I was, and I’m happy to admit, a Steam Deck skeptic. Valve’s history with hardware feels a lot like Captain Ahab’s history with Moby Dick. While everyone has passionate advocates, Steam Controller, Vive VR, and Steam Link can be considered nothing less than a massive success. And here they are again, trying to push a new niche for hardware, but this time it’s clearly very ambitious: turning a PC into something a little bigger than a Switch.
As someone who has mainly played games on PC since the first download Ultima Underworld II On a 33MHz 486 with 4MB of RAM, the promises of Valve’s Steam Deck seemed far fetched. Over the past 30 years, the capabilities of the PC have always been at least one step ahead of the gaming hardware market, sometimes even six. There’s a reason a machine box is the size of a small bookshelf: It’s no consolationAnd it needs all that space for…you know, many wheels of hamsters. (you welcome in digital foundry.) A handheld device that pretends it can do the same looks ridiculous and looks like the kind of brag that would fall flat on its face when fired. Oh boy, I was wrong about that. This thing is Machine.
Valve sent me the mid-range model, the 256GB, which only lacks the anti-glare screen and the extra-gravity NVMe SSD for the 512GB version. Whatever you get, even with a tiny 64GB eMMC architecture with minimal specs (half-game install!), you get the same actual game-playing technology inside. You’ve got a “Zen 2 RDNA 2” processor customized by Valve and AMD, the same 16GB of RAM, and a 1280 x 800 LCD touchscreen. If that mostly misses you too, let’s cut it down to what’s really important: Is it enough to run Modern games right? Which answer is definitely yes.
But there is a more subtle question to address: Is it a satisfying way to play computer games? This answer is more accurate.
I figured, yeah, well, it wouldn’t turn on Horizon Zero Dawn or God of War, but I can live with that – as someone with a penchant for low-spec indie games, this can be a great device to play without having to sit at my desk. But, just to see, the first thing I installed on it was the PlayStation 4’s PC-boosted Guerilla port Horizon Zero Dawn. I wanted to get an idea of its limitations, and then immediately found out that it didn’t seem to have any.
It went ridiculously. And this was unchecked, full-featured, not limiting the game to an original 30 frames per second. I stumbled a few times when I first came out (Steam automatically handed over my last saved gameplay to the desktop, without telling me it was doing it), but then caught up, no stutter as I battled four machines, accompanied by at least six characters , in the strange game world. If I were to play the game right on my deck, I would definitely set the frame rate to 30, just to ensure a smoother experience. And since that’s what played on PlayStation, that’s not an issue.
But is this computer game? (Of course it is, go overboard with your PC’s main racing freak.) And what about something that is essentially an all-PC PC? what about…Total Warhammer III? I went to install it, to see what was possible with alternatives to mice with trackpad, and I just declined. “Not supported.” This is honestly not what I expected. I thought it would be impossible to play reasonably, sure, but not actively even against trying. However, the warning message that flashes when trying says, “This game’s graphics settings cannot be configured to work well on Steam Deck.” The Graphics? Huh. Total Warhammer II It can be played, although you should be warned that it can be an effort. Then I thought, No, let’s be really silly, and proven Stellaris. Once again, The Deck warned me that the complex mouse-led strategy game Paradox was probably not a snug fit, but described it as “playable”.
Look, the plain truth is that I chose this to try and break it. But wow, seriously, this is really “playable”. First of all, the right trackpad works perfectly like a mouse, as well as on a laptop, despite its small size. (Then, to my surprise, the left panel stumbled on zooming in and out, which is great.) But what I didn’t expect was the touchscreen being such an effective option. It’s not perfect, and the game obviously doesn’t remove the mouse pointer when using it, but it worked for clicking on very small UI tiles the vast majority of the time. A deliberate attempt to find a game that shouldn’t work at all ended up showing that this is a legitimate machine even for RTS games. Not perfect, although it’s a lot better than it should be.
Of course, there are issues. As you may have already heard, the battery is the largest. There is no way to get over how poor it is, even if anything better would be impossible.
From my luddite’s point of view, it seems extraordinarily impressive that you could have something capable of playing high-end AAA games on a battery in the first place. I’m very used to accepting massive game minification on Switch, simply because He is It floats in my hand without a wire sticking out of the wall, so having the deck run the most mediocre two hours at all is an achievement. However, the fact remains that it is impossible not To compare it with the transformer in terms of portability.
For my Nintendo laptop to reliably last the entire train ride, and perhaps most importantly charge itself from a USB cable stuck in a cheap power bank while I’m using it, is my expectation. The Deck, plays something like God of War, barely got me to the next stop, and he taunted me when I tried to charge it from a standard USB cable and not a hinged 45W power plug. A top-tier 45W+ power bank would obviously do this, so it looks like a (expensive) future investment.
But for me, the biggest problem is Steam noise. Not the Deck interface, which is good but could be a lot better, but the account itself. I, like all normal humans, always have Steam running on my PC. I always have two or three games left in the background too. (Honestly, if you don’t always have Tamity or Pictopix Permanently on your desktop, I find it hard to see how our friendship can last.) Steam Deck is not Happy with this. You don’t want to use your Steam account in two places, and if you start playing on your deck, you will be automatically logged out on your computer.
The idea of picking up play on one device after moving away from the other still holds. Cloud saves mean you can keep progress and the like. But having to re-enter your password, then get a Steam Authenticator code from your phone, and hope the game you left will still be playing, isn’t a pleasant experience.
Of course, I understand this is in place to prevent the unspeakable horror of someone sharing their Steam account with a friend, because that would bring down modern society and kill all the pups at once. But here it prevents you from using your Steam account in a very normal way. It seems very obvious that there must be a way to record your desktop to your computer, and let them coexist happily. Yes, this can be exploited, but good gravy, I think Valve will handle the pennies of lost income from that. (Heck, even greedy Nintendo bastards let me run my account on two adapters simultaneously, just to check if the same game is being played on both simultaneously.) This seems like something to be addressed pretty quickly.
In the end, and for me most importantly, the real test is how does the Steam Deck feel when playing when you curl up on the couch? If nothing else, isn’t this device designed to allow me to play computer games (which have always been the primary source of gaming entertainment) without having to sit at my desk? The couch test is the test you desperately need.
Here, my biggest issue with the device seems to be more relevant: the analog sticks. They are just too loud. It’s a strange experience to hold this huge rectangle, as your eight fingers naturally land on the eight back buttons and shoulder buttons, but your thumbs then extend out to play. I’m used to it, but never quite satisfied, and it’s strange that it was arranged that way at all. The front panel of the machine has the advantage that the “Steam” and “…” buttons can be on the top, then the analog pads and the track pads have been changed to the bottom. Honestly, the important Steam button is a pain in the ass to find without looking, and it would have also benefited from the trade off. I strongly suspect we might see such a converter come up in the second iteration.
I would say, in The Couch Test he gets a solid pass, but there is room for improvement. I spent a lovely hour or two one evening playing through a third-person action game (sorry for being weird, it’s under ban), which fit perfectly with the console’s controls, and only reminded me of the buzzing and puffing of fans. It was not on my switch.
“But why not use the much cheaper switch?!” You cry somewhat aggressively. Well, I answered, yes, there is a lot to that. Except that I have fifty squlions of great PC games on my Steam account that have never had a Switch version, and I love playing them. Don’t bother with the point that this is a much more powerful machine, capable of playing more graphically impressive games. It’s that whole series of the largest selection of indie games, along with a truly satisfying way to play the latest mega-games on the go.
I realize over and over again made the mistake of comparing switchAnd I realize how unhelpful that is. But the truth is that when you hold a wooden set, you can’t stop your mind from drawing straight lines. With more indie games making their way to Nintendo handhelds, there’s a direct comparison to be made out there. However, this He is A completely different machine with very different ambitions. And in their interview, Steam Deck really surprised me.
Valve actually did it. They have created a piece of hardware that feels like it achieves its primary goals. Despite my skepticism, I can’t deny that this is a laptop, capable of running almost anything in your Steam account. There are compromises, because of course there are, but… Yes, they did.
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