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A Review of Valve’s Steam Controller

I pre-ordered the “Steam controller” made by Valve and the idea of it sounded really neat. Their goal when making the controller was to make virtually any pc game work with it, even games that solely depended on keyboard and mouse controls. Did they succeed? Sort of, but all of that focus they had on supporting keyboard and mouse games ended up putting controller-focused games on the back burner. Point-and-click games that were impossible to play on an Xbox 360 controller can now be played on a Steam controller. Unfortunately, arcade-style games that played great on an Xbox 360 controller don’t feel comfortable when using a Steam controller. I was hoping that Valve’s new controller was going to be the “one controller to rule them all”, but the main reason this isn’t the case is because of their awful touch-sensitive directional pad on the left side of the controller.

Instead of using a traditional directional pad and right analog stick, there are two trackpads with haptic feedback.

I love to play fighting games, for example, and the Steam controller feels awful with it. The left directional pad can be customized in many different ways, but there wasn’t a single option that gave me that “right at home” sort of feeling. You can click in on the directional pad to register an input while your thumb is touching the up, down, left, or right directions, but that doesn’t work well when throwing a fireball because you often have to push multiple directions at the same time. You can only register a single click at a time, and it makes it really hard to rapidly click a sequence of inputs to execute a special move. Other controller schemes for the left directional pad included just sliding your finger around without having to click in on the directional pad, but that didn’t feel right either, since you can’t comfortably plant your thumb in place. What I ended up feeling the most comfortable with was the analog stick, but I never was a fan of playing games with digital inputs on an analog.

There are two paddles on the back of the controller that can be mapped to any button or keyboard input.

I was pleasantly surprised that you can navigate the Windows desktop with the controller. The right and left triggers emulate clicking the left and right mouse buttons, and the right trackpad itself behaves like a touchpad on a laptop. That functionality alone makes it a great controller for using on the pc. The left d-pad can be used as a trackpad, but it isn’t enabled in many control schemes by default. It also felt a little redundant having a 2nd trackpad on the controller when there is already an analog stick on the same side. It made me wish they used a traditional d-pad instead. My other minor gripe about the controller was the size of the face buttons, X, Y, A, and B. They are tiny and close together. Even if you have small fingers you can easily push all four buttons at once. I eventually got used to the size of the buttons, but you will definitely be distracted by the small size if you are used to using a 360 controller.

The left analog and face buttons give console players something familiar to use, while the dual trackpads give pc gamers a way to play mouse-oriented games away from their desk.

The triggers, paddles, and shoulder buttons all feel great and the analog stick feels awesome also. I tried playing a few first person shooters using the right trackpad and while I was able to aim at targets and shoot them, it felt more difficult than using a right analog stick or a mouse. I’m sure with practice players could eventually prefer it to an analog stick, but I don’t think anything will ever be more accurate than a mouse for doing precision aiming. Racing games feel great with this, mainly because you don’t have to worry about using any of the touchpads. I was able to play Rocket League just fine with this controller, but the small face buttons took some time getting used to.

Keyboard and mouse oriented games such as FTL work great with the Steam controller.

I guess my overall impressions with the controller are a bit negative. The right trackpad and mouse emulation are awesome features, but there were too many other aspects that felt like a step in the wrong direction. If you are a gamer that is used to using a 360 controller, you will probably want to stick with that. I guess I can recommend this controller if you are looking for a substitute for a keyboard and mouse to play FTL from the comfort of your couch, but overall I would rate this controller as something for the casual gamer and not for the hardcore/competitive type.

Unfortunately, 2d games with complex digital inputs, such as Street Fighter V, will leave you wishing you had a formal directional pad.

Edward Hyman

Besides gaming, I'm really into technology in general.