Low Price, High Fun: The Steam Summer Sale Experience
Considering what Steam is to PC gaming nowadays, it’s hard to imagine a time when it was once a hindrance, a stubborn barrier that stood between players and their games. But that’s exactly how it started back in 2004, when Valve decided that in order to play the massively hyped Half-Life follow-up, Steam would be a mandatory requirement. The service existed before then, having been tested with Counter-Strike in 2002. After all, the impetus to develop the platform in the first place stemmed from difficulties encountered in supporting the immensely popular mod with patches and anti cheating measures so naturally it would act as the test bed. Its real coming out party was signalled by Half-Life 2’s release, an occasion which remains a black mark on Valve’s history. The servers buckled and despite the single player nature of the game, verification was first required to play and even that wouldn’t work.
Over the years though, Steam went from buggy, unreliable villain, to consumer and enthusiast friendly hero. This was in large part to the value proposition posed by the service, which really became apparent with annual Winter and Summer sales, consisting of such ludicrous prices that they have become pivotal events in the gaming calendar. And of course they further boosted the cult of personality surrounding Valve’s leading man Gabe Newell.
The dangers of the sale have been well documented. It’s incredibly easy to fall into the trap of false economy, buying games of little interest simply because how could one afford not to snap up such a bargain? I myself have fell victim to this cunning piece of business psychology but over time I’ve built up something of a resistance to the impulse, the list of unplayed sale purchases an ever present reminder to double check my cart before clicking beyond the point of no return. This year I’ve done pretty well sacrificing only €15 from my wallet. To put into perspective just how much that can get you during the sale, here’s a run-down coupled with impressions.
Organ Trail – €1.24
And people said the edutainment genre was dead. They clearly hadn’t heard of Organ Trail, a humorous re imagining of the 1971 educational classic Oregon Trail. While the latter sought to inform players of the harsh realities of 19th century life, Organ Trail has a distinctly modern twist; once again your quest is trek across America but this time the apocalypse has struck and contemporary culture’s favourite supernatural menace, the zombie, is now the primary worry rather than dysentery (dysentery, it should be noted, is still a major threat and should not be underestimated).
I set out with four other survivors on my first attempt but alas we only barely made it to the halfway point. David died rather suddenly from unexplained causes after becoming incapacitated for reasons unknown. Matt was taken hostage by a mercenary and I blew my only opportunity to save him, still trying to get to grips with an initially awkward shooting mechanics. Andrew innocently stepped out of the station wagon for but a moment to relieve himself but apparently failed to clear the area first, succumbing to a deadly bite. I put him down immediately. This callous yet necessary decision weighed heavy on my conscience and distracted me, for during a routine scavenging trip my concentration lapsed and I myself fell victim to the undead during a surprise boss attack. Thankfully for Paul, the last remaining survivor, I died instantly. Upon death, the game gives you the opportunity to write your tombstone obituary. Incensed by my brutally swift death, I chose to mark my legacy with a final middle finger to this terrible terrible world with the words “cunt of a boss” engraved forever beneath my name.
Round two went much better with my lovable group of rascals comprising of Eddard, Brienne, Danerys, and Tyrion. Eddard was a victim of the same fate as Andrew. Brienne managed to repeatedly break her arm despite never leaving the car or helping the group out in any meaningful way. But apart from that one loss, we all made it…but at what cost to our humanity?
Organ Trail is really a game of resource management. The greatest threat isn’t the undead or the few remaining living but rather the prospect of running out of fuel, not being able to find a spare muffler, or simply not rationing food wisely. It’s visually very simple, a throw back to its inspiring source no doubt, and yet never has there been so much charm in so few pixels. The eerie chiptune soundtrack and simple bleeps round off a surprisingly atmospheric package resulting in a game that straddles the line between a deadpan grim and a darkly comic apocalypse simulator. Certainly a trail worth following.
Scribblenauts Unlimited - €4
Scribblenauts Unlimited is rather different affair. After the harrowing journey through desolate America, I needed something a little lighter in tone and perhaps even uplifting. It turns out Scribblenauts was the perfect antidote, a game without a shred of cynicism.
You may recall Rú gave it high praise in his review last year and it turns out this is indeed most warranted. Imagination is the key principle here. As Maxwell, the player is dropped into a gorgeously bright coloured world and given the task of saving his sister by amassing a collection of stars, which are naturally earned by solving just the problems of the every man and woman. The twist comes from the fact that in order the do so, the player can summon almost anything they desire as long as the game’s quite broad dictionary recognises the word. A few months I wrote about the special segments of entertainment that have equal appeal for both adults and children, a difficult mix to get right; Scribblenauts is another addition to that fairly elusive club. I couldn’t help but be brought back into my own childhood whilst reaching into the depths of imagination to try and salvage some poor schmuck’s disastrous date or whilst making King Kong feel like royalty by conjuring him a crown. There is a powerful inherent nostalgia factor for the older player and for the younger one, a dazzling world that can act as outlet for the tireless creative energy often found only in children.
Sure, I may be slightly losing my mind after hearing the almost too happy quest start jingle repeatedly but Scribblenauts is an experience in pure grin inducing pleasure and delight that few games seem to be able to offer.
Torchlight II – €4.74
Remember the Diablo III launch? What a strange occasion it was. Lauded by critics yet demonised by a very large portion of the dedicated fanbase, who felt betrayed by Blizzard’s design choices which involved always-on DRM, no mod support, and broken promises. And so Torchlight III gestated in an environment where many thought the genre needed a saviour. As a casual fan, I actually quite liked the fundamentals of Diablo III but even I was able to see some of the terrible missteps present in the final package; any development that results in a product in which the player has to worry about lag in single-player, without any obvious benefits, has surely gone wrong somewhere. Based on my initial impressions of Torchlight II, it seems to be free of many of the unnecessary issues plaguing Diablo III. But my real interest lies in whether or not it will be able to retain my attention for as significant a period of time as the latter did. Time will tell.
Surgeon Simulator 2013 – €3.39
Simulator, as a descriptor, is simultaneously a quite appropriate and wildly inappropriate use of the English language here. There is simulation of a kind happening here; tasked with a variety of operations, you need to make precise incisions and gently work around vital organs in order to reach your goal, whether that be a kidney or heart transplant. It’s extremely difficult, as real surgery surely is too, so in that sense, Surgeon Simulator is accurate. The difficulty stems from its unique button configuration which sees control given to individual fingers and specific hand movements. The most banal of tasks, like picking up an object (a potentially lethal scalpel, for example), suddenly become monumental challenges. And this only increases tenfold once you begin to tinker with a poor patient’s interiors. All hell breaks loose in a manner of unintended ways once surgery is underway; removed intestines large and small are knocked off the side table and onto the floor (and consequently lost forever) and sharp implements are thrown around the theatre with casual carelessness. And be careful not to accidentally prick your disembodied hand on the anaesthetic needle or you’ll be doing the rest of surgery on a dreamy high.
It’s clear though that the game’s title is intended to be ironic, given the humorous dressings and lighthearted tone. It’s good thing too because it helps to alleviate the guilt that comes with the many inevitable operating table deaths or as the game refers to them, “brutal murders”.
As amusing as Surgeon Simulator 2013 is during the first couple of plays, it becomes intensely frustrating rather quickly. The clunky controls are intentional and certainly give the game a unique feel, for better or for worse. But the novelty wears off too fast and can’t maintain itself long enough in order to offset the unfair, rage inducing failures. Certainly glad I waited for the sale with this one.
McPixel - 79c
WarioWare meets point and click adventure, with healthy dousing of complete and utter nonsense. McPixel is a collection of manic mini games played in sets that repeat endlessly until each one is solved. The objective is simple; disarm the bomb. Or as Giant Bomb’s video game database so eloquently puts it, “McPixel clicks on things in his environment to prevent things from exploding.” From one man polish team SoS, McPixel is perfect sale material. There isn’t really anything substantive here but at such a minimal cost it’s well worth experiencing for its sheer peculiarity alone.
In the last year or two the effects of Steam’s sales events have begun to really reverberate throughout the entire industry, with several other competitors having to offer similarly great deals in order to compete. Amazon, Good Old Games, and even the stringent moneybags at Microsoft have all started their own promotions surely born directly out of a desire to claw their way back the hearts and minds of customers flocking en masse to Steam. It’s a wonderful trend, for both game players and developers. We get more for less, while creators see sales figures and overall profits increases dramatically, often doubling or tripling.
Hopefully this is a trend that can continue into the impending next generation and help both sides deal with the inflated financial factors that usually present themselves at the beginning of a new generation.