Note: I'm aware this review doesn't have much to do with the subject of the site, but I have nowhere else to put this and I treat making reviews as a general writing exercise, so I think it is allowed. If it isn't, I sincerely apologize.
Steam is a massively-multiplayer card collecting and hat trading simulator with an exciting and unique game selling feature. I'm kidding, but only a little bit - that's the messed up thing.
If you've ever played a modern PC game, you've probably at least heard of Steam. It's almost impossible to avoid, actually. That's a big part of the problem. Steam is an application created by Valve Software (a company known for creating Half-Life, Portal and Team Fortress) for the sale, distribution, and playing of computer games. There are other apps like this, most notably GoG and Origin. But GoG focuses more on classic and independent games while Origin is pretty much an EA advertising botnet. Technically, it could be argued that Steam is the same thing, but we'll avoid that discussion.
Steam is more notable than any other game app because of the massive size of its library. As of this writing, Valve boasts that over six thousand games are available through steam, with 55 new games added each week. With very little room for exception, it's safe to say that Steam pretty much IS PC gaming. Sure, companies like Blizzard and EA generally manage to avoid Steam thanks to their size, but just about every other company under the sun HAS to release their game on Steam if they want anyone to play it at all.
So, how does the service itself hold up? Well, everything Steam *needs* to do, it does. It functions just the way it should - you buy a game, you go to your library and you play it. Every bare minimum requirement is fulfilled, and if a game isn't functioning properly it's always the developer's fault, not Valve's. Steam even lets you refund a game if you've played less than 4 hours of it. So, if a game simply doesn't work, you'll most likely get your money back.
Unfortunately, even though Steam functions the way it's supposed to, it's still riddled with problems. The platform is extremely cumbersome, with game and system files assembled in a gigantic block that's very difficult to navigate. To play any of the games you bought on Steam, you'll pretty much have to be logged into the app. Some tech-savvy folks can find rather simple workarounds for this (like just launching the exe file) but if your game has any online functions you're going to have to suck it up and turn the damn app on to make it work.
The Steam application has several useful functions: a screenshot sorting system, a chat box, and a music playlist. These are all things that can be handled easily by other apps, but it's nice to have it all together in one, especially since Steam is pretty system intensive. If you plan on running your internet browser and Skype at the same time you play a Steam game, expect to lose at least one frame a second if you're not on a powerful rig.
Now I'm going to talk about the community market system, which is Steam's biggest and most obnoxious problem and something that really represents everything I dislike about the application.
Steam Greenlight is a feature that allows independent developers to submit their games (for a certain price) to be reviewed and eventually sold on Steam. While it's great for indie developers, the system is extremely broken as of this writing and needs major reform.
You would think the point of Greenlight was to let the community view these games and approve or reject them based on their quality. But that's not true at all. Practically every game, so long as it isn't malware or an explosive device, will be approved. There is a button you can press to tell Steam you aren't interested, but that has no effect on whether or not the game gets approved. Aside from collecting data to fine-tune your searches, it does absolutely nothing.
As a natural consequence, tons of really, really bad games get through Greenlight. Shovelware, broken games, unfinished games, games with no purpose, games that aren't fun and games that are just plain awful. Not only does letting all these crappy games through the system flood the market with garbage, it really undermines the reputation of Steam. With no quality control of any kind for Greenlight, Steam starts to feel less like a gaming platform and more like a dumping ground for rejected Newgrounds games.
I almost don't wanna talking about the Trading Card system because it makes me so mad. Steam Trading Cards is a system where, as you play a game, virtual cards will be sent to your in-app inventory. These cards are based on characters, items and locations in the game you're currently playing. You can't play a real game with them like Hearthstone, but you can collect sets and trade them. Sounds fun, right? It's like a whole extra game in the platform you already use to play your games, and you earn cards by playing the games you like! Sounds amazing, doesn't it?
The problem is, naturally, Steam has to have a way to make money off of this, or it wouldn't be worth the effort. But rather than trying to find an ethical way to make this profitable, Steam uses its card system as a downright Ponzi scheme.
See, every card is part of a "set" based on the game that gives them to you. To earn cards from a set, you have to play the game it's based on - but here's the catch: you can only earn half the cards in a set by playing the game. You have to buy the rest from the community market, an online auction house that uses real money. Even though users sell these cards, Steam gets 30% of all transactions. Considering each card sells for less than ten cents, you won't see a huge profit selling off these cards.
To make matters worse, games have a chance to drop duplicates of cards you already have. They can even just drop one card, but as long as the number of times it drops that card is equal to half the cards in the set, it still happens. This means you have to buy and sell even more cards to complete a set.
What happens when you complete a set? Well, you can earn a collectible badge and "points" for you account. But to do that, you have to "craft" the cards together, effectively destroying them. So you're not even collecting cards - they're totally disposable. You just melt them down to earn points. As you earn points, you "level up" your account, giving you access to different features; some of them almost VITAL to using the app properly.
If your level is too low, there's a big red circle of shame next to your name telling others users you're bad because you haven't given Valve enough money. To get a green circle, you have to spend an outrageous amount of money and time. You even have to earn "levels" to gain access to certain features of the app. You can try to ignore the card system entirely, but Steam will still spam your inbox with the useless things.
So, it's all just one big scam to drain the extra pennies out of your account disguised as a fun card game. It's an absolutely insidious, greedy and downright scummy pyramid scheme. Seriously, someone should look it up and see if this fits the definition of "pyramid scheme" because I think it comes pretty damn close.
The Community Market that you buy and sell the cards on is now locked to "approved" users. To become an approved user, you have to download an app on your smartphone that collects your data. This app locks your account out, ostensibly to make it safer. Every minute it has a code you have to enter along with your password, constantly changing and meaning you'll have to race against the clock and pull out your smartphone just to log into your account.
These features aren't just annoying, they're downright malicious. Between all this nonsense and the flood of terrible games that spam the application, Steam almost feels like malware at times. But if you plan on playing a huge majority of PC games, you'll need it.
For the basic stuff, Steam does everything it needs to and is a safe and fair program. It's only once you get into the extra features that the app becomes downright predatory. Avoid the cards and the market, forget the points and the badges and just play the games if you have to download it.
In terms of necessity, Steam gets a 10/10. In terms of actual quality, however, Steam just barely rates a 5/10. And that's being generous. If that sounds too mean, try unhooking your account from Steam Guard after installing and activating it. It'll be the most informative two hours of your life.