When I was young and naïve I had a brief stint with console gaming. While I did not inhale, it taught me to appreciate controllers. You can use them anywhere: from your couch, in your bed and even while skydiving – yet PC gaming is dominated by the mouse and keyboard.
The dream of many is gamepad comfort with mouse precision. Valve, creators of the Steam Machine and the upcoming Steam VR headset, have attempted to realise this dream with the launch of their Steam Controller. After three years and six iterations, it is finally available to the general public.
The launch of this controller marks Valve’s first ‘feature complete’ foray into the world of hardware, an area of the market which appears to be of increasing interest to the celebrated game developer.
At first glance the controller looks a little strange, like an owl had a head-on collision with a button factory. At the top are two circular touch pads, one smooth, the other with D-pad indents. These touchpads have been showcased by Valve as the controller’s unique selling point. To their credit, they can function in a few different ways, but the most important is their ability to replicate mouse input.
This makes them work like a laptop trackpad, but at the tip of your thumb. The problem with this however, is that tiny precision motions are nigh on impossible, though admittedly it could just be a matter of practice.
If you are a traditionalist, the touchpads can also be used like analogue sticks. This works well, but it is hard to know where the centre of the pad is, as unlike in previous iterations of the controller there is no central indent on the right pad. This indent would even come in handy when using them as mouse input, stopping you from constantly sliding off the edge of the touchpad. It is not all bad though; ingeniously they have included two paddles on the back of the controller which are easy to press and perfectly suited for games of any genre.
The real selling point however is compatibility. This controller works with any Steam game, even ones that do not normally accept controller input. This is because the software on board lets you bind any button on the controller to any button on a mouse, keyboard, or traditional gamepad.
Once it is set up, the Steam Controller’s touch pad makes strategy games like DEFCON and Civilisation a dream. In spite of what Steam proudly disclaims, playing FPS with this guy is not half bad. Granted, if your goal is MVP I would give it a miss, but if you just want to chill out and have a bit of fun, it should work just fine. I would avoid having too much fun though, as extended use will result in aggressive thumb pain. This can go one of two ways; either you get used to it, and get the mega ripped thumbs of every man’s dreams; or crippling RSI, making the old thumbs-up nearly impossible.
Overall the Steam Controller is amazing for a first generation device. It has its issues, yet in every regard it blows all other controllers out of the water. However, if you are serious about your high score, Doritos, and Mountain Dew, I would always go for that educated rodent: the amazing computer mouse.
Image: Adam Shaw