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Long read: The beauty and drama of video games and their clouds

"It's a little bit hard to work out without knowing the altitude of that dragon..."

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Best of Steam

Casual games corralled for your pleasure.

You'll have noticed that Xbox Live Arcade gets a lot of coverage on here, with the EG staff regularly thrown into a frenzy of excitement about which new cut-price morsel is up for download this week. Well, the same happens on the PC's Steam (the pay-to-download client provided by those men of Half-Life, Valve), but we've been a little remiss in covering it, occasional highlights like Bookworm Adventures aside. Take a look at the store list now, and there's a bewildering torrent of games you've never heard of on there, growing all the damned time. Is anyone really playing Zen of Sudoku or Iron Warriors and, indeed, should they? Geometry Wars sloping onto Steam this week has made headlines, so now's a good time to play catch-up, starting with a look at what can loosely be clumped under the umbrella of casual games. I'll get the ones with guns out of the way first to keep you happy, because there's a whole lot of Peggle on the final page.

Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved

Let's start with the most recent release on Steam, of which much has been said already, and which you should read about again now if you're somehow unfamiliar with the game already - unfamiliar as in not having suffered the curious pleasure of constant messages from your Xbox Live friends list along the personable lines of "UR SCORE IS RUBBISH LOLS ROLF." The budget-priced darling of Xbox Live Arcade has been available on PC before, but as another of these Windows Vista-only titles Microsoft crazily believes will flog more copies of its performance-challenged new operating system. With a new release on Steam, the other 99% of the PC world can now join the party.

So. Uh. You're probably not going to like this. But, well, Geometry Wars ain't all that, at least not in the revised context of PC. While it's unquestionably a smart and impeccably-honed distillation of shoot-'em-ups' core ideas into a fixed gladiatorial arena of reflex, a lot of what made it work so well on Xbox 360 was the big-ass score on the top of the screen. On 360, that score is shared with your friends list, as are the Achievements your single-minded focus on shooting polygonal shapes has won you. Geometry Wars was the first game to really nail how Live was supposed to work, the friendly competition of it all and the sharing of experiences with friends. Not to mention that great, full-price games were in short supply for the first year of the console's life, making Geometry Wars something everyone with a 360 could happily cluster around. There's every chance that this simple, 2.5D, high-score-orientated shooter will become the console's defining game.

Purists will be distraught to know retro mode isn't included on PC.

All of the above is a rather long-winded way of explaining in advance why Geometry Wars on PC doesn't work as well as it should. It is now entirely offline, stuck in some sensory deprivation tank that precludes it communicating your scores to the rest of the world (especially sad given there is a Steam friends list). The Achievements are gone too, and from a game where 'achievement' really meant just that. The design and pace that makes Geometry Wars great do remain, but without the ability to compete with anyone but yourself, the urge to play again and again slumbers somewhat. It's almost just another Cute Indie Shooter. It's also significantly easier on keyboard and mouse - still hugely challenging, but the separation of your two hands, rather than simply two thumbs operating proximate gamepad sticks, makes it a lot more natural to direct movement with one and gunfire with the other. Natural isn't always right. The thumb-sticks genuinely give Geometry Wars the arcade feel it's built for, so please, play it with a gamepad.

Of course, for the current price on Steam of USD 3.95, don't take these criticisms as a reason to shun Geometry Wars. It's still splendid - it's just infuriating that so much of what makes it such a delight has been lost in translation.