Steambox Experience

Recently I built a cheap gaming PC for the living room, to run Steam. I’ve written about the hardware, but what’s it like to use? Is it any good? Was this a good choice over a console? I’ll cover some of my thoughts in general, and then the good and bad points. I’ll finish up with a few comments on what I’ve been playing.

steambox booting

In General

It’s really good, I like it. There are flaws, bumps in the smooth gaming experience compared to a console, but in my opinion the upsides more than compensate.

The Steam “big picture” dashboard is great, I prefer it to the 360 dashboard. It’s easy to navigate with a gamepad. A few taps to install a game, a few taps to play a game. Not every game works well with a gamepad of course – but anything ported from/to a console tends to “just work”. I’ve a wireless keyboard and mouse for games that benefit from them (e.g. FPS) – I use them on my lap with a tray.

Once set up (the machine is set to auto-login to windows, Steam to start with windows and in big picture mode) it’s very easy to use – hit the power button, wait for it to boot then grab the gamepad. Compared to my 360 I wish I could turn it on from the gamepad, but it’s sadly not possible. If I played more often, I’d investigate sleeping it and waking from the gamepad which I suspect would work.

Even playing traditional PC style games with keyboard and mouse it’s a very different experience to traditional PC gaming sat upright at a desk with a monitor. I’ve got a nice big screen, big speakers and can kick back on the couch. A nice change from work, and far more social – often my partner will sit on the sofa and knit or read, with half an eye on my game, and we’ll discuss the plot or some choice of action in an RPG. Plus there’s all the fun of local co-op – I introduced some friends to Monaco at the weekend,  we just paired another couple of my 360 pads and were in a heist in minutes. If you’ve never played Monaco – I urge you to stop reading right now. Go buy it (cheap on Humble Bundle at time of writing, and with Fez too, hot DAMN. Go fetch!)

Which brings me nicely to possibly my favourite thing about a Steambox over a console – older games and indie games. I’ve got Monaco on the 360, but I bought it on Steam too – the PC version is better – more modes, levels and features.  In general it’s a lot cheaper for devs to push to steam than Xbox live – which famously charges devs to issue updates etc. Plus you get easy integrated access to all the user generated content etc too. Fez is another great example of an indie game.

Steam also often has older games cheap, but it’s more than that. An older game on the 360 looks the same as ever, similar graphics to a new 360 game. But on a PC, I can crank up the graphics settings, make it look prettier than ever before. For some stuff there’s even new texture packs etc. to smarten the game up yet more. Case in point – I played Portal 2 when it came out on my MBP. Installed it on the Steambox and it’s like a new game, so much nicer looking, and the easy access right there to new content.

In my mind this is a big win over next-gen consoles. I don’t have to wait for new games to come out, I can play older games that I missed first time round, and they look great. I can revisit favourites, and they look great too. Finally I still get all the new AAA titles – I fully expect to be able to play Titanfall and have it look as pretty as an Xbone. I’ll have my cake and eat it too.

The Good

A few bullet points in no particular order, mostly comparing to a console here:

  • Steam iOS/Android apps, great to second-screen to buy things, or chat with Steam friends with the built in chat stuff.
  • No swapping disks or buying disks. Just clicking to download stuff which appears in minutes (fast fibre here).
  • Old games, indie games, CHOICE.
  • Steam sales.
  • Vast choice of games, console games plus PC games.
  • Keyboard and Mouse – it’s nice to have the option.
  • Demos – often there are demos to download and try before you buy.

The Bad

It’s not all smooth sailing. Whilst big picture mode is like using a console, there are a few cracks in the facade, glimpses behind the curtain to the stagehands swapping the set which break the illusion.  For example, drivers auto-update in general, but sometimes Windows will pop up a box asking if you want to update the GeForce drivers for example, cue fishing out the mouse to click it. Or games often have requirements on e.g. Visual C runtimes or Direct X. These  will be auto-installed by Steam, but it adds a little friction, and sometimes again a windows installer appears. This is where I think SteamOS might be a winner – you’d get rid of these cracks, smooth the facade – though currently at the expense of the choice of games. This will change with time though.

A few other points:

  • “Desktop” UI elements. Some games designed for keyboard and mouse assume you’re sat at a desk, with a monitor close – sometimes text in UI elements can be a little small, e.g. subtitles.
  • I had some issues doing paypal payment for steam games – it kicks you to a browser to complete the sale, but then…it’s not at the right page. I imagine if I registered a card this wouldn’t be an issue, as it is, I just buy games with the iPad app and they magically appear.
  • Windows updates – mostly happen automatically, but we’ve all seen the “windows needs to restart”.
  • Steam client updates – you just want to play a game, but it insists on auto-updating the client before it launches.
  • Direct-X 11 bug in Deus Ex. There’s a weird bug where it drops frames and occasionally slows down despite having plenty power. Many suggestions on fixes online to do with registry hacks etc. Ignore them. It’s a bug going into full-screen mode, alt-enter to go to windowed and then back again fixes it. Easy enough, but you don’t get that nonsense on consoles.

Got any good games?

So what have I been playing? A quick list with links to the Steam store where you can read more and see pics and vid:

  • Monaco. Superb. Impossible to explain the brilliance of this so I won’t try. Watching videos doesn’t make sense either. Just play it. The genius is when your plans go wrong, not when they go right.
  • Fez. Old school style 2D platformer, except Gomez has discovered a third dimension. Adds a fiendish puzzle element that will mess with your mind in a glorious way and make you laugh out loud with joy.
  • Deus Ex Human Revolution.  I loved the original, this was a return to form. Sneak ’em up FPS-cum-RPG in a great sci-fi setting. A few years old, but just means it’s cheap.
  • Planetside 2. Free to play MMOFPS, reminds me a lot of Tribes 2 which I loved back in the day. Not played this much, but I plan to try it out some more with friends sometime.
  • Gunpoint. I know, hugely powerful GPU and I’m playing low-res 8-bit style indie games. But they’re ace! Spy-em-up with a nice twisted humour to it.
  • Portal 2. If I have to explain this to you, crawl out from under your rock and go download it. 

Any questions?

Say “hi” on twitter, I’m @the_accidental, let me know your thoughts, questions or game recommendations.

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