Steam Machine hands-on part two: the Steam Controller, Civilization V and StarCraft 2

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By Chris Kinniburgh.

It was supposed to be a short break. I told myself Civilization V wouldn't suck me in when I began playing on the big screen. The game will be too tedious. The text will be too small. I was wrong.

I've spent the past couple days going through every game I thought would be interesting to play, and Civilization V on a couch, staring at a big screen TV is among most engaging, relaxing gaming experiences I've ever had with a game.

There were a few hurdles to jump before I began. I chose to decrease the resolution to 1360x768, giving me a 16:9 resolution that looks fine on the big screen while giving me slightly larger text than 1920x1080.

There are two comfortable configurations for the trackpads. First, you can set the left trackpad to control moving the map while the right trackpad controls the mouse. Alternatively, you may choose to use both trackpads to control the mouse (as shown in Valve’s Steam Controller demonstration of Paper's Please).

My preferred setup has the left trackpad move the camera while the right controls the mouse. Left and right triggers correspond to right and left clicks respectively. The flipped mouse buttons feel intuitive while playing, though causes a bit of cognitive dissonance whenever a game directs me to click with the left mouse button and I use my right hand. I'll report back in a few months if I've completely lost my sense of direction.

Using the dual mouse method feels quick, but the trackpad allows me to move fast enough through the screen that I only need to lift my thumb once to get from the top left corner to the bottom right. While that 10th of a second speed increase is nice, it's outweighed by the speed gained through quick control over the map.

Moving through Civ V's menu screens is effortless. The Advisor Counsel, Overview Screens, Social Policies, and Era Map are all bound to keys, and there are a few left over to handle zooming in and out, and Next Turn. With these bound, I found myself more quickly navigating the Civilization user interface than I had in my previous couple hundred hours with a mouse and keyboard.

It's also surprisingly easy to move the cursor quickly with precision. While I don't expect to be effectively splitting my Marines in StarCraft any time soon, I can certainly play a turn-based game without frustration.

Sitting 17 feet away from a 50-inch television, the relatively small text is easily parsed. With responsive controls, a comfortable seat, and a large television, I found myself able to quickly enter the flow state that Civ V does so dangerously well.

Along with Civilization V, I've spent a bit of time trying out FTL, which was similarly simple and easy to enjoy. While you won't be able to bind every hotkey available in the game, the overall experience of boxing and moving your crew feels natural and quick. The ability to pause the game while playing also enables players to slowly familiarize themselves with the controls.

I also decided to try my hand at StarCraft II. After taking some time to think through any reasonable hotkey layout and determining there was none, I proceeded by playing with the controller's default keybindings when plugged into a PC: the mouse controlled by the right trackpad, map with the left trackpad, and mouse buttons mapped to the triggers. The games were difficult. I eventually mapped the attack-move command to the right bumper, and S and D to the left and right half of the trackpad. With these commands, I was slightly more able to macro while playing. The game was still tedious. I considered investing another hour into coming up with a way of mapping a couple control groups and re-working StarCraft’s grid system to use fewer keys, but I thought better of it.

While the steam controller has the ability to control most games, the effort required to enjoy real time strategy games is great. First you have to spend time finding a comfortable mapping of controls. Next, the effort required to relearn a new control scheme, a process made more difficult by the lack of onscreen button prompts and reminders. Only then can you forget about the controller and just enjoy the game. Increasingly I'm finding myself more and more interested in playing games that quickly move over those first two steps. Platformers are easy to map to a controller, and have generally felt great while playing. Slow paced games like Civ V, FTL, or Hearthstone are relatively easy to map and their slow pace allows for the time needed to come to grips with a new control scheme.

Chris' Steam Controller tests continue, what would you like us to take a look at next? Let us know in the comments.