The first thought that came to mind when we finally got the long awaited Steam Controller in hand was something along the lines of: "Really? This is it? It feels a bit thick and plasticky, it curves awkwardly in the palm. This feels a bit weird. It's.. Different"
Then after using it for a while we realised that's the whole point. It's supposed to be different.
It's been a long wait since Valve announced the Steam controller back in September 2013 and it has seen several design iterations during that time, adding some more familiar flair to the alien-looking concept that was first unveiled. It's an integral part of Valve's push to firmly implant the PC in the living room by, amongst other things, emulating a mouse and keyboard for PC titles that lack controller support, while still providing a solid gamepad support alternative to the reigning champion of the PC space: the Xbox controller.
So is it a game changer? Most definitely, and in more ways than one. Is it perfect? Unfortunately not.
The Steam Controller's main features are the two HD Haptic enabled track pads that take up the most real estate on the front of the controller. These can, among other things, be programmed to emulate a mouse, joystick or scroll wheel, although for most games you'll traditionally find the left pad taking the role of a D-pad and the other a mouse/joystick. As mentioned before, the handgrips of the controller curve upwards but this raises your thumbs so they reach the track pads at the perfect angle for use and ultimately comfort, which means that after considerable playtime we had next to no strain or fatigue.
This doesn't fully extend to the more traditional left analogue stick, that despite its familiar concave and rubberised design, and the right amount of stiffness for precise movement, it can be a bit more awkward to reach.
The same can also be said for the iconic A, B, X, Y face buttons, and these also suffer from being slightly too small, prompting the occasional erroneous input.
Finally there's Start and Back, and a Steam button to call up the Steam overlay, all found on the front of the controller.
The back features two dual-stage triggers and two bumpers in the standard perfect position for your index and middle fingers, that have a satisfying click when fully depressed and two paddles akin to third party controllers or the newly released Xbox One Elite controller.
These paddles are a part of a plate that pops off with a slide of a button to reveal a battery compartment for two standard AA batteries, one in each handle, which can not be charged via the USB port on top of the controller. These reportedly power the controller for 80 hours, a fact we've been unable to verify as we've yet to see them run out of juice.
Inside the controller there's a gyroscope and accelerometer sensors that allow the controller to be used as a steering wheel, or instead of another motion controlled input (or even a mouse).
What is sorely lacking is an audio jack for headphones, a feature we've grown accustomed to in controllers for the latest generation of consoles, especially since Valve is specifically targeting the living room. What is also absent when compared to the competition is rumble motors, but in all honesty that has always bordered on gimmicky and we didn't miss them here one bit.
The Steam Controller is a tinkerer's dream, but it can be daunting to someone that simply wants to plug in and play. First off, although you can navigate Windows and Steam natively after plugging in the Bluetooth wireless receiver in order to properly use it in-game, you need to run it through Steam's Big Picture mode or Steam OS.
Not many games have native support, those that do have gamepad support recognise it as a standard controller and you're perfectly fine to run off into the wasteland (or whatever your destination may be), but to truly take full advantage of its capabilities you need to press the Steam button and open up the controller options.
This is where the Steam Controller shows off just how revolutionary it is and where the rabbit hole of customisation opens up.
First off you can stay conservative and select from three templates; "Gamepad", "Gamepad with High precision camera & aim" or "Keyboard & Mouse". One of these options will be recommended. If those don't hit the sweet spot you can browse community made templates ranked by how many users are using them.
Still not satisfied? Then crack your knuckles and prepare for the latest meta-game on Steam.
Not only can every button be mapped to whatever you like on the mouse, keyboard or gamepad, but you can set turbo mode, multi input and mode shifting. A half depressed trigger can have one function and fully depressed another, and with the versatility of the track pads and their various sensitivity options, the possibilities are virtually endless. You can even set the gyroscope to help you with precision aiming.
A lot of the possibilities may not be viable, but spend enough time on perfecting your settings and you may come up with something truly unique that changes the way you play a game.
On the software side the controller is still evolving, both in terms of upgradable firmware to the controller itself, and the Big Picture Mode/SteamOS optimisation of the games themselves. Some compatibility issues arose during testing; a couple of times while trying to select a template, none of the buttons got mapped, but a quick reboot of Steam took care of that. We also ran into an issue when plugging in a X360 wireless dongle, which turned a planned couch multiplayer evening into an irritating troubleshooting session.
The original daisywheel keyboard introduced through Big Picture mode fills the screen, which means sometimes you're unable to see what you're typing, but there's a brilliant new option offered by the Steam Controller. It uses a track pad for each side of the keyboard, letting you type just about as fast as you can with two fingers on a physical keyboard.
Physically the controller is a joy to handle, for the most part. Compared to a dual analog setup where we often find our thumbs sweating and sliding off the edges during a long stint, the dual track pads held no such issue. For certain genres such as first- or third-person shooters, years of muscle memory needs to be unlearned or refocussed, however you soon get to grips with the new controls. In our time spent testing it we saw vast improvements in our performance over a standard dual analog stick controller, and it may even have cured us of our rather quirky habit of having to invert the Y axis when returning to a "regular" controller.
For other genres, such as real-time strategy or point and click adventures, it feels natural right out of the gate, and in some instances even preferable to other inputs.
Is it enough to completely replace the decades long experience we have with mouse and keyboard? Not really, but we do see ourselves spending a lot more time on the couch instead of in front of the desk (something our spine is no doubt pleased about).
In conclusion, the Steam Controller is a solid piece of technology and may well deserve a place in your arsenal of peripherals. Despite some annoyances on the hardware side - what almost feels like a tacked on inclusion of the smaller face buttons and more awkwardly placed analogue stick, the lack of an audio jack, and the somewhat annoying sound when you use the haptic pads - after extended use those negatives mostly fade away.
Combined with its software it epitomises everything that's best about PC gaming: choice, customisability and accuracy. The only real question is if you have the patience to tinker with it and learn its ways as it grows as a platform, and whether you give it long enough to get used to.
Or, of course, you might want to wait for a second iteration of the hardware, which no doubt will come a bit further down the line, because right now, getting to grips with it and getting it to work just the way you want it is a bit of a hassle. The Steam Controller might be an incredibly promising piece of hardware and there is nothing better out there to bring the diverse world of PC gaming to the living room, but ultimately its promise of replacing both your controller and keyboard remains unfulfilled.