Hands on: Valve Steam Controller review

Valve's gamepad is thinking outside the (orange) box

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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

  • touchpads sometimes impractical
  • Continually delayed
  • Not functional for every genre

It's hard to believe how fast time passes. I can still remember the clamor and speculation the day Valve first announced it was not only producing its own operating system based on Linux and a line of gaming PCs - called Steam Machines - but would release its own controller as well.

Like the original designs for the Steam Controller, SteamOS was interesting, if a little confusing at first. It's been over two years since that day, and in that time we've seen exactly one Steam Machine come to market (the Alienware Alpha) with 14 more en route for the holidays.

The delay has been upsetting, to say the least. If Valve intends to follow through with its plans for a controller, it will have to strike soon. Valve is on a deadline.

Valve Steam Controller review

It's not all bad, though. The delayed release has given Valve time to refocus the controller, to redesign it with functionality - rather than novelty - in mind.

Design

Where the original version we saw had four square center buttons and lacked face buttons, the latest (and what Valve is calling the final design) is reverse. The gamepad has 13 buttons, with seven on the front face and six in the rear.

The front left is loaded with a control stick and haptic feedback-enabled touchpad, while the right side sports four face buttons - A, B, X and Y - as well as another touchpad. In the middle are the Steam jewel, start and back buttons.

Steam Controller
The final version of the Steam Controller in all its glory.

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.

Spin it around to the back and you'll find a set of mushy triggers, two bumpers and a hidden set of buttons where your fingers rest on the inside of the wings. The latter are something commonly found on aftermarket controllers from PDP or Mad Catz, but never in first-party pads.

What they might do, however, is a complete mystery. They could just be nothing more than another set of inputs. But the best guess I have so far is that they could serve as a set of programmable macro buttons used to quickly access a string of commands.

Performance

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 instead of a second stick took some getting used to, but with the help of what I believe was auto-aim assistance, I pulled through the fight with a slightly positive kill-to-death ratio.

Valve Steam Controller review

It wasn't perfect, however, and definitely didn't have the same intuitive feel that an original PlayStation controller had all those years ago.

Of course, one issue with my experience could've been the sensitivity on the right thumbpad. The sensitivity was cranked up to one of its highest settings at the beginning of the match, causing me to whip around left and right with the lightest touch. Once adjusted, it started to feel better and I started to rack up a kill or two to make up for the lost time.

I left feeling that the Steam Controller perhaps isn't suited for shooters like Unreal Tournament and that its greatest strengths - its touchpads - still lie untapped because developers are shoehorning old control schemes into a new product.

Crowdsourcing control

While Valve's Steam Controller will likely be better suited to certain genres over others, 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?

Steam Controller
This was the last version of the Steam Controller

This also removes the impetus from developers to come up with the best control scheme right out of the gate - a boon for them while we're all still getting used to the new technology.

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 this version of the Steam Controller for a first-person shooter felt better than I had expected, though there's still some tweaking to be done before we see the final product.

Steam

That said, the additional buttons along the bottom of the controller may prove useful for increasing or decreasing look sensitivity in-game or doing something completely unpredictable.

There's still plenty of work to go before the full systems launch in November 2015, but each outing brings with it another improvement. That said, what you see here is awfully close to what will ship this autumn, I'm told. So, if you don't dig it now, your mind may already be made up.

Early verdict

The Steam Controller is a living, changing peripheral that's just as likely to change the way you 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, keep us on our toes. But at the same time, the design overall trends closer and closer to something we've seen before.

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 way to fit in on the couch.

The only thing that's certain, at this point at least, is Valve is willing to think outside of the (orange) box.

Alex Roth originally contributed this hands on review

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.