PC Modern Warfare 2 locked in Steam time vault

If you bought Modern Warfare 2 at retail, you can play it today, but if you bought it online at Steam, you're locked out.

If you purchased a copy of Modern Warfare 2 through Steam, caveat emptor, because you won't be able to play it today along with everyone else. Yes, Infinity Ward's operatic military-shooter goes on sale today for Windows, Xbox 360, or PlayStation 3 platforms at brick-and-mortar retailers--in fact the game went on sale unofficially several days ago when GameStop corporate loosed the hounds on street-date-snapping mom-and-pop stores and phoned their pre-sells to come in and snatch up copies.

But Steam online pre-sells? Gamers who've long since preloaded Modern Warfare 2, where the game code's literally ready and waiting on their hard drives? They're able to play today as well, right?

Ready... Set... Wait!

Yes, wait. Sadly, inexplicably, maddeningly, Valve's elected to exacerbate the Modern Warfare 2 launch kerfuffle by delaying availability of the online-bought Steam version until Thursday, November 12th. This, despite the fact that the retail versions available today, November 10th, are also the Steam versions of Modern Warfare 2.

Even PC retail pre-sells who managed to get their mitts on the game from street-breaking stores were told they'd have to wait until Tuesday to play, despite the fact that nothing prevented console buyers from doing so.

All courtesy Valve's digital rights management technology, which allows Valve to decide on its own demonstrably mercurial terms who gets to play, and when.

You've probably read that Activision elected to slip Valve's Steamworks technology into both retail and digitally downloadable PC versions of Modern Warfare 2. If you've bought a retail copy of the PC version of the game, you're playing through the same intermediary access technology as someone who bought their copy online.

I learned about the online-version delay in roundabout fashion this morning. I fired up my PC and the Steam client over breakfast, expecting Modern Warfare's status to blink up "Available," only to discover it locked tight, still, with a 'November 12' release offering cold comfort. Kotaku Australia confirmed the news this morning.

The breaking response on Steam's Modern Warfare 2 boards has so far been scathing.

"I will NEVER pre-order through Steam again," wrote one user. "The idea that I can play it sooner by buying the retail version just breaks the last straw for me. I don't care if it is or isn't Steam's fault, the point remains the same: I am punished for pre-purchasing and pre-downloading the game. Fact."

"Unfortunately these issues seem to be setting Steam up to remain the backseat driver when it comes to PC gaming sales," wrote another.

"[Y]ou can't generate... big media hype around the game, entice gamers... build up expectations... and then go like meh, whatever, i'll allow them to play when I feel like it," wrote a third. "I don't know about you, but that sucks hard."

Valve's not offering a "why" (yet -- email inquiries dispatched per usual) but Kotaku speculates it might have something to do with capacity load. That probably part of it, though I'd wager Valve and Activision did some back-room dealing with retailers to help bolster retail sales -- sales that benefit both retailers and Valve for a change.

Modern Warfare 2 is the gaming event of 2009. Analysts estimate it'll annihilate revenue records held in any other entertainment medium. Logistical desirability notwithstanding, Valve can't afford to have Steam choking off the block due to server overflow. Yes, Steam's morphed from a simple online storefront into a nosy, contentious digital rights management tool whose tangible benefits are increasingly clear as mud, but if that DRM tool suddenly comes between "playing" and "not-playing," the backlash could snap the service's back.

Of course Steam's already come between for online pre-purchasers. What's the difference between Steam crashing repeatedly during the game's first couple days and not being able to play the game for another 48 hours?

Zilch.

Update: If you're thinking about canceling your Steam pre-purchase and buying a retail PC copy today, reports on Steam's MW2 boards are that you'll have to create a new Steam account to get the game running, as the old one's tethered to your pre-purchase. Gamers who pre-purchased, then grabbed a retail copy at the launch parties last night and canceled the pre-purchase, are reporting it won't run.

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Matt Peckham

PC World (US online)

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