A Bold Experiment That’s Not Quite Ready
The Steam Deck is a lot of things. A bold experiment. My favorite new way to play games. Constantly changing. A dream when it comes to portable emulation. Still a long way from being what Valve ultimately wants it to be. For some players, this will be a must-own right now. Others will want to hold off until further notice. While Valve’s new hardware will polarize players, I fit squarely in the camp that is glad to have it today.
Portable PCs aren’t new, but one with the power and options of the Steam Deck in the price range it’s retailing for certainly is. It would have been easy to release something that could play most indie games and call it a day, but Valve took the time to create hardware capable of running even modern AAA games without significant drawbacks. When you can run Elden Ring, the biggest game of this year, with only moderate compromises, you know you’re onto something. You’d struggle to build a normal PC that can run the game this well for this price, let alone one that fits in your hands. It’s a minor miracle.
So Many Games, So Little Time
During my testing of the Steam Deck, I tested many games. Everything from big AAA games like Fallout 4, Metal Gear Solid V, and Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order to recent indie hits like Rogue Legacy 2 and Eiyuden Chronicle Rising. Most of these games ran well with most of the graphical settings on high. Some had a bit of slowdown until I turned a few things down, but the performance issues were never major, and I never had to turn everything down to low settings or anything like that. The one I had the most trouble with was Eiyuden Chronicle Rising, but that title isn’t confirmed for the system.
Valve has been going through the Steam library and judging how everything works. The Steam Deck runs on its own OS called SteamOS, but it’s based on Linux and can run native Linux games with little issue. Of course, many of the games on Steam don’t have Linux versions, so to get more of their library working, you need something called Proton. This is a tool Valve created to let you play Windows games on Linux. Compatibility isn’t perfect, but this allows an awful lot of Windows games to work great on Linux, or in this case, on the Steam Deck.
A team at Valve is actively going through and testing games to see how they work and then rating them into four categories. You have games that are Verified to work great on the deck, Playable games that will work but may have issues, Unsupported games which aren’t supposed to work, and Unknown games which haven’t yet been tested. I don’t have stats for all of Steam, but from my own library of 967 games, 178 are Verified, 185 are Playable, 89 are Unsupported, and the rest are Unknown.
Four Classes Of Games
Those categories can span a lot of different issues. Unknown games are obvious, but the rest can fit into a few categories. Verified games theoretically should work great on the Deck, be easily playable without any tinkering, control easily, and have few issues, if any. That’s mostly been my experience, but a few games have suddenly stopped working after an update, an issue we’ll come back to. Valve are changing the Deck on the backend rapidly, and it can have a lot of consequences.
Playable games should run without much issue but may require you to mess with the settings a bit more. Some of them also don’t play well on a controller, requiring you to tinker a lot more with the controls to make them play well without a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard. A lot of more traditional PC-style games like Civilization V and Kerbal Space Program fit into this category. Thankfully, with tons of control options built into this thing and community and official profiles, finding something that works should usually be easy. Whether that’s the ideal way to play those games, though, will vary. I spent some time with both of the games mentioned above, and while I was able to get them both working, the Deck isn’t a place I’m likely to go to for my Civilization fix often. Then again, maybe I just need to keep tweaking things to get them how I want them.
Unknown games can vary a great deal. I’ll say, though, I’ve had far more successes than failures with them. I’m playing one game for review currently, which isn’t even out for a few weeks, and outside of one freeze early on that lost me about 10 minutes of progress, and which had me a bit worried, it’s run like a dream. A few games may have issues, for the same reasons other games don’t work, but trying things and seeing how they work has been rewarding.
Why the games that are Unsupported don’t work can vary, but the interesting thing for me has been finding that a lot of them work fine. Something like Half-Life: Alyx isn’t available simply due to a lack of hardware compatibility. Others have security features that don’t play well with Proton. Some games have had reports of codec issues with video stopping them. Interestingly though, I’ve been able to get a lot of these games working, some without even fiddling with them. Yakuza 4 Remastered is listed as unsupported, but I’ve played the first few hours without issue. So is the Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky SC but I jumped into a years-old save file and played an hour or so easily. I’ve found other reports of people playing both games entirely through without issue. That’s the other side of Valve’s frequent updates; some games may start to work even if Valve hasn’t gone back and tested them again. You can install any game from Steam, so you can always try things out.
A Wonderful Package
As a piece of hardware, I’m in love with the feel of the Deck too. Looking at the thing in images, I was worried the controls would be too high, and it wouldn’t be comfortable for long sessions, but I’ve found it incredibly ergonomic. If I have to have both thumbs on the thumbstick, it can be slightly less than ideal, but for anything else, I’m happy. There are so many options for customizing games. Two thumbsticks, dual trackpads which can be programmed in a million ways, four back buttons which you can map however you want, a touch screen which is helpful in a lot of games, comfortable buttons and even a d-pad I quite like. Some PC games will always play best on a mouse and keyboard, which you can connect via Bluetooth or a USB hub, but I’ve found nothing I couldn’t get working relatively well on the built-in controls.
If you’re worried about the weight of the system, don’t be. It’s certainly bigger and heavier than a Switch, but in my hands, it doesn’t feel oppressive or difficult even for long sessions. I will say, though, that picking the Switch up for the first time after a few days of playing the Deck left it feeling as light as air. It certainly put things in perspective.
For players who just want to play games on Steam, the Deck will be an easy experience to get used to. A lot of players in today’s landscape want more, though. We have a million apps and locations we can get games through. The Epic Games Store, Origin, GOG, Ubi Soft, Game Pass, and many more. Getting these running is a bit more of a chore and requires going into some areas of the Steam Deck that feel a lot less natural and easy to use. Most of these stores, if they work at all, require going through a separate launcher. You can set these up to work through SteamOS, but to do that, you’ll at least initially have to move over to the Linux Desktop mode the system supports. I’m not going to walk you through the whole process, there are a lot of excellent guides a Google search away, but many of these systems can be set up. I have my Epic Games account linked up and have spent time with the free version of Loop Hero I got there months ago on the Deck. It works well once you go through the awkwardness of setting it up.
That awkwardness comes mainly from the desktop mode just not working very well. Many of the built-in controls for it barely work. To even launch a keyboard requires Steam to be running in the background, and it likes to close itself for seemingly no reason at times. I often found myself unable to figure out why buttons and options here that had been working previously suddenly weren’t. I’d eventually figure out the issue, but these problems came up again and again. If you’re only going to use the desktop mode now and then, or to set some things up that you can later manage through Steam OS, you’ll be able to muddle your way through the process, but otherwise, invest in a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard if you don’t yet have one.
Still, if you push past the issues, you are able to set up a lot of things. Not everything will work. PC Game Pass isn’t an option. For example, unless you actually install Windows on the deck, you’re limited to Game Pass Streaming of Xbox games, but there are so many things that do work. Whether it’s other stores, programs, or emulation, excellent guides make getting things working mostly a breeze. The only downside is that so many of these processes are new enough that if you do have an issue, it can be hard to find the answers to solve it. Still, turning your Steam Deck into a portable PS2, or even Wii U, systems that most modern emulation handhelds can’t dream of handling, is very cool. The Steam Deck handles them with ease.
A Long Way To Go
Things sometimes not working aren’t only an issue in desktop mode. Even in SteamOS, there have been times when I pressed the Steam key only for nothing to happen, or the quick settings button just didn’t work. Usually, a few presses would get it to start working again, but on several occasions, I’ve needed to reboot the system entirely. It’s pretty quick to boot, I have the 256GB version with faster storage which may help, but it’s still not what you want out of your system.
Part of the issue comes from the constant updates Valve are pushing out for the system. New updates are coming out weekly, at least, and they’re adding new features and options rapidly. That’s great, but it definitely leaves the Steam Deck feeling like it wasn’t really ready for release and that those of us who have it now are basically paying to be beta testers. These updates aren’t solely making things better either. Recent updates have removed some options and broken games as well. Valve released Aperture Desk Job as a fun experience to show off the Deck, but a recent update broke it for several days, leaving it unable to recognize the system’s controls. They fixed it within a few days, but it isn’t a great look when your system can’t play the software specifically designed to show it off.
There’s been a lot of positioning of the Steam Deck as a system that can bring the PC experience to console players. As something simple and straightforward that is truly adaptable. Right now, the Steam Deck isn’t that. So much of what it does requires a ton of tinkering, and in many ways, it actually seems like it magnifies the issues PC gaming often has compared to the more streamlined experience consoles provide. As someone who has always kept PC games at arm’s length because of these issues, though, I’ve found that I don’t mind so much on the Steam Deck. Having all of these options in a comfortable, portable experience changes the game for me and makes them worth dealing with. They’re still not ideal, though, and the Steam Deck still has a lot of room for improvement. Despite that, it’s already become my favorite way to enjoy new games, and if it continues to improve, pretty soon, I imagine I’ll go from recommending it to the right players to doing so for everyone.
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Full disclosure: This review is based on a retail Steam Deck.