Valve's new Steam controller is a bold experiment: an attempt at fusing a PC mouse with a traditional console-style controller. It hasn't quite clicked with me yet.
This isn't to say it isn't a solid piece of hardware. Some flimsy triggers aside, it's weighty, responsive, and — for the most part — ergonomic. It feels well-made. The haptic pads — the big owl eye-looking touch pads on the left and right sides of the controller — rumble precisely where your finger is when interacted with, and they're hyper customisable via a menu you can bring up any time by pressing the big Steam button in the center of the controller. But like any new means of controlling games, the Steam controller has been hurled into living room death combat against my Xbox and PlayStation controllers — which I've had for years — and the traditional mouse and keyboard setup, which is what cavemen used to headshot and teabag woolly mammoths.
Comparatively, one week is not a lot of time for me to acclimate. I'm still getting used to it; here's how it's going so far.
The FedEx guy drops off my Steam hardware, and I resist the temptation to call him Santa Claus to his face. I open the controller box first, where I find the controller, a wireless USB connector, and some simple instructions. I pop a couple batteries into the controller, plug the USB in my PC, and I'm good to go. It should be noted that this is pretty standard for all the Steam hardware (e.g. Steam Link, the Alienware Steam Machine) I've received. It's straightforward and plainly explained. It takes between ten and fifteen minutes to get everything plugged in, updated, and ready to play — a far cry from the perceived complication of traditional PC gaming.
The first game I try with the controller is Cryptark, a sidescrolling roguelite action game with 360 degree aiming. It should be the perfect test, what with the controller-friendly nature of sidescrollers and the advantage a mouse-type interface will give me with that type of aiming.
But I end up having some — shall we say — trouble. Try as I might, I can never get the Steam controller's right haptic pad to position my aim reticule where I want it. It's always just a little off. On top of that, I find that — by default — not all of my attacks have been mapped to the Steam controller. I have to go into the menu and do it manually. It's not super difficult, but it is mildly annoying. Eventually, I switch to my mouse-and-keyboard, my trusty sword (and gun and grenade and gnarled wizard hand) and board. Instantly, I become substantially better at the game.
With my typical workday winding down, I decide to indulge in a little Mad Max: a quick, dumb way to blow off some steam. By and large, the experience with my new controller is alright, but something feels off. I realise that I can't walk or run and manoeuvre the game's camera at the same time. One supersedes the other, something I'm certain didn't happen when I was playing with an Xbox controller.
I pop open the Steam controller menu and find that — again, by default — the game is using a configuration that treats the controller's right haptic pad like a mouse. For whatever reason, that prevents aiming and moving from playing nice with each other. I pick the premade gamepad template, which treats the right haptic pad like a joystick instead of a mouse. That solves the problem, but at the expense of some of the precision and speed I was getting from the mouse-style camera. I try customising that setup to match the feeling of the previous one, but I just can't find the sweet spot. Eventually, I settle for something functional, but not optimal.
I decide to try out a cursor-driven strategy game, to see how the controller functions with games that aren't so living-room-friendly. I settle on Civilisation V, and it feels really nice. Removed from the high-stress environment of a fast-twitch action game, I'm able to better come to grips with the haptic pad. Before long, I have my first moment where I forget I'm using the Steam controller altogether. It feels natural.
For a bit.
After about 30 minutes, my thumb decides to helpfully remind me this ain't natural. My thumb is aching, throbbing in the crook area. I realise that I tend to bend my thumb when using the Steam controller instead of relaxing it. I try laying it flat, but my overall accuracy and ability to make the cursor go where I want go way down. It's a conundrum. A painful conundrum.
First-person shooter time. I pick Shadow Warrior because a) it doesn't require me to be super precise with my aim all the time (thank you, swords) and b) I'm always looking for an excuse to play more Shadow Warrior. I find a control setup that treats the right haptic pad like a mouse while not interfering with my movement, and I find that I'm pretty capable right off the bat.
Foremost, this is because control setups that simulate the mouse tend to use the haptic circle's inner area, as opposed to joystick setups which drastically reduce the sensitivity of that zone so you can be a bit more reckless. I end up feeling way more at ease with super tight controls, though, and I actually use a revolver to pop off a few headshots I probably wouldn't have been able to pull off with my Xbox pad.
Another thing I notice — and I think I like, but I'm not sure yet, I'm still getting used to it — is that my ability to jump is mapped to the controller's left grip. Yes, on the Steam controller that is also a button. In practical terms, this means I don't have to move my finger from the right haptic pad to press A and jump. I can just squeeze with my left hand.
My thumb still ends up hurting afterward, though, and I get into a few firefights where I feel like my crappy shooting transformed some bargain bin baddy into Neo from The Matrix.
I decide to take The Witcher 3 for a spin because I've been meaning to get back into it for months after initially finding myself locked in a romance with Triss and feeling like, "MY GERALT wouldn't have done it that way if he'd known. Gah! The nerve."
I have a handful of issues with this one. First, the controller hardly works with the game at all: It only allows me to pivot the camera for God knows what reason. I have to reset. It actually works on the second go-'round, but the best control configuration I can find (gamepad with high precision aim) creates this weird lag spike every time I move the camera. It's not game-breaking, but it's a pain.
Otherwise, it's a decent enough experience. I play until 3 AM, because, you know, The Witcher.
Menus! I decide to navigate some sleek, sexy, thrilling-as-a-tsunami-having-a-heart-attack menus. As I wrote previously, Steam Big Picture Mode recently received an overhaul that's made it way more functional. Navigating it with the Steam controller is as simple and straightforward as you'd expect.
Also, typing is unexpectedly great. You use both haptic circles and the triggers — circles to manoeuvre across the left and right sides of the keyboard, respectively, and triggers to make selections. It looks like this:
I already much prefer it to any other means of typing with a controller I've tried. That said, it does sometimes feel like I have to reach uncomfortably far on the haptic circle to reach the keyboard's outer edges.
I decide to stay up super late playing The Witcher again before a long day of writing about Steam stuff. Because I hate myself!
I'm not 100 per cent on board with the Steam controller yet. I think given time to acclimate on my end and more user-made control configurations for the lion's share of games, it could certainly evolve into something really neat. Will it become my go-to gamepad? I'm not sure. Will it replace my mouse-and-keyboard altogether? Hell no. But that was never its intended purpose. At the very least, I'm gonna keep playing with it for the next few weeks, and I'll have a review for you when it officially launches early next month.