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First look: Valve's Steam, Team Fortress 2 and Portal for Mac

Valve's highly anticipated release Mac OS X release of Steam, its cloud-based game store and service, is set to be released as a public beta this week. AppleInsider offers a first look at the software with hands-on impressions and screenshots, including the first available titles: Portal and Team Fortress 2.

Steam comes to Mac OS X

A longstanding criticism of Apple's Mac OS X has been the limited availability of games for the platform. While some major franchises have seen ports to the Mac, they often come months —and sometimes years —after their PC counterparts.

Boot Camp has allowed Mac users to install Windows in order to run their favorite titles, but the cost of buying the operating system at retail along with the hassle of rebooting to switch to another OS has made the option less than ideal. And there are emulators, such as Crossover, Parallels and VMWare Fusion, but they offer mixed results with game performance and reliability. What Mac gamers have longed for is major support from a first-rate publisher to bring games natively to the Mac.

Enter Valve, who just a few months ago announced that not only would many of its popular titles be coming to the Mac, but it was also bringing Steam, its digital game distribution platform which has more than 25 million users and offers access to 1,100 games on the PC. The release of Steam for Mac could potentially pave the way for other publishers to release their content for the Mac, with a popular and established platform readily available for all Intel Mac users. In fact, Valve has said it has already received interest from other publishers who want to bring their titles to Steam on the Mac.

Valve has also promised that it will treat the Mac as a "first-tier" platform, meaning major new titles developed for the PC will release day-and-date with the Mac. In other words, no more waiting months and perhaps years for the latest major titles.

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And in what is perhaps the biggest benefit to the Mac gaming community, Valve has done something unprecedented: All Valve-made titles that gamers already own on the PC can also be played on the Mac for free. That means gamers won't have to buy new licenses for a title to play it on the Mac. In a way, this would be like if a publisher were to offer users who buy a game on Xbox 360 a free copy of the title for the Playstation 3, a competing platform. Valve could have easily charged full price for Mac titles and followed the status quo, but this move will allow PC users to more easily make the switch to Mac without having to re-invest in their favorite games.

The games

About those games: Valve is renowned for making some of the biggest titles in PC history, with the Half-Life series its biggest accomplishment. The company is also behind some of the best-reviewed games of all time, including Portal, Team Fortress 2 and Left 4 Dead. And with Valve treating the Mac as a first-tier platform, new titles are on the way.

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One of the most anticipated games of 2010 is Portal 2, which will ship simultaneously for the Mac this holiday season. Other popular titles like Left 4 Dead 2, released last fall for the PC, are said to be coming to the Mac, but are not yet available on Steam.

Steam for Mac also allows Mac users to play against PC gamers. That means online fragging in Team Fortress 2 isn't restricted to one operating system: Mac and PC users can play with or against each other with no discernible differences.

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In March, John Cook, director of Steam development at Valve, told AppleInsider that that Valve worked closely with Apple as the developer became more acquainted with the Mac platform. He called Apple a "great partner" in the process of bringing Steam to Mac.

Valve's games are built on the Source engine, which has been modified to support OpenGL on the Mac. Valve has worked with Apple and GPU suppliers for Macs to make sure its titles take full advantage of the hardware capabilities on Macs, including giving feedback on opportunities to extend OpenGL to better support not only Source games, but also third-party games that are expected to come to the Mac.

Steam for Mac: the beta

The beta release of Steam for Mac will look familiar to anyone who has used Steam on the PC. The main window is divided into four categories: Store, Library, News and Community. Users can easily view their Friends list to see what games others are playing, what achievements they have unlocked, or quickly join them in an online game.

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Still, this does not feel like a PC application ported to the Mac. This is a true, native Mac application. For example, the software also features Growl support, with notifications displayed on the screen while in a game. Steam also has its own notification system for when downloads have been completed; these display in the same manner as Growl.

The Steam Store is currently nonexistent with no titles available for the Mac, though Valve expects that to change in the future, with its own games being ported along with third-party titles. A note in the storefront placeholder currently says the Mac game store is "coming soon," once the Steam beta ends.

While Valve has said all of its games will support SteamPlay, allowing gamers to access their titles on either the Mac or PC with just one purchase, other developers who sell their titles through Steam may not opt to offer this feature. To help Mac gamers know which titles will offer this feature, a SteamPlay symbol for Mac and Windows will be featured when shopping in the Store.

Like Steam on the PC, running the client on the Mac makes sure all of your games are up to date. Patches and updates for titles are instantly downloaded when Steam is launched, ensuring that all users have the latest version of a title.

In addition, users can also access the Steam in-game overlay, by pressing Shift+Tab. The in-game Steam Community offers notifications for users when their friends sign on, and allows them to initiate text or voice chat with others on their Friends list.

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Portal and Team Fortress 2

Just two titles are currently available on Steam for Mac, but luckily they are two of the most popular and best-reviewed titles available for the PC. Both Portal and Team Fortress 2 were originally released as part of Valve's bundle package, dubbed "The Orange Box," in 2007. Though they are more than two-and-a-half years old, the games are still graphic-intensive first-person titles that are still frequently played to this day.

On a 2008 MacBook Pro with a 2.53GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 4GB of RAM and a 512MB GeForce 8600M GT, both Source-based titles run well at a recommended 1152x720 pixel 16:10 widescreen resolution. With most textures and details on high and 2x antialiasing, both titles maintained steady framerates with only the occasional stutter, even on an older notebook.

Portal is a mind-melting puzzle title, in which the player uses a gun to open blue and orange portals that connect to one another. The portals have both a physical and visual connection between them, and users must strategically place these portals to overcome a series of obstacles, divided into a series of levels. The game also has an initially sparse story that gradually expands over the length of the game with a few twists and turns along the way. Though the game is short and can be completed in just a few hours, it's a rewarding and innovative title that earned many "Game of the Year" accolades soon after its initial release.

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The game runs well on the Mac, with a smooth framerate and responsive controls that are identical to the gaming experience on the PC with a similar machine.

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Team Fortress 2 is a team- and class-based first-person shooter with a unique, cartoonish style of graphics and unique character personalities that has been mimicked repeatedly since the title was first released in 2007. In the years since the title became available, Valve has courted a devoted community of gamers through constant updates to the game, including new maps, modes, weapons and various unlockables that demand repeated plays of the competitive online game. Various game types include traditional online modes such as capture the flag, king of the hill, team deathmatch and more.

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Team Fortress 2 is a bit more taxing on a computer than Portal, as it has multiple characters onscreen and is also a competitive online title. Though the framerate was not as consistent as Portal, it was still perfectly fine for playback and lag was minimal. Again, the experience is nearly identical to what you'd have playing on a PC.

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Mac users will want to make sure they have a system with dedicated graphics support. As Windows PC gamers have known for years, integrated graphics simply do not cut it when it comes to demanding 3D games, so those running an older Mac with integrated Intel graphics will likely experience choppy gameplay even at lower resolutions.

Achievements for both titles that have been earned on the PC will automatically show up when playing the game on the Mac, and vice versa. However, for games that do not have the Steam Cloud game save service available, you'll have to play through that title again. For example, with Portal, we were forced to start from the first levels, which serve more as a tutorial for the more difficult puzzles to come.

Of course, for both games you'll want to get a gaming-friendly wired mouse, for right clicks and a scroll wheel.

While the first two titles run well, Steam for Mac is still in beta, and as such there are a few minor glitches. For example, when playing through Portal, one level would not load without the game being restarted. In between each level, the player enters an elevator, and the game would not load the next level, leaving the player trapped in the elevator. And in Team Fortress 2, occasionally a slain player would remain standing rigid and in place, even after they were fragged. On our system, we also could not select anything in the Steam overlay, accessed by pressing Shift+Tab. However, these are minor issues with a release that remains in beta.

The Steam client itself is free, and the games are too, for those who may already own them for PC. That alone makes it a must-have for any Mac gamer. But the Steam service will become truly invaluable in the coming months, when blockbuster titles like Half-Life 2: Episode 2 and online stalwarts like Counter-Strike: Source are joined by new titles like Portal 2 and Left for Dead 2. Then it will be safe to say that gaming on the Mac has finally arrived. The Steam for Mac beta is scheduled to open to the public on May 12.

For more, see AppleInsider's additional coverage:

Valve, Apple worked closely to bring Steam natively to Mac
Game developers eye the Mac after Steam's jump to Apple
Valve sets public Mac Steam release for May 12, 2010
Valve announces Steam for Mac, games will allow Mac-PC online play