Review By: Robyn Robo
Valve has been releasing new in-house and licensed hardware at a breakneck pace lately, and the Steam Controller is a core component backing up their bid for the living room. Unlike classic console manufacturers, however, Valve has had to bend over backward in accommodating games built for the desktop and, overall, has done well.
In terms of design the layout is traditional, with the back grip buttons probably being the most unconventional addition. The locations of buttons and sticks have been moved around, to give the track pads symmetry. The track pads are substantially larger than the joystick / button areas, and I find that throws off muscle memory substantially. You can think of most modern controllers as having four front control areas that are roughly equally sized circles, with the Steam Controller this is not so.
The worst feature by far is the d-pad set up, which may as well not exist. It’s clunky and incompatible with the thumb rolling style of normal d-pads. In fighting and platform games, I found myself craving my PS3’s Hori Fighting Commander or even a traditional Xbox 360 controller over this layout. There’s no easy way to feel what part of the d-pad your thumb is on and in the end I abandoned it for the joystick completely. I couldn’t find any games that made use of the left track pad as a full track pad either, which makes it seem like an unfortunate choice. I find Valve’s decision to leave the second track pad is my biggest criticism of the design. However if you’re not a habitual user of d-pads, and I know more than one person that fits that category, you probably won’t mind this.
The hardware itself is well built, and feels solid. The packaging is a sleek blue-on-blue sleeve over a hinged cardboard box. Think of a snazzy kid’s shoe box. Easy to get at and no terrible plastic windows to cut through. Also included in the box are a base to extend the receiver, next to a tucked away USB cable. AA Batteries are also included, which is weird to say this side of 2010. They are awkward to install as one goes behind each grip of the controller after you pop off the entire back plate. This process is convoluted and the lack of a rechargeable battery is obvious corner cutting for price. Since you have a removable backplate anyway, I wish they’d stuck in a space to stow the USB dongle, like Logitech usually does. Between that and dropping the prototype’s touch-screen, I feel Valve had big inspirations tamped down to a pricing reality. The controller being a healthy 10 to 15 dollars less than a Xbox One controller is a pleasant result of that.
I gave the steam controller a try out in both Windows 7 and Ubuntu 14.04. In Windows it was simple plug ‘n pray to install, but the track pad fails whenever UAC requests pop-up. In Ubuntu you have add a custom rule-set in ‘/etc/udev/rules.d’ and the controller won’t work as a mouse unless Steam is running. It works fine for getting around in Big Picture mode, as expected, and that’s what Valve recommends. If you’re booting into SteamOS, you should have no problems whatsoever. You can use the controller in a wired mode, but this sort of defeats the idea of living room gaming and I’m not sure how much I trust a Micro USB connection not to slip out mid battle.
Testing With Games
So how is it in games? I tried it out on a variety of games with different control schemes and found that there weren’t any it outright couldn’t handle. No configuration should be required and I never ran into a situation that required it. For this review I gave Mercenary Kings, Skullgirls, Cities Skylines, Super Meat Boy and Portal 2 a try out.
Mercenary Kings, I found that using the track pad gave me a little sneak peek pushing the visible screen around, which was nice. The button layout worked well for me using the joystick. Normally I hop back and forth between joystick and d-pad grinding through this game, and found the d-pad on the steam controller to be way too flat and unresponsive to use for this. Overall the game played just fine, and I think lacking a bias towards other controllers I wouldn’t have minded it at all.
Skullgirls was what I expected to be the worst, however the dongle’s wireless mode provided surprisingly low latency. Simple button combinations to swap characters or do a hold worked as expected. I couldn’t get the d-pad track pad to do even a simple fireball quarter-circle reliably though. I had a hard time getting lengthier combos to work with the joystick, but that requires a lot of love and time with any controller..
Mercenary Kings is one of the games we tested with the steam controller.
Cities Skylines was the surprise of the bunch. It wasn’t as good as a keyboard and mouse, but I’ve never been able to even stomach city simulators with other controllers. Ever play Sim City 2000 on a Sega Saturn? This is an enormous improvement. Shoulder buttons provided left and right click, and zoom in/out respectively. Click and roll with the track pad allowed me to rotate the camera around its focal point. While it isn’t terribly precise, it is fairly intuitive and easily the best I’ve done with such a classic mouse and keyboard game on a controller.
Super Meat Boy worked great. Games with simpler control layouts, such as platformers, should all be fine. Think of it this way, if you could play the game with a SNES controller, you won’t have any problems.
Portals 2 was the biggest let down to me. Not because it didn’t work, zooming in and out, using the track pad to aim the Portal Gun, and running around the emergency testing facilities all went as expected. What it lacked was anything interesting. All of the buttons have playtime, but even in this game there isn’t any use for the second track pad, and the back grips are just a secondary way to perform actions mapped to the same buttons they are on other controllers. Valve has complete control over this game, and it’s one of their best. The fact that it seems to not have received any special attention is simply disappointing. Maybe when Half Life 3 comes out.
On the upside, this controller is a nice product. It makes it possible to not only get by, but enjoy some traditional desktop games, as well as the games you’d think of as good fits for Big Picture mode. The controller is inexpensive, responsive and simple to set up. The tactile feedback, which I admittedly glossed over, is well executed. Further, the happy noise and lighting effects while it turns on are a nice change from the classic blinking light on the back of my PS3 controller.
One the downside, the UAC issues in Windows and lack of mouse support in Linux point towards this truly being a SteamOS product, not a general controller replacement. If you don’t trust rechargeable controllers and love buying AA batteries, it has you covered. Further, the frustrating d-pad, combined with its even more frustrating lack of utility as a track pad, leave me wondering why this product took two years to release.
[Image Credit: Valve – All Images Taken From The Steam Store]