Let Off Some Steam

Have you noticed the new widget in the sidebar over there? Yep, after being away from home (and consoles) for a couple of weeks I’ve recently experimented with the PC software Steam. The application can seem a little confusing, so below is a little guide to explain what the fuss is all about.

The homepage of Steam advertising various game promotions

The homepage of Steam advertising various game promotions

Created by Valve, this content delivery program serves a variety of functions. Firstly, it distributes a wide range of games over the internet without the need for packaging, discs or CD keys. Once you’ve downloaded the free software from the website, you can browse their store and purchase games online immediately. Not particularly revolutionary right? What’s unique is that Steam will download the game there and then, install it to your system and patch it, ready to play. No need to visit the shop or wait for the title to be delivered to your door.

Steam manages your content by user registration rather than hardware. So from what I gather, you can log onto a different PC and download your games again; useful if you’re updating your rig. You probably can’t do this too many times (otherwise everyone in the world could just share the same account) but it’s a great feature to have. Saved files and key configurations are also uploaded to the Steam servers so that they can be accessed elsewhere.

Have a slow internet connection? Sometimes the application can launch the game before its even finished downloading and simply ‘buffer’ it as you play. Game rentals and free demo’s are accessible like this in a similar fashion to Xbox Live/ PSN. I like the idea that after purchasing a game on Steam you can often send it as gift for friends to trial for 30 days.

These free trials are a great way to preview games

These free trials are a great way to preview games

Crucial for PC gaming, the application can be used to browse individual internet and LAN servers. A friend/ messenger system similar to home consoles can be used to track which games your mates are playing and where they’re connected to. The Steam Community website emphasises this further by acting as a social networking tool, allowing players to organise events and comment on each other’s profiles.

There are a few drawbacks to this system. Steam might be a great comeback for PC rentals, but second hand gaming is now all but lost. You can’t sell on a title after you’ve finished playing it, nor can you buy a pre-owned copy from someone else. Which is a shame, because over the years i’ve grown fond of scouring bargain buckets for a forgotten gem.

A few people have complained about privacy and hacking too, which is an honest concern when you don’t physically own any of your games. Hopefully Valve has a strong support team dedicated to resetting passwords and liberating accounts if this is the case; though from what I’ve experienced this isn’t a common concern. Modding and hacks are also being closely watched to make sure that anything unfairly advantageous is removed.

The Steam Community tool, a crossover between Live and Myspace?!

The Steam Community tool, a crossover between Live and Myspace?!

The on demand style of service offered by Steam feels quick and easy. It’s won me over; I love how it sits dormant in my toolbar when games are downloading and the weekly offers that I can browse from the comfort of my home. The service is free and you can always take a look at the store website before downloading Steam – this way you can see if there are any games you like the look of.

Left 4 Dead, Counter-Strike and Team Fortress 2 have all found a home at Valve’s brain child with thriving multiplayer communities. However, single player classics such as Bioshock, Fallout 3 and Half Life 2 are also available to experience with mouse and keyboard if you’ve missed out on them up until now. It’s great to see the PC format growing in something other than World of Warcraft and The Sims.

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