26 May 2011

Over the years, I’ve played games since they were collections of cassette tapes or cartridges, through to shelves of Floppies and then later the same with CD’s/DVD’s.

Games generally took up quite a bit of precious space in my flat, and time to actually install. Installing a game would mean having to rummage to find a game disk, search for the manual to get the license key to install it on a new computer, rummage to find the second disk, and then find out that one of them was damaged.

I also use open source software, including open source games (I’ve other articles on those), but many games are worth paying for as they are that good. So finding a decent way to download games, not have the media lost, broken or corrupted, or missing a serial number is great.

Steam is an experience that shows the way games should be delivered and installed. With ease. Without having to toddle off to a bricks and mortar shop with a pushy sales guy.

Steam also adds an additional element of social play. As well as straight online player vs player gaming, it offers a universal chat medium, a way to compare scores that was standard, a system of achievements you could compare with other players.

Read on for more reasons I enjoy gaming with Steam.

The Bad Old Days

Tapes, floppies and CD’s

I started off gaming with an awesome machine for its day, the Commodore 64. The games for this were impressive at the time compared with other platforms, even if they were not quite arcade quality.

However, I had to have plenty of shelf space for the tapes. Ah - tapes… The de-facto storage method for home computers was once cassette tapes. They were slow and unreliable. I would somehow be content to wait 3-10 minutes for a game to load, including turning the tape over for another section of game data, and then not be too annoyed when it occasionally failed to load. And they did.

I remember playing through larger games, multi-load games, where as you progressed the game would load yet more data off the tape. After some significant game time, it would occasionally fail to load the next level. In those days, you generally had no means to save your progress either. So you’d give up for that day, or start again. Games also were fairly hard and quite unforgiving then - generally putting you back to the first scene of the first level of the game if you managed to die.

The Commodore 64’s tape games were copied, and so some games had a system of verification, I remember distinctly that Gunship - an Apache Helicopter simulator, would test you when landing, by sending a message and waiting for a callsign that corresponded. If you got it wrong, you’d be shot down by your own side - a neat way of incorporating copy protection into the game. This mean the game had a bulky box with a large manual, a keyboard overlay and other stuff.

I had a Commodore 64 floppy drive, but based on the floppy disks that were still genuinely floppy, it was only marginally more reliable than the tapes, although a little faster and generally more data would fit on these so three wasn’t so much swapping.

The Sega Megadrive (or Genesis as it was known in some parts of the world) was quite pleasing, games were fast to load, and very reliable. They were also quite a lot more expensive than tape games tended to be. It also had better overall machine specs than the Commodore 64. It was unlikely to have enough games for one of these (or equivalent cartridge consoles, and older ones) that it’d take up a lot of space.

Later I moved on to the Amiga. The Amiga was Floppy disk based. This was much more reliable than the tapes, cheaper than the cartridges. Floppy disks were also easier to copy - so there was a lot of game copying, which lead to increasingly elaborate copy protection and manuals with game codes on the back. Some games came on multiple floppies, and some would require a floppy to store saved games on. Because I am a fan of strategy games, which generally have long game times, then having a save disk, or two was essential. I also used to make my own programs, and music on the Amiga.

Needless to say I ended up with a lot of floppies for it. Boxes and boxes, and shelves full of the stuff. I remember the boxes had these little token keylocks on the front, for some resemblance of “securing the disks”. To accompany those floppies, I had games in original boxes, with bulky manuals as well. I was also starting to play with PC’s, and early PC games were just more of the same. I remember some artistry in the boxed games - like a game in the Ultima series that came with a cloth map. Other games that came with code wheels, wall posters and other such gimmickry.

For a short while, I acquired a Hard disk drive (A mere tiny 20 Mb!) for the Amiga, and a few games could be installed on it. They would often still require the original floppies to be present to play, even just as a verification method. That system persists to games using physical media today.

Eventually the Amiga declined and the PC took over. Games moved from floppies to CD’s. The number of CD’s I had for games, apps, drivers etc exploded. To the extent that until about 2 years ago (2009) I had cupboards full of them. Including those where I’d ditched the casing and put them into bulk CD carrying bags. I’ve now got only a few CD’s around - but I remember how they proliferated.

The internet was beginning to happen. A few games were online play. Not many were installable from download - only free ones, gimmicks and pirated games came via the internet. Downloadable game content was a complicated an unlikely practice reserved for die hard fans only. It took a good 10 years for Steam to arrive, and when it did, slowly but surely, it has changed the way I buy, collect and play games completely.

Valve- The Orange Box

Probably the best way to get stuck into Steam

Valve, the company behind steam, have a fearsome and well earned reputation for building amazing games - both large, complex and good fun. Some are quite chilling and scary too.

The Orange box is part of the Half Life series. It includes a number of games:

  • Half Life 2 - Gordon Freeman, the protagonist of the original Halflife series finds himself on a train into a city ruled by an oppressive government with alien links and technology. He must find his way to the resistance cells, and then assist them in unseating this government. The scale of this game is immense. There are also 2 more chapters to the game included - which I cannot mention much of without giving the storyline away. There are plenty of spoilers on the internet though. The game is full of secrets, has many achievements, and a range of weapons and gadgets to master. The game has some gritty realism in parts, and them very disturbing areas around them. Expect to get a few scares. The only downside is that the never did make the 3rd episode!!!
  • Portal - this game is all about solving problems with the rather neat portal gun. The problems become progressively more difficult, and as the player you will soon find out that a maniacal homicidal AI is running the whole show. This game is beautiful, and quite sinister.
  • Team Fortress 2 - a short, sharp dose of adrenaline - this game is team vs team multiplayer combat with a variety of different game types, and a huge number of achievements - you could play this for years and still have stuff to find. There are collectible weapons, hats and badges, and even your achievements in other games affect the items you get to have in this game. You have to chose from a number of player classes, and then suitably arm them depending on who you are up against, or how you will play. Team modes include capture the flag (intelligence) modes, map domination (capture points) mode, train push mode (where one team tries to push a wagon loaded with explosives into the base of the other) and then more odd modes like tennis using air puffs from flamethrowers to bounce rockets around. The game requires skill, teamwork and strategy, although sometimes just a steady hand and quick eye can help. This game is all rendered in a cartoon style with a lot of silly taunts and insults, and where else would you get to run up to a big guy and slap him around the face with a wet fish?

These games all interact with Steam with achievements and multi-play elements, and other free games are then available, like the awesome “Alien Swarm”.

This, in my opinion is probably one of the best game packs to get into Steam with.

What Steam Does For you

You probably get introduced to Steam either through word of mouth, or by finding a game you want is available there. Some games are only available there. Perhaps you bought a game the conventional route, ie via amazon or in a high street store, and now want to get networked up with it.

Steam is easy to get started, you sign up with a mailing address, and you only need to present payment if you are buying a new game. For existing games, it forms the hub for networked games - chatting with others, finding downloadable content, keeping your game up-to-date. It will match steam players with servers. It keeps your scores for, and sets out achievements that in my opinion vastly improve the replay value of games.

Steam also backs up your saved games - game progress to the internet, so when you get a new computer, this is one thing you don’t need to worry about. The games you buy are licensed to you- your account, and not the computer you first installed it on. That means that you do not have to worry about missing CD’s, or forgetting license codes - you just need a steam password.

Steam includes the launcher for your games, as well as connection with forums, groups and gaming clans. Steam also has a store front that you can use to shop for games for your platform - Windows, Mac and consoles. Some game purchases are enabled for all platforms that the content will play on. Some games are also free!

Once you have chosen a game, and entered your payment details, the Steam client will continue to download and install your game - meanwhile, you can probably play another game.

More brilliant steam games

Some of these are also worth at least the spotlight The Orange Box gets perhaps, but none give you quite as much gaming value. There are many more games than these - but they’ll be found on the Steam portal itself.

  • Counterstrike - CS has always been a classic. Put onto the Halflife 2 engine - source, the game takes on a much better graphical feel as well as harnessing the Steam system for network play.
  • Day Of Defeat - If all of these feel a bit too futuristic, or easy, Day Of Defeat is WW2 action - realistic weapons with their strengths, and their flaws - don’t expect to fire off a machine gun without a recoil kicking you off aim. Rocket jumps? No chance. Gritty, harsh and quite well put together - a team based game in Ww2 europe.
  • Portal II - This is actually the greatest game of 2011. It has an exceptional single player campaign with depth, humour and dark atmosphere. It also has a brilliant cooperative play mode too. The sequel to portal is one of the greatest games I’ve played.