You may have seen from the Christmas loot thread that I got a Steam Controller this Christmas. I'd been wanting to try one for a long time, and I'm happy to say it was worth the wait.

The Hardware
I'm sure you've all seen the specs so I won't go into detail, but here's a quick breakdown of the new features-- The left d-pad and right thumb stick present on most controllers have been replaced by clickable touchpads. The left one has an indented plus so your fingers can easily find the direction you need if you're using it for movement. In addition to the left and right shoulder and trigger buttons, there are also grip buttons that you press with your ring/pinky fingers. The trigger buttons are two-stage, meaning that there's a catch right before the end, so you can use one trigger to aim and fire, for example. There's also a gyro that typically seems to be used for fine-tuning aiming, but you can use it for whatever you want (even Wiimote emulation for Dolphin). The pads, stick, and gyro can all be configured with haptic feedback, which I find helps significantly.

The first thing I noticed when seeing it in person is that it looks kinda big. Luckily, though, even with my fairly medium-sized hands, it felt great, and all the buttons and pads are easily accessible. I've seen people complain that it feels cheap, but I don't see that at all. The face buttons are in a slightly awkward position that takes a few minutes to get used to, but that's a minor complaint. Also, I wish the thumb stick was concave like the 360 controller, but I haven't had that negatively impact my gaming.

One thing that I haven't had time to discover myself is battery life. It takes two AA batteries, and from what I've seen in other reviews, they last around 6 weeks of heavy play. Of course, you can also go wired and bypass the batteries altogether.

The Software
The controller can emulate an xinput controller (like the 360 controller) and a keyboard and mouse. Notably, it can do this simultaneously, so your A button can be mapped to a 360 A button, and your X button can be mapped to a keyboard's E key, for example. Steam's Big Picture mode (but not normal mode, unfortunately) has menus to configure the controller, and you can configure a control scheme for each game. Some games that don't allow remapping in-game, so this is a godsend. Some developers have provided official recommended mappings, but that doesn't mean it will be the best. The major strength (and possibly a weakness, more on that later) is community configs. You can share your configs with the world, and when you're browsing them, the most popular ones rise to the top.

And of course, you can get very detailed with your configs. The grip buttons add a new level of customization, letting you map controls directly to them or use them as mode switchers, so for example, the face buttons do four things in normal mode, but when you hold in the right grip they do four different things. Using a combination of those, and the ability to map two different controls (like aiming and firing) to the triggers, I find myself playing nearly every game without touching the face buttons.

You can change so many options, so I won't go into them all, but you can set the emulation mode for the right pad and tweak the sensitivity and various other options to make it feel just right. I've done almost all my fine tuning on the right pad.

So you want to hear how it plays, right? 90% of the time, it's my favorite controller. I'm not saying I'll give up mouse and keyboard for some games, but I'll rarely use the 360 controller. Here's how it fared in the games I tested with:

Portal 2
I suggest this game to people who are new to FPS games, or people who are switching from PC to console or vice versa. It's FP without the S, really, so you rarely experience twitch gameplay and it gives you time to get your bearings, so you can ease into new, unfamiliar control schemes without getting swarmed by zombies. So it seemed like the obvious choice. I was amazed at how natural it felt. The grips mapped to use and jump means never moving your thumbs away from the stick/pad, and the right trackpad just worked. I was far more precise than I have ever been with typical console controllers after only a few minutes. My wife has always had issues with first person games on a controller, but I handed it to her and she immediately felt more comfortable with the Steam Controller.

Fallout 4
Again, everything just worked as you'd expect. One limitation in how much you can configure the controller is that Bethesda games don't allow keyboard and controller inputs at the same time, unlike most other modern games. So for configuring the controller you have to go all-controller input or all-keyboard-and-mouse input. This isn't a HUGE issue for this game, but it could be better if Bethesda allowed that. Since Fallout 4 isn't a FPS, it's an RPG with FPS elements, there are far more controls to be mapped for this one. Some Bethesda-provided flexibility would be welcome. Still, I had no issues playing it.

System Shock 2
I read that Night Dive Studios, who recently updated the game for modern systems, made an official config for SS2, so I had to see what it was all about. It's GREAT. It's like they had the Steam Controller in mind when they first developed the game. Using the gyro to lean felt natural, and inventory management was simple, while keeping the FPS controls solid. Kudos to Night Dive for this amazing config!

Other first-person games
Rather than spelling them all out, I wanted to highlight the ones that needed highlighting. I also played Half-Life 2, Doom 3 BFG edition, Wolfenstein: The New Order, Jedi Outcast, Quake II, and Serious Sam. They all worked amazingly with varying levels of configuration. The takeaway here is that whether games were built with controller support or not, they can still shine with the Steam controller.

Shovel Knight, Rayman Origins, and Super Meat Boy
I wanted to try some 2D games, using the stick and the left pad to move, and I found that after a few minutes to acclimate, these games are better when using the pad for movement. That's definitely a personal thing, so your experience may be different. This felt at least on-par with the 360 controller, maybe slightly edging it out.

Burnout Paradise
I tried this to see how the triggers fared for racing games. There's just enough resistance, and you can map acceleration to the initial trigger pull, and boost to full click, which feels natural.

Batman: Arkham City and Assassin's Creed 4
Third-person games are where I start to have some issues. I could never get the right pad to adjust the camera in a way that felt natural, but that could be a matter of finding the right config or tweaking it just right.

Civilization V
Hey scrypt, I finally played this! You were right, it's amazing. And using a Steam controller feels like they baked in controller support. I wouldn't want to use a controller for a real-time strategy game where fast movements are necessary, but for turn-based, it's nice.

Wow! This seems so odd, but it works so well. The mouse is on the right pad with everything else feeling like a normal controller layout. The official controller config from Re-Logic works beautifully. I actually found some things easier. I imagine when I play this in the future I'll swap back and forth between the Steam Controller and my keyboard/mouse.

Torchlight II
You'd never know this game didn't have controller support built in. Modifying the most popular community config a bit got me an amazing control scheme that feels better than ARPG controls I've experienced on console (like Diablo III on PS3).

Starship Rubicon
We're on Cheerful Ghost here, so what's a controller review without reviewing a game CG published? The Steam controller shines here. I've messed around with two different control schemes to emulate the normal controls, and to simulate a more standard twin-stick shooter, and both work very well.

Guild Wars 2
I wanted to get in an MMO and I'm most familiar with GW2. There are some good configs that players have shared, and with a little tweaking it feels really natural. I didn't feel like I was missing out on functionality, BUT I imagine it would be annoying if you were trying to chat with people. It will work for you, but can't really replace KB/M.

In closing...
In short, it's great. Fantastic, even. For most games, it's my favorite controller. But its strengths are also its weaknesses. The community configurations give people a place to jump off easily and get a layout that has been vetted by others, but it still comes out sub-optimal many times, requiring some tweaking. The level of configurability is great, and they're adding more every day, but the options are not always obvious and people may not want to put in time to configure a controller.

The reviews speak to that. Early reviews were a little rough, but reviewers that took more time to dig into the controller consistently gave it higher reviews. Engadget had an article about this that's worth a read, that the reason people disliked it is just because it takes some time.

So from here on, its success really depends on how Valve can handle things. Balancing ease of use with fine tuning, familiarity with unfamiliarity. Will gamers put in the time to get used to it? Is the target demographic of Steam's living room push one that will welcome a controller that may need some tweaking?

I hope so, because I love this thing and I want it to succeed.

Hat tip to woodsie, a youtuber that has a lot of great info. I recommend these videos to anyone getting started. The videos are short, informative, and fun.

Travis   Admin   Post Author wrote on 12/31/2015 at 06:46pm

Edited to add Guild Wars 2, a game I forgot the first time through.

AdamPFarnsworth wrote on 12/31/2015 at 08:46pm

This is a great review. I'm glad to hear that you like it! The controller sounds like it'll fit in really well with PC gamers, as they seem to like customization :)

Travis   Admin   Post Author wrote on 12/31/2015 at 08:52pm

Thanks, Adam! I think old school PC gamers will feel right at home, but since PC gaming needs far less customization these days than it used to, some people might have gotten used to not tweaking anything.

scrypt   Supporter wrote on 12/31/2015 at 10:21pm

Glad you liked Civ 5! Funny, too, because that's the one game (genre could be lumped in) that I would love to play in a living room/couch/controller environment. Civilization Revolution just didn't cut it. I really appreciate these reviews from you and Jon. They are going a long way into pushing me toward picking up one of these magical controllers.

jdodson   Admin wrote on 12/31/2015 at 11:22pm

Also one note: Night Dive Studios is the current company that owns System Shock 2 so they setup the official controller config. Which makes sense they made a great controller malping because theyve had the Steam controller since the early Steam developer days beta controller release.

Travis   Admin   Post Author wrote on 01/01/2016 at 06:25am

Thanks for the info, Jon. Updated!

scrypt, yeah I didn't hear many good things a bout Civ Revolution. I'm happy to report that the full experience works great!

Azurephile   Super Member wrote on 01/12/2020 at 12:25am

Four years later, do you have any additional thoughts you want to share? Are you still using it? I wonder why they've been discontinued, or in that they don't seem available on the Steam Store. I can get one from Amazon. I'm using to using an XBox 360 controller for PC gaming. I currently have two different brands of controllers. I just returned a third controller to Amazon, because it's been plagued w/ issues since day one. I'm thinking of getting a new one it it's place or just playing with one of the two I still have.

jdodson   Admin wrote on 01/13/2020 at 04:39pm

> Four years later, do you have any additional thoughts you want to share?

The Steam Controller is still one of the most innovative and open controllers i've ever used. It's so configurable and is extremely well considered for PC games on the couch.

> Are you still using it?

This controller has a pretty rabid audience of those that use it and i'm not one of those people. I respect what it is a lot more than I actually use it.

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