Steam Controller – first impressions

Valve's Steam Controller and Steam Link

I pre-ordered both the Steam Link and Steam Controller back in September and they finally arrived last week. I’ve been giving them some solid usage over the last few days and these are my first impressions. Not really a review, just some observations having used them for a bit. First up, the Steam Controller.

Let’s address the elephant in the room straight away. A lot of people have voiced their concern that the two haptic tracker pads aren’t going to work for certain games – FPS in particular. I’d say that if you are used to using a pad with dual analogue sticks then it will take some getting used to but I already feel like it’s going to be better in the long run.

The right haptic pad is perhaps the biggest issue for gamers who are making the shift from analogue sticks. With an analogue stick, if you release your control, it returns to the middle. It’s easy to then put your thumb back on it because the centre never changes, and because the stick has a physical boundary stopping you from moving further, it’s easy to gauge where the camera will stop and where your thumb is in relation to the physical boundary. This isn’t so obvious when using the Valve’s controller, as it’s flat. And has no immediately clear beginning and end. And is kind of awkwardly placed so your thumb doesn’t sit perfectly in the middle, so sometimes you lose track of where your thumb is.

The great thing about the Steam Controller is the fact it’s fully customisable. Don’t like ‘A’ being jump? Make one of the bumpers jump? That’s generally not a bad rule of thumb. I’ve had the best success with the pad having swapped some of the more regular actions from being mapped to face buttons and mapping them to the trigger or bumper buttons. The Steam Controller also has two grip buttons on the handles, exactly where your middle and ring fingers naturally relax, and these are splendid for freeing up your thumbs to concentrate on moving the character or camera.

stay away from the game pad mode!

The Steam Controller comes with three basic templates; Game pad, Game pad with high precision aim, and mouse and keyboard emulation. For the love of God, stay away from the game pad mode! That right haptic pad is not an analogue stick, and will never work as one! This, in my opinion, is the reason why most people have turned their nose up at the controller. Hell, even I did the first time I tried to play Spec Ops: The Line with it! The Steam Controller has always meant to emulate mouse movement, so stick with using your right thumb as a makeshift mouse rather than an analogue stick – you’ll adapt much quicker and it makes much more sense.

Once I made the switch from using the right haptic pad as an analogue stick to using it as a mouse, gaming became a lot easier. Even better, go into the controller customisation options and change the right pad from mouse to trackerball. This then allows you to fling your thumb over the surface of the pad and it reacts like one of those old tracker balls you used to find on mice meaning it continues for a little bit after you remove your thumb from the pad allowing you to quickly turn or aim without it being quite so janky.

I no longer invert my Y-axis

One very strange side effect of using the right haptic pad as a mouse rather than as a stick is that it has changed a huge gaming habit of mine: I no longer invert my Y-axis. The pad tracks mouse movement 1:1 and I can’t wrap my head around moving a mouse down to move up. It seems I only invert when using thumbsticks, not when trackpads or trackerballs are concerned! This was a massive realisation for me as I naturally went into the settings and switched Y-axis invert on only to find I kept looking to the ground when I wanted to look up. It took a while but now, when using the Steam Controller, it just makes sense to no longer invert. If you’re used to inverting the vertical axis and are having trouble adapting, try un-inverting and seeing if that makes as big a difference to you as it did for me!

There is definitely a learning curve with this piece of hardware though. The layout is completely different to anything I’ve used before. Valve has done something no-one has since the DualShock was launched in the late 90s; they’ve re-invented the wheel. Where control pads have had four shoulder buttons, Valve made eight available. The triggers have two functions, a soft pull and a hard click once you reach full squeeze. This means you can aim with the soft pull of a trigger and also fire with a hard click – all from the same shoulder trigger! This frees up more real estate for valuable in-game actions, especially for RPGs such as Divinity: Original Sin where traditionally many, many shortcuts are used to map actions and commands to number keys, etc.

The gyro control is really good at making small adjustments or refining your aim.

One of the real marvels of the Steam Controller, and it’s mystifying that it hasn’t been advertised more, is that it features a gyroscope capable of tracking the position of the pad on a 1:1 ratio. This is huge as it addresses a big early bug-bear people have identified so far. PC gamers are used to high sensitivity mouse movements but aiming down iron sights or trying to pick off a moving target with the right haptic pad is very difficult. However, activate the gyro movement by, say, keeping your thumb held on the right haptic pad and you can physically move your hands which will move the aim on-screen! That’s right, you just turned every FPS into a more immersive light gun game! The gyro control is really good at making small adjustments or refining your aim. It’s still not as accurate as a mouse and keyboard, but it’s pretty damn close!

Gamers can even create and share their custom controller templates allowing other users to access and use the profiles themselves, or modify them to put their own spin on them. The game controller profiles with the highest amount of active users appear at the top of the community list and continue in descending order. The more people buy and use the Steam Controller then, the more options gamers have to control games. This also means that game developers don’t really need to nail a control scheme immediately as the community will eventually decide whether a user-made profile works better than the official profile or not!

To use the controller, you need to plug in a USB wireless receiver into either your computer, Steam Link, or other Steam Machine. The Steam Controller comes with a USB extension and a small dock meaning if you want you can have the receiver on your desk rather than behind your base unit. The whole controller is powered by two AA batteries, or through a supplied mini-USB cable, but the batteries slot diagonally into the back of the handles, behind the two grip buttons. They each have a very satisfying metal handle that flicks the battery out and clicks snugly into place when a new battery is inserted. Valve promise battery life of around 80 hours but I haven’t had a chance to put that to the test but after approximately 20 hours of play it’s shown no signs of draining yet.

being able to quickly and accurately manage QTEs is a bit of a nightmare.

The Steam Controller does have its flaws. The build quality, although feeling strong, does feel quite cheap – definitely not like a premium item. It also has a weird shape, with the face buttons, analogue stick and haptic pads sunken as the pad concaves in betwixt two giant handles. The left haptic pad is also not as reliable as its d-pad cousin, meaning games like Cook Serve Delicious which rely on being able to quickly and accurately manage QTEs is a bit of a nightmare.

What the Steam Controller does do is far more interesting. It brings an entire collection of genres that, until now, were unplayable in the living room to your TVs. Point and Click adventure games like Monkey Island, The Dig, or Sam and Max are now able to find a home in your front room, thanks to the Steam Controller’s right haptic pad emulating a mouse. Strategy games are now a viable option to play on your couch, MOBAs, even traditional RPGs like Baldur’s Gate! These are all now eminently playable thanks to Valve’s brave design choices and could even breathe life into development of more of these genre games thanks to their increased accessibility.

As a final word of advice, if you’ve just picked one of these up implore you to immediately fire up Portal 2 (if you pre-ordered you got a copy for free, along with Rocket League). This is one of the few games that has already been pre-configured to work with the Steam Controller and it works beautifully using both trackerball movement and gyro movement instead of an analogue stick and serves as a fantastic demo of what future games will be like.

Will the Steam Controller replace your mouse and keyboard? No. But then that wasn’t the point. Will the Steam Controller allow you to play any PC game in your living room? Yes, with varying degrees of success at the moment, but these are all issues that can be solved with software updates. The future of this device is fascinating and I’m looking forward to getting better at using it as the potential is real.

On Monday I’ll look at the Steam Link.

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