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Valve Steam Controller hands-on: Opening a new world of PC gaming possibilities

Hayden Dingman | Oct. 16, 2015
It took three long, intense days of swearing and messing around in menus and playing Portal 2, but it's official—we love the Steam Controller.

Steam Controller
(Click to expand)

It’s hard to explain, but trust me when I say it’s the best control scheme the Steam Controller has to offer. I first discovered it while playing Portal 2, and I’ve since set it up in every game I can find that supports it. The only problem is some games lock the mouse when you plug in a gamepad, which makes this mode impossible. Valve’s apparently working with developers to make sure that doesn’t happen moving forward, but for now you might find some games where it won’t work.

It’s also worth noting that all of the front controls can be set to any of these modes—you can, for instance, make the analog stick work like a four-button input, which is actually how Valve tricks the controller into playing WASD games like Half-Life 2. Or you can make the A/B/X/Y buttons work like a D-pad. Or whatever you want, really.

And every single control can be mapped to multiple inputs using Mode Shifting. If you’ve played the Assassin’s Creed games on a controller, you’ll know what I mean. One button on the controller becomes a modifier key, so holding down the Right Grip could make the A/B/X/Y buttons function temporarily as different outputs.

Steam Controller

Even weirder, you could make it so the right haptic pad controls your camera—except when you hold down the Right Grip, at which time it controls your movement. Or becomes a scroll wheel. Or make it so every time you pull the left trigger to aim down sights, the trackpad sensitivity simultaneously drops to give you more precision.

The PC in your living room

But I don’t love the Steam Controller because it’s infinitely remappable. That’s a feature. It’s indicative of Valve’s open approach to the system hardware (and by extension its trust in users and developers) but otherwise a meaningless technical achievement.

The experiences the Steam Controller opens up—that’s what matters. I’m not necessarily interested in a discussion about whether you could play games that already work well on a controller on this controller. The short answer is yes, you can. Third-person action games work great. And for shooters, I feel you get some degree of greater accuracy than you get with a standard dual-joystick setup. It’s not the precision of a mouse, but it’s closer.

Point-and-click adventures, though. 4X and real-time strategy games, though. City builders. MOBAs. These are experiences that have traditionally been considered “PC only,” and for good reason—they’re reliant on a mouse and/or keyboard, and the joystick is a poor substitute.


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