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Steam Deck Gameplay Impressions

Many have been eager to get their hands on the Steam Deck, but how does it actually feel? Check out some gameplay impressions below.

The Steam Deck is the newest "console" experience on the market, bridging that gap between PC and mobile closer. Though not every single [Steam game is compatible with the Steam Deck], a large assortment of them are. Personally, I'm pretty hype about this device. It feels high quality, it accomodates most games very well, and it brings me games on the go that I wouldn't normally be able to play (or games that, for example, the Nintendo Switch lacks).

At first glance, the device is bulkier and bigger than the Switch. It feels good to hold. It's solid and feels like its crafted from durable materials. The buttons resemble pretty traditional controllers: there are X, Y, A, and B buttons, four shoulder buttons, but also four additional back buttons. I haven't played a game yet that uses those (L4, L5, R4, and R5). What's interesting is that the Steam Deck gives you so many ways to control. There's a directional pad, two analog thumbsticks, two special "Trackpads" (those function sort of mice, and have very nice tactile feedback when you press them), and the touchscreen. It feels equipped to handle a big variety of games.

All screenshots captured directly on the Steam Deck.

The user interface

Steam Deck UI

Our Steam Deck took quite a bit to update and setup, but the process is pretty straightforward. After selecting the language, connecting to Wifi, downloading some updates -- the usual -- I was on the way to login with my Steam account. The Library has a condensed view of the Steam game tiles, more horizontal than the ones on PC. You can navigate between "What's New," "Friends," and "Recommended" tabs with the L1 and R1 buttons, or just touch them with your finger. Using touch controls is pretty fun, as I can swipe through my Library easily, showing my most recent games first. There's also an additional library view that divides the games into more sections, starting with the "Great on Deck" games.

I plugged in my Arctis 7+ Wireless -- effortlessly, all I need is to use the USB-C dongle and it magically works -- and got to playing some of the games from my library. Installing is a breeze, and the Steam Deck lets you know which games are compatible, as well as what the recommended controller configuration is as the game starts (it shows the method for moving in the game, be it with the trackpad or the analog sticks). You can use any of our gaming headsets as long as they have the USB-C dongle, or you can opt to use the 3.5mm jack.

Aperture Desk Job

Aperture Desk Job

This quirky, short experience is designed to showcase the function of the Steam Deck. It's really quite wonderful. Wrapped up in the Portal universe, it has all the quirky humor and dialogue present in the two mainline games. We start the game as an Aperture employee, and our job is to test the function of home appliance, namely, toilets. Things quickly don't go as planned, let's just say, as the robotic employee guiding us has different plans.

It's a lovely tutorial (for free) that shows us all the buttons and some of the functions of the Steam Deck. The desk of the employee in-game resembles the Steam Deck, as you learn to use every button and try out some shooting. You can try out the Gyro function here to see what it's like to aim. Short, satisfying, and really funny.

Have a Nice Death

Have a Nice Death

Great 2D roguelike to play on the go, this one really suits the Steam Deck. We play as Death, who is tired and fed up from doing paperwork in the corporate-style afterlife. We go after unruly employees (bosses) every few stages, gaining powers on the way, and unlocking new weapons after runs.

The game runs at a 1280x800 resolution, but it looks good. The combat is fast-paced, with little Death zooming around by using the dash and swinging the Scythe in a variety of combos. There isn't any special Steam Deck functionality here, and that's OK -- this is simply a showcase of how delightful the Steam Deck can be with games in this style. The "console-like" controls suit this platform perfectly.

Left 4 Dead 2

Left 4 Dead 2

The classic Valve shooter felt good to revisit, but not without some caveats. It was easy to jump into an online game (even just on Wifi), seamlessly joining a sessions without any hiccups. The connection felt great. It's amazing to have this kind of experience on the go.

As for the controls, they are (mostly) well adapted to the Steam Deck, as this game is marked as fully compatible. The Gyro controls worked, letting me tilt the Steam Deck to aim, but I didn't rely on that too much, since the gameplay of Left 4 Dead is so fast and chaotic in certain moments. I tried the trackpad for aiming as well, but it didn't work very well, as the sensitivity on it was quite low. Thankfully, you can change that in the settings. I mostly stuck with the right thumbstick. I could figure out all the basic actions, like reloading, changing weapons, melee attack, and so on -- the game taught me most of those by displaying them on the screen.

However, my experience ended up being pretty chaotic. While trying to figure out those controls on the fly, it seemed like there was no way to type in the team chat. The server I was on requested to type something in chat to activate an XP mod, but I just couldn't find a way to type in chat, even when I used the keyboard function. I also had a hard time switching to the subweapons, and the game didn't show me which button heals a teammate, which is rather difficult to figure out in the moment. If I played with friends, my experience probably would be much better since I was using the Arctis 7+, so voice chat would go a long way to making this better. It's also too bad that I couldn't select gear by touching the screen, as touching it would just shoot in that direction. The left trackpad however brings up an onscreen menu of various functions, like item selection, voice lines, etc.

Age of Empires 2

Age of Empires 2

This was a bit of a mixed bag for me. This classic RTS is well adapted to the small screen, with a few ways to control the battlefield. The camera pans with the left thumbstick, while the right trackpad or the right thumbstick move the mouse cursor. I initially had a lot of trouble with the trackpad as I was using it to move the mouse to the edges of the screen -- not because of the panning, but even somewhat gently pressing in the trackpad caused the game to select the home base, moving my camera away from what I was trying to get look at. Basically, I had a hard time not pressing the trackpad as I was using my finger to move, which was annoying.

The units are so small in the game, it's tough to select them. I ended up using the touchscreen quite a bit, mainly to select building options, which was pretty fun. Overall though, I think I'd have a rather tough time playing this much more on the Steam Deck, especially given how fast-paced and competitive this game can get. I'd probably stick to the traditional PC mouse and keyboard setup, unless the new Valve device just clicks for you.

Other games

Steam Deck

Don't be too discouraged by the Steam Deck based on my Age of Empires 2 experience, however. There are plenty of other great games that you can easily play with the Steam Deck on the go. Among Us is a good one, as all the tasks are adapted for this experience, similar to the Nintendo Switch version. Sessions in Vampire Survivors never fail, and it's not like controls in that game are complicated. I've also played a classic fighting game, Guilty Gear XX Accent Core, and the dpad felt fairly reliable, even when performing complicated motions. I'm not sure if it quite replaces a PS4 controller for me, but it was good enough.

Here's a shortlist of some great games that are completely compatible with the Steam Deck:

  • Valheim
  • Stardew Valley
  • Hades
  • Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
  • Cuphead
  • Devil May Cry 5: Special Edition
  • Elden Ring

In conclusion, I think the Steam Deck is a convenient device that paves the road to bridging that mobile/full-PC experience even closer. Though there are some kinks to work out -- honestly, the battery life could be longer, too -- I think there's tons of potential here. I'd say if you know exactly what kind of game you'd like to play on the go (or in your bed), this is a worthy investment.

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