Steam Deck’s great controls show that regular gamepads are obsolete

Steam Deck’s front touchpads let you switch to mouse-like aiming on the fly.
gif: 343 Branches / Kotaku

What makes the Steam Deck the most unique piece of gaming hardware available today? You might be tempted to suggest its impressive graphical performance in such a small form factor, or the portable access to Steam, or even the software gymnastics that lets Windows games play on Linux. That’s all cool for sure, but for my money the deck’s killer feature is its rear grip buttons and dual front touchpads, making it absolutely unique among gaming devices. These non-standard controls are quickly changing the way I play one genre in particular: first-person shooters.

Just being able to enjoy such games so easily on a handheld is certainly commendable. But as I played around and mapped shooter controls to different areas on the machine, I began to realize that the Steam Deck is uniquely positioned to transform the way we interact with shooters. Bringing PC mouse and keyboard control schemes to gamepads has always required compromises, but Steam Deck’s unique array of inputs allows for novel combinations that prioritize movement and aiming while offering new ways of interacting with the game.

Consider the rear handles. Anyone with a Scuf or Xbox Elite controller is familiar with backpaddles. While many swear by these things, which clearly offer beneficial control flexibility not otherwise possible, Scuf’s Patent on rear panel controls Medium paddles will remain seldom enjoyed novelties until hardware manufacturers find a way to standardize their inclusion. That’s probably what Valve did with the Steam Deck.

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

While it was great to play games like gloriole without having to take my thumbs off the analog sticks to get started crisis drew my attention to the other benefit of the rear buttons: breaking the tyranny of the standard video game controller layout as it existed virtually unchanged since the late ’90s.

to be fair crisis has been translated well enough into a standard controller experience since its 2011 Xbox 360/PS3 port. But the 2008 PC original took PC’s extensive array of keys and buttons for granted. Switching between suit functions, picking up objects, and switching attachments and firing modes felt much more natural on the mouse and keyboard.

The console’s gamepad controls were full of compromises. For example, when sprinting, the suit was automatically put into speed mode, consuming energy. On PC, you used a combination of keys and mouse movements to switch suit powers, which translates well to the steam deck’s rear handles. If you switch the controls to “Classic” mode, you can quickly bring up the selection menu with one of the bumpers and then select the appropriate mode with the dedicated buttons on the back, leaving your thumbs free to focus on aiming and shooting to focus the movement. Such a control scheme retains the advanced features of the PC original without having to compromise and cram too many features into fewer inputs.

Instant access to advanced controls without sacrificing movement or aiming keeps the action flowing.
gif: Crytek/Kotaku

Another great example of a game where the extra inputs would rule – although in a heartbreaking twist Steam Deck can’t play it right now – comes in Halo infinity and his weapon falls. This usually involves holding Y, but you can assign “Weapon Drop” to a paddle or keyboard key to instantly drop weapons 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 expressed how he unfairly favors those with paddles.

If more features are available, a game can modify and maybe improve, why not consider a future where paddles are standard on game controllers? Imagine the enhanced features and gaming comfort we’re missing out on by sticking to the same decades-old sets of inputs on every “new” generation of consoles.

The Steam Deck offers a glimpse of such a future. in the crisisusing the rear paddles, I can instantly power jump, crouch and prone, switch weapons, or change suit functions without sacrificing aiming or movement. crisis can get pretty tough and hectic, so not only is it very convenient to prioritize agility and still have quick access to suit features, but I think it lives up to the spirit of the game’s fantasy of being a soldier with super armor. It’s a shame destiny 2 is not so easily accessible on deck; it would also benefit greatly.

The forward touchPads are just as revealing. With the ability to recognize simple directional gestures and being clickable, the touchpads are my go-to choice for sniping. It’s kind of a shame Halo: The Master Chief Collection‘s anti-cheat for multiplayer doesn’t work well with Steam Deck, as dropping it onto the touchpad under the right analog stick for quick, precise sniping introduces a wild new level of control that I’d love to try against other players. For now, only the Covenant, Flood, and Prometheans of the campaigns need fear my new deadly snipers.

The Steam deck control experience is not perfect. Halo: The Master Chief Collection notably doesn’t want you to be using your keyboard, mouse, and controller at the same time, so sometimes you’re still limited in how much you can rearrange bindings. But even with just a secondary form of analog input to control fine aiming or zoom level, the game feels a bit more complex and nuanced. I’d love to see what a developer could do by incorporating Steam Deck’s advanced inputs natively into a game’s design.

First-person shooter controls have long been stuck in the mud; The genre has revolved around the same handful of control schemes for decades. The Steam Deck provides an impressive demonstration of how new input styles and button layouts can legitimately offer better ways of interacting with even these very standard types of games. There’s a lot to build on here, but first hardware manufacturers must choose to enable such innovations by pushing beyond today’s outdated gamepad conventions and actually trying something new.

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