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Following up on its enigmatic announcement-of-an-announcement last week, Valve has unveiled SteamOS, a free stand-alone operating system “for living room machines.”

The OS “combines the rock-solid architecture of Linux with a gaming experience built for the big screen,” according to the announcement. In-house streaming to a TV, similar to what’s used in Nvidia’s Shield, is a feature of the OS.

Valve also emphasizes SteamOS’s openness. Users can “can alter or replace any part of the software or hardware they want,” and hardware manufacturers are free to “iterate in the living room at a much faster pace,” setting it apart from console-style closed systems.

A vague component of the announcement is Valve’s claim to have “achieved significant performance increases in graphics processing” in SteamOS. Valve adds that it’s “now targeting audio performance and reductions in input latency at the operating system level.” It’s also unclear how many of the 3,000 games on Steam will run natively on SteamOS--Valve says you'll be able to "access the full Steam catalog" through in-home streaming. We're also curious how well the operating system will be suited to desktop PCs or laptops that aren’t used in the living room.

Check back on Wednesday for the second of three announcements expected from Valve this week.

Story by Tyler Wilde and Evan Lahti

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TF2 Halloween

I like to think that creators who've had their TF2 Steam Workshop items accepted into the game were alerted to the fact by an ominous rumbling from their monitor. Without warning, the screen gaped open, and a shower of money fired out. Would you like your own money shower? You can have one - assuming you possess the raw talent to create spooky virtual headgear from nothing - because Valve are now accepting Workshop submissions for their annual Team Fortress 2 Halloween event.

Normally at this point, I'd quote a relevant section from the developers' announcement post. As it's TF2, that's not going to work, because said post is full of lines like: "That man was Bruce Willis in the haunted house classic Die Hard, and it should teach you a valuable lesson about showing a little advance respect for Halloween." There are tangents all up in that blog, is what I'm trying to say.

To pick out the relevant details, all submissions must be tagged Halloween 2013 in the Workshop. As with other Halloween items, they'll only be wearable during the event and on full moons. Because of that, creators have more leeway to stretch the game's usual tonal restrictions.

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Trade Offers

It must be hard for the professional Steam traders. They're forced to work long hours, bartering for and upselling the best cards. They're not even allowed to take the smallest of breaks, lest they miss a chance to secure their future with a shiny foil Dale Earnhardt Jr. It's a stressful lifestyle, with only the promise of vast riches keeping them going. It'll be no small comfort for them to learn that Steam have introduced Trade Offers, a system that lets users send pre-packaged offers for their friends/business partners to accept, reject, or counter-propose.

The system lets you browse a friend's inventory, enter the trading screen, tailor the offer to your liking, and send it off as a proposal. Their are two major benefits to this system, as I see it:

Your friend can be offline while you're making a proposal.
People who don't care about trading cards will tell you to piss off less often when all they have to do is click a button marked "yeah, sure, whatever". Or whatever it's actually marked.

It's not just cards that can be traded. From my limited poking about, most Steam Inventory items can be offered up, including Team Fortress 2 bits. For now, offers are limited to people on your friends list. Valve say that may be extended in the future, although will always respect the privacy options in place for your Inventory.
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Team Fortress 2 is a comic now

Finally! For too long, Valve have tied their primary work - funny comics that are posted on the internet - to their hobby project, the computer game and dress-up toy Team Fortress 2. "Can we see the continued adventures of Saxton Hale, manpuncher?" we'd ask, only to be told that no, first we had to wait for a development team to code new maps, weapons, rule tweaks, and approximately 5,000 new hats.

Not any more, though. The multi-media wizards (and occasional game developers) have realised that not everything needs an accompanying piece of headgear, and have released the first part of a six issue TF2 comic saga, sans update.

Well, sort of. A small update has slipped out, in recognition of Team Fortress's 17th birthday. It adds "Rome-vision" sharing, allowing anyone playing an MvM server with an owner of the Hardy Laurel to opt-in to mechanical history. Chemistry sets have also been added. They sound weird, so I'm going to let the TF2 Wiki do the heavy describing.

As for the comic series, it's planned for bi-monthly release. You can read the first part here.
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Team Fortress 2 - idle servers

Valve's recent Team Fortress 2 update took a specific shot at a section of the community known as idlers. Idlers play the game to not play it: they join servers and just stand there, hoping to grab an item via the game's item drop system. After years of this, Valve have decided you must click on the item to have it deposited in your backpack, meaning that people who have to be at their PC to benefit*. That's fair enough; Valve really don't want people not playing their game for profit. But I am worried that it'll mean that Idle servers become a thing of the past, because they can be amazing maps to visit and even play on.

An idle map needs only these things: a spawn point for each team, and a room in the middle with a game element. These maps are designed to kill players over and over again. Some say it's to make sure player stats aren't skewed with ultra-long lives, others claim it's to stop servers from kicking players. Beyond that, anything goes. Balance and lines of sight are no concern. Instead the designers fill the space with ingenious traps and strange assault courses designed to make achievement farming easier.

One of my guilty pleasures is to server hop through all non-standard maps and peek into what people have made. I just alphabetise the server browser and pick the maps that don't come with the recognisable TF2 suffixes. The fickle nature of TF2 hosting means these servers aren't always running, but if you're scouring the server browser for an interesting experience, then here are a few to look out for.

Map: achievement_idle
"The perfect space to hone your Heavy boxing skills."

This is the granddaddy of idle servers, and the most basic setup. It consists of three rooms: two spawn rooms facing into a central, uncappable point. The spawn points are kill rooms, with the player's health dropping as soon as they land on the server, and the only place both teams can meet is the centre room, with the smallest loop of a corridor protecting the players from a line-of-sight death. It's basically like sharing a bedroom with a little brother. Everyone is crammed together, giving each other the stink-eye through the spawn room windows. Petty little fights will eventually break out, with each person flipping between multiple classes to attempt to get the upper hand. The perfect space to hone your Heavy boxing skills.

Map: achievement_idle_inferno
"The conveyor belt tips the players into a fiery pit."

On the Red team, it's business as usual: you spawn in a room and you die, or you can have a fun little battle in the central space. But if you only spawn on the Red side you'll miss out on the hat party on the other end of the map. The Blu team spawns on a conveyor belt in a forced conga line beneath a glowing sign that points you to "Free Hats". Never trust a glowing sign. As in life, they always end up in disappointment and murder. The conveyor belt tips the players into a fiery pit before launching their corpses into the air like a diseased cow.

Map: achievement_idle_awesomebox8
"To see the best this map has to offer, you'll have to take a leap of faith."

Awesomebox8 makes a few additions to the stock idle server. Instead of dying in situ, the players are funnelled off onto a conveyor belt. The rooms it drags you through allows other players to kill you, which can help with achievement farming. You can fight anywhere on the map, and there's a boxing ring on top for players to go melee mano-a-mano. To see the best this map has to offer, you'll have to take a leap of faith. Those willing to jump over a certain side will be rewarded with an invisible staircase that takes you to a party in the skybox. As seen above, the engi is the best class to use to get there.

Map: achievement_proud_to_idle
"there's a tennis court for Pyros to practice rocket reflecting."

This is a multipurpose map, designed for dying, achievement mining, and just having fun. The spawn room faces a room with several elevators. Each leads to different area. The achievement area will let you easily fill any gaps in your achievement list, the arena is where you can settle differences with violence, and there's a tennis court for Pyros to practice rocket reflecting. But the memorial hall - filled with portraits of TF2's legendary cast - hides the greatest secret. If you take a running leap at the Spy's portrait, you'll pass through it into a secret Spy room. That's not the only hidden area, either. The looped rope in the Fail room, part of the Memorial Hall, holds its own secrets. But you can find that out for yourself.

Map: achievement_all_v4
"The fighting hides a massive, server-destroying secret."

Achievement maps are the flashier brothers to idle servers. Here you're idling so others might pad their stats by killing you. At first look, achievement_all_v4 has everything you need to grind out achievements: short runs where you can cap points quickly, easy briefcases to capture, even self-building dispensers to sap. You'll join and see an unbalanced fight between teams, where some Blus have given up their existence to Red kill-counts, but the fighting hides a massive, server-destroying secret.

In the corner of each team's spawn area, beside the restock cabinets at the striped walls, is a secret, invisible button. First you need to attack the area around the corner. A pyro is the best choice for this, then you need to hit 'use' on the area. What follows defies belief. A scream fills the server, the ground shakes, then at the back wall of the level a cat rises. The feline fires bees and has laser beams from its eyes. It is unkillable, and everything it fights will die. It's difficult to find: the cat also kills the server, requiring a restart, so not many people are willing to host LAZER DEATH CAT, or if they do they might disable it. The above video shows it looks like when Valve's gimmicked rocket launcher comes up against a kitty death machine.

Map: achievement_turbov14
"There's an entirely new map, filled with games and the Pyro's house."

This map is huge, with separate rooms for different types of achievement farming. It has the feeling of a modern church, built to let attendees worship at the altar of achievements. Both Red and Blu teams spawn in the same area, so it can be tough to figure out the space without getting into impromptu fights, but there are teleports behind the spawn that'll take you away from the madness. The construction of this space is a marvel in itself, but there's a ridiculous added bonus to uncover. Head through the mail hall and the door labelled "achievement boxes". read the instructions on the wall about binding the "use" key, then head around the wall and through the double doors. Don't scream at the Pyro, and run and jump at the Spy portrait. Hit "Use" twice and you'll be through into a secret area. From here it's a few more easy steps to an entirely new map, filled with games and the Pyro's house. There's more, as you'll see in the video above.

*Four items were dropped in the writing of this article
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Team Fortress 2 scout

"Cheaters never prosper" is one of those annoyingly meaningless phrases that's more like an exhalation of fetid air than an actual opinion. Haven't these people heard of SimCity's Shift+FUND? And cheaters have been prospering for years in TF2, where idling players have been gathering up weapons, items and hats without needing to play the game. That particular avenue of prosperity has just been blocked off, though, as Valve have finally put a system in place to reward only active players.

Announced on their blog last night, the new system pauses item drops for anyone not playing the game. Valve describe active as someone who:

Is connected to a VAC secured server.
Is responding to in-game drop notifications while not utilizing external programs to do so.
Is running only one instance of the game.
Is not in textmode.

As long as you meet these requirements, you'll still be earning items - subject to the regular cap rates. Valve say that idlers aren't in danger of VAC bans, having items removed or being penalised in any other way - just that their drops will be suspended until they resume active play.

For more specifics, visit the Team Fortress 2 blog.
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Team Fortress 2

Team Fortress 2 has been updated with the previously teased huge housekeeping patch. Along with the continued and unstoppable flood of new Workshop items, this update also tweaks and rebalances weapons, and brings a round of fixes to smooth over the glitches and exploits found in older maps. They've even made changes to Hydro - proving, perhaps, that the Territorial Control game mode is only partially beyond redemption.

It's not all about tidying up, though. We also get two new community Control Point maps: Process and Standin. In addition, 60 new items (read: mostly hats) have made the jump from Workshop to game, using Valve's new community verification tool. This speeds up the process by applying a series of conditions to a proposed item, and awarding a gold star to those that pass the tests. Valve hope that it will increase the rate at which they can introduce new items to the game. Because what's a hat simulator without a steady flow of new headwear?

Finally they've unleashed "Summer Cooler Keys", the Crate opening summer variant that is further proof - if it were needed - that the Steam Summer Sale is imminently incoming. Like, almost certainly later today.

You can find the full changelist on the TF2 update post. If you're anything like me, you'll be straight there and Ctrl+F'ing for your favourite weapon in the hope that it's been left unchanged.
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The upcoming update to Team Fortress 2 appears to me mostly janitorial - sweeping up things that have, in the months and years since their introduction, started to look a bit dirty. Previously, Valve detailed the changes planned for exploit-filled maps like Badwater. Now, they're turning to the weapons, hoping to better balance the staggering arsenal that has been packed into the game.

"We'll be tweaking the stats on dozens of weapons in this next update," Valve reveal, before going on to discuss the thinking behind some of the changes that they're making. For starters, they point to the Soldier's banner variant, The Battalion's Backup, as a problem item - with only 15% of its owners ever equipping it.

"Previously, The Battalion's Backup rewarded players for taking additional damage, making it a frustratingly high-risk item," Valve continue. "We found that most Soldiers would die well before they were able to build a full charge. When the next update ships, The Battalion's Backup builds up its charge by dealing damage rather than receiving it and provides additional damage resistance while active."

Good news for Soldiers then. Spies, meanwhile, are going to have slightly less of an easy ride, thanks to changes being made to the Dead Ringer - and item with roughly an 80% equip rate. "In our next update, the Dead Ringer will work generally the same way it always has, letting Spies feign death to escape from damage that would have otherwise killed them. However, now any damage the Spy takes after his "death" will decrease the maximum length of time he can spend cloaked. This gives any players chasing the Spy more of an opportunity to catch up and deal a real finishing blow, while also requiring more skill from any Spy trying to make his way to actual safety."

Item sets are also getting an overhaul, with Valve claiming two major problems with the existing system. "For one, they limited player choice, making players feel like they would be underpowered if not wearing the complete set. For another, it was a balancing nightmare. An individual item that might be balanced as part of a set could feel underpowered (or overpowered) on its own."

Also, Valve note that set bonuses were often 'invisible', with no way for players to tell who had all three items needed for the extra buff. Personally, I'd argue that tying specific bonuses to hard-to-get, nominally "cosmetic" items was a bad move, and as close as the game has come into tipping into pay-to-win territory, but it's the result that matters: bonuses are being moved to specific items within the sets, with new non-balance destroying bonuses for those who've spent time collecting a full set.

As yet, there's no definite date for this unnamed update, beyond "soon".
PC Gamer

The wonderful hat-trading, item-crafting Valve experiment that is Team Fortress 2 is about to get an all-important update that adds two new community maps while fixing some rather heinous exploits along the way.

Those who have fallen victim to spawn-campers and sentry-jumpers no longer need to live in terror as the Team Fortress 2 team says it has fixed the exploit in all maps, but noted Badwater as being the most notorious battleground for nefarious deeds.

“It didn't take long before clever players discovered how to use sentry jumping to build on roofs, Jumpers to move quickly behind enemy lines and spawn camp, and sneakily place buildings inside of their spawns,” the TF2 team said in a blog post. “While we love players coming up with new and inventive ways to win, let's face it: It's never fun to be gunned down from above and behind.”

The team also announced it’s adding two community-made Capture Point maps called “Process” and “Standin” due to their intuitive design. The team challenged other TF2 map makers to construct even better maps if they wished to be recognized as well.
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