What makes Steam Deck the most unique gaming hardware currently available? You may be tempted to suggest its impressive graphic horsepower crammed into such a small form factor, or portable access to Steam, or even the software gymnastics it does to get Windows games to play on Linux. It’s definitely cool, but for my money, the tire’s killer feature is its rear grip buttons and dual front touch pads, making it completely unique among gaming devices. These non-standard controls are rapidly changing the way I play a genre in particular: first-person shooters.
Just being able to so easily enjoy such games on a PDA is really worth the praise in itself. But as I have been playing around and mapping sliders to different areas of the machine, I have begun to realize that Steam Deck is uniquely positioned to change the way we interact with shooters. Cracking PC mouse and keyboard control schemes on gamepads has always required compromises, but Steam Decks’ unique range of inputs enables new combinations that prioritize movement and visibility while providing new ways to interact with the game.
Think of the rear handles. Anyone with a Scuf or Xbox Elite controller is no stranger to paddling. While many swear by these things, which clearly offer advantageous control flexibility that is not otherwise possible, but Scufs patent on control functions on the back Average paddles will remain rarely appreciated news until hardware manufacturers come up with a way to standardize their inclusion. Valve probably did just that with Steam Deck.
Each Steam Deck model, even the cheapest, gives you a set of four rear-mounted buttons that absolutely help with games that were not designed with controls in mind. But they also benefit games that are designed for gamepads.
Although it has been great to play games like Halo without having to take your thumbs off the analog sticks and shoot Crysis has keyed me in on the second benefit of rear buttons: bypassing the tyranny with the standard layout for video game controls as it has been, virtually unchanged, since the late 90’s.
To be fair, Crysis has been translated well enough into a standard controller experience ever since its 2011 Xbox 360 / PS3 port. But the PC original from 2008 took the computers’ large range of buttons and keys for granted. Switching between costume functions, picking up items and changing accessories and fire modes felt much more natural on a mouse and a keyboard.
The controls on the console’s gamepad were full of compromises. Sprinting, for example, automatically activated the suit in Speed mode, thus draining energy. On the PC, you used a combination of buttons and mouse movements to shift up the costume forces, something that translates well to Steam Deck’s rear grip. By switching the controls to the “Classic” mode, you can quickly pull up the selection menu with either bumper and then select the appropriate mode with mapped buttons on the back, giving the thumbs free to focus on aiming and movement. Such a control scheme retains the advanced features of the PC original, without having to compromise and plug in too many features to fewer inputs.
Another great example of a game where the extra entrances would control – but in a heartbreaking twist, Steam Deck can not play it at the moment – comes in. Halo is endless and its weapons fall. It usually requires you to hold down Y, but you can map “weapon drop” to a paddle or keyboard key to drop weapons instantly, and without sacrificing a thumb on your sticks. This immediate drop in arms is so disruptive to competition that eUnited’s Tyler “Spartan” Ganza recently expressed how it unfairly benefits them with paddles.
If having more features on hand can modify and perhaps elevate a game, why not consider a future where paddles are standard on game controls? Imagine the expanded features and ease of play that we are missing out on by sticking to the same decades old sets of inputs each “new” console generation.
Steam Deck gives a glimpse of such a future. IN Crysisthe rear paddles allow me to immediately perform strength jumps, crouch and walk, change weapons or change suit functions, all without sacrificing sight or movement. Crysis can be quite tough and hectic, so prioritizing agility while still having quick access to the costume features is not only very convenient, I think it lives up to the spirit of the game’s fantasy of being a soldier with super powerful armor. It’s a shame Destiny 2 is not as easily accessible on deck; it would benefit a lot too.
The forward-facing touchpads are equally revealing. With the ability to recognize simple directional gestures in addition to being clickable, the touchpads are my best option for sniping. It’s a bit of a shame Halo: Master Chief Collections anti-cheat for multiplayer does not play well with Steam Deck, as dropping to the touchpad under the right analog lever for a bit of fast, precision sniping offers a whole new level of control. I would love to test it against other players. At the moment, only the campaigns’ union, flood and prometheans have to curl up for fear of my recently deadly snipe.
The Steam Deck control experience is not perfect. Halo: Master Chief Collection in particular, you do not want to use keyboard, mouse and controls at the same time, so you are still sometimes limited in how much you can rearrange bindings. But even having only a secondary form of analog input to control fine-tuning, or zoom level, makes the game feel a little more complex and nuanced. I would love to see what a developer could do about the built-in Steam Decks extended inputs in a game’s design.
First-person shooter controls have long been stuck in the mud; the genre has rotated around the same handful of control systems for decades now. The Steam deck offers a powerful demonstration of how new input styles and button arrangements can legally offer better ways to interact with even these highly standardized types of games. There is a lot to build on here, but first, hardware manufacturers must choose to make such innovations possible by going beyond today’s outdated gamepad conventions and actually trying something new.
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