Steam Controller Review

(Originally published to Sackinima on December 11, 2015)

So I was browsing steam one day looking for some precious sales and I stumbled across an ad for the new steam controller before it was released. I already researched the hunk of plastic beforehand so I decided to give it a try. It was a new piece of hardware with the promise of merging the accuracy of a keyboard and mouse with the comfort of couch controls. After fiddling and experimenting with it for the first months of it’s release, I can say that it is definitely worth it’s $60 price tag.

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The box comes with the controller itself, USB wireless adapter, USB weight (if you want to re-position the adapter away from the computer), micro-USB charging cable, and the required 2 double-A batteries. The controller feels a little hollow and doesn’t mold around your hands like the PS4 controller, but all the buttons are accessible without cramping your hands.

To start off let me list all of the buttons on the controller:

  • Two touchpads (left has 5 click inputs and right has 1)
  • Analog stick (with 1 click input)
  • Six face buttons (Y, B, A, X, Start, Select)
  • Two bumpers
  • Two triggers (w/ hair pull and full pull inputs)
  • Two handle flaps (or whatever they’re called)
  • Gyroscope
  • Steam on/off button

This totals to roughly 25 inputs (including on/off button). For comparison, the PS4 controller has 22 inputs and the X-box 360 controller has 19 inputs.

While this doesn’t seem like many, the Steam software allows you to highly customize and bind these controls for any game in your Steam library. This includes fine-tuning deadzones, trigger types, haptic feedback, and more. Some advanced stuff you can do is double tap binds on the touchpads and a really useful ‘mode switcher’ where you hold a button to use a second set of customizeable bindings (eg. hold left flap for gyro aiming and let go for touchpad aiming). This basically doubles the input count and allows for completely unique control layouts that you can then share with the steam community.

While sharing is a very welcome feature for people who want convenient controls immediately, the text often bugs out when writing descriptions. It’s also hard to share your controls with specific friends because of the lack of a search option, so when playing at a friends house I had to sign onto my steam account just to use my controls.

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With all the numbers out of the way let’s talk about the actual experience!

The advanced bind options allow for non-traditional keyboard and mouse games to be playable with the controller. I tested this with many genres to see how it compares with traditional PC and Console controls.

The very first game I played was CSGO, a first-person competitive shooter which requires a lot of accuracy. I played with bots and online opponents. A regular controller is terrible for this game so a good 99% of players use a KB&M. While the Steam controller didn’t compare to the accuracy of a mouse, it was significantly better than a normal controller.

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The second game was a complete 180 with FTL, a top-down advanced strategy game which requires a lot of planning and management of stats. This game doesn’t even have controller support so everybody uses a KB&M. It took me a while to make binds for this game, but once I did it was very playable. I had both touchpads control the mouse so you can make sharp flicks as well as small adjustments. I then had the face buttons hooked up to crew and weapons using the mode switch feature. In my opinion this worked better than the CSGO example but again wasn’t quite as good as the KB&M.

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The next game I tried was Rocket League (which came free with the controller preorder), a third-person competitive racer which requires a lot of teamwork and coordination. For this one I used the default developer-made controls but added binds for the two handle flaps. Rocket League a best played with a traditional controller but Steam’s hardware kept up with the PS4 and X-box 360 controllers just fine.

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The final game I played was Chivalry, a first-person class-based swordfighting game which requires timing and good reflexes. What makes this different from the CSGO test is the rapid mouse movements you have to make to block attacks and the multiple attacks that can be performed. While this game does have controller support, it doesn’t have all the binds for advanced players so I made my own. This game worked best with the Steam controller because it was, again, significantly better than a traditional controller and it actually kept up with the KB&M very well! My gameplay was consistent using the two different control methods and the controller didn’t feel out of place like it did in the previous games.

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I did experiment with the gyroscope in CSGO and Audiosurf but it didn’t prove very useful for common gameplay, however it is very accurate and some people combine this with the mode switcher to get more precise aiming in shooters.

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In conclusion, the Steam controller is much better than a traditional controller but nowhere near the accuracy of a Keyboard and mouse. At first it feels very strange using touchpads instead of analog sticks, but once you get used to it and optimize your controls, it is a great option for PC gaming on the couch.

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I know this whole review was a mouth-full so if you have any questions about the controller or want me to test anything out, ask away in a reply below!

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