Last year 2022 saw many great games, but for me the biggest surprise was the excellent Steam Deck. Valve’s mobile PC platform feels like a Switch on steroids and in a short time managed to get me completely under the spell of Steam and the PC platform in general.
For those who know me, know that I have barely touched PC gaming in the last 15 years. In fact, I like to make bold statements like PCs are for typing letters or filing your taxes. As someone who professionally works with computers all day, I don’t want to sit at a desk and play again in my free time. That’s why consoles and especially handhelds are so perfect! Don’t worry, it always works, I can easily do it on the sofa or on my fine television; PCs didn’t appeal to me at all. However, Steam Deck does all of these things, albeit with some caveats.
A PC that feels like a console
Let’s start from the beginning and take a look at the device itself. As I said, the Steam Deck feels a bit like a Switch, albeit significantly larger. We have a beautiful 7” screen with a resolution of 1280×800 with a slightly different 16:10 aspect ratio. On each side we find two joysticks and a death and face buttons in the style of Xbox with two triggers and bumpers on top. The view and back buttons also come directly from Microsoft’s controller. Underneath the joystick we see the most striking aspect and it is two trackpads. After all, we are dealing with a PC here and the trackpads can be used as a mouse interface or as a scroll wheel, for example, more on this later. We round off the buttons with a Steam and an ellipsis button for menu options. The console is lighter than you’d think, although you can feel how wide and large the unit is. The grips are extremely ergonomic and fit well in the hand, many times more comfortable than, say, the Joy-Con on the Switch, and more in line with the Dual Sense from Sony’s PlayStation 5. In longer gaming sessions, I found the device to be a bit bulky due to of its size, can feel heavy in the hand and I had to change my position several times. On the back of the console you’ll find four additional buttons that are of immense value, especially with older, more PC-centric titles.
As a mobile PC, it packs a lot of goodies like AMD’s Zen 2 CPU clocked up to 2.4-3.5GHz and an AMD RDNA 2 GPU at 1.0-1.6GHz that can also be found in the Xbox Series X .My variant comes with a 256GB NVMe SSD for solid storage and blazing fast performance. In addition, the storage is also easy to expand with a MicroSD card, for which I used a 512 GB SDXC card from Sandisk. Of course, it has standards like Bluetooth 5 so all accessories can be connected, it has haptic feedback, gyro sensors for motion control and a headphone jack. Steam Deck runs a distribution of Linux that does the job underwater and starts in Gaming Mode by default, which feels like a console. Under the reboot options, you can choose to go to the full Linux Desktop view, where you have full control of the device.
The jack of all trades
And this is where the true power of Steam Deck emerges; Valve could have decided to screen this, but literally anything you can do on a PC is possible on Steam Deck. Titles you see pop up in game mode are powered from the Steam client, but you’re free to install other launchers like Epic, Origins, GoG, Blizzard or Ubisoft and launch games from there. Non-Steam games are easily added to the Steam library, and when you give them all the images, they are no worse than the official Steam games. It’s also a star in emulation, where EmuDeck does an (almost completely) automated installation and configuration of the best emulators under the sun, and provides handy tools to automatically provide those titles with all artwork and neatly categorize them in your Steam library. It almost feels bizarre to see ‘Collections’ in addition to your beautiful overviews like ‘Great On Deck’, All Games and ‘Non-Steam’, with games nicely broken down by retro system. Super Nintendo, PSP, Gameboy Advance, Wii U, 3DS, Playstation 1 to 3, Dreamcast, Gamecube and even Nintendo Switch (!); Steam Deck can handle it all and make emulation insanely accessible.
Runs almost everything
It is therefore incredible how much power the Steam Deck holds and how easily you can play impressive titles in your hand. Some games such as the excellent Sony titles like Uncharted Legacy Collection, Horizon, Marvel’s Spider-Man and its sequel Miles Morales run great right away with the default settings. Playing these kinds of games in beautiful quality with constant frame rates in the palm of your hand is amazing. But since it’s a PC, you can also tweak quite a bit to make things work. One of my new hobbies now is diving into Youtube channels and configuring the perfect settings to make heavy titles like Cyberpunk 2077 or Elden Ring play smoothly. And this configuration goes a long way: not only resolutions, vsync and shadow quality in the game, but also on the system itself there are helpers, tricks and tricks to get the perfect experience. For example, I noticed that games that struggle to reach 60 frames per second look roughly the same, but run dramatically better when you limit Steam Deck to 40 FPS. The customization also works everywhere because the full controls can be adjusted for each title. If you can’t figure it out yourself, you can easily download layouts for the game you’re playing right now from the community. And vice versa: this is how I played the leaked original Duke Nukem Forever Restoration build and uploaded my control sheet to it.
Not for everyone anyway
As you can see, Steam Deck is perfect for me as someone who knows what he’s doing quite a bit. However, I can’t recommend Steam Deck to everyone because it really requires some knowledge. Not everything you buy, even through Steam, works. The aforementioned Great On Deck games work flawlessly and directly, but even for familiar titles like The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, it took me a long time to find and adapt a control layout that works comfortably. Because you’re dealing with Linux underwater, some titles require quite a few tweaks and loopholes to get through. The Deck is getting better at this, but knowledge is required, especially when you start working on your own games. Bottles, Ark, Flatseal, Lutris, Heroic Launcher and a good stack of linux commands will be your salvation and Steam Deck is not for the layman.
Steam Deck has turned me into a PC gamer. It allows me to relive old classics like Monkey Island, Age of Empires and Command & Conquer in a way like never before. Besides that, it is the king of emulation and can handle anything you throw at it. But even more impressive is the ability to play modern PC games like DOOM Eternal, Elden Ring or Cyberpunk in the palm of your hand. It is fully customizable and not limited to your Steam library. However, most of it requires some knowledge, so Steam Deck is not for everyone. For me though, the Steam Deck is perfect and the coolest piece of hardware in 2022.