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Steam Controller hands-on review

We tried Valve’s (potentially) revolutionary new controller

We first saw Valve’s Steam Controller way back in September 2013. 

Now there are just a few months before it replaces the classic keyboard and mouse PC gaming combo, or is unceremoniously shunned by traditionalists everywhere. Either way, we’ve got our sweaty paws on the latest version to see whether it’s up to scratch.

Spoiler alert: we’re impressed.

Not built for noobs

Not built for noobs

If this is the first time you’ve seen the Steam Controller, then you’re probably wondering where the other stick is. But the Steam Controller isn’t built for console noobs, it’s built for PC gamers who are used to a keyboard and mouse. Where the ABXY buttons would be there’s a circular trackpad that replaces your mouse, and where your left stick would be, there’s a left stick that replaces your WASD keys.

The right trackpad is sensitive and takes a bit of getting used to, but it’s really precise, offering a much more mouselike level of control than a spring-loaded stick. Thanks to the shape of the controller, your thumb stands en pointe, like a fat, knuckly little ballerina. In combat, this seems to prevent frenzied controller- gripping, and I’d go so far as to say it promotes a more careful, aim-centric combat style than the spray-n-pray tactics I usually go in for with a console controller.

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Clicky haptic feedback

Some very clever haptic feedback makes the right pad feel like a clicky trackball that can be spun, and the effect is really convincing when you’re not looking at it. The haptics on the new version feel more subtle than the prototypes we’ve tried before, probably because the controller itself is solid, not 3D-printed. Still, with the haptic effect turned up to high, you still get a nice ‘rolling’ click.

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It has bits of Xbox and PS4 DNA on it

It has bits of Xbox and PS4 DNA on it

Given that we were using it in the giant gamer-packed armpit that is Gamescom, it probably had lots of other DNA on it too, but let’s just wash our hands a few more times and try not to think about that. While it’s aimed squarely at Steam gamers, the Steam Controller has borrowed some sensible design choices from the next-gen consoles. In the body it’s more like an Xbox controller, while the low-profile triggers are more akin to the button-like shoulders of the PS4 controller than the more literal, gunlike Xbox triggers.

There’s a surprise around the back, though. Where your third and fourth fingers grip the controller’s ‘wings’, there are large buttons that can be squeezed for an extra function. In the first-person shooter we played (no, it wasn’t Half-Life 3), the right one was mapped to jump, and it was really, really useful. Somehow a big handsqueeze matches the exertion of a jump more than tapping a button, and it keeps your right thumb free to look at where you’re going to land.

I don’t want that button to do that

I don’t want that button to do that

In keeping with the keyboard-and-mouse-replacing spirit of the controller, Valve has made this thing endlessly remappable, so any button or pad can perform any function. Once your fellow Steam gamers start making presets for their favourite games, you’ll also be able to load the most popular presets for a given game, which will probably be the right ones for you. Unless they invert the y axis, which is a sign of depravity and should be banned.

Stay tuned for a November release

Valve says the Steam Controller will be released in November. While Southern Rail is the only company less likely to have one of its products arrive on time, the more punctual Alienware is also saying its Alpha, the attractive little posterchild for the Steam Machine revolution, will ship with a Steam Controller then. We can’t wait to spend a winter getting used to it.