Steam Link & Steam Controller Impressions

 

To be clear, my personal reason for using the Steam Controller and the Steam Link is not for them to be a substitute for gaming at my PC, it is meant to be another way for me to enjoy and share PC games. I'm a PC gamer and I love the precision and control that I get from a good mouse and keyboard. What appealed to me was the idea of a PC game controller designed by Valve and a way (Steam Link) to play my PC games in other areas of my house. Below are my initial thoughts after having used these devices for a day. 

 

Steam Link: (http://store.steampowered.com/universe/link/)

 

Basically, the Steam Link is a tiny device that allows you to utilize the In Home Streaming feature of Steam and stream games from your PC to your TV. You connect your Steam Link to your home network (wired or wireless), connect an HDMI cable (included) from the Link to your TV, and then connect your controller or mouse and keyboard to the Link. You can then access your Steam library on your TV from the comfort of your couch.

 

Setting up the Steam Link is pretty simple. While the Link does offer a WiFi option, hard wiring it directly to your router is going to offer you the best performance/quality. Once you have the Link connected to your home network, it will search for any PCs running Steam with In Home Streaming enabled. Select your PC from the list and it will prompt you to enter a code on your PC to pair the two devices. When that step has been completed, you'll have complete control over your Steam interface (Big Picture Mode). I should note that I've used In Home Streaming before with a basic laptop connected to my TV, but the Link device makes the process far simpler and neater than that.

 

I hard wired the Link into my network and connected it to an HD projector displayed on a 120" wide screen. Hey, if we're going to test this thing, we might as well test it big right? Steam's big picture mode looks great on the big screen. Seeing my entire Steam library spread before me larger than life was pretty cool. I poked around with the settings and optimized things for the best quality. Then I fired up a game to see how good/bad the latency was going to be streaming from my gaming rig which was purring comfortably in my office upstairs. I chose "The Vanishing of Ethan Carter" as a test game both because this game has amazing visual fidelity and it isn't action heavy (remember, I'm also using the Steam Controller for the first time at this point). This is where things went sideways. The screen went black with a cursor in the center of the screen that I was unable to move. The screen flashed every few seconds or so, but nothing appeared to be happening. Pressing buttons on the Steam Controller had no impact on the situation. About a minute or so later, a loading screen appeared and then I briefly saw the game menu for Ethan Carter before being kicked back to Steam. I have a feeling that the Link was catching up with my button pressing from earlier when the game appeared to be stuck. Attempting to get back into the game presented me with a friendly notice that the game was already running. I spent a good deal of time attempting to find a way to get back into the game, but there was no option for doing so and no way to close the running instance of the game. From the menu there is an option that says "Restart System". I made the crazy assumption that this would restart the Link, so I clicked it. It restarted my PC upstairs. While a remote restart is a nifty feature, it also meant that I had to go upstairs and log back into the computer and launch Steam again (first world problems are a real thing people). 

 

So...after getting things restarted, I fired up the Link and launched Ethan Carter again. This time it started up and gave me the loading screen within a few seconds and then displayed the game menu as expected. Cool! I started a new game and began exploring the opening area of the game. Image quality was pretty good, but not quite what I'm used to when sitting in front of my PC monitor. The movements were responsive, despite my struggle to get familiar with the Steam Controller, and there didn't appear to be any lag. In the first part of this game, there are a series of jump-scares that rely heavily on sound. This is where the next problem reared its head. There was a significant delay between the visuals and the audio. This was very noticeable due to the nature of this particular game and the way the audio is designed to scare you in tandem with the visuals. Disappointing. Giving the Link the benefit of the doubt, there is a chance that this latency could be the projector and not the Link. I will test this further using a TV as opposed to the projector. UPDATE: Running the Steam Link on an HD TV worked flawlessly with none of the audio latency. Steam Link is off the hook on this one. :-)

 

My initial impression of the Link is that it has a few bugs that need to be squashed, but it is a fairly simple way to stream PC games in high-quality to your TV and provides a simple interface for connecting controllers, keyboards, and mice.

 

 

Steam Controller: (http://store.steampowered.com/universe/controller/)

 

I've been waiting for a long time for this controller. I prefer a mouse and keyboard for almost every game, but there are those certain games that just feel better with a controller. Up until now, I've been using an old Logitech RumblePad 2 which has served its purpose. I've debated buying a 360 controller for a while now, but I chose to stick it out until the Steam Controller was available...and now it's here.

 

I was somewhat disappointed initially by the controller as it felt flimsy when I took it out of the box. It just seemed like a lot of plastic and not a very robust piece of equipment. Once I inserted the two included AA batteries (one located in each handle) it gave it some balance and a much more solid feel. Okay, I can deal with that. The controller's appearance is a bit plain, which isn't really a deal breaker, but I would have liked something with a little more style.

 

The face of the controller has a two trackpads (left and right), one analog stick (left), "select" and "start" buttons on either side of the Steam button in the center, A-B-X-Y buttons right of center, dual triggers on both the top left and right, and a rear trigger on both the left and right handles. Wow, that's a lot of stuff.

 

Connecting the controller and installing it was a breeze both on my PC and with the Steam Link. The only weirdness I ran into was that after installing it on my PC, my mouse wheel wanted to zoom everything instead of scroll and my keyboard would randomly launch things when I pressed keys. A restart got everything back to normal. I tried out the controller briefly on my PC before heading down to the projector for a proper test. You can control your mouse pointer with the right trackpad and click with the "A" button. This obviously isn't the preferred method for navigating around your PC, but it does give you the freedom to control everything from the controller without setting it down to fire up a new game.

 

I know that I despise gamepads for FPS games (among many others), so I chose to test this using some more controller-friendly games starting with Rocket League. It works great. It's intuitive and feel good in the hands. I am not accustomed to any particular controller (other than the old RumblePad and a PS4 controller), so using this wasn't difficult to adjust to. The only adjustment I made in Rocket League was to swap the forward and reverse directions as by default up was back and down was forward. Aside from that, the controllers were fluid and things worked great.

 

I followed this up by trying out Telltale's Game of Thrones series as I knew it had plenty of quicktime events that would require some quick reflexes with a controller. I'm afraid to say that many innocents died by my failure to press the right buttons quickly enough. That is not a reflection on the Steam controller, but on my familiarity with it up to this point. I found the A-B-X-Y buttons to be placed very intuitively and they were the easiest to hit at the right time. The movement events tripped me up as I'm not used to this whole trackpad thing yet.

 

Next I fired up MGSV to see if Snake could survive my lack of experience with this controller. Surprisingly, the game was comfortable to play with this controller. I found the trackpad worked pretty well for controlling the camera and the analog stick worked like any other analog stick. I'll need to spend more time figuring out the zoom controls and maybe remap some of the buttons, but overall I can see where it would be possible (no preferable, but possible) to play this game with a controller.

 

My initial impression of the Steam Controller is that this could be a good thing for PC gaming. The controller was designed by a company that lives and breathes PCs. Even if it takes some time for me to understand the design choices, I'm confident that they did things this way for a reason. The customization available with this controller is a huge advantage as well and offers a tremendous amount of flexibility. While I will never abandon my mouse and keyboard, this at least gives me a go-to controller for PC games that work well with a gamepad.

 

 

Final Thoughts:

 

 While time will tell how well these devices will perform, $50 for each is really pretty reasonable. The Steam Link is a questionable investment unless you have a specific need for streaming games to another room in your house, but if you do, it's a simple way to do it. The Controller, I feel, is well worth the $50. While it will definitely take some time to adapt to compared to a 360 controller or other traditional controllers that have been around for years, I believe it is a solid device with a lot of potential.

 

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