Steam Controller Review

One pad to rule them all?

You know what’s awesome about controllers? Analogue movement and compact size. Contrary to popular opinion, most games do not need to take up the majority of the keyboard to be complex. Those DOS games that used every single key on the keyboard did that because they were running low resolution UIs that didn’t allow for a decent mouse interface. We’ve moved on from that. Get over it.

You know what sucks about controllers? Aiming. It’s atrocious. Just about any camera movement is absolute balls on a controller. The mouse is a superior device in every single way. Why is it so? Firstly, the humble mouse has a much greater range of motion and can work on a 1:1 movement scale. I don’t need to move a little stick a certain distance to slew the camera, I just move the mouse the required distance. The limited range of motion on a thumbstick means you’ve got to come up with a system that allows for fine movement yet also rapid movement within a tiny little area. A mouse on the other hand just replicates your movement exactly; there’s no acceleration required. Mice are the superior aiming devices. If you think otherwise, you are wrong. No, it isn’t a matter of opinion – you are outright incorrect.

Valve have tried to make a gamepad that suits the PC gamer’s continual quest for couch-gaming, without making us use a thumbstick. Their answer? The Steam Controller. Does it work?

What is it?

It’s a controller powered by 2x AA batteries. Immediately you notice it has 2 touch pads, one with a vague D-pad indentation, along with your standard XBox YXBA buttons, a Steam button, and a start/select button. There’s also a bumper on each side, two analogue triggers, an analogue stick, and two grip triggers on the underside. It’s well complemented with buttons.

The Steam Controller comes with a USB dongle that slams into any USB port you have handy. It also comes with a cable and extender in case you can’t get a decent signal (for some reason). It also works with the Steam Link.

The Steam Controller can operate in a few different modes, depending on what it is you’re trying to accomplish and what the game supports. At a bare minimum, it’ll stand in for an Xbox controller, with one critical difference: the right touch pad is the right analogue stick. This actually makes a pretty massive difference; where once we’d grapple with a horrible little stick, you now have almost 1:1 movement in games designed for a thumbstick. More on that in a bit. If the game in question doesn’t support controllers, or allows simultaneous KB/M and gamepad controls, you can actually set up a custom binding that turns the touch pad into a straight up mouse trackpad, giving you that fine aiming control you’ve been dying for.

It’s also ridiculously customisable. If you feel like doing complex binding routines, you can. If you just want to grab the most popular community control scheme, that’s an option too (usually a good one).

There’s one more trick hiding in the pad – it has a gyroscope. The more astute gamer (or control scheme mapper) will set this to mouse mode – such that when you’re moving around on the trackpad, you can tilt the controller for even finer control over aiming. This is honestly the best feature of the controller and makes a massive difference.

What’s good?

Honestly this thing works pretty well… provided the game offers relatively decent support for it. For titles that are straight-up mouse/keyboard games, or that will support simultaneous controller and mouse movement, it works exceptionally well. The trackpad isn’t as natural as mouse aiming, but it’s infinitely better than a thumbstick. Setting up gyroscope mode is one step closer to perfection. Your mouse will always be better, but after this you’ll never want to aim with a thumbstick again. It’s just that good. There’s a period of getting used to it, just like when you first picked up a mouse, but if you stick with it you’ll get better.

Gyroscope aiming is even better. The ability to move the controller to give you finer aim is a brilliant technique that should be incorporated into more controllers. It’s one thing to have finer aiming control with a trackpad, but combined with the gyroscope you should be able to at least play semi-competently without too much hassle. The exception being online play of course.

It’s also very customisable, although for some titles you won’t have a choice except to set up your own binds. Steam has a UI that allows you to come up with your own binds and assign different functions and movement modes to the different pads, giving you fairly granular control over your controller. That said, you’re still at the mercy of game support – and some of them only support standard Xbox configuration.

When that happens, the experience is diminished somewhat – but it’s still better than using a thumbstick. As with anything else in the PC world, there’s a load of people that post work-arounds or custom control schemes to get you started. A surprising amount of games are just plug and play, although you might not find the default schemes that comfortable. Some developers have gone out of their way to offer their own  recommended controller binds for their games.

Also it works remarkably well for games that just can’t be played on a gamepad.  You want to play Cities: Unlimited or Civ 5? Sure, go right ahead. The experience is fantastic, since it’s just a mouse UI with a handful of key binds.

What’s bad?

Fallout 4 supports mouse and keyboard, OR Xbox Controller configs. Not both. Contrast that with Wolfenstein: The New Order, which allows both simultaneously. The problem with this is that for the controller to work in F4, you’ll need to run it in Xbox mode – which incidentally means you lose the ability to have the trackpad operate in 1:1 mouse mode. Instead it offers a strange thumbstick emulation, which offers a very similar experience, but you’ll have to fiddle with in-game sensitivity settings to make it feel right. It’s not unplayable, but it’s not as good as something like Wolfenstein, where you can use the Xbox controls and yet keep that sweet mouse aiming.

The UI for setting up the controller is pretty bad. Steam Big Picture Mode is the only way to get the most out of the controller, since a number of features are missing from the standard desktop client UI (like accessing community schemes). Things aren’t well explained and it can take a bit of messing around to get it to work well. You’re going to need to Google for a few things, unless you just want to work with defaults or community schemes.

The controller feels pretty good in the hand, but my thumb started to cramp a bit from using the pad. You’ll be sweeping it across the pad quite a bit. Also the YXBA buttons are in a bit of an odd position, and they’re a bit too small. I often found myself hitting the Y button when I meant to hit X. Although it feels good to hold, the plastic feels a little cheap in some areas. It also has a piano-black gloss finish it some areas. Why, Valve? Why would you do this for something that is held in the hand? Within 5 seconds of touching it, the surface looks like total balls.

Outside of that, I don’t have much in the way of bad things to say about it. When you have 1:1 mouse control on offer, it works exceptionally well. When you only have joystick emulation, it still works quite well. It’s a hundred times better than a thumbstick for anyone who has struggled with them. There’s a learning curve, but it’s not that bad.

Overall: Recommended

This thing is awesome, but I will put out two important points. Firstly, it isn’t as good as a mouse. It never will be. Secondly, there is a learning curve. Take this thing online against mouse users in serious competition, and you’ll be destroyed. There’s no way to change that, that’s just how these devices work. But for friendly games or single player mode, this thing is great. It works best when the game supports 1:1 mouse mode, and it works even better if you’re willing to sit down and work out a control scheme. But even if you just pick the community’s most popular schemes, it’s still going to be better than a standard Xbox controller with thumbsticks.


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