Don’t believe the anti-hype
The Steam Controller was meant to be the holy grail of control pads. Promising to deliver the accuracy of a mouse and keyboard combination from the comfort of your couch, without requiring an unwieldy lap-board, it first landed in the hands of overseas reviewers in November of last year. Within just a day or two of getting thumbs on with its revolutionary design, most reviewers were quick to cut it down to size, claiming that it was ergonomically unsound, and that the special track pads were no match for the standard twin-stick design found on today’s controllers.
Three months later and I’ve just finished spending a week with the Steam Controller. And I freaking love it. There are two reasons why I’m not joining the chorus of disappointed reviewers. For starters, I spent some quality time with it before passing judgement. Secondly, and this is a biggie, I’ve had the benefit of being able to utilise three months’ worth of community-created configs to see what this thing could really do. Those initial reviewers were stuck with building their own, or sticking with the basic templates that Valve created. It turns out that Valve missed one of the best configs around – a combination of touch and gyro-controls that delivers an accuracy and speed that rivals, if not beats, the humble mouse.
My first day with the Controller was an interesting one, as my small hands came to grips with its larger size. It’s both thicker and taller than a normal control pad, as it has to accommodate the two huge circular touch pads. As a result, the usual X, Y, A and B buttons seem much further away, and I really had to stretch my thumb out to hit them all. The standard analogue stick on the left is much easier to reach though, and when both thumbs are on the touch pads it fits snugly in the palm of both hands.
On the rear/top are the usual left and right triggers and bumpers that can be activated by your trigger fingers, but there are another two large switches that can be squeezed by your remaining fingers. These are part of the cover over the battery area, which unclips to reveal space for twin AA batteries, off which two Duracel are included. Considering the size of the unit it’s remarkably light, and once I got used to the button position, very comfortable.
Each touchpad is a haptic device, which means they vibrate when you touch them, provided you’ve enabled this feature. It’s supposed to only rumble in the spot that you touch, but I couldn’t tell if it was that accurate – I definitely felt the slightest of rumbling when I touched each pad, but it didn’t seem to be localised under my thumb.
a combination of touch and gyro-controls that delivers an accuracy and speed that rivals, if not beats, the humble mouse
Heading into the configuration screen, which seems to only be available when running Steam in Big Picture mode, reveals a cornucopia of different options. The settings for the triggers and buttons are pretty standard, but those twin track pads can be run in myriad different ways. From the main drop down list it’s possible to set either up as a D-pad, button pad, mouse, mouse joystick, joystick move, joystick camera, scroll wheel, touch menu or mouse region. Whew. Each of these operates very differently, and comes with another seven or eight options, such as acceleration, trackball mode, trackball friction, friction vertical scale and several other mysteriously named options.
Figuring out exactly what each of these modes, and their accompanying options means will take weeks, if not months. But I didn’t bother tweaking any of them, as the community had already done the hard work for me. One of the best features of the Controller is its ability to have a different profile for each game, and how easy they are to discover. Every time I started a game via Steam, I was prompted to select a specific Controller profile for that game. The game developers can supply and suggest a mode they’ve created, or you can use one of the generic templates that Valve has created. However, it’s the community supplied profiles that really untap the potential of the controller. Most games have up to a dozen community supplied profiles, and the software displays them in order of popularity. Obviously I generally went with the most popular profile for each, and was blown away at the ingenuity of these profiles.
On the first day of use I ignored the community profiles, sticking with developer or Valve created profiles, and struggled to tame the camera in anything first-person. It was fine for third-person games, but that right touchpad didn’t have the speed to handle first-person well. And then I discovered the Gyro-Aim configuration created by the community, which seems so simple that I’m amazed it’s not one of the default options. Basically, the left trigger puts you into zoom or Aim-Down-Sight mode. Whilst holding it in, the controller’s internal gyroscope means you can make quick aiming movements by twisting your wrists, moving the controller from side to side. Once you’re in the general region of your target, you can then use the right control pad to fine tune the aim to pull off headshots.
This was a revelation for me, albeit not an instant one. After a few days of using this mode, I was approaching the accuracy and speed that normally requires a mouse. Put simply, it wiped the floor with a traditional analogue joy stick, and sold me on the Controller. I also experimented with using the right pad as a mouse, and found selecting units in the new Homeworld to be as natural as using a mouse – the challenge was remembering which buttons were bound to game shortcuts.
So then, the Steam Controller has me hooked. I’m convinced that this has the potential to become the standard controller design of the future… provided gamers spend the week or two necessary to learn such a radically different method of control. I’m also amazed that Valve can deliver such a beautifully built piece of hardware packed full of innovation. It won’t replace my mouse and keyboard when I’m gaming at my desk, but when it comes to couch-based controlling, the Steam Controller will make you a force to be reckoned with.
•Community profiles are awesome
•Almost as good as mouse/keyboard
•Steep learning curve • No rechargeable batteries