tinkering for me to find a sweet spot.
I even had some success with real time strategy. Grey Goo didn’t feel natural initially, but after a firmware update from Valve that added additional touchpad functionality, I can see how with some practice the RTS genre could be viable (although I doubt competitive micro-heavy titles like StarCraft could ever work on the controller. However, a game must be run though Steam for the controller to work, so StarCraft is out anyway.
Ultimately, the Steam Controller is the quintessential Jack of all trades, master of none. I expect we’ll see a couple of hardware updates over the coming years, and there is real potential here. So while it has not replaced my Xbox One controller, I must admit that playing Pillars of Eternity and Endless Legend with the Steam Controller is fantastic, and is how I prefer to play them currently.
I like the Steam Controller very much, but it’s not something I feel I can give a blanket recommendation to. After a few weeks of using it, I can say it now feels natural and select games I play with it feel great, but I cannot play every game with it, so as a complete keyboard/mouse replacement, it simply isn’t there yet. The limitations and minor irritations here are legion, but many of these will lessen as its firmware improves and more profiles become available. As it stands, my final words are: caveat emptor.