Review: Steam Controller (Hardware)
UPDATED: 10/24. Steam added options to change default controls outside of Steam, which was a big problem for me. As such, this is now irrelevant
The Steam Controller. Valve’s little experiment to help push along PC gaming into the living rooms of yesterday! Promising a worthy replacement for keyboard and the accuracy of using a mouse, Valve’s newest Steam Controller uses two trackpads, the right being a replacement for the right stick and the left being a terrible, disgusting d-pad replacement. Both trackpads feature powerful haptic feedback, meant to give you feedback on what you’re doing and how close to the edge your fingers reach. The rest of the controller is fairly standard, featuring the standard ABXY buttons, a regular left analog stick as well as L3/R3, start and select buttons as well as a center Steam button that acts as a power button and opens Big Picture Mode when pressed, left/right buttons, left/right triggers, and a unique addition of another set of triggers on the back of the controller that fits into the handles, where your fingers rest. The Steam Controller also features motion controls, with both a gyroscope and accelerometer sensors built into the controller that "enables tilt-to-steering racing wheel functionality and other motion-controller input" according to the Steam Store page. I've yet to actually test any of the motion controlled features, as I don't necessarily own games that can use motion controls. The controller uses 2 AA batteries for wireless connectivity, which is accomplished by the included wireless adapter when you buy the controller, or you can connect the controller to your PC with a micro USB controller. Battery life is claimed to be about 80 hours, depending on the usage and such, and I can certainly believe it. I've put about 10-15 hours in with this controller through my various tests, and the battery life indicator on Steam says I still have about 92% battery life left, which is quite impressive for a controller these days.
My first impressions using the controller, like many new controller designs, were a bit awkward at first. I decided to put the controller to the test by playing a large range of games, from things that are more gamepad-centered like Dark Souls/Dark Souls 2 and the new Transformers Devastation (review incoming ;)) to mouse and keyboard dependent games like Factorio. Originally, transitioning from normal analog sticks to the trackpad was a bit...awkward. It felt strange moving my fingers from the flat surface of the trackpad to the raise one of the buttons, it was miles different from the many years of muscle memory associated with analog sticks. After an hour or two, however, I found myself becoming quite comfortable with the design overall, it felt a lot more natural to me than my initial couple minutes of fiddling. Now, after a few days of messing around and playing with various configurations, I found I go for the Steam Controller more often than I do my DS4/Xbox One controller.
I decided my first game to test the controller with, as will always be the first game I test any controller with, was Dark Souls, a game which heavily relies on gamepad controls. Starting out it was a bit tough, using the trackpad to control the camera was awkward and trying to use the face buttons in conjunction with the trackpad simply didn’t work. In fact, it still doesn’t feel as comfortable for me as using any other controller would, however one of the great things about the Steam Controller is the amount of customization you can do with it.
You can customize each and every button on the controller with any other standard Xinput controller button, as well as mapping buttons with keyboard keys, even to the point of being able to use both at the same time. This allows users to test and experiment with any number of combinations for the controller per game, whether you want the trackpads to act as a joystick would, or as a trackball mouse. Maybe you want the X button to be Y, or A as B. Maybe you want R3 on the controller to be set as space bar and L3 simply to stay as L3. It’s all possible, and it all sounds amazing. Not only can you set your own custom mapping, you can find and download the profiles of other user's custom mappings as well. The downside? You have to use Steam Big Picture mode to set any custom mapping, period. At the time of this review, using the latest Steam beta, there are simply no options to map buttons outside of Big Picture Mode.
Outside of Steam, the controller has a default profile of keyboard and mouse, and as far as I can tell, there's no way to change it. This can be a bit annoying, if you want to test the controller with emulators, however I found just adding the emulator to your game list and setting the controller layout to gamepad mode let it function as an Xinput controller in emulators. UPDATED: Steam added options to change default controls outside of Steam, which was a big problem for me. As such, this is now irrelevant.
The big selling point of the controller is the ability to map keyboard and mouse controls to the controller. With the help of the trackpad, you're supposed to have the same maneuverability as you would with any mouse, and the customization of the gamepad allows you to map keyboard keys to various buttons. In theory, this sounds too good to be true, but in practice it really does end up being viable if you have a little patience. My first test game for the mouse and keyboard functionality was Factorio, a 2D sandbox RTS game with a focus on building and survival. Factorio has no controller mapping available, and relies heavily on the mouse for building placement and the keyboard for various inventory functions. As it's not currently a Steam game, I had to add it into Steam's game list and launch it in Big Picture Mode to map the controls initially. It took me a few tries to find a control scheme suitable to making it work, but after a few quick adjustments, I found something that I was comfortable enough using (which you can see in the above screenshot). After about a half hour, I found I was so comfortable with the controller setup that I actually began to prefer it to typical mouse and keyboard movement. The Steam Controller also allows users to pull up a small on-screen keyboard, where users use both trackpads on the controller as 2 different mouse pointers to choose each letter on the respective left and right half of the keyboard. Simply navigate to the letter, and push in on the trackpad to select whatever key your pointer hovers over. It takes a few tries to get used to this method of typing, but I found that after a while it ends up being an infinitely better and faster controller typing experience than any other I've experienced.
But it's not all sunshine and rainbows. I came across several problems with the controller in general, some software and some based on the hardware. While playing through Dark Souls 2, I noticed that in game, I couldn't actually use the D-pad while using the left analog stick at the same time; trying to move with the left stick and choose items with the d-pad simply didn't work, the d-pad wouldn't respond. I can only assume this is some kind of software problem, and I've made a note of sending feedback to the devs asking what's up. In terms of the hardware issues, despite claiming to offer the same amount of control with the trackpad as a regular mouse, I found playing shooters to be so much more painful with the trackpad than using a standard analog stick on any other controller. I spent at least 3 or 4 hours with various shooters, messing with the trackpad sensitivity, changing the haptic feedback, changing whether the trackpad behaves as a mouse or as an analog stick, and I simply couldn't find any combination of settings that offered fine-tuned camera controls. I've tested this with Borderlands 2, Call of Duty Ghosts, Red Faction Armageddon, Sniper Elite V2...I simply couldn't get any game to behave as well as an analog stick or as a mouse would with the trackpad.
+ Surprisingly comfortable to hold, after a short period of awkward-ness.
+ Offers insane customization options allowing users to tailor the controller to any experience they want.
+ Battery life appears to be quite long, compared to other wireless controllers .
- Currently forced to use Steam's Big Picture Mode for configuring the controller.
- (Has no way to change the default behavior of the controller outside of Steam.) UPDATED: See above
- Some games simply don't work well with the trackpad, shooters being the main genre.
- The D-pad and Left analog stick can't be used at the same time, whether this is due to hardware or software is unknown at this time, and may be fixed in the future.
out of 10
When you get right down to it, Valve's Steam Controller isn't the perfect controller it tries to be for every PC gaming genre. Some game genres simply require the accuracy of a mouse, no matter how much you try to get around it. However I have to commend Valve on creating a controller that can, in some cases, effectively replace a keyboard and mouse when needed for "couch gaming". Unfortunately, due to the unique design, I can only recommend this controller to those who are open to trying new things with their controllers. For those looking to try out the Controller for themselves, I strongly recommend keeping your old controllers around just in case.