The Steam Box is Valve's big hardware shake up this year. Sure it has some possible VR goggles in the works too and there's always that wearable computing it hinted at last year, but ultimately, the Steam Box is the big get. We'll be seeing a load of different versions over the next few days at CES, with different hardware, cases, styles and certainly price tags, but they're all offering the same basic thing: the functionality of a PC, with the convenience of a home console.
However what is pretty different about the Steam Box is its controller. It's not a mouse, it's not a keyboard, or a touch screen, or even a (traditional) controller: it's a mix of them all, which means – theoretically at least – it should be good at playing just about any game possible.
In the past consoles have always excelled at things like racers, beat 'em ups and third person RPGs, but have struggled with the likes of RTS titles and anything else that has you controlling the action with precision from a distance.
I'd argue here that FPS games aren't that suited to consoles either, because a keyboard and mouse will trounce a controller any day, but the success of games like CoD on the Xbox and PlayStation seems to prove me wrong.
So can the Steam Box and its shiny, touchpad-thumbstick controller play just about anything? That's what we're going to look at today as we scour the reports of others who have had some time with the controller, to see what games and perhaps more importantly genres, you'll be able to play on your new Steam Box, should you decide to buy one.
Surprisingly, RTS games seem to work pretty well – in some senses comparably to a standard mouse and keyboard. While normally you might need to move to the edge of the map to move the screen, here you can have one trackpad for moving the mouse and the other for moving the screen/camera. This makes it fast and intuitive, though it does apparently get a bit weird using your left hand to left click.
That said, you aren't going to be internationally competitive with this system. There's no Starcraft pro that is going to ditch his mouse and keyboard for a Steam Box controller because it gives him better micro-management – at least for now – there just aren't enough buttons for all the necessary hotkeys.
Sensitivity is certainly comparable to a relaxed gamer's mouse control though, so there's some potential for future tweaking. The bottom line too, is that it's playable, which is a step up from every RTS on every other console I've played in the last decade.
What about something a little less grand? How about a MOBA like DotA 2?
Again, it plays well enough, but as this Youtube reviewer says it's clunky enough to lose a lot of the fun. There's also no way you're killing other players that are using a mouse/keyboard set up. Without enough quick touch hotkeys, there's just no way to play properly or even remotely be competitive. There's also not quite enough accuracy to last hit minions, or deny.
You can remap controls, which is something that everyone who has tried this has found necessary to make it at all playable, but even with some big changes, it just doesn't seem nuanced enough.
This is obviously a big shame since DotA 2 is a Valve product, but it might just be that the genre isn't suited to a controller set up, no matter how sensitive or touch pad enabled. While ironically the mouse has always been the thing that you missed when trying to play games with a controller in the past, here it's the keyboard, with its many, many simple inputs within reach that you find yourself pining for.
With that in mind, it's no surprise that Typing of the Dead, isn't a game that works well on the Steam Controller at all. It's playable funnily enough, because the game seems to pause every time the player pulls up the typing wheel, but without that, there would be no way to survive more than a second or too.
So far then, the Steam Controller seems far from revolutionary. Its functionality isn't that much improved over a traditional controller and it's still not quite up to scratch when compared to a keyboard and mouse
But what about something that consoles have been fine (depending on your point of view) at, like FPS games?
This guy takes a look at Metro Last Light and he finds it works pretty well. It probably won't replace a mouse and keyboard any time soon, but it's a lot more sensitive and accurate than a traditional controller, which means you can drop the auto-aim that comes pre-packaged with a lot of console shooters.
If anyone has tried early release hardware before, you'll understand when I say that most Steam Controller enabled games require some sort of configuration. Usually that's as simple as a remapping of the keys, but sensitivity tweaks might also be required.
So the Steam Controller as it stands, isn't ideal and it isn't going to suddenly give you an edge in console shooters, but it is making it possible to play games that previously were a complete chore on a console – now you can at least enjoy them.
The big thing as well which everyone is noting, is that there's a learning curve with the Steam Controller. It's very different from controllers you've used in the past, so even if it turned out to be the best method of input for a certain genre of game, it's going to take a while before we see someone using it to its full potential.
What games would you guys like to try the Steam controller work with?