July 7, 2015 by Devin
Update 1: Somehow I missed Valves fancy new trailer that showed off some features of the Steam controller that I did not know existed. My impressions have been updated, and I have also added a bit more info (including yes, the price) about the controller.
Update 2: Added some videos of using the controller at the bottom of this page.
Update 3: Final update in anticipation of the controller coming out.
So about a year and a half ago, I gave my impressions of Steam’s upcoming controller. It was a prototype, but I thought it was a good view into where Valve was going with it.
Well Valve has fairly recently updated their model for the controller, and with that, took out the UI and support for the controller I received way back when. I was fairly disappointed when I realized my controller was now near-useless, but considering I got it for free with this awesome computer, I was not too broken up about it.
However, I mentioned this little tidbit on Reddit, and because Valve is Valve, they actually contacted me, asking if I wanted to be sent the new updated model for testing out and impressions giving.
So that is what I am doing now.
Be warned, though, that I am going to get deep into the nitty-gritty of how the controller works. I really want this to be an attempt at a comprehensive overview that people can read and feel like they know what the controller would be like in their hands. Because of that, I tried to play a wide variety of games, and I am open to updating these impressions if I later find that there is something else I should talk about.*
Also, I should point out that Valve did give me this controller, and the computer I am using it on, for free as a part of the 300 beta that I am in.
In other words, if at any point you get bored by all the technical whatevers, feel free to skip down to “General Impressions.”
The Physical Controller
Upon receiving the new controller, it became immediately apparent to me how much of a prototype the first one was. As this comparison picture shows, the original prototype had a lot of different ideas thrown into it, and Valve was bold enough to throw nearly all of them out. The rather unique placement of buttons and touch screen (seen here as the central four buttons) have both been thrown out and replaced with something more traditional, and Valve has even decided to be less reliant on the trackpads by adding in an analog stick.
The end result is a controller that feels much more comfortable and familiar than before, but make no mistake: this controller is its own beast. The trackpads, the most defining feature of the prototype and the one feature that has come through with nothing but improvements, allow for a degree of flexibility beyond any controller I have seen before.
They are a lot smoother this time around. The old ones had circle indents in them to give your thumb a sense of traction, but the new ones lack this, instead relying on the haptic feedback to give that resistance. Feeling the controller when it is off makes it feel loose or imprecise, but the haptic feedback really works.
For those unaware, “haptic feedback” is one of the big new technological innovations with this controller. For most controllers, having physical buttons is all the feedback you need. If you are pressing a button, you feel it, and if you are not pressing a button, you do not feel it. But anyone who has played a game on their iPhone probably recognizes the troubles that can happen when you have a control input based on touch controls, like these trackpads are. Your thumb could slide all over the screen without you even realizing it.
Haptic feedback changes that. Tiny speakers in the controller shoot vibrations at your thumb when you move it around the pad, so you feel the difference between resting it in one place and letting your thumb wander across the pad.
And it really works. It is a bit hard to explain why, but my thumb never drifted off the controller or ended up somewhere it was not supposed to be. The feedback feels like I am manipulating a control rather than feeling a screen.
The ergonomics of the controller are incredibly improved over the prototype, though there still seems to be some room for improvement. For any of those people out there who tried the earlier prototype and thought it felt and looked cheap, well you were right, but that is no longer the case. This feels like a controller you could toss across the room in anger and it would still work fine, though I by no means recommend you try that.
The buttons each have a distinct squish to them that feels satisfying. The triggers and buttons along the handles all feel incredibly solid, and I have no fear that they will wear out after repeated use. I say this in full knowledge that the grip buttons are actually just a single piece of plastic that covers the batteries that fold out. That is a solution that feels like it should not work but oddly does.
The only time I felt uncomfortable using the controller was when I was only using the analog stick and buttons. Their placement at the bottom of the controller means my thumbs have longer to go to actually reach them, and the way the grips work, my thumbs feel like they have to go over and around the controller.
However, after repeated play, this feeling has gone away. I think it probably just has to do with getting used to the differing placement, but now it feels natural in the same way other controllers do.
Unfortunately, there are a couple features missing. Mainly, the controller lacks anyway to connect a headset to it, so you will have to use a wireless headset or really long cord to play with that. Also, you can’t turn the console on with the controller, like with other consoles.
Still, despite this caveat that Valve have to realize is frustrating, this is a really well made controller.
The UI and Customization Options
The new Steam controller has positioned itself as the most universal controller out there, able to work with all of your games to some degree or another. Honestly, thanks to the customization options available, I think Valve have achieved that.
Every single button, from the face buttons to the grips, on the controller is remappable. If you want to assign Reload to the Y button and Jump to clicking in the analog stick, you can do that for any game that has a Reload and a Jump.
However, that is only the beginning of the customization options.
You can also assign modifier buttons. So you can make the A button jump, right trigger + A button dodge, left grip + A button cast a spell, etc. The button combinations seem only limited by your muscle memory.
Furthermore, both trackpads can be played with to a ridiculous degree. Just as in the earlier prototype, you can make them act as a mouse or as buttons, but you can specify further than that. You can make them act as a D-Pad or as individual buttons. You can make them act as a mouse or as an analog stick. You can even specify what type of mouse you want them to act as. Do you think there is a real noticeable difference between a trackpad mouse and a trackball mouse? Well so did Valve, so you can put on trackball mode if you want. There is even an option for “stick mouse,” which I am still not sure what that is but you can choose it if you want.
And yes, there are a myriad of sliders and options to pick from there. You can change the sensitivity, sure, but if you think the haptic feedback is too much or too little, you can change it. You can add or take away friction on the simulated trackball. You can adjust smoothing or acceleration. You can make the simulated joystick have a linear or aggressive response curve. You can adjust the AC Virtual Stick Cap Size on the stick mouse. And no, I do not know what most of those mean, but if you do, you should know that Valve has worked to accommodate you.
But it is a testament to Valve that these options, though welcome, will really be unnecessary for most people.
I will admit that at first I was unsure of how to figure out the different controls, why sometimes the trackpad worked how I wanted to and sometimes it was different. Valve really needs a tutorial for new players that leads them to the different controller options and allows them to understand when they need what option, especially, ironically enough, for games like Valve’s own Half-Life 2, which says it supports controllers but seems to hide that support behind menus or the developer console.
But once that initial learning period was over, I realized that I will rarely actually need to play with the customization controls. Like I mentioned before, the controller seems to have bent over backwards to be more traditional, and that means that it is also able to perfectly emulate an Xbox controller. In fact, it defaults to this for many games. Any game that supports that controller, you will not have to mess with at all.
Towerfall? Super Meat Boy? Darksiders?* All basically supported right out of the box and work just as you would expect them to. Valve even matched up the buttons on their controller with the buttons on your typical Xbox controller, meaning that for most games, there should not even be a noticeable difference in the UI.
Valve has included settings beyond that. In addition to presets emulating a regular controller, Valve has also included presets that should work with your typical WASD setup, meaning most FPS games should work with only minor fiddling.
In addition, Valve has allowed for hybridization of controller and keyboard setups. So if you want to play Borderlands 2 with the ease of a controller but the precision of a mouse, you can do that. Or say you were playing a game like Batman: Arkham Knight, and you like how it plays with a controller but want to assign a certain gadget item to a button not on an Xbox controller: you can do that, and the game will retain the UI and ease of using it like an Xbox controller.
All of this is a fancy way of saying that if you can theoretically load up your game, you can probably find a decently comfortable way to play it with this controller.
In regards to typing, Valve have recently released a video that details what typing on the controller is supposed to feel like. I have only gotten to try the keyboard briefly,** so I do not feel quite ready to give impressions on that part, but my first impression is that it takes some adjusting to. Will update this post once I get some more time with it.
(Update: Been playing with the Steam controller a lot and still have only barely touched the keyboard options. Honestly, if you are going to chat with people online, you are simply better off with a wireless keyboard. However, this is not because of the controller’s keyboard UI, which works fine, but rather because figuring out how to map the myriad of chat options onto a controller is difficult enough as is without also taking into account how a big onscreen keyboard can disrupt gameplay. I would honestly just suck it up and buy a wireless keyboard, especially for situations where you want to change a game’s settings outside of the game or go digging through a game’s files to fix some technical issue)
Furthermore, they are implementing community support with these control settings, so if you have a setting that you feel comfortable with, you can make it public so anyone playing that game can see how you decided to map your controller. The goal is to have it so that if something does not immediately work well, you will still be able to find a control scheme that works well without having to customize yourself, but if you have to do that, the process will be simple.
Honestly, I can easily see that happening.
How it Plays
So after all of that, when you actually get it plugged in and ready to go, how does it feel? Well, the answer to that is a bit complicated, so I have split it up a bit here.
I feel like the number one question people will have for this controller is, “How does it do with FPS games?” After all, that is one of the most popular genres around and one where the divide between controllers and keyboard and mouse has been most prominent.
In short really good.
I played Team Fortress 2, Borderlands 2, Fistful of Frags, and even went old school with Star Wars: Republic Commando.* Here is my main takeaway from these games: technically, I feel like yes, playing with the Steam controller is not as precise as a keyboard and mouse. I know this should be the case.
But it did not feel that way.
Even when playing multiplayer, every death and every kill felt fair. I never thought, “Darn, if only I had a mouse and keyboard.” Sniping, in particular, felt like an improvement. Lining up shots by feeling your way over the target felt more natural than playing with a keyboard, though twitch aiming is undoubtedly not as accurate.
Playing older games like Republic Commando felt wonderfully modern with this controller. While finding a comfortable button configuration did take some figuring out, once I did, this became my preferred way to play.
And for the record, I went back and played Call of Duty: Modern Warfare,* which if you may recall in my previous post, I had difficulty unlocking the “Hardened” difficulty with the controller. Well, I did it with this one, so that says something.
I tried to test out some more traditional action-y type games here, and I am happy to report and afraid to admit that my impressions here are going to be boring. In general, it just works fine because, for the most part, you will be using this controller like any other controller.
Playing Castle Crashers,* Towerfall Ascension, Super Meat Boy, and Sonic All-Stars Racing Transformed* felt pretty much exactly like playing them with any other controller, with the added benefit of having a mouse pointer if you have need. So play those games with an Xbox 360 controller, and then you have a basic impression of how the Steam controller works with them.
I guess I should mention that Shank 2, which has dodging mapped to flicking the right analog stick, felt like an awkward motion to have on the trackpad, but that game does not even work well with the 360 controller, so I am not sure what to make of that. For the record, Mark of the Ninja, which is by the same people, works fine.
What is cool about this controller is that it works well with older games. Playing Psychonauts, which I had trouble figuring out how to deal with a 360 controller (I am sure there is a fix out there, but I could not find it), worked excellently with the Steam controller. Figuring out how to map movement to the analog stick and all the keys I wanted to the other buttons was a cinch.
In other words, if the game can be played with a controller, it can be played with the Steam controller. And more often than not, it is better that way.
So what about those games that cannot work with a controller? How do they feel?
In general, fine. Shadowrun Returns was fine, as was FTL: Faster than Light and even Hearthstone.* What I found was that games that are turn-based or slower-paced have few problems with the controller. Finding menu options and selecting stuff across a screen should be a lot more cumbersome with a controller emulating a mouse than it actually is.
I feel like this should come with the caveat that the more time intensive the game is, the larger the divide will be between playing with the Steam controller and playing with a mouse and keyboard. Civilization V goes at a much slower pace than, say, Company of Heroes*, which means the former is a much more natural fit than the latter.
Playing Company of Heroes with a controller was actually really difficult for me. I had a hard time managing my troops, creating an effective strategy, and grasping the situation on the battlefield in general.
So in other words, I saw no discernible difference than normal.
Seriously, I did try playing that because I wanted to try playing an RTS, but I am in general terrible at RTS games. I sucked, but I honestly do not think my mistakes were made because of the controller. I had a pretty easy time selecting units and telling them where to go; I just kept sending them to the wrong places. At high levels of play, the kinds of which can get you TV deals in South Korea, there will definitely be a difference, but I am not sure at what point that happens.
For the record, after a very brief learning curve with Heroes of the Storm,* that worked perfectly with the controller, and that learning period was more about memorizing which button did what than it was dealing with the mouse controls.
The only game that I played that I thought, “Well this doesn’t really work,” was Magicka,* and again, that was more because of the button position than it was the mouse pointer. That game in particular relies on quick access to a lot of different keys in a way that feels more like typing than it does playing a game, so it struggled with being on a controller.
I also tried some RPGs. My main go-to MMO, Guild Wars 2,* took some finagling to create a workable control scheme, but it was not too long before I became comfortable killing centaurs from my couch. It felt pretty much exactly how I expected it to feel.
I spent a little time with The Witcher,* which worked okay. Combat was clumsy, but that game feels clumsy however you play it.
Torchlight,* a Diablo-esque RPG, felt fine. I find point and clicking to be an odd way of playing an RPG, and this oddness was exasperated by the fact that there was an analog stick right there that I so wish I could use because that seems to make more sense, but it did not feel any worse than using a mouse and keyboard in my opinion.
With Sid Meier’s Pirates!,* navigating around the menus and sea were fine, but the numpad controls were an awkward fit for the controller. I ended up using a combination of the analog stick and button pad to represent the numpad, but even though that was perfectly playable, it did stick out that the game was not designed with it in mind.
Update: Motion Controls
One of the more understated features with the Steam controller is the addition of a gyroscope for motion control. While it can be used to simulate an analog stick or even individual buttons, when I tried using motion control to play Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed,* I quickly went back to just using an analog stick as it was just simpler.
Where the gyroscope really shines is when controlling the mouse. I found that playing around with the gyroscope sensitivity options gave me several different options for playing FPS, for instance. I could crank the sensitivity up and wander around with just turning my controller left and right, which worked surprisingly well but probably still not the best way to play, or I could keep the sensitivity low and use it to fine tune my aim. In addition, Valve have kept a huge amount of customization for this area as well, and one of the coolest options is making motion control only activate when you’re pressing a certain button or have your thumb on one of the trackpads, which does wonders for making the motion control feel manageable.
And at the end of the day, you can always just ignore it. But I recommend at least trying it out.
If you read all of that, then you have probably noticed a common theme: I did have a good amount of awkwardness and some control issues with the games I played, but none of them were due to the trackpads. When it comes to emulating a mouse while also feeling like a controller, this controller is a resounding success.
My main controller issues were the issues that come when you try to play any PC game with a controller. Finding a control scheme that both has everything you need while also being comfortable and functional was sometimes difficult, but even with that, Valve has made it easy to re-assign keys and customize your settings to exactly how you see fit.
Biggest problem with playing PC games on a TV is not the controller, but the UI. Squinting at my TV to read small text is not great when you are in a multiplayer online game and there is vital information onscreen. However, with the amount of console games getting ported to the PC and PC games being designed to be ported, this issue was not frequent.
I feel like I should note that there are some small issues with the software behind the controller. Sometimes the Steam Overlay does not work, which means all edits to the controller have to be done by alt-tabbing to Steam or before the game started. This is what happened when I wanted to try out Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis,* which by all means should work fine with the controller, but the overlay has not worked with that game meaning testing it out is really difficult.
When the overlay does work, getting out of it usually means the controller stops working all together for a second or two, and finally, the controller does not play well with other Xbox 360 controllers.
Have not been able to get the Steam controller and a wired 360 controller both working at the same time, though it does work well with a PS4 game for those games that support it. (Everything works well now)
Here is the bottom line on the controller: as a controller, compared to those made by Sony and Microsoft, it is the best controller I have ever played with. The amount of customization you get with the interface is mind-boggling, and the precision offered by the trackpad makes previously difficult tasks possible with the controller.
As a keyboard and mouse replacement, it is the best keyboard and mouse experience you will get without having an actual keyboard and mouse. I feel like I cannot guarantee that you will be able to play Starcraft II at Diamond League or Counter-Strike at a pro level, but I can almost guarantee that you will have fun trying.
The controller is now available for pre-order at $49.99. Considering that price point is right around the normal price of a controller, I feel confident saying that this will be a good value for consumers.
Still, Valve should be commended for doing an excellent job with this controller. I think people are really going to like it, even if they never actually get a SteamBox.
*Games marked with this are not available on SteamOS.
**I somehow missed this video, which is why an earlier version of this post did not have any impressions on it. Still not sure what I was doing on June 4th that completely blinded me to this news.
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