Unparalleled customisability, but the Steam Controller is for enthusiasts only
The living room has become a fascinating battleground for tech companies, with smart TVs, games consoles, streaming sticks and set top boxes mergin into one multimedia mass that sits under (or behind) your TV. Now Valve has entered the race, looking to take the gaming PC from the second bedroom to the living room. To do this, it’s created the Steam Controller. Valve’s attempt to bridge the gap between the traditional mouse and keyboard combination and a conventional games controller looks completely alien, even among the fattest aftermarket console controllers.
Design, build and buttons
Despite the chunky looking design it’s actually incredibly comfortable to hold. I’d say I have average-sized hands for a male and I felt, for the most part, very happy with this controller in my hands. My only real issue – and this is unavoidable because of the wacky design – is that the ABXY buttons are in a completely different place to where you’d expect them, sitting in the space normally occupied by the right analogue stick. It takes some getting used to.
By now you’ll have noticed that the controller doesn’t have a right analogue stick. Instead, it’s equipped with a laptop-style touchpad. The pad is slightly concave and it’s easy to work out simply by touch where on the pad your thumb is sitting. This touchpad is essential to the whole ethos of the Steam Controller and is both its most complex and most impressive feature, but I’ll get to that later. The directional buttons on the left of the controller, and this also doubles as a second touchpad.
A conventional left analogue stick sits where you’d expect it, and has a smooth action and a grippy coating. The shoulder buttons/bumpers have a short, clicky action to them, and the left and right triggers only have around 3mm of play to them, which hardly encourages precision. Pull the triggers all the way back and you get another button press in addition to the trigger pull.
Finally, two Grip buttons sit at the back of the controller where your third, fourth and fifth fingers sit. These are supremely useful programmable buttons and make commonly used actions much easier to reach in the heat of battle.
Gaming and customisation
In order to use the Steam Controller, you must have Steam open in Big Picture Mode. It won’t function if Steam is open in its normal desktop mode. I’m not exactly sure why, though, and perhaps this will change with a later patch. It’s not a huge problem; it’s easy to minimise Big Picture Mode whenever you need to access the desktop (if you’re using Windows). The Steam Controller also support SteamOS.
Because the Steam Controller is such an unusual design, very few games support it outright. It therefore requires a lot of tinkering to get going. For me, this is one of the joys of the Steam Controller, although for others it will be an absolute chore. There is an extensive set of menus to customise the function of each button and pad on the Controller, which are customised on a per-game basis. Hit the Steam button when playing any game and you gain access to the Steam overlay that lets you customise the controller settings for the game you’re playing.
^The onscreen keyboard is superb, with each half of the keyboard controller by the two thumb touchpad
It’s here that you recognise that this is a controller developed for enthusiasts, by enthusiasts. Every crazy configuration you can think of has been catered for, although as you play around with it some more you’ll find there are still some options that could do with adding.
Turn the page for a few examples of popular game genres, to see how each one works with the Steam Controller.