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Credit: Valve

The Week in Gaming: Valve takes on the Switch with Steam Deck; Zelda HD reissue; The Witcher upgrade; & more

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Jul 16, 2021, 2:40 PM EDT

Welcome to The Week in Gaming, the place where we pause each week to take a look at the video game news beats both big and small that you might be missing — while also taking a peek around the corner at what's ahead. Check in each Friday for news (and occasionally even views) on everything from sprawling RPGs to Metroidvania platformers to the latest in VR and free-to-play. We'll even throw in a good old-fashioned board game every now and then!

The Nintendo Switch is about to get some company in the portable gaming console space it’s had all to itself since the demise of the PlayStation Vita. The Steam Deck is coming, and, like the Switch, it’s a hybrid all-in-one device that’s just as happy operating in handheld mode as it is casting games to a big screen from its drop-in docking station.

Half-Life maker Valve, better known these days as the corporate brains behind the Steam store, unveiled the Steam Deck this week as a Steam-optimized handheld console that just so happens to double as a full-featured PC. There’s a lot of significance in that seemingly all-encompassing description, though: The Steam Deck may be built to make playing Steam games easy and seamless, but unlike a closed-ecosystem device like the Switch or Vita, owners will be free to use it just as they would any other PC — even if that means playing games from the Epic Store (Steam’s big PC gaming competitor).

The Steam Deck certainly looks like a portable gaming console, incorporating some of the design savvy that Valve already has under its belt with previous hardware like the Index VR headset and the now-defunct Steam controller. From a distance, it looks a lot like the Switch, with a left-right controller setup and the ability to function in home mode with a (separately purchased) dock or store a battery charge for gaming on the go. 

But the rest of its similarities veer toward the PC side, with a generously customizable control setup (including four assignable grip buttons on the back), a pair of touch pads that can mimic the function of a desktop mouse control setup, and a Linux-based platform that comes out of the box with a tailor-made operating system built specifically to make dialing up your Steam library feel as easy as booting up any gaming console.

Credit: Valve

The Steam Deck runs on SteamOS, a dedicated operating system “built with Steam Deck in mind and optimized for a handheld gaming experience,” according to Valve. Think of that as an out-of-the-box starting point for anyone who wants to treat the Steam Deck just like a Switch or Vita: turn it on, log on to Steam, and start playing from a streamlined menu interface. But, as IGN summarized in a deep hands-on dive, the ceiling for tinkering is nearly infinite.

“[Y]ou can do pretty much anything on the Steam Deck that you can do with a regular PC,” IGN reports, adding that the Steam Deck accepts any USB-compatible peripherals (including game controllers, keyboard & mouse, and even VR gear). “Connect a mouse and keyboard? Yep. Alt-Tab out of your games to a browser or video? Sure. Load third-party programs or even other game stores like Origin, uPlay, or Epic Games Store? No problem. You could even wipe Steam OS entirely and install a fresh version of Windows if you want – but the default Steam OS is smooth and efficient at getting you into your games…The point is, you can if you’d like to.”

What about the tech specs? Valve shares all the geeky details here, but the Steam Deck essentially crams bespoke modern PC hardware into a form factor that’s meant to be treated like a gaming station. There’s wifi (of course); the 7’’ screen is fully touch-sensitive; a gyroscope comes built in for precision aiming and motion control; a 40Wh battery that Valve rates at 2-8 hours of use (depending on load); expandable microSD card storage, and — well, a whole lot more. 

The Steam Deck won’t go on sale until December, but at first blush it feels like a device that's ripe for a warm reception. As of earlier this year (via Tech Radar), the Steam Store was averaging more than 120 million active users per month — fresh off setting a February all-time record for concurrently logged-in players (more than 26 million).

The new hybrid machine will launch with three configurations at three price points, with the amount of on-board storage (64GB, 256GB, and 512GB) the chief difference between them. The base 64GB Steam Deck starts at $399, with greater storage from faster NVMe SSD internal hard drives bumping the cost for the 256GB and 512GB models to $529 and $649, respectively. 

The two pricier versions also throw in some additional goodies the base package lacks — including a spiffy-looking carrying case and, in the top-tier model, a “premium anti-glare etched glass” display. Valve kicks off advance reservations for all three flavors starting today, so if putting your Steam library in a sleek, Switch-sized package sounds like an idea whose time has come, head over to Valve’s Steam Deck queue to hop in line early.

Skyward Sword ascends on Switch

Credit: Nintendo

Slowly, Nintendo seems to be bringing some of the biggest success stories from its earlier 3D-gaming days over to the Switch. Last year’s release of Super Mario 3D All-Stars filled a big void by finally making Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, and Super Mario Galaxy available on Nintendo’s current-gen hardware — and now, one of Link’s most important adventures (his very first, in fact, in the Hyrule timeline) has come sailing onto the Switch. 

Nintendo on YouTube

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword hits the Switch today as an HD-optimized port of the motion-controlled Wii game that first debuted in 2011. The new version comes with boosted visuals that kick the resolution up to 1080p, alongside a frame rate that aims for 60 FPS (and hits it, according to VGC). The Wii’s motion control scheme survives intact for players who want to use the Switch’s pair of Joy Con controllers, though Nintendo has also revised the original game’s sword-slashing setup to work with a conventional Switch Pro controller, if button mashing’s more your thing. 

Link’s fall from his safely-ensconced childhood home in the cloud-shrouded land of Skyloft marks the canonical start of the branching, alternate history-infused Zelda timeline, and Skyward Sword’s story and gameplay received plenty of glowing praise from critics in its original Wii incarnation. The new version currently sits at a nice 81 aggregate score at Metacritic, with the graphics, the versatile controls, and (in the biggest change of all) the ability to finally control the camera all standing out in reviewers’ more or less universal launch-day love. 

In part because of its original release timing, and in part because its painterly art style and polarizing motion controls divided fans, Skyward Sword has remained among the most under-the-radar of all the mainline Zelda games. Today's arrival of the HD version fixes that at last, giving fans a fresh chance to start with Link at the beginning in a game whose Switch improvements will likely make it the definitive version for many. But it admittedly leaves us pining for Switch-boosted versions of more Zelda 3D hits, from N64 classics Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask, to GameCube greats Wind Waker and Twilight Princess

Hey, we’re already in a holding pattern while we wait for next year’s Switch sequel to Breath of the Wild. Who can blame us if we dare to ask for the whole Zelda enchilada while we're at it?

Spare parts

NeverwinterGame on YouTube

Dungeons & Dragons-based action MMORPG Neverwinter is getting a fresh update with Jewel of the North, an upcoming expansion that adds a new Bard class (for some old-school D&D flavor), along with a slew of quality-of-life player enhancements. Among other things, those include “a new streamlined leveling system which makes it easier for all players to experience the many adventures the free-to-play Dungeons & Dragons action MMORPG has to offer,” according to publisher Perfect World Entertainment.

Neverwinter: Jewel of the North arrives as a free add-on for PC players on July 27, ahead of its console debut for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One later this fall.

- Among the bevy of big Witcher reveals during this week’s Witchercon was news that CD Projekt RED’s The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is heading to new-gen consoles in an upgraded form, one that adds new DLC content inspired by the Netflix series (though details are slight) — plus all the graphical and performance boosts we’re coming to expect from AAA titles as they make the move to PlayStaton 5 and Xbox Series X/S. There’s no firm release date yet, but expect the boosted version of The Witcher 3 to arrive sometime before the end of the year — just in time for all the buzz surrounding the TV series’ Dec. 17 Season 2 premiere.

- Ghostwire Tokyo, Bethesda’s long-developing spooky paranormal adventure game, has been delayed until sometime next year. Developer Tango Gameworks tweeted this week that the team needs more time, without the pressures of last-minute crunch, to flesh out its haunted horror vision of Tokyo, and said it’s taking aim at a PC and PlayStation 5 release sometime during the early part of next year.

- While we’re on Bethesda, the annual QuakeCon fan festival is going all-digital again this year for QuakeCon at Home. The Aug. 19-21 celebration takes the event’s customary bring-your-own-computer LAN party tournament (held annually in Dallas) off site for an online-only stream that will feature “engaging panels and exciting tournaments, along with multiple ways to connect with friends around the world,” according to organizers. Specifics — including which Bethesda games we can expect to see — are coming soon; stay tuned at the QuakeCom at Home 2021 website for more news as it comes.

- Weird as it sounds, it’s apparently possible even for digital versions of video games to completely sell out. Something close to that strange scenario unfolded earlier this week as thousands of new and returning players flocked simultaneously to Final Fantasy XIV, which despite being eight years old is enjoying its biggest surge ever in present-day popularity.

Via GamesRadar+, clamor was so high to snap up PC versions of FFXIV last weekend that Square Enix exhausted all of its pre-generated access codes (which are made to match anticipated server demand), leading to a literal “out of stock” message at the game’s online storefront. And it all happened in the mad dash to snag a product that, at least technically, only exists as a bunch of digital ones and zeroes.

FF XIV has gained legions of new fans with every fresh installment in its sprawling, multi-year storyline, and the next one — Endwalker — is just around the corner. With the upcoming expansion set to launch on Nov. 23 for PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, PC, and macOS, Endwalker released system benchmark requirements earlier this week. That means you’ll at least have plenty of time to get your gear in top playing shape…even if PC copies of FFXIV are still hard to come by in November.