The Steam Controller - weird experiment or too innovative for its' audience?
I have a confession to make. I own a Steam Controller. The mouse and keyboard boys snigger, the console kids roll their eyes. How many people ordered one of these things, attempted to play a few games and then sent it right back; finding the thing near unworkable? Many, I'd wager. The thing is - it's brilliant
...at some things.
Or maybe everything. It's complicated.
I pre-ordered one of these so I had it day of release, so I've had enough time to pass some kind of judgement on it. Before I got ambitious I played a few racing games - it was a like for like swap. Where I would have used an Xbox controller I used this weirdly shaped thing instead. Many games have different presets available for this joypad - some provided by Steam, most uploaded by other users, and there's usually an option to mimic the Xbox controller (my usual gaming device).
My own joypads. You'd think I'd have cleaned them for this picture, but no. Also, I like the smell of rich mahogany.
My first game was Ridge Racer: Unbounded. It's fun as hell if you're prepared to put time into working out how different cars work, when to attack and learn tracks properly. Downside? Online play disappeared ages ago, so only half the achievements are gettable. Upside? Regularly bundled for hardly any money. If you see it super cheap it's well worth picking up and the harder tracks are still fun and a challenge. Anyhow, a racing game was the perfect place to start - I always use the left stick to steer in racing games and there's one here.
Some of you who haven't had your hands on one of these things think it looks insane - I know. What takes a while to realise is that, dependent on what kind of game, you can hold the thing is a number of different ways.
The buttons and stick look too close together - this is because you're used to having your whole hand clamped round the Xbox controller and the stick and buttons being right where your thumbs are.
Now look at the above picture and see how gigantic and bulbous the grips are on the Steam Controller. Instead of clasping the whole device it's these that fill the hands (at least in a racing game) with the sensor pads at the top being the equivalent of the F1 to F12 keys on a keyboard - you go to them when you need them (different story with an FPS; we'll get to that).
The result is that the thing feels really comfortable in the hands, and the bulbs angle your hands and thumbs inward to the centre of the device where the stick and buttons are. And all of a sudden having the stick and buttons so close and where they are makes total sense - having them together like that cuts down on reaction times like you wouldn't believe.
Something you should know about the Steam Controller that is rarely mentioned, is that the fidelity is amazing. Racing games I'd stopped playing because I just couldn't get any further? I beat them, easily. A level of control I'd never experienced with any joypad before was now here in my hands. I was pretty damn impressed. There were stunt tracks on Ridge Racer I'd just given up on; gaps so small the car could barely squeeze through. If I charged them I'd always crash, if i slowed down for them I wouldn't complete the course in time.
First day of Steam Controller - bam - everything beaten.
I next tried an FPS - S.T.A.L.K.E.R if I remember right, could have been Fallout 3. We'll finish with that experience.
Another genre this thing could have been specially made for are top-down tactical RPG's - specifically the Shadowrun series. It's fantastic. Everything totally configurable, you can play from your sofa while lying down or moving around or standing on your head. It's THE way to play Shadowrun.
Finally, FPS's. And you knew there must be a "but" coming.
We could have ended up with this this thing.
The Steam Controller is configurable in a million ways, but for an FPS you HAVE to get really really good with those haptic sensor pads.
I recently wrote a review about Metal Gear 5 and how I doubt I'll ever play 2 and 3 ever again because it means having to relearn the controls again. It would take me several days - I'm an adult with things to do, I don't have the time.
I know in my heart of hearts that this thing is capable of delivering an experience, if not as precise, nearly as precise as the traditional keyboard and mouse. I know it. It's so incredibly responsive I know if I put the time in I'd be able to hold my own in shooters against pretty good competition. But I just don't have the time. Unlearning what I know and replacing it with something so alien is just too much for me.
Try and think back to the first time you gamed with keyboard and mouse or a joypad. It was probably some time ago. You forget, but it took you a few days to really understand what you were doing and longer to develop any muscle memory and get really good. And this thing here is a completely blank slate.
So, it's now my racing and RPG-ing joypad, and it annihilates the Xbox controller at those things. But even though I know I haven't even grazed the potential of this device, I'm just not able to dedicate the time to mastering the thing properly. A few years ago, maybe.
If you're into racing games though, and don't want a wheel, you need this. Assetto Corsa is a completely different, superior, experience. Similarly Shadowrun - it's just perfection.
Is it odd to own a controller that you can only play certain types of game on? Probably.
I still love the weird little thing.