You can’t discuss contemporary PC gaming without discussing Steam, the video game marketplace from part-time game developer Valve. Originally designed as a vehicle for downloading patches for Counter-Strike and other titles, Steam has evolved into an incredibly robust store that boasts a deep video game catalog, communication tools, a slick recommendation engine, and movies. Admittedly, Steam has some nagging issues, including slow-moving customer service, but if you game on a PC, it’s hard to ignore this Editors’ Choice-winning juggernaut. I reviewed Steam on a Windows 10-based computer, but Valve also offers Steam clients for Mac, mobile, and its own Linux-based SteamOS operating system.
The Steam Store
Steam is a terrific way to buy a new release, such as the excellent Doom, and the store’s slate of upcoming video games available for preorder includes the highly anticipated For Honor. If there’s a major new release for the PC, Steam will likely have the game—provided that publisher isn’t selling it exclusively from its own store. For example, you can only buy Forza Horizon 3 from the Windows Store. Still, Steam currently offers more than 4,000 titles, ranging from simple arcade-like games to hardcore titles. That’s far more variety than you can find in the Windows 10 game marketplace.
Steam’s library goes back several years, and it includes excellent classic games like Half-Life and Psychonauts. That said, the store isn’t a comprehensive library of legacy titles (for a wider selection of older games, try GOG.com). Like itch.io, however, Steam has a wide array of indies titles. In fact when you purchase games via itch.io, you’ll often find that what you’re buying are Steam activation keys.
There’s another, riskier way to buy Steam games: Early Access. This section is the petri dish in which video games grow. You buy Early Access titles in unfinished form, so they may have more bugs and fewer features than completed, polished games.
Newer games are priced similarly to retail releases, with most big titles costing $49.99 or $59.99. Indie and older games can cost anywhere from $5 to $19.99, depending on their release date and popularity. There are numerous free-to-play games, too. Steam really shines with its regular and seasonal sales, however. Weekend and midweek sales reduce prices on games from 20 to 75 percent. Valve’s legendary, thematic Steam sales occur on a seasonal basis and usually include incredibly deep discounts on publishers’ entire libraries or bundles of their top games.
Steam’s homepage pushes not only big-name titles, but also those that Valve’s recommendation engine thinks would interest you based on your wish list, past purchases, and recent gaming sessions. The last time I logged into Steam, the application suggested I take a look at One Finger Death Punch (because I had just spent a lot of time playing fighting games) and Color Symphony (due to my playing other games listed with the Action, Indie, and Singleplayer tags).
If you want even more suggestions, check the Trending Among Friends section (which displays your buddies’ favorite games, based on their hours logged), Special Offers (game sales), and Recently Updated (games that have received new patches or content).
One of our favorite recommendation tools is Steam Curators. This lets you follow a high-profile video game personality (say, Jim Sterling), a brand (IGN), or a community (NeoGAF) for their insights. I particularly enjoy the /r/pcmasterrace group, which has a team that recommends only “the most worthy PC Games.” I’ve discovered plenty of excellent titles via Steam Creators.
One should always take user reviews with a grain of salt, but they can offer insight into true stinkers such as the once-pulled-from-sale Batman: Arkham Knight. Alternatively, you can find a game’s Metacritic rating on its store page if you want an at-a-glance aggregated review score from professional gaming outlets. Unfortunately, all of this useful information makes for a very busy interface.
You can reduce the interface clutter by opening the Preferences menu and checking the product types and platforms that are of interest to you. Steam also gives you the option to filter content by title or genre. If you’re not a RPG fan, now you’ll never see Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD Remaster or Ys VI: The Ark of Napishtim in your feed again.
You can avoid the sting of buying a broken game by visiting a title’s store page and reading user reviews. Well-received games are labeled Positive or Overwhelmingly Positive, while middle-of-the-road titles are tagged as Mixed. The gum sticking to the bottom of Steam’s seat is the Negative and Overwhelmingly Negative games. From what I’ve read in the user reviews and Steam community forums, those tags are usually reserved for the most broken of broken games.
Thankfully, Steam lets you get refunds for unwanted, recently purchased games, which is something that all digital download services should offer their customers. In addition, Steam now gives users the power to delete unwanted games from their accounts. Previously, you had to contact customer service to delete games. The customer service reps aren’t rude or unfriendly; you simply can’t get anyone on the horn, and it sometimes take days for Valve to resolve a problem submitted by ticket.
Here’s another example of Valve’s frustrating customer service. I once bought a game, but couldn’t download it even though it was listed in my account. I submitted a help ticket, and it took Valve three days to resolve the issue. That’s a long time to hear absolutely nothing from a company in regards to a billing issue. Valve needs to fix this, as soon as possible.
The Steam Engine
Steam automatically handles game downloads and installation, putting local game files in its Steamapps folder and getting them organized in the background. Large games can take an hour or two to download over fast connections, so prepare to keep your computers on if you plan to download the 35GB Max Payne 3.
Steam lets you install games on multiple computers, but only one can be logged into an account at once. If you set up Steam Family Share, you can lend your games to others—an idea that Microsoft planned for Xbox One before console gamers’ anti-digital-rights-management (DRM) backlash forced the Redmond-based company to ditch the plan. Steam, too, employs DRM, as you must log into Steam to establish a license check. That said, you can play your games in Offline Mode after you perform an initial license check. Steam’s scheme is easily is one of the least offensive DRM implementations. GOG.com, on the other hand, doesn’t apply DRM to the games in its catalog, so you have the freedom to install your games on as many PCs as you see fit, without log-in limitations. Speaking of installing games, Steam lets you remotely install games using the Steam Android app.
There aren’t any major restrictions in regards to Steam Family Share beyond the five user-account limitation; borrowers get their own achievements and cloud saves, too. They just can’t check out the game when the owner is playing it. If you’re sick of having friends borrow your games, you can gift them games, too.
Steam offers matchmaking inside games and social media services outside of games, thanks to a Friends list with text and voice chat and support for Clans (groups of players). Friends can jump into each other’s games, you can invite friends into your games, and Clans can organize group activities by setting up calendars and posting server IP addresses.
As you play games, you earn badges that you can keep, sell in the Steam Market for Steam Store credit, or trade for other badges. Once you get an entire badge set, you get cool rewards like user profile wallpapers and special showcase badges. This is not at all essential to the gaming experience, but it’s a nice touch that gives achievement chasers yet another thing to hunt.
Steam lets you take a screenshot by tapping your keyboard’s F12 key, but it doesn’t record video. On the other hand, Microsoft’s Xbox app lets you capture stills and 30-second video clips.
Valve recognized gamers’ desire to play games in the living room, so it created Big Picture mode. Designed for the lean-back experience, Big Picture caters to people who want to play PC games in the same way that they play console games. The panel-driven UI is quite different from the standard Steam interface, which makes it easy to navigate on a big-screen TV. Big Picture is a fine addition to Steam’s ever-expanding feature set, and it appears to be the perfect complement to Valve’s Steam Controller, Steam Link, and Steam Machine initiatives.
Valve’s living room play doesn’t end there. Steam now has a music player (I’m using it to listen to Stellar Dreams’s “Dimensions” as I type this review) and a slow-growing streaming movie catalog. Yes, movies. The selection is limited, but you can rent all four Mad Max movies and numerous Lionsgate studio flicks for $3.99 per pop, including The Cabin in the Woods, The Crow, Dredd, Leprechaun: Back 2 Tha Hood, Highlander: Endgame, Planet Hulk, and Sicario. Unlike Netflix, Steam lacks a monthly streaming plan. You have a 48-hour window to watch your movie.
I rented Darren Aronofsky’s Pi to test the service. The 1080p stream opened in its own window, and smoothly played over our high-speed office connection. I was pleased with the experience, but couldn’t see myself returning to Steam for movie rentals until there are more titles in the catalog.
GOG.com has movies, too, but most of its catalog is devoted to nerd-centric topics. Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony and Indie Game: The Movie perfectly sum up GOG.com’s film offerings. Steam also sells productivity software like Camtasia Studio and GeoVox.
Let Off Some Steam, Bennett
Valve’s Steam service is a must-have for any PC gamer. Its great selection, recommendation features, and deals make it one of the first applications to install on any gaming PC. No, Steam isn’t perfect, particularly in the customer support realm, but it’s the best all-round PC game distribution service available. And for that, Steam is PCMag’s Editors’ Choice for video game marketplaces.