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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.

It took me three long, intense days of swearing and messing around in menus and changing sensitivities and playing Portal 2 a lot and remapping controls and occasionally having games lock up on me, but it’s official—I love Valve’s revolutionary Steam Controller.

A lot.

And I think you’ll like it too.

Open-ended

Steam Controller
A Steam Controller in the wild.

In part I love the Steam Controller because you can futz around with it. You can tweak whatever you don’t like, you can fine-tune the controls until you’ve got them just so. This is a PC gamepad, designed with the openness of the PC in mind—and that’s a big deal. In fact, I’d wager this is the most important piece of hardware Valve’s putting out in its Steam Machine blitz, more so than Steam Link and even the Steam Machines themselves. Why? Because without the Steam Controller, there is no Steam Machine or Steam Link.

It’s not like this is the only remappable controller on the PC. It’s not. Using Joy2Key or what-have-you, you can easily swap the buttons around on your Xbox 360/Xbox One/DualShock controller even if developers didn’t bother building that functionality into the game.

But that’s like changing a car’s paint job and calling it a “custom build” in comparison to the Steam Controller. What I find fascinating about the Steam Controller is you can fundamentally change the way it works—and, in the process, completely shake up how you interface with certain games.

steam controller angledd
The large haptic pads are the Steam Controller’s secret sauce. Credit: Hayden Dingman

The two haptic touchpads are the key. No surprise—they’re what the entire thing was built around. But I don’t think I truly understood their potential until I spent some time with the controller. Each touchpad can be remapped to five different input modes.

  1. Directional Pad (D-Pad): This one’s obvious. The left haptic pad even has a vaguely D-pad shaped cross embedded in it. This is useful for switching guns in a shooter, for instance.
  2. Button pad: A bit less intuitive, but basically you can map four additional A/B/X/Y buttons to the pad—especially useful for keyboard-heavy games with a lot of hotkeys.
  3. Joystick move/camera: This is by far the weirdest mode. The Steam Controller tries to emulate the behavior of a joystick, so the closer your thumb gets to the edge of the pad the faster you move/turn the camera/whatever. It doesn’t work that well though, and you can see why Valve eventually added an actual analog stick onto the controller for movement.
  4. Scroll wheel: Easy. It’s your mouse’s scroll wheel, but done on a trackpad. Scroll your finger clockwise for one action, counter-clockwise for another. Good for switching through weapons.
  5. Mouse: This is where the Steam Controller really shines. Any PC capable of seamlessly switching between controlling the camera on a mouse and controller can run a setup Valve’s calling “Gamepad with High Precision Camera/Aim.” You move with the left stick, but the right haptic pad functions something like a trackball—not physically, since there is no ball to speak of, but the haptics fool your thumb into believing that’s what you’re aiming with.

 

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