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Hands on: Valve Steam Controller review

Not the controller gamers want, but the one they need

What is a hands on review? What is a hands on review?

Our Early Verdict

Valve's Steam Controller is an innovative take on classic gamepads. Gamers will likely appreciate the haptic feedback on the touchpads, but inversely, you might struggle with a steep learning curve right out of the gate.

For

  • Highly customizable
  • Haptic feedback
  • Creative mix of old, new controls

Against

  • Pads sometimes impractical
  • Continually delayed
  • Closer to console controllers

Update: I've seen the latest version of Valve's Steam Controller at GDC 2015, and have updated this article with my impressions. Head to page two to see our our original hands on from GDC 2014.

What's the biggest barrier keeping PC gaming out of the living room? Is it the expense? The size of the machine? The reliance on Windows? Or is it that the mouse and keyboard are horribly awkward on the couch?

Perhaps it's all four, but Valve's Steam Controller is here to help with that last problem. And the company's Steam Machine and Steam OS initiative will hopefully help with the others.

Valve Steam Controller review

Valve has been busy tweaking its controller since we last saw it at GDC 2014. A lot has changed since that first year, but despite every tweak, shuffle and re-hash Valve chief Gabe Newell and his team have come up with, the controller has remained every bit a peripheral worthy of the name Steam.

Two pads, one stick

The Steam Controller Valve showed at GDC 2014 featured a cluster of familiar, lettered buttons, as well as D-pad with four separate directional buttons. What has changed since then is the addition of a left thumbstick and two "paddle" buttons on the underside of the left and right wing.

Valve Steam Controller review

The vast majority of the controller's face is dominated by two circular pads, wired for haptic feedback. The left pad, inscribed with a d-pad, could be used for custom commands - calling in airstrikes in Battlefield, for example - while the right stick seems solely used for looking around.

The paddle buttons located on the back of the controller, however, are at this point a complete mystery. They could just be another set of inputs, but the best guess is that they could serve as a set of programmable macro buttons used to quickly access a string of commands.

Unreal Tournament, Strider and Broken Age

During a closed door demo at GDC 2015, I was able to play the pre-alpha version of the new Unreal Tournament using the controller.

Surprisingly, the controller fared better than expected. Using a touchpad to aim took some getting used to, but with the help of what we believe was auto-aim assistance, we pulled through the fight with a slightly positive kill-to-death ratio. It wasn't perfect, and definitely didn't have the same intuitiveness that an original PlayStation controller had all those years ago, but each iteration is helping Valve make a better product.

Valve Steam Controller review

On previous visits, we had the chance to play the side-scrolling Strider and the adventure game Broken Age. Strider, a platforming, hack and slash game felt quite natural with a controller. We were hopping and wall jumping immediately. When combat got a bit more heated, the controls did get a bit confusing, mostly due to lack of practice, but we could certainly see Valve's controller pushing the Xbox 360 controller off our desks, for console-style games on the PC at least.

Broken Age played admirably as well. As an adventure title, there's lots of clicking, and the touchpad stepped up to the task nicely. It felt better than the way we played through that game at home, though, poking around with a laptop's touchpad or desktop's mouse.

Crowdsourcing control

While Valve's Steam Controller is better suited to certain genres, ones that haven't always been at home on the PC, that doesn't mean that someone won't come up with something brilliant and game changing.

When the Steam Controller launches, players will be able to create their own custom control schemes, save them to their Steam profiles, export and share them with the Steam Community. Other Steamers will be able download these player-made setups, and Valve will highlight the most popular ones in the community.

It could be that a fan-made setup will beat out an official one. How's that for player feedback?

Is the Steam Machine revolution still on schedule?

Quite frankly? No. But while it's disappointing to see delay after delay, the extra time in the oven has only helped the final product. (And hey, at least we have a release window.) Using the right control pad for a first-person shooter felt better than I had expected.

Plus, the additions of extra buttons along the bottom may prove useful for increasing or decreasing look sensitivity in-game. There's still plenty of work to go before the full system launches in November 2015, but each day brings with it another improvement.

Early verdict

The Steam Controller is a living, changing peripheral that's just as likely to change the way we game as it is to frustrate you when using it for the first time. A mix of slightly quirky design tweaks, like underside paddle buttons and more standard set of shoulder buttons, are keeping us on our toes. That said, a final version is imminent – we're told that more tweaks might occur between now and launch. (Of course, that's assuming Valve keeps to its newly announced release window.)

However, if it can't compete with the mouse and keyboard, there's no way the Steam Controller will become the standard input (or even an ideal alternative) for PC gaming in the living room. If that's the case, either PC gaming will remain at the desk or the mouse and keyboard will find a new home on the couch.

What is a hands on review?

'Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.