Despite warnings of headaches, square eyes or worse, PC gamers the world over get their gaming kicks just a few feet from a monitor, huddled over the keyboard with their trusty mouse in tow.
But with the new Steam Controller, Valve wants you to ditch the office chair, desk, keyboard, and mouse, and get your gaming fix from the couch instead.
But after testing the controller on a whole heap of games from a wide variety of genres, this shift isn’t going to happen any time soon.
In theory, the Steam controller is a great idea. Instead of spending 100 hours upright at a desk in Dark Souls, the Steam Link – which lets you stream games to your TV – and the Steam Controller would let you wander around Lordran from the relative comfort of your sofa.
Valve suggests the Steam controller can replace both mouse and keyboard, and controller setups by integrating two input methods into one hybrid peripheral.
Made entirely of plastic, minus its rubber thumbstick, the Steam controller feels cheap in comparison to the Xbox One or 360 controllers. It won’t bother everyone, but if you’ve forked out 40 or 50 quid for a controller – it’s not entirely unreasonable to want something that isn’t flimsy. That said, the Steam controller is comfortable to hold, regardless of how inexpensive it first feels.
Situated above the rubberised thumbstick is the controller’s main feature(s): dual trackpads. Both have built-in motors that provide haptic feedback, meaning the pads vibrate in response to your touch. This feels good and responds really well to your movements.
There is a real struggle to find the centre, however. Similar to how you’d handle the gearstick of a car, controller thumbsticks tend to default to a centralised position. With this function absent, you’ll find that your thumbs unwittingly wander all over the touchpad, in turn steering the cursor, your field of view, or your character all over the place.
It’s a problem that never goes away, and even simple things like navigating menus proved a time-consuming challenge.
Fortunately, you are able to gradually adjust things like sensitivity (which can be altered manually), and you’ll eventually get used to the angle of your thumbs in relation to the angled touch pads.
Just below the right-hand touchpad, opposite the left thumbstick, is the XYAB letter buttons that are just a bit too small. It makes you feel like some sort of clumsy giant when you keep accidentally hitting the wrong input.
The left and right bumpers have a nice feel to them, although the trigger buttons take a bit of getting used to if you’re unfamiliar with dual-stage function pads. Dual-stage basically means that triggers respond at two points instead of one: depressed halfway; and pushed all the way down.
The Steam controller incorporates another two buttons below the triggers on the backside of the pad which can be mapped as you desire.
So, how does it work in practice? Let’s start with the good: driving games. As you might expect, games that utilise less buttons appear to do well under the Steam controller’s guidance. Rocket League is particularly enjoyable once you get to grips with rotating the camera. You might even find yourself taking this one to the sofa.
On the other hand, GTA is a total nightmare because of the camera centring issue. You won’t last long in a shootout if you’re staring at the sun or looking at your shoes. For this very reason,Dark Souls – a game that capitalises on your mistakes – is practically unplayable.
Strategy games – games that historically thrive with a keyboard/mouse setup – become tedious. You can play the likes of Cities: Skylines and Company of Heroes 2 with relative ease, but everything is slowed down and just a bit more awkward.
Some games have crowd-sourced mapping features which you can download (or create your own templates) in order to iron out some of these issues. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is an example of a game with a ton of user options, yet it’s also one where Steam explicitly contradicts its compatibility with Steam controller use and thus shouldn’t be played with one at all.
Micro-aiming is almost impossible, and any headshots will come more from luck than skill. Another downside to playing games like Counter Strike is that the Steam controller does not offer headset support.
Ultimately, the Steam controller, at this stage, is bearable at best and unplayable at worst. When it works it’s just okay, but when it doesn’t it’s a very frustrating experience.
There was not one game that fared better with the use of the Steam Controller over its standard keyboard and mouse or controller counterparts.
That said, the steadily burgeoning amount of user configurations and templates has scope to change this, but at the moment it’s not there yet. For this reason we won’t be ditching our existing setup in favour of Valve’s hybrid just yet, and neither should you.