Is Steam power the future?

Downloading a game from Steam is admirably painless unless you're impatient, but even then if you order a game before release - say the upcoming Half-Life 2 expansion Episode One - the system will "preload" most of it before the day of release. Then all you need to download on the appointed date are a few final files. Tidy.

Of course, you'll need to pay, but cutting out the boxes, discs, distribution and middlemen means Valve can offer things surprisingly cheaply. Even its mainstay Half-Life 2 is only $29.99. In fact, the majority of games are between $9.95 and $19.95 each. Some, including demos and older expansions (such as Half-Life's Blue Shift) are free if you register your old CD key.

That all sounds very handy. So how did it get its bad reputation? Several factors conspired around the launch of Half-Life 2 to cause considerable problems. Initially, far fewer people had broadband in 2004 than do now, and those on dial-up faced repeated disconnections, irritatingly large downloads to update both Steam and the game, and a confusing, inaccurate interface. Those with no connection found they couldn't play their offline, single-player game... Worse still, Valve had failed to make this obvious.

In 2006 though, more gamers have the necessarily hefty connections and are more willing/able to own something with no physical identity. Software enhancements have made buying and running Steam games easier; an always-on broadband connection makes it pretty much essential.

But what should you be playing? It's already hard to choose just five games from the Steam line-up, so we've stuck to what's already available. This means ignoring both the highly promising first-person shooter SiN Episodes (due out May 10) and the H-L2 expansion formerly known as Aftermath - now known as "Episode One". Just these two titles alone are worth getting very excited about, but make no mistake, there's plenty more where that came from.

Just click through the tabs to the left for our top five Steam games you must own ...