Although Valve has been a dominant force in the world of PC gaming for decades, its occasional forays into hardware development have not always been as successful as its Steam platform. Steam Machines failed to find an audience, while the Steam Controller and Steam Link had their fans but never hit the numbers that Valve may have expected. The latest venture, the handheld Steam Deck console, is perhaps the largest risk taken so far, but it's one that - at least from an end user perspective - is well worth it.SCREENRANT VIDEO OF THE DAY
Promising to give a player their Steam library on the go, the Steam Deck was never going to be as sleek as peers like the Nintendo Switch, and it's fair to say that Valve's device is the larger of the pair. There's a reason behind that, though; between its processing power, 1280 x 800 resolution screen, and an input array that a traditional console controller would be jealous of, the Steam Deck is aiming to provide that flexibility and versatility that PC gaming requires. It's still perfectly portable, too, even if it takes up a little more space than other handheld options.
Related: 10 Great Action Games To Play On Steam Deck
The additional graphical strength is well worth it, too. The Steam Deck may not compete with a PC rig, but it's certainly no slouch, and it handles running games that would be challenging on low-end devices easily. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is significantly stronger on Steam Deck than Nintendo Switch, while the recently-released Spider-Man Remastered runs like a charm on the console - albeit at 30FPS.
The Steam Deck controls extremely well, too. The device has all the usual options, with two analog sticks, a D-pad, A B X Y buttons, and triggers, but it also includes assignable grip buttons on the rear of the console and a pair of trackpads. People may have not picked up the Steam Controller in big numbers, but it’s clear Valve learned from what worked about the controller and refined it here, including ease of customization.
Users may wonder exactly where to start with their libraries, but Valve makes it clear as to which games are perfectly compatible with the Steam Deck through its Store and Library pages. Games that have been verified for Steam deck compatibility have been marked with green, and these are the games that work flawlessly with the device. However, even those with amber ratings generally seem to work just fine, and may require minor tweaks like bringing up the virtual keyboard in-game to input things like player name options; Skyrim is a ubiquitous PC example that works perfectly with this in mind.
As such, the Steam Deck is a rather versatile piece of kit. Having tested it with a variety of game genres, there's nothing that seems entirely out of place here, with even RTS games fitting well with the control options of the device. Twitch-based FPS games of old that haven't been optimized for controller use may be the ones that take a bit of getting used to, but those kind of games will always feel ill-fitted to anything other than mouse and keyboard input.
Speaking of versatility, the Steam Deck does have some fantastic customization options in its back end. The console's desktop mode has an app installation tool, and without going into too much detail there's plenty that players can do here, all the way to making the Steam Deck a portable device for other PC gaming platforms. Indeed, if the discerning player fancies turning their Steam Deck into a portable emulator for classic console games, even this is incredibly easy to set up.
That's not to say that the Steam Deck is the perfect console. Its battery life isn't ideal, particularly when the player is testing out some particularly horsepower-intensive games, which means it might not be as useful for long trips away from somewhere to charge. Equally, with those AAA games its fan can get noisy and the Steam Deck can get a little hot, as the handheld device wrestles with the power required to run things effectively.
There are also some quibbles with Steam functionality that the Steam Deck hasn't entirely solved. EA games that require Origin are still occasionally irritating to get running, but no more so than usual and the complaints are more with the ongoing issues between Steam and EA's sub-par platform than anything else. However, since there is the option to install Origin directly if the player is savvy enough and so inclined, there's always something to be done.
It's fair to say that the upsides of the Steam Deck far outweigh these issues. As brilliant as the Nintendo Switch is, its comparative lack of power, inability to play key games like top-tier racing games, and the sub-par ports of third parties are all issues that the Steam Deck immediately resolves. And of course, the fact that a player's PC library is ready to go - including all those PC exclusives - is an extremely enticing prospect.
It's going to be interesting to see where Valve goes next with the Steam Deck. At the moment its relatively expensive price and weaker battery life could be barriers to entry for some, and further versions of the console may want to address this. After all, the Steam Deck could fall into the trap of becoming a niche device for PC gaming enthusiasts, but it has the potential with ongoing development to become much more.
Overall, the Steam Deck is really something special. It manages to walk the tightrope between portability and power effectively, providing enough scope for complexity to keep PC players happy while still making things easy for newcomers. It's already a fantastic device, but hopefully with further development it can reach an even wider audience.
Steam Deck is out now. This review was based on the 256GB version of the console.