Ever since I heard that the steam controller had modifiable deadzones, I was infatuated. Nothing makes me more angry than laggy aiming - it’s the reason I gave up on Rise of the Tomb Raider on Xbox One. I read and watched plenty of hands-on about the Steam Controller, so I knew what I was getting into, and here are my impressions after a couple weeks with the beautiful abomination, in lazy bullet dash form.
- The very basics The Steam controller works when running Big Picture mode in Steam, although there is some basic function in desktop mode (mouse pad, left click, Esc, etc.). For those unaware, Big Picture mode is a click away when using Steam and it’s quite usable on either a monitor or TV, even for a PC noob like me. Setup was invisible for me - just plug in the included wireless adapter and turn on the controller with the centered Steam button which, by the way, doing so emits a charming sound like something out of Super Mario Bros 3. Once you launch a game from Big Picture mode, at any time you can press the Steam button and configure your controls from there. There are almost always some defaults depending on the type of game but if you’re lucky, there’ll be a developer recommended setup to try. Also, there are community configurations with descriptions, sorted by number of users. You can try any of these and edit them, saving the configuration for personal or public use. The community has been quite busy; I was able to find configurations on almost every title I tried.
So, does that mean it only works with Steam games? No, with exceptions. Eh, I wish I had a better answer for this but it seems to be a case by case basis. You can add any non-steam game to your Steam Library and launch it in Big Picture mode (it’s basically just a shortcut to that game). When I launched Titanfall (Origin) or Witcher 3 (GoG, for me) I was able to configure my controls just like any Steam title, but any time I hit the Steam Button when playing Star Wars Battlefront or Splinter Cell Chaos Theory, it switched back to my Big Picture window, so it was stuck in desktop mode.
- So, can you?... Usually the first question I get from those curious about the controller is if you can use it as both a gamepad and a mouse simultaneously. Again, the short answer is no, with some exceptions. Basically, you need to decide if it’s going to replicate a gamepad or K&M for each title. Some games play nice when you to use the controller as an xbox gamepad but map the right pad as a mouse; try it out with any game you’re curious- play with a controller in your hand but reach over and move the mouse. With this setup in Witcher 3, you’ll see xbox prompts by default, but then see K&M prompts when using the right pad, but so far it seems to work just fine. Like I said, with some games this works fine but for others it gets wonky. Otherwise you’ll need to have the right pad replicate a right thumb stick, which is far from ideal (more on that later).
- Did you know?! One of the biggest features that tends to get overlooked by reviewers (good on Kotaku for actually showing it off) is the optional motion controls. You can move the controller and have it replicate a thumbstick (pretty useless) or a mouse (oh my god this is amazing). Even better, you can make the motion controls only go into effect when you’ve activated another input, like the right pad or left trigger, for example. If you’ve played Splatoon, think of it that way, but even more accurate. It’s satisfying.
So, the controller allows for accurate aiming in a shooter? And here’s the controller’s flaw. So far, no matter how much I tweak the controls, I’d rather use a gamepad or K&M with most shooters, ESPECIALLY multiplayer shooters. Forgive me for tooting my own horn but, I’m pretty damn good at Titanfall. After playing through the tutorial and iterating a K&M configuration (plus motion controls) until it felt just right, I got decimated against other players. And if you think using the right pad as a thumbstick is a good compromise, it isn’t. The sad truth is that, for many games, you’re going to spend about 30 minutes editing a configuration, feel like you’ve finally found a great solution, only to reach for that Xbox One controller or mouse again in the end.
So many buttons. Can you keep track of them? This thing has more inputs than you probable realize. Besides everything you expect, there are two comfortable, easy to use, grips on the back, one left and one right. The left and right pads are clickable, as is the thumbstick. The left and right triggers are dual stage, like a gamecube controller, but much more comfortable, and you can map them however you want. This is more than you’ll ever need for gamepad replication but for keyboard mapping, you might be a bit more limited - I was ready to map the right grip to jump so that I wouldn’t have to take my thumb off the right pad in Titanfall, but then I realized just how many keys Titanfall uses, so unless you’re up for reaching for the keyboard anyway, those buttons are going to be used up quick. I should mention that the left pad (or right, if you’re so inclined) will often be mapped to four buttons, but you can do tons of stuff like make it a keypad (up to 16 buttons come up on screen for you to choose from), or have two completely different bindings for the same button/pad if you’re pressing a different button. For example, and this is super basic but, I set my right pad to inverted mouse controls by default in MGS V, but when I’m pressing the left pad to open the weapon/item wheel, the right pad is no longer inverted (but it’s still inverted when I’m using the map or command wheel by hitting the left bumper, so it’s not perfect).
Now, remember, when you’re binding K&M controls, you better keep track of this stuff because the on-screen game prompts you’re going to see will be for keys or mouse buttons, not your standard xbox button prompts. Luckily, you can name each button in the configuration to remind yourself what each button is for. And remember, these bindings are saved for each title, so you won’t have conflicting settings when you’re switching between games.
Before I read any more, just tell me if I should get this thing. Although I said that I was more often than not reaching for my Xbox One controller or mouse again in most titles, this does seem very applicable for certain titles. For games that have a lot of inputs, like MGS V, I prefer using the Steam Controller. By activating motion control aiming when pressing the left trigger and by aiming down the sights being mapped to a full, clickable left trigger pull , I can pull off shots with such ease and it just feels much better than having to press the right bumper on the Xbox One controller every time I need to aim down the sights. By the way, by comparison, the bumpers on the Steam Controller are pretty comfortable and very accurate.
For twitch shooters or platformers that demand a small D-Pad though, you can probably forget it.
Feel the controller It’s lightweight and pretty ergonomic, not quite Xbox One comfortable but close. The matte finish feels good, but not quite as grippy as the dualshock 4. The triggers have little resistance and the full trigger click is obvious yet requires little force. I don’t find the face buttons to be too small or awkward to reach. For comparison, I have small hands but relatively long fingers. Haptics! Yes, this controller has tiny vibrations on by default for almost everything you do, but you can increase/decrease or turn them off for each button/pad or motion controls. I usually turn them off but sometimes they feel useful like when you keep track ball mode on the right pad, or when you leave it on the triggers so you know exactly when you’ve reached the input distance for depressing them. Like most vibrating controllers, you can actually hear the rumble in a quiet environment, and the sound for these minute haptics is kinda grating, hence why I often turn it off completely.
Regardless, this thing is so damn cool and fun to mess around with. To me, it’s worth the $50 (that’s very cheap considering how good this thing feels and what it’s capable of) just to see what’s possible. Here’s just some of the stuff you can do with it that I didn’t mention prior.
- Make a pull trigger pull (a click) activate rapid fire mode, which, like anything, can be edited to a wide degree. Any button can be rapid fired.
- Change the activating distance for a “soft press” when using the triggers
-Mute motion or pad inputs when pressing the pad(s) as a button (e.g. so your camera doesn’t shake). I believe this is on by default.
-Have the left pad replicate the four D-Pad buttons but not require a click of the pad.
-Bind a button to mousewheel up/down or click
-Allow for recentering when having a pad replicate a thumbstick. I kept moving my thumb to the right pad and not be in the center, so the camera would start to swing. Unfortunately, recentering currently doesn’t work very well, even when decreasing the outer deadzones. Did I mention you can change the deadzones?
-Use the pads to type with two cursors on a virtual keyboard, and it’s pretty intuitive and quick.
-Use the right pad to replicate a mouse with track ball so you can turn the sensitivity down but use swipes for a lot of movement. This is nice when moving a cursor, but the motion controls are even better for that in my experience.
-There are sliders for everything. You can edit anything. I’m a PC noob, and it’s only overwhelming to me when it comes to using a pad for aiming, which is why browsing configurations is so great - let the community fine tweak the nitty gritty while you change the other controls to your liking.
I’m the kind of guy who likes to turn on a console and play without spending time configurating, but even I can’t help but play around with the Steam Controller. Sadly, my time&effort is often wasted in the end since it’s still not ideal for most games, but the journey is entertaining. It’s a great controller sometimes, and a fun toy the rest of the time.