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First impressions: the Steam Machine and its confounding controller

Phil Owen plays Metro: Last Light and Portal with Valve's new controller and finds it an utterly bewildering experience.

When we pare it all down to the details, a Steam Machine is still just a PC. One intended to go in an entertainment center, sure, but the "what is it?" factor for the box itself doesn't amount to a whole lot. The same can't be said for the odd new gamepad Valve designed to go with these things.

The Steam Controller is utterly bewildering to look at, and as I discovered on Monday night at CES in Las Vegas, it's just as bewildering, if not more, to pick up and use it. The haptic touchpads that dominate its landscape are utterly alien at first touch, and the confusion only mounted when I tried to use the other buttons - the unprecedented layout of these inputs didn't help matters.

"The haptic touchpads that dominate its landscape are utterly alien at first touch, and the confusion only mounted when I tried to use the other buttons."

I used the Steam controller to sample Metro: Last Light, Portal, Beatbuddy and Trine 2. The controller was operating in what Valve's Anna Sweet referred to as "Legacy Mode", in which the pad emulates, or attempts to emulate, a mouse and keyboard control scheme. And unlike how button prompts onscreen will change if you switch to an Xbox 360 controller on these games, I was still getting the keyboard and mouse prompt and having to translate them to this pad I quite frankly didn't understand.

That sounds bad, but those are incidental bits; once the Steam Controller hits retail later this year, it’ll be less likely you’ll face trying to use it with all the control prompts as key and mouse buttons. It could be that when operating the Steam Controller with an intentional control scheme that it won’t be so frustrating.

My feeling today is that Valve likely showed us this hardware and software before it’s ideal for anyone, as a follow-up to the Steam hardware beta last month. Whatever the reason, I did find the controller to be particularly less viable than the standard mouse and keyboard or Xbox 360 controller. And unlike when, say, I first struggled to acclimate to playing shooters with twin sticks years ago, the Steam Controller will never be the only option any player has on a Steam Machine. A fact that could discourage wide adoption, even if the learning curve is eventually less steep, as an on-hand Valve employee suggested to me as I wrestled with the thing.

I don’t believe the acclimation period for this gamepad will be measured in minutes the way Valve staff insisted repeatedly. My initial dual-analog struggle I mentioned above lasted a couple of months before I became actually proficient to my standards and satisfaction. Learning to aim with a touchpad is its own new mountain to climb, not a short hike up a slightly inclined road. The prevailing principles of the gamepad sticks are there, yes, but I didn’t feel as if I made any progress towards being comfortable with the Steam Controller in my demo session.

Where this gamepad does shine is in its customization. In Legacy Mode I could retranslate the control scheme nearly as I saw fit. Naturally, there were limited options for remapping the pads themselves as there are few places to go from the left pad being WASD and the right being a cursor in most games. But after fighting for several moments to navigate menus I found I could increase the “dead zone” on the pads, or the size of the spot in the center of them that doesn’t do anything when you touch it. And if you think pressing down on one pad for spacebar (you’d probably never want to jump by clicking a stick) or the other for E is utterly wacky, you can move them. On the other hand, having Escape be explicitly a button on a gamepad won’t stop being strange for me; imagine the options button on a DualShock 4 taking you to the pause menu and also being the button for backing out of submenus.

Lastly, the haptic feedback on the touchpads didn’t feel strong enough, and I stopped feeling it after a few moments. That feedback could be crucial to the experience of using the controller, so hopefully it can or will be beefed up.

When a developer builds a control scheme for the Controller - or when a non-legacy mode uniform to the controller is built similar to dual analog pads on PC - it will undoubtedly all make more sense, but I was told developers have only just received controllers to work with and so no such thing exists yet.

"I don’t believe the acclimation period for this gamepad will be measured in minutes the way Valve staff insisted repeatedly."

Like the control schemes, SteamOS is also not quite ready for prime time, but it does provide some insight into its usability, and how it works with a Steam Machine. When I navigated to the video options on Metro: Last Light, I was greeted by only a slider labelled “Quality,” without any other options whatsoever. And when I booted up Trine 2 I found myself staring at its standard launcher with graphics options (minus a 3D option) stretched to 1080p, an uncomfortable assault on the eyes only exacerbated by the drop down menus - which when selected would take over the entire screen.

The possibility that graphical options will be simplified as with Last Light’s slider is legitimate, but don’t expect games to have locked settings based on whatever Steam machine hardware is being used, since there will be so many variations there from one manufacturer to the next. Origin PC’s Steam Machines will be just as customizable as any other PC you would buy from them, and so realistically the Steam Machine landscape won’t be much more limited than PC variety already is. The Steam Machines are about form factor, not spec standardization.

Sadly, the Steam Controller doesn’t give a particularly good first impression of what Valve is trying to accomplish with living room PC gaming, though that gateway could get better or worse from here as hardware manufacturers build their own variations on the pad. But at this early stage a console-style PC for an entertainment center feels like a noble ideal that could be marred by the accessibility barrier of the Steam Controller. After finally putting that strange thing to use, it appears to me that Valve built it more to make waves than to improve the gaming experience.

With half a year or more before the Steam Machines, SteamOS and Steam Controller are deemed fully market-ready, there is plenty of time for me to be wrong. But judging from my hands-on experience today, there is just as much cause to be skeptical.

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