With Valve slowly entering the home console space with their Steam Machines, a standard keyboard and mouse just won’t do. The Steam Controller axes the two for the company’s first foray into gamepads, offering a slew of buttons, tactile feedback, and most importantly of all, customization options. But in a world with so many great handheld controllers, is Valve’s addition even necessary?
Developed and manufactured by Valve Corporation
Retail Price: $49.99
Available on the PC.
With the Xbox 360 and Xbox One controllers already natively supported and fantastic options, and the PS4’s Dual Shock 4 already usable on the PC through custom drivers, the Steam controller faces steep challenges as it enters the PC Gamepad ring. The only real difference between the two is the customizable keys, which honestly, won’t be much of a difference to most.
The first thing you’ll notice when you open up the controller’s packaging and wield it in your hands, is that it feels so cheap. Unlike the others, the Steam Controller is so lightweight and plastic that it feels fake. It’s a weird initial feeling to get used to, and soon enough feels fine after you get the hang of it, but it’s a bit shocking.
Second is the strange button placement. Figuring on the front and top are the two most important elements on the controller, the directional and free trackpads, which are large and spacious. Underneath them, are the sole analog stick and four small face buttons. These are found pretty close to the center, so it’s somewhat an uncomfortable reach for average thumbs, especially when pressing the buttons. The rest is fairly typical, with two clicky shoulder buttons and two triggers, and two buttons that are resting on the back, lined on each handle. It’s definitively a weird setup that at first I didn’t understand, and it takes a while to get used to.
Once powered up, either through a micro USB cable (included) or through batteries, the controller shows some promise. The two trackpads are interesting to say the least, as the tactile feedback from the haptic force acutators you get from rolling your thumbs over them is strangely satisfying, almost like rolling a hidden trackball, scroll wheel and more. It’s a great feature that I really enjoyed. The rest of the buttons handle well and are responsive, though they still feel wonky and horribly misplaced. If you can ignore them however, it’s a decent controller.
The biggest problems with the Steam Controller soon rear their ugly heads however: Steam dependence and customization options. The first issue is that it can only at the moment be used through Steam, and only through Steam Big Picture Mode, which is okay on a Steam Machine in the living room, but not on a regular PC, where players might want to use the regular version instead. And then of course, there’s games that come in from other sources, like GOG, Origin and more that are not Steam compatible unless the games are imported into the Steam library. It’s a small price to pay for some, I’m sure, but it’s an unnecessary hassle. I would prefer just regular plug and play.
Then there’s the customization, which mostly pertains to the two trackpads. Players can customize the two as they see fit, changing them to emulate mouse movement, analog sticks, buttons and more, as well as set sensitivity and other options, which is a fantastic idea if it wasn’t so cumbersome and complicated to be any good. Each game has a different controller profile, be it a 2D platformer, first person shooter or fighter, and players have to customize controls or utilize the default option. Sometimes these control schemes work, at other times they don’t, and players have to constantly be switching between them just to find the right one. On one occasion I tried to perfect the control scheme for a first-person shooter, trying out various schemes that were available as well as tinkering around myself to replicate mouse movement on the right trackpad or an analog stick. I never got it to work as I wanted, and ended up switching to an Xbox One controller just to end my suffering.
Overall, the Steam Controller is a good idea that’s unfortunately executed very poorly. The weight and feel of the controller makes it feel cheap, the Steam only use is a missed opportunity, and the customization is way too complex and a hassle to get things working as they should. I’m sure a firmware update can fix a lot of the issues, but as it stands now, it’s not even an option when replacing the Xbox and PS4 controllers on the PC.