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CES 2014: Hands-on preview with Valve's Steam Controller

Valve offered a preview of 13 different Steam Machines at CES 2014, and in doing so it gave us a closer look at its Steam Controller gamepad.

This game controller is very ambitious, very experimental, and very strange to anyone who's used to analogue sticks, direction pads, mice, keyboards, or joysticks. It's shaped like a conventional gamepad, but instead of analogue sticks or direction pads and face buttons, it uses two large, round touchpads that vibrate in response to your thumbs and the game. It also has six different trigger buttons, four central buttons, and a touchpad in the middle (though early test versions, like the one I used, have a square with four additional buttons in place of the touchpad).

This controller was sent to Valve's 300 Steam Machine beta testers, and while it's not finalised yet it gives us an idea of what Valve is trying out.

The left thumbpad feels natural, and not too different from the analogue sticks and pads found on most gamepads and handheld gaming systems. You have a circular area for your thumb that functions as a way to move and navigate, and it clicks like many analogue sticks.

The right touchpad is very different. It replaces the face buttons usually found on controllers, instead giving another large circular area for dual analogue control. Valve's individual haptic feedback systems for each touchpad let the pads vibrate and move in response to the position of your thumb. It feels much more precise than the general rumble of most gamepads with force feedback, but it doesn't actually raise or give the impression of any face button on the touchpad. Even when each touchpad can click, it can't replicate individual face buttons.

This dual touchpad design, more than the unique haptics, are the Steam Controller's biggest strength and weakness. Valve claims this controller can replace the mouse and keyboard for shooters, strategy games, and other genres that require a lot of precision. The touchpads are very sensitive and precise, and the feedback and physical boundaries make them work much better than the touchscreen controls on most mobile devices.

However, the lack of face buttons on the right side means that games with very specific button inputs are at a disadvantage, just as with mobile devices. Without clear and precise places to press, any game that uses strings of carefully timed button presses, like platformers and fighting games, is at a disadvantage.

I played Starbound and Metro: Last Light for a short time each at Valve's Steam Machines press event. Starbound is a combination platformer and exploration game, with normally heavy use of the mouse. It felt very awkward on the Steam Controller, and while I could move my avatar around with relative precision, I had no cursor or feedback of what I was attempting to interact with if I wasn't right in front of it. For a game that relies on individually selecting and digging tiles, this is a pretty big issue. However, Starbound and the Steam Controller are in beta, and Starbound has had very little gamepad support added so far, and updates to either could improve the experience in the future.

Metro: Last Light is a first-person shooter, and the Steam Controller felt much more natural for this type of game. The sensitive touchpads offered much more precision than the dual analogue sticks found on most controllers, and moving and aiming were very easy. The touchpads sitting under each thumb and their clearly defined circular shape offered a combination of the exact movements of a mouse and the fast, low range of motion of an analogue stick. The six shoulder/back triggers were hard to get used to, but that's the sort of control quirk you can adapt to quickly, like switching between games that use the right trigger or right bumper to fire.

I'm not ready to say that the Steam Controller will give couch-bound players the precision of the mouse and keyboard combination, but it has potential. The Steam Controller is clearly an early version, and Valve will tweak and refine it before it’s released to consumers. I can definitely see where Valve wants to go with this, but I'm holding off on my verdict concerning whether or not it can get there until I can spend more time with a final version.

For more on the Steam Machines at CES, see our preview of Alienware’s effort.