2016 has been a big year for new access to digital media libraries, and their expansion into the gaming world. We’ve seen two big releases that have been long-awaited in the hardware market. The first is Steam’s Steam Link streaming system and long-redesigned new controller. The second is Amazon’s Fire Gaming system, which basically offers a big screen alternative for Android-based game releases.
One shows incredible potential, and the other is a massive disappointment. After a month of hands-on time with both, let’s get into the somewhat underwhelming findings.
This was the big beautiful hope of gaming in my household. My PC has never been up to the task of running games, so the hundreds of games of bought on the Steam system in their insane sales over the years have mostly sat there, untouched. The new Steam Machine systems have promised TV accessibility to Steam games, but those are running somewhere in the $400-$1,200 range, so not a valid option on the game reviewer’s budget.
That’s why I lost my mind over Steam Link, which offers a $50 HDMI box that allowed up to two wireless controllers to play a game. Which would be great, if it weren’t for the train wreck that is Steam’s new controller.
Look, I get it. Designing an interface that potentially replaces the entire mouse and keyboard system for games dating back 20-plus years is a huge thing to take on. And the Steam Controller is absolutely the first re-invention of controller dynamics I’ve seen in a very long time. But the touch-based pads track poorly, the other button layouts have an unnatural feedback system, and, frankly, there’s little reward for the brain-mapping required to play new games or old favorites.
The other huge problem is that game streaming is just broken. I’ve tested my Steam Link using four different computers in three different apartments, and even on some of the fastest internet around. Even old games lag to the point of unplayability. I’ve spent too many hours trying to make this work, only to wind up hitting factory reset after innumerable crashes. It is simply a broken product, and after all the money I’ve spent on Steam releases, this just seems like a personal attack.
Just before writing this review, my Steam Controller USB plug fell to pieces in my hand, so it looks like I may be done with Steam accessories for a very long time.
Built on the Amazon Fire TV system (which has a non-controller entry point of about $40), the somewhat surprising introduction of a game controller has converted this into a legitimate gaming system, if you consider the limited Android powered library to be legit. Certainly, this has nowhere near the number of available titles as Steam, but Amazon is pretty good at playing catch-up.
I loaded up a few Grand Theft Auto titles, Minecraft, and indie-horror title Knock-Knock in an attempt to gauge what the system offers. Everything ran flawlessly off the internal hard drive. The inclusion of a new “Underground” game system through Amazon —- which allows unlimited game access for a monthly fee — really opens up some possibilities, too.
A controller that wants to be just another Xbox clone was fine: good, responsive regular black square with buttons that I now regularly confuse for all the other controllers I own.
Unlike Steam Link, this is already personalized to your account the moment you plug it in, linking directly to your Amazon streaming purchases. Using the remote or the built-in voice-command system, I was able to jump into a number of movies and TV shows in 4K, and access the “X-Ray” system which, upon pausing in any scene, pulls up the names and IMDb information for every actor in that scene.
All of this goes to say that Amazon Fire Gaming isn’t really a gaming console yet, especially not on par with the Big Boys. But as a media center with a growing list of titles, this is the perfect purchase for a bedroom alternative or something you could take with you on a vacation, if you were worried about getting bored.
Steam’s hardware options, thus far, have been nearly impossible to operate, so Amazon getting a working unit that performs delightfully means I’m open to the improvements available as they move forward. I’m still interested in what kind of experience I might discover on a Steam Machine with Xbox controllers, but that prohibitive price-point makes betting on Amazon’s $100-plus bundle more inviting.