Steam Deck’s Excellent Controls Show Normal Gamepads Are Outdated

Steam Deck’s front touchpads allow you to quickly switch to mouse-like aiming in the blink of an eye.
GIF: 343 Industries / Kotaku

What makes the Steam Deck the most unique gaming hardware available today? You might be tempted to suggest its impressive graphics power crammed into such a small form factor, or portable access to Steam, or even the software gymnastics it does for playing Windows games on Linux. That’s pretty cool, but for my money the Deck’s killer feature is its rear grip buttons and dual front touchpads, which makes it totally unique among gaming devices. These non-standard controls change quickly my way of playing a particular genre: first-person shooters.

Just being able to enjoy such games so easily on a handheld certainly deserves praise in itself. But as I played, mapping shooter controls to different areas of the machine, I began to realize that the Steam Deck is uniquely positioned to change the way we interact with shooters. Incorporating PC mouse and keyboard control schemes into gamepads has always required compromises, but Steam Deck’s unique array of inputs enables new combinations that prioritize movement and aiming while by offering new ways to interact with the game.

Consider the rear handles. Anyone who owns a Scuf or Xbox Elite controller is no stranger to back paddles. While many swear by these things, which clearly offer advantageous control flexibility not possible otherwise, Scuf patent on rear control functions means that paddles will rarely remain popular novelties until hardware manufacturers find a way to standardize their inclusion. Arguably, Valve did just that with the Steam Deck.

Every Steam Deck model, even the cheapest, gives you a set of four rear-mounted buttons that absolutely help games that weren’t designed with controllers in mind. But they also benefit games designed for gamepads.

While it was great to play games like Halo without needing to take my thumbs off the analog sticks, turning on Crysis explained to me the other benefit of the back buttons: overcoming the tyranny of the standard video game controller layout as it had existed, virtually unchanged, since the late 90s.

To be fair, Crysis has translated pretty well to a standard controller experience since its 2011 Xbox 360/PS3 port. But the original 2008 PC took PCs’ vast array of buttons and keys for granted. Switching between suit functions, picking up items, and swapping attachments and firing modes felt much more natural on a mouse and keyboard.

The console’s gamepad controls were full of compromise. Sprinting, for example, automatically engaged the suit in Speed ​​mode and thus drained energy. On PC, you used a combination of buttons and mouse movements to change suit powers, which translates well to the back handles of the Steam Deck. Switching the controls to “Classic” mode allows you to quickly open the selection menu with either bumper, then select the appropriate mode with the rear-mapped buttons, leaving your thumbs free to focus on aiming and movement. Such a control scheme retains the advanced functions of the original PC, without the need to compromise and pack too many functions into fewer inputs.

Immediate access to forward controls without impeding movement or aiming keeps the action smooth.
GIF: Crytek / Kotaku

Another great example of a game where extra entries would rule – although in a heartbreaking twist Steam Deck can’t play it right now – comes in Infinite Halo and his weapon falls. Usually this requires pressing Y, but you can map “drop weapon” to a paddle or keyboard key to drop weapons instantly, and without sacrificing a thumb on your sticks. This instant weapon drop is so disruptive to the competitive meta that eUnited’s Tyler “Spartan” Ganza recently opened up about how it unfairly favors those with paddles.

If having more functions at your fingertips can alter and perhaps elevate a game, why not envision a future in which paddles are standard on game controllers? Imagine the expanded functionality and ease of play we miss by keeping the same decades-old sets of inputs with each “new” generation of consoles.

The Steam Deck offers a glimpse of such a future. In Crysisthe back paddles allow me to instantly execute the power jump, crouch and prone, swap weapons or change costume functions, all without sacrificing aim or movement. Crysis can get rather difficult and hectic so prioritizing agility while having quick access to suit functions is not only very convenient, I think it fits the spirit of the game’s fantasy of being a soldier with super powerful armor. That’s a shame Destiny 2 is not as easily accessible on the bridge; that would be very beneficial too.

The front keythe pads are just as revealing. With the ability to recognize simple directional gestures in addition to being clickable, touchpads are my go-to option when shooting. It is kind of a shame Halo: The Master Chief CollectionAnti-cheat for multiplayer doesn’t work well with Steam Deck, as switching to the touchpad under the right analog stick for fast, accurate fire offers a new level of wild control that I’d love to try against other players. For now, only the Covenant, Flood, and Prometheans in the countryside will have to cower in fear of my new deadly snipes.

The Steam Deck control experience isn’t perfect. Halo: The Master Chief Collection in particular doesn’t want you to be using a keyboard, mouse, and controller at the same time, so you’re still limited in how far you can rearrange bindings. But even just having a secondary form of analog input to control fine aiming or zoom level makes the game a bit more complex and nuanced. I’d love to see what a developer could do if they natively integrated Steam Deck’s extended inputs into a game’s design.

First-person shooter controls have long been stuck in the mud; the genre has been hovering around the same handful of control schemes for decades now. The Steam Deck offers a powerful demonstration of how new input styles and button arrangements can rightfully offer better ways to interact with even these highly standardized types of games. There’s a lot to build here, but hardware makers must first choose to make such innovations possible by moving beyond today’s antiquated gamepad conventions and trying something new.

James V. Hayes