After a year of waiting, I’ve finally been graced with a Steam Deck.
A new console, of any variant, is always a momentus occasion. Not least because they’re expensive, shiny and have new features and games to tinker with. But Steam Deck is a little different. At least, it is for me.
If we go back all the way to 2003, I was a fresh-faced 18 year old. I had tinkered with PC building thanks to money acrued through my exhaustive part-time work at Xtra-Vision (Blockbuster, for anyone not in Ireland). I was a huge fan of two titles in particular: Half Life & Counter-Strike. Neither of which I was particularly good at, but enjoyed none-the-less.
I was fascinated by the culture surrounding Valve, the game developer behind these titles. Not least because they were truly able to embrace online culture, but also build a business around their titles that were being developed by modders on their tech stack.
So when they announced a sequel to Half Life 2, I was hyped. So hyped I went off to build a new PC to handle the new technology Valve had been developing, Source. This new engine would be the pinnacle of technology for the time. But even more impressive, was going to be Steam. Steam was to be a launcher for Valve titles, avoiding the nightmare of DRM and copyright issues by having an online-connected platform to let us verify and launch our games.
Moreover, Steam would utilise online gaming to build a proper community. No more need for dodgy IRC servers, it’ll be baked into the software itself!
Steam didn’t really come out of the gates with a strong sucker-punch to the industry. It was broken, took hours to login at times and was wonky around the edges. But after a few weeks it settled down. I recall them releasing an offline mode to allow us to play HL2 while they fixed everything else.
Today, Steam is unrecognisable to that 2003 pioneering vision. It works, better than any other launcher on the market, including console versions. It’s huge, with revenues of over $3bn in the first half of 2022 alone. And it’s constantly evolving.
The yield of all of that for the purposes of my story here, dear reader, is that I’ve had Steam since 2003. That’s 19 years. I have now had a Steam account for longer than I was alive before Steam existed.
My Steam library is diverse and deep. With such a long history, some games probably don’t even work. Some have sat idle for that entire almost-two-decade span. And many have been added through sales, group buys or very humble bundles. There are hundreds of games in there. Mostly optmised for Windows, to be played in the traditional way with a mouse & keyboard tethered to an expensive, big and brash PC.
Over the years Valve have tried to open PC gaming to wider audiences. They had a brief dip into cheap PCs with Steam Machines, running Linux and decent enough hardware to tap into a huge library of games. It didn’t quite work out, though.
Today, Valve has the knowledge of 19 years of being a platform, plus forays into projects like Steam Machines. Which means they’ve tapped into a well of knowledge that’s probably equal to that of their console rivals in Sony, Nintendo or Microsoft. The result is both a more mature Steam client, but also SteamOS; an operating system built on the premise that your games should run on an optimised, slim and performant kernel with a clean and easy UI. Get the OS out of the way and get into the games.
Moreover, they’ve built a compatability layer on top of SteamOS (which is a flavour of Arch Linux) called Proton, to allow Windows games to work as best as they can.
Which brings us to Steam Deck. The hardware in front of all of this back-office technoligical wonder.
The simple way to explain Steam Deck is that it’s a handheld PC. Or a large Nintendo Switch kind-of thing with a broader operating system to run… well, anything. Including Switch emulators. But we won’t talk about that.
My first day or two of owning the Switch was largely spent downloading an array of games. FPS’, Roguelikes, racing games. I have hundreds of titles to dig into, so I had plenty of opportunity to test this console. And one-by-one, I was impressed. The console handled almost everything I threw at it. Including games that Steam noted were not verified by Valve as operational on Steam Deck.
Then I got weird and technical. I bought a 1TB SD card and (after a lot of pain) installed Windows on it, to dual-boot and install games incompatible with SteamOS & Proton. Again, this worked wonderfully.
I even have an old USB-C dock that works great to plug in a keyboard and mouse, should, for some reason, the mood strike me to play on a tiny screen instead of my expensive, high end gaming PC.
As a review goes, this is a tough one. Because of everything I just said, Steam Deck doesn’t come with the caveat of most new console releases. It has an existing, expansive and genuinely awe-inspiring list of launch titles. Steam Deck verified titles aside, there are hundreds of titles that will work with small caveats (mostly seem to be small text or little setting tweaks being required). No console has ever launched with such an extensive library. Ever.
The drawback is that it is very literally a handheld PC. And while SteamOS is simple and user-friendly, it does have quirks that require a modocum of technical ability to troubleshoot. And some more interesting elements are only available by switching into the desktop mode, which is a full, Arch Linux with a nice KDE install. Easy if you’re a PC user or just a bit of a nerd. But for someone who wants a Nintendo Switch PC, they may get a little lost.
Installing Windows on this was something I wanted to try because it’s a sort-of useless use case that’s a challenge and a bit of fun. Over time, any games I want on Windows are likely to come to Steam Deck’s own platform. But for now, some games force the issue because of weird compatability bugs. Most of which, bizarrely, seem to relate to anti-cheat systems (Halo Infinite and Destiny 2 being easy examples of this).
And so, is it worth it? Yes, absolutely. If you have a Steam Library like I do, like to tinker and, just like me, want to play games on the sofa or travel a bit, then it’s brilliant. It’s brought PC gaming back into my mainstay despite the fact that I’ve always had a great gaming PC. But since having 2 kids and a busy career, that requires more effort than I really have. While Steam Deck allows me to integrate my love of PC gaming into my life. And relegates the PS5 to sports titles and AAA exclusives that I can dip into when my 2 year old is satiated (or asleep!).