January 7, 2014 by Devin
So I have been playing around a lot with the Steam controller, trying it on lots of different games in different genres, and I feel like I have played enough to give some basic impressions of the controller. For the most part, my initial impressions still stand: in just about every game it is competent, but in few games it is the best method of control. For more in-depth views, keep reading.
Games that are not Linux-enabled were tested on a Mac laptop and are noted with an asterisk.
Featuring Team Fortress 2, FTL: Faster than Light, Castle Crashers*, Super Meat Boy, Strike Suit Zero, Metro: Last Light, Shadowrun Returns, Dungeon Defenders, and Monaco. Games in this category feature few problems, and for the most part players should not feel like they are missing anything by using the Steam Controller.
So one of the first games I started playing when I got my Steambox was Team Fortress 2. It is an old favorite of mine, and I have put more hours into this game than just about any other first-person shooter ever. Playing the game felt more or less like Team Fortress 2 is supposed to feel, and while I have no doubt that I probably loss some accuracy as a result of using the controller (it did take some getting used to), it was also surprising how good the controller felt. Aiming with the controller feels less like jerking a pointer around and more like feeling it out, which makes headshots feel even better.
This experience was more or less echoed with the other FPS in this category, Metro: Last Light. At first I had trouble due to the amount of buttons that Metro uses, but eventually I found a way to make it all work. Metro worked well with the controller because the game is not twitch-based at all, which means that if you are playing it right, you should have time to setup your shots and make each bullet count.
Strike Suit Zero was a similar experience. It is a space combat game (pun intended), and maneuvering the reticle felt right. Without the ability to make drastic or sudden turns (at least until you unlock the ability to transform), I did not feel like the controller was hurting my performance, as the downsides of the controller only became really apparent in the most extreme of circumstances.
FTL and Shadowrun Returns are both strategy games primarily played with the mouse, and thus playing these with the controller felt natural. It would be tough to adapt an Xbox controller to act as a mouse pointer, but Valve has made it easy for developers, meaning that these games transitioned to the living room experience with gameplay more or less intact. The biggest problem was that the text was a bit too tough to read, which was a frequent problem in many games, and I hope that this is something that developers will account for in the future.
I tested out Castle Crashers, a beat’em up, and Super Meat Boy, a tough-as-nails platformer, specifically to see how the pads would handle as button inputs rather than mouse inputs, and they handled admirably. For Super Meat Boy, I assigned run to the top left side of the pad and jump to the bottom right, as I wanted to see how the controller handle multiple button presses and holds. It worked, which I will give Valve a lot of credit for, but there were enough quirks that I recommend people use the triggers or physical buttons instead for this game. For Castle Crashers, I did something similar with the Heavy and Light attacks, and this worked well enough that I could imagine playing the whole game this way.
Finally, playing Dungeon Defenders and Monaco really showed off the potential of this system as a way to revitalize local multiplayer. I played these games with my little sister, switching off between a Steam controller and an Xbox 360 controller, and we had a great time building towers in Dungeon Defenders and robbing banks in Monaco. There were no prominent issues here.
The Bad (or rather, could be better)
Featuring Awesomenauts, Psychonauts, Costume Quest, Left 4 Dead 2, and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare*. These games can be played with the Steam controller, but there are some problems or nuances that are not quite there for these games.
I will start with the ‘nauts games to show off what I mean by this category. Awesomenauts is a side-scrolling multiplayer strategy-action game and Psychonauts is a platformer, and they both suffer from the same problem with the Steam controller. Right now the Steam controller only imitates a keyboard and mouse, which means it cannot simulate analog sticks. For Awesomenauts, this means that controlling aim either has to be done in a digital fashion or with the mouse, which can be difficult in a side-scrolling game. For Psychonauts, this means that moving around is often difficult and does not allow for much nuance. This problem is not so big that I cannot play these games or that these games are not still fun and enjoyable, but it was worth mentioning (it is also worth mentioning that Valve is currently working on a fix for this).
Costume Quest, a turn-based roleplaying game, highlighted a different problem. The game gives the player random button prompts to enhance attacks or defenses, but because none of those buttons actually correspond to the Steam controller, the player is forced to memorize not only what each button does in the game but what each button represents on the keyboard. In this game, this was especially difficult, especially for new players, and I wonder if game developers in the future will develop UI specifically for the Steam controller to fix this problem.
Finally, Left 4 Dead 2 and Call of Duty 4 both highlighted some problems that may have been in Metro and Team Fortress 2 but were not noticeable. In Call of Duty 4, I replayed the training course in the beginning of the game several times with both a mouse and keyboard and with the Steam controller, and the difference was notable. I could get down to 22 seconds with keyboard and mouse (unlocking Hardcore difficulty), while the best I could do with the Steam controller was 28 seconds (which is equivalent to the Normal difficulty). In addition to problems with aiming, I also had problems moving around and often found myself running into walls and missing doorways. For Left 4 Dead 2, I have no idea what the problem was, but moving and aiming felt really off, so much so that I did not even finish the first level. This could be something that I have to get used to, but it was worse than any other shooter I played, which is weird considering it is from Valve.
Featuring Jamestown* and the controller itself. This section is for problems that could be indicative of issues that hurt the value of the controller.
The only game that I played with this controller that I left thinking, “I can’t play this game,” was Jamestown, a top-down arcade shooter, which considering how precise Jamestown controls are, is pretty admirable for a controller still in beta. My big problem with Jamestown and the Steam controller was the Steam controller’s nasty habit of thinking I pressed buttons I did not. I would take my thumb off the pad and my character would do an extra “hop”. I noticed this in other games, but it never was big enough to bother me, but in this game it would mean the difference between life and death. Sometimes I would even press one direction and my character would go a slightly different direction, which is even worse.
Besides that, the controller has had a few fairly consistent technical glitches that deserve mention. Occasionally the controller has just plain stopped working, requiring me to unplug it and then plug it in again (but sometimes that would not even work). It seems to have trouble especially on the Steam overlay’s web browser. Also, the Steam controller settings do not work without the Steam overlay, meaning that there is a brief moment when starting up a game where (ideally) the Steam controller has to use its default settings, but sometimes it does not work at all until the overlay kicks in (and sometimes that moment lasts a little bit too long). These issues are in addition to the issues with the SteamOS, such as the overlay freezing, that contribute to the feeling that this machine is very much in beta. Hopefully it will be able to get rid of these feelings before it officially launches.
So those are my overall thoughts about the controller. As you can see, most of the games I listed are in the Good category, and the games listed in the Bad category are still quite playable, so overall I think my experience with the controller has been really positive. Valve has done a lot of neat things with it, including creating it with button access in mind and actually simulating a mouse pretty decently.
If the Steambox fails, there will be a lot of different reasons why, but rest assured that the controller will not be one of them.
1. Protip: double tapping a pad can be assigned to a different input than pressing in a pad with little difficulty
2. I would say side-scrolling MOBA, but if you don’t know what Awesomenauts is, then you probably have no idea what a MOBA is.
3. Well, video game life and death at least.
4. If I have my thumbs rested on both pads, I have access to at least 9 buttons, not counting WASD. If the right pad is not controlling a mouse, that number jumps to 16.