When I heard that Valve had a controller in the works, I was sceptical. Valve is predominantly a software company, after all. Especially when it was announced that it’d work on any game, controller-enabled or not. When I first saw what would become the controller I now hold in my hand, it all clicked. It made sense, in theory….In practice? It doesn’t make sense at all. Certain things become standard because they’re the best thing available. The thumbstick is exactly that. When it comes to a controller, you can’t do better…at least not yet.
Let’s start from the beginning. The packaging is lovely, and displays the controller front-and-center when you open the box, as if it were some holy relic. It comes with a small USB dongle, two AA batteries, and a range extender with a roughly 6′ cord. There’s also some instructions and whatnot in there. I’m a typical man, so I just threw those out the instant I saw them and began my quest to set this thing up. The batteries go into the grips through the back, and require a pretty generous application of force to actually settle into place and deploy the little bits of plastic that hold them in and also function as an eject switch. My first instinct is to toss the range extender and its cord somewhere to the side and just plug the dongle right into the front of my case, which is mere inches away from my chair. This is apparently incorrect. Oh, it’ll work, but it’ll whine and moan at you to use the extender until you use it. Other than that annoyance, the set-up is relatively painless. It’s detected immediately by Windows 10, and after pressing the little Steam button on the controller, it gives off a happy little chirp and Steam immediately pops up a window saying it has detected a Steam Controller. When I first plugged mine in, there was a firmware upgrade available. Luckily, there is no need to go wired to make this happen. It’s all doable over wireless and only takes a minute or two.
With the setup out of the way, it’s time to talk about the actual controller itself. It has a decent weight to it with batteries installed. It feels solid without feeling like a brick in your hand. I’m not so sure about the shoulder buttons, though. They require a bit of force to actuate, and then produce a hollow-sounding click. The triggers are a different story entirely. They’re easy to move, and then bottom out with the same hollow click. Both the triggers and shoulder buttons are set in at an angle for ease of use. My fingers just drifted right to them. Then again, with the upturned grips, it was kind of necessary. They are my primary complaint with the outer shell of the controller — They lower the middle of the controller relative to your thumbs, making using anything but the shoulder buttons, triggers, and touchpads more difficult than it should be.
Now, I have fairly large hands. I found the original Xbox “Duke” controller comfortable. But reaching the ABXY cluster is horribly uncomfortable, and I still end up hitting B instead of A. The controller has a pair of what I guess you’d call flaps on the bottom that are by default mapped to X and A. Of course, which one is which I couldn’t tell you. I’d just squeeze and pray I got the right one. More often than not, I’d hit the wrong one and everything would go pear-shaped. It’s only now with the mapping overlay in front of me (more on that later) that I can tell you the right one is mapped to X and the left one is mapped to A. Reaching the Steam button in the middle, or the start/select (I think that’s what they’re called…) buttons required a shift in my grip on the controller, similar to what I had to do for the ABXY cluster. Also horribly uncomfortable and honestly shouldn’t have made it past initial testing.
Okay, I’ve danced around it long enough. It’s time to address the elephant in the room: The touchpads. Jesus Christ, these things are terrible. I don’t think I have ever once thought my experience was improved by the use of touchpads in anything. Ever. Okay, before I get into details, I’ll just say this: I’m glad they relegated the left one to D-Pad duty. This, shockingly, works as intended. You would think there’d be 4 or 5 buttons under it, but there is actually just the one in the middle, and your thumb’s position on the pad determines which direction it registers when pressed. The lone analog stick is also functional. It does exactly what you expect it to do without issue. Having to use both touchpads in place of analog sticks would have made this thing 100% unusable. At the moment, it’s just not usable for anything 3D.
The right touchpad is the primary pad you will be interacting with and cursing whoever decided to mandate its inclusion. Depending on the game, it reacts differently to your thumb. If the game in question has controller support, it will attempt to behave as if it were an analog stick, with sometimes disastrous results. As we all know, a touchpad is not an analog stick, and therefore should not be bound to the same limitations or even attempt the same behaviour. Swiping your thumb across the right touchpad, as long as you start from the center, making slow and broad movements, works. If you plan on making fine adjustments with it… good luck. Sometimes it doesn’t register anything at all, sometimes it gets angry at you and spins you 180 degrees. Which one you get is entirely up to how the controller is feeling at that micro-instant. Heaven forbid your thumb graze the pad on the way to the ABXY cluster. There’s a fraction of a fingertip’s worth of space between the two, so you’ll be doing this a lot. Prepare to be looking at a lot of floors while reloading. Trying to replicate this behaviour when it’s beneficial is 100% impossible. It’s sensitive when you don’t want it to be, and completely unresponsive when you need it to be sensitive. I swear using this controller gave me flashbacks to old girlfriends. The “analog stick” mode is an unmitigated disaster.
On the other side of the coin, if your game does NOT have controller support, the right touchpad goes into a trackball-like mode. This is better than the analog stick mode, but only barely. It suffers from a lot of the same problems, except swiping from anywhere works. The problem here is that it’s entirely too sensitive all the time. Getting your thumb anywhere near the thing will trigger it. Both modes have problems with fine-tuning your movements, and neither really gets close to being the de-facto standard.
I can hear the comments section revving up already: “But John! There’s a configuration thing built into Steam! Configure it to your liking!” To that, I say I would if I could. The Big Picture overlay has a major issue with SLI setups where it flickers so fast that it could trigger seizures in the photosensitive. This bug has been around for at least a year, and has gone unfixed. Configuring the controller like this is difficult, if not impossible. Also, some games do not support mixed control methods. Since the trackball-like mode simulates a mouse, some games will disable controller input until the controller buttons are pressed again. Dying Light gave me this issue. You can’t sprint and move the camera at all. You will stop dead in your tracks as soon as the camera moves. Metal Gear Solid V won’t recognize mouse input at all if a controller is detected, so you’re stuck with the analog stick mode there too. Most games seem to be okay with mixed modes, but it’s something to be aware of before jumping in. Speaking of Metal Gear Solid V… I’ve noticed that the radial menu for giving orders doesn’t actually work on the Steam Controller. Sometimes it’ll register, but it’s only briefly, not long enough to get a click in.
Oh, and then there’s the “haptic feedback”. This might be the single most annoying “feature” of this controller. The noise makes an otherwise solid controller feel cheap and poorly made. It feels like the controller is buzzing and rattling in my hands when I’m not actually doing anything more than running my finger over the touchpad.
In summary, the Steam Controller is a fantastic idea hamstrung by some questionable decisions early on in its design. The software backing the hardware is really good…it just feels like a waste of good software.