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Steam Deck: Game Library Deep Dive

We've put a variety of games of different performance ratings to the test, to see how they stack up on Valve's handheld gaming system.

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The Steam Deck is a potential seminal moment. While Sony promised a so-called "revolution" for the handheld gaming experience with the PlayStation Vita many years ago, it is actually only now, that we perhaps finally can purchase a broadly available, mass-manufactured handheld gaming device from a reputable source, which gives us immediate, battery-powered access to AAA games in decent graphical settings and frame-rates.

We've reviewed that very hardware in a separate article, which, when you're reading this, is already available. That particular article discusses input methods, button quality, materials used and the Proton-based SteamOS interface. We also touch upon some of the games that you might end up playing, choosing a selection of "Valve-approved" titles, meaning they've been optimised directly for the Deck hardware, as well as smaller and ultimately unoptimised titles.

This is an extension of that very part of the full review, a kind of "day-in-the-life" of a new Deck owner, and how one may structure a gaming experience with it, and ultimately how much tinkering and adapting it will take. Before that though, through ProtonDB (found here) you may see each and every Steam game's level of compatibility and optimisation for the Steam Deck, which will range from Platinum, in games such as the newly released Expeditions: Rome, to Smilegate's Lost Ark, which has earned itself a "Borked" tag, where the top remark is; "will not launch, don't even bother". This does not happen often, but quite popular games like Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout, Halo Infinite, Destiny 2 and Dead by Daylight all have the same rating, where users complain of menus failing to register inputs, or even the game not launching at all. Such is the life of a Linux-based system - whose functionality is broad, open-source and filled to the brim with clever minds willing to put in the hours to make something work, it's not a direct guarantee.

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You may have noticed that almost all "Borked" games are multiplayer-based, and that's no coincidence, seeing as Windows-developed multiplayer games do not have Linux versions, or will work with Linux, as that could bypass Easy Anti-Cheat. Most "Borked" games on ProtonDB have a specific Easy Anti-Cheat explanation attached, and if the developer in question has no interest in developing a specific Linux version, it cannot be fixed, even with the goodwill of the community. With many new Linux users, through the Deck launch however, it might end up changing - but it is not, again, a guarantee.

Using ProtonDB is a good way to further examine whether your use case can be realised with the Deck, and if you're even less adventurous, you may try a tool like CheckMyDeck, which runs a scan of your existing Steam library to see what will work, and what won't - currently. So let's take a look at our sample:

Alien: Isolation - Native
Control - Platinum
Red Dead Redemption 2 - Gold
Deathloop - Silver
Just Cause 2 - Bronze

It's important to note, again, that your particular use case may be severely different. Maybe you like RTS games, and want to utilise the haptic pads to play Baldur's Gate III, or perhaps more relaxing titles like Stardew Valley is your speed - whatever the case may be, utilise aforementioned tools, and you can clearly see what the support will be like on the Deck for you. So let's get cracking:

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Steam Deck: Game Library Deep DiveSteam Deck: Game Library Deep Dive
Steam Deck: Game Library Deep DiveSteam Deck: Game Library Deep Dive

Alien: Isolation:
This game is natively supported through Linux, Proton and therefore the Steam Deck, meaning that Creative Assembly spent resources making sure it's optimised for this particular use case, and for Linux in general.

Upon firing it up, a regular control input method with analogue sticks, D-pad for shortcuts and face buttons for actions were registered, and there were, over the course of more than an hour's worth of play, no crashes, no stuttering, nor technical issues of any kind.

The game ran flawlessly in the 1280x800 screen resolution at more than 70fps with graphical settings on high, and while some drops were common, it remained a near perfect handheld gaming experience with no compromises whatsoever.

Control
Control, here in its Ultimate Edition, has a Platinum Rating on ProtonDB, and like Alien: Isolation, we never experienced a single crash, nor any sort of potential problem with it working on the Steam Deck. Again, the regular controller preset was selected and ran just as if a controller had been paired with a PC, and the entire experience was smooth.

In the 1280x800 resolution we got around 60fps in Low, but as mentioned in the full hardware review, when the screen is a mere seven inches, it looks much better than initially feared. Graphical detail, fluidity, responsiveness, it was all mighty impressive, particularly as seeing that when this game initially released, all console users were forced to play at a mere 30fps.

Steam Deck: Game Library Deep Dive

Red Dead Redemption 2
This game is equipped with a "Gold" marker, which is where you'll find a good portion of high-profile AAA releases, it's also where we first came across game crashes, and some stuttering. First off, utilising the Balanced graphical preset, we saw frame-rates ranging in the low 40's, but that was with the full APU draw, and pretty much full system utilisation throughout. While that can have some effect on battery life, generally the performance was impressive enough, and given Red Dead's more methodical pace in general, 41-45fps through Saint Denis on horseback may just prove fluid enough.

But, throughout an hour's worth of play, the game crashed back to the SteamOS twice, and had a frozen screen for somewhat 10 seconds before that. The crashes happened independently, meaning not in quick succession. Furthermore, twice the game's frame-rate stuttered to a halt, settling in at around 20fps, before climbing back up. Looking at ProtonDB, these issues seem rare, but perhaps worthy of note.

Deathloop
With its Silver Linux rating, we expected larger issues going into Arkane's recent heavy-hitter, but found the experience to be surprisingly smooth, hence its inclusion here seeing as relying on ProtonDB ratings can be its own set of problems. While running in 1280x800 in 60fps, we did notice stutters and one single crash, the game overall performed better than the Gold-rated Red Dead Redemption 2, and that was without any tinkering either. In researching this piece we also tried God of War, which, as an aside, holds a Gold-rating too, yet had significant performance issues resulting in the game not getting more than 35fps.

However, Deathloop is also the first game that messed up controller input recognition, opting for a combination of controller face-button inputs and the left haptic pad as a mouse. This happened before with Half-Life 2: Episode 1, which is a Steam Controller-esque set-up, and which requires some modding in the controls menu - something which did take some getting used to.

Steam Deck: Game Library Deep Dive

Just Cause 2
This is an oldie, meaning it won't apply to the wider user-base potentially, but Just Cause 2 is not considered "Borked" by the community standards, yet is a widely inferior gaming experience on the Deck. 60fps proved nearly impossible, the sound would occasionally crackle and pop, and distort the onboard speakers, the control sensitivity kept resetting itself and graphical glitches were widespread throughout testing.

While ProtonDB users list installing extra software such as ProtonTricks and Wine proved invaluable tools, it might be too much hassle for a casual Steam Deck owner. It's at least an example of a title requiring obvious tinkering to work properly.

A quick glance at ProtonDB shows the scale of both the possibilities and the issues that Steam Deck owners face. Over 4500 games are recommended by three or more Proton aficionados, and there's over 700 directly verified and playable games. Whether that's enough, seeing as we're expecting record-growth with the very launch of this hardware? Again, (again), it's hard to say. The Deck is, still, an incredibly impressive piece of hardware, and while it is Linux, utilising Valve's Proton layer, through SteamOS, it can work effortlessly as a casual AAA handheld. But, pretending there's no compromise, would be to intentionally omit what Valve, and the Steam Deck is, and all users needs to be aware of it.



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