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Steam Deck review: the best portable games console ever- Reader’s Feature

A reader is overflowing with praise for Valve’s Steam Deck, as he details all the many games and features he now has access to on the move.

I’ve harboured a love of portable game consoles for almost 20 years. Having begun my gaming life with the Commodore 64 in the 80s, I was late to the party with handhelds because of my taste in games. As much as I love shiny new gadgets, I was never interested in the stripped down experiences that the Game Boy and their ilk seemed to offer and, when I finally took the plunge with a PSP, it was with the assumption that I would be disappointed.

Nope, I was hooked. The ability to play games like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, and Star Wars: Battlefront anywhere I pleased was a revelation.

However, I’ve never fully unravelled the core reasons why handheld consoles have held such a dear spot in my heart. Like many gamers, I shoot for the latest and greatest: 4K on huge screens, 60fps, Dolby Atmos surround sound, SSDs, the best graphics possible. Why? Because I tell myself this is the route to immersion. But playing on a handheld belies all of this. The immersion when focused on a small screen, hunched in the darkness, is different but just as intense.

I had a few Nintendo DS consoles (but didn’t make as much use of them, as Nintendo games aren’t my bag), the PS Vita (which was a painful well of unfulfilled promise), and then the Switch. And it was the Switch that gave me that first glimpse of ‘real’ console gaming on the go. Not interested in the first party line-up (other than Zelda: Breath Of The Wild), I was sold on the promise that I would be able to play Skyrim, The Witcher 3, and L.A. Noire; and the Switch delivered on that promise, albeit in a muddy, somewhat slow manner, and ultimately with a restricted library.

Then, in July 2021, Valve opened reservations for the Steam Deck. The idea was that this would be not just a console on the go, but a fully-fledged PC. I was happy to put down my £4 reservation fee and see how the reviews turned out when it finally materialised.

Those reviews turned out very well. I was suddenly very excited and endured a five month wait to get my hands on the unit. I’ve now had it for a couple of weeks, and my gaming life is born anew.

It’s a large device. I thought the Switch was pretty big, but this thing dwarfs it. It is, however, very comfortable to hold for extended periods of time, and the controls are well designed. Its two trackpads are a fantastic addition and the very fact that it boasts analogue triggers had me excited for the prospect of proper racing games on a portable for the first time. The screen is fine; not OLED, but clear and bright and crisp. I did find my fingers slipping off the analogue sticks during intense gaming sessions, so purchased thumb grips for about a fiver on Etsy, and they make all the difference.

I had a few scary moments when I first started to use my new toy. It didn’t seem to power on at first (I’m still not sure why); the face buttons didn’t work when I tried to play my first game, Valve’s Aperture Desk Job (a fun introduction to the Steam Deck); and I accidentally got a memory card stuck in the slot. But all of these issues were resolved quickly. They did remind me, however, that I’m using a very new type of device, and that I should adjust my expectations (and frustrations) accordingly.

In anticipation of receiving the Steam Deck, I beefed up my Steam library. Previously, the games I bought on Steam had been titles that weren’t available or appropriate for the PlayStation or Xbox. So I went on a spending spree, buying up games that I loved and would dearly like to revisit on a handheld. I bought a lot. I scored Fallout 4 and Fallout: New Vegas, the Batman: Arkham games, Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain and Ground Zeroes, Deus Ex: Human Evolution and Mankind Divided, DiRT Rally 2.0, GTA 5, and Middle-earth: Shadow Of War.

The kicker is that I bought all of these together for less than the cost of a single new AAA console title. Between the Steam store itself and sites such as Fanatical and Humble Bundle, it is a treat for a console gamer to discover the incredible deals on offer for PC gamers.

I felt that I should also have at least a few newer titles, so I plumped for F1 22, Tales Of Arise, and Spider-Man Remastered.

Once I fired up these games and began to play from the comfort of my sofa, a fixed grin took hold of me. I was blown away by how much fun I was having, and my wife wondered aloud why I had a constant weird expression on my face. Metal Gear Solid in a cafe. Fallout in bed. F1 22 wherever I liked.

Then there was the emulation. I installed a number of my old games: Gran Turismo 1 and 2, The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion for the PlayStation 3, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker HD, Resistance: Fall Of Man, Dragon Age Origins, the PSP’s Final Fantasy Tactics: War Of The Lions. This process can be, in truth, a little unpredictable, but it is, in my experience more hit than miss, and it’s immensely rewarding in its ever-abundant gush of nostalgia.

And the controls? They just work. It will probably come as no surprise that PlayStation games are but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to emulation on the Steam Deck. If there’s a gaming platform you love, you can rest assured you’re probably good to go. It has to be seen to be believed.

Remote play? Covered. I set up the Steam Deck to stream games from my PlayStation 5, as well as from my Steam library, and Microsoft have embraced the device, providing a means to use it for Xbox cloud gaming. It’s also not too far-fetched to imagine that Microsoft might also make their full Xbox service available for the Steam Deck in the future, given Phil Spencer’s line about Xbox as a service rather than a console…

As if this wasn’t already enough, I installed Rockstar and Origin launchers with relative ease, using easy to follow guides online; so my Steam Deck has a copy of Mass Effect Legendary Edition that I downloaded free, thanks to a tip from a GC reader a while back.

Emboldened by my success with console games, I decided to push my luck and try some mouse-driven strategy games. I hadn’t played with the trackpads, so was unsure how usable they would be. I installed XCOM 2 and Civilization 6, and, once again, the Steam Deck sailed through with flying colours. The Steam Deck has such a wealth of options, control-wise (including a gyroscope and four rear assignable buttons), and a very active community providing downloadable templates that you’re unlikely to be stuck.

There is the issue, of course, that strategy games and the like can boast a goodly amount of tiny text, but Valve have thoughtfully developed a handy zoom tool that is also very easy to use, and it is one of many very handy and easy-accessed shortcuts (along with a virtual keyboard, for example) that ensure playing is actually fun.

This type of provision and understanding underlines Valve’s approach to the Steam Deck since its launch in February; they have been improving and updating with gusto. They’re obviously listening to the customer and rolling out new features frequently. It’s also worth mentioning here that their game verification system is very conservative. While many of the games I listed above are ‘Deck verified’, quite a few are tagged by Valve as ‘Playable’ (meaning they will have some issues) or ‘Unsupported’, but that has not stopped me (and countless other users) from enjoying them all with surprising ease.

It’s almost impossible to overstate the magic that allows the Steam Deck to make this happen. It runs on Steam OS, which uses Arch Linux as a base. Most of the games on Steam (and elsewhere in the PC world) are made for Windows. Valve, along with Codeweavers, have developed Proton, a compatibility layer that allows Windows games to work on Linux. As a software developer, I find the performance staggering. To have newly released games like Spider-Man or F1 22 run beautifully on a Linux device held in the hands is nothing short of miraculous.

There is, however, a less positive side, an inevitable bump. PC games have to run on a myriad of hardware, with a slew of drivers, and are therefore complex beasts. A recent patch to GTA 5 caused big problems for its Steam Deck version. This week, after its 1.09 update, F1 22 no longer loaded on the Steam Deck. There is, in the Windows game world, a certain amount of robbing Peter to pay Paul, as a fix for one popular setup might break something for another.

PC gamers have become used to these frustrations over many years, but console owners are exposed to them far less frequently. The good news is that Valve is constantly listening and, given the large and growing Steam Deck userbase, we have to imagine that the software houses are too. Insomniac, in its most recent patch notes for PC version of Spider-Man, explicitly mentioned fixes for the Steam Deck. As the userbase grows, the support will follow.

There is, however, one other big issue with the new miracle toy: its battery life. Being able to play Spider-Man on the bus takes oomph, and that oomph sucks watts. I, along with many other Steam Deck owners, have my machine running at 40fps most of the time, which offers a good frame rate whist eating a bit less power. Still, even with that tweak and graphics settings tuned down a little, I can expect less than two hours from the likes of Spider-Man on-the-go.

I picked-up a (very portable) 30,000 mAh battery pack which means that I can get about three times that playtime when I want to, and it’s worth noting that less intensive (older) games can make that juice last longer. Batman: Arkham City, for example, can let me beat up bad guys for more than twice as long as his web-slinging Marvel counterpart, and if you’re quite happy tootling along with the likes of Stardew Valley, then you’ll be farming away for a good long time.

The truth is, however, that I rarely come up against the battery issue, because I spend 90% of my time with the Steam Deck plugged in. I play it in pretty much every room in the house (yeah, I am that guy), and I’ve now adopted the very questionable habit of playing every night in bed, rationalising the bad behaviour on the grounds that the Steam Deck has a night mode to prevent sleep disruption issues. Valve haven’t provided any mode to prevent me shooting characters in the head or driving cars at over 200mph, however, so I opt for gentler games that I wouldn’t have tried otherwise: Dear Esther and What Remains Of Edith Finch are the slower paced kind of title that I will allow myself after-hours.

One of the hugely surprising outcomes of purchasing the Steam Deck is how much it has reinvigorated my love for games that I have already played. Yes, I do make an effort to ensure that I’m making the most of new titles, but it takes willpower to turn down another couple of hours in the worlds of Fallout, Batman, Elder Scrolls, or Deus Ex, to name a paltry few. The sheer breadth of what is now on offer staggers me on a daily basis. I installed a 1TB Micro SD card in a 256GB deck, and I already have way, way too much to play.

(On that note, it’s worth mentioning that I’m perfectly happy that I opted for the 256GB version. Researching widely before purchase assured me that the read times from a decent microSD would not be significantly slower than the internal drive, and that has, thankfully, proven to be true. A casual user of my Steam Deck would not be able to tell what was stored locally and what was stored on the card, and I can always install a game on the SSD that I feel would benefit from the slightly quicker load times should I want to. Swapping cards is also, thankfully, an easy option.)

In the unlikely event that I haven’t made it clear from the rest of this article, I love the Steam Deck beyond all reason. For the past couple of weeks it has felt like my best possible Christmas has come early and shows no signs of passing anytime soon. The X Factor that fuelled my passion for portable gaming for two decades has grown arms, legs, and tentacles in the form of the Steam Deck.

The immersion that I have always enjoyed from handheld consoles has been elevated to a whole new level, as I now carry everywhere a hitherto unimaginable breadth and depth of games. Valve truly turned on the magic, and this is only just the beginning.

By reader Stevie Barrett
(Stevie Barrett – gamertag/stevie_buzz – PSN ID/steviebuzz Steam ID)

The reader’s feature does not necessary represent the views of GameCentral or Metro.

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