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Steam updates and new Half-Life mods

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on February 23, 2007
(Issue 2508, GPS: No Matter Where You Go, There You Are)

Valve Software, publisher of the best-selling (and groundbreaking) first-person shooter "Half-Life," has updated its Steam utility, making it easier to sort and organize your Steam-purchased/delivered games.

As Steam – the software originally designed and implemented to communicate with Valve's servers to verify a copy of Half-Life 2 as legal – is automatically updated whenever you run it, I can't really compare/contrast the features in the current version (a Jan. 15 build) vs. previous ones.

But the current version now offers a tabbed navigation system to get from the Valve Store to the management panel for games you've already bought and installed to a Tools panel for launching dedicated servers for various online games you own.

In the Store, there are now literally dozens of games available for purchase, download and installation in an integrated environment. And most of the games are not from Valve! Instead, Valve is an online distributor – undoubtedly taking a cut from each purchase – much like Apple's iTunes Store is for music.

The games can be sorted by type (action, RPG, strategy, etc.), single-player or multiplyaer, publisher (PopCap Games, Activision, Majesco) or development team (too many to name, with many independently produced games available here).

One of the remaining weaknesses of Steam is that you can't download the various Half-Life and Half-Life 2 mods from within the Steam utility – it lists most of them, and offers you a link to each mod's Web site, where you can download the mod to your hard drive for installation. After installing the mod, it will show up in Steam the next time you re-start Steam.

Not the most elegant way to distribute mods – which, after all, have been a major impetus in the continuing popularity of Half-Life and Half-Life 2. Long after most of us had played the single-player campaign through for a third time, and were getting bored of it, folks were still buying Half-Life just so they could play the Counter-Strike mod (or less-popular but still influential mods like Frontline Force or Firearms).

Still, the ongoing improvements to Steam show that Valve is committed to this new model for distributing software – particularly games.

Mods again in the forefront

It was only a few years ago that Counter-Strike, a multiplayer-only mod for Half-Life, was probably the most popular online game.

But then Battlefield 2 hit the scene, along with a half-dozen or so MMOGs like "World of Warcraft." And when Valve introduced "Half-Life 2" with its new graphical engine, Counter-Strike began to look dated. Became less popular, with fewer servers and fewer players.

It's taken a few years for the independent mod developers to catch up to the HL2 engine, and for the market to make more room for them.

With Battlefield 2142 a bit of a disappointment to BF2 fans, and both Frontline Force and Counter-Strike now out in HL2 engine versions, HL mods are again among the more popular online games going – particularly as they are free to play once purchased, with no recurring monthly fees.

Later this year, two more HL2 mods will come out that should really shake things up: Team Fortress 2 and Half-Life: Black Mesa.

The new Team Fortress is apparently going to be a bit cartoonish and very unrealistic, unlike the classic TF. But it will still be based on a capture the flag gameplay model, and still be built around player choosing from a variety of classes (scout, engineer, etc.) with different weapons and abilities.

Black Mesa – which has already won several awards before it is even released – is a total rebuilding of the original Half-Life game on the HL2 engine. The gameplay, puzzles, levels, etc., will be identical to the original game – but the graphics will be those of HL2.

The mod has Valve's blessing, so the buzz surrounding this is higher than for any mod since the original Counter-Strike was issued.

The Black Mesa team's Web site is at News about the new Team Fortress can be found at