PC Gamer
PC Gamer

Aperture Science isn't the only one with a secret underground base. Deep in the Antarctic lies a hidden subterranean facility, filled with puzzles, lined with traps, and shrouded in mystery. Why is it there? What is its purpose?  Below the Ice, a mod for Half-Life 2, invites you to find out. Just watch your step.

Looks simple, but this place is not your friend.

The mod begins with you arriving in the Antarctic, where you quickly stumble upon the entrance to a facility buried in a glacier. There's a sign warning against trespassers, which feels a bit pointless. You've either traveled all the way to the north south pole and aren't going to turn around and go home because of a sign, or you're a polar bear penguin and you can't read anyway.

Entering this facility requires passing a bit of an intelligence test in a number of grid-like puzzle chambers. Many involve the simple pushing of buttons, though figuring out how to reach those buttons, and what those buttons actually do, can take a while. The chambers aren't particularly forgiving if you make a mistake, either. Prepare to be crushed, fried, or fall to your death if you slip up.

This is how I solve puzzles. With a crowbar.

Once you've convinced the puzzle chambers you've got a brain in your head, you're granted access to the rest of the facility, which appears to have been abandoned. While exploring, you'll discover living quarters, science labs, and a series of offices. There, you'll begin to piece together the story behind the facility, which ties in to both the fiction of Half-Life 2 and Portal. It's not just a matter of walking around and reading notes: even though you've escaped the test chambers, there are still plenty of puzzles to solve to gain access to the facility's control rooms, observation chambers, and science labs.

I suspect they're not planning you give you a haircut.

The more you progress, the more the facility begins to reveal its secrets, and its true size. While you're navigating the place, unlocking doors, turning on lights, locating missing pieces of technology, dabbling in teleportation, and piecing together its history, also keep an eye out for a series of memory sticks. Find enough of them hidden throughout the mod and it will give you an alternate ending.

Companion cubes aren't quite as heartwarming here.

There's probably a few hours of play here, depending on your smarts. Some of the puzzles aren't particularly sophisticated: to progress, it's generally more important to carefully examine your surroundings for clues than to be some sort of 10th Level Puzzle Wizard. There's some decent music throughout, and while the map's set dressing is a bit plain, and a few custom textures are a little underwhelming, it's a nice mod if you're in the mood for some gently-paced puzzle solving.

Dude, I can't solve this with you watching me.

You can grab the mod here and untangle the mystery for yourself. To install, extract the folder into your sourcemods directory (\Steam\steamapps\sourcemods), and restart Steam. Below the Ice will appear in your library. You'll also require Half-Life 2 and Source SDK Base 2013 single-player. You can find the latter by viewing your Games Library in your Steam client, selecting "Tools," and double-clicking it from the list.

PC Gamer

Something is happening over at BMRF.US, a website associated with the Source-based Half-Life remake Black Mesa: Source. The site is repeating an emergency broadcast warning of "a disaster of unknown type" that has occurred at the Black Mesa Research Facility, and ordering the immediate evacuation of everyone within 75 miles. Half-Life 3 confirmed?

Well, no, I think we can safely say that's not it. But the warning may have something to do with a coming launch of Black Mesa: Source as a stand-alone game on Steam. It was originally released as a free mod in 2012, and in late 2013 was among the first games to get the Greenlight on Steam—a somewhat surprising development, given that it's based entirely on Valve's intellectual property.

It's generally assumed that when the commercial launch rolls around, it will include the Xen levels, which weren't included with the original mod. According to a post on the Black Mesa: Source forums, however, one of the developers said the alert "has nothing to do with the imminent release of Xen," but added that more hints may be in the offing.

It's worth remembering that the BMRF site was actually part of the Black Mesa: Source ARG that launched shortly after the mod was released, and as noted by Reddit, the site is owned by the Black Mesa web developer. It's legit, in other words, but legit what, exactly, remains a mystery.

PC Gamer

Something is happening over at BMRF.US, a website associated with the Source-based Half-Life remake Black Mesa: Source. The site is repeating an emergency broadcast warning of "a disaster of unknown type" that has occurred at the Black Mesa Research Facility, and ordering the immediate evacuation of everyone within 75 miles. Half-Life 3 confirmed?

Well, no, I think we can safely say that's not it. But the warning may have something to do with a coming launch of Black Mesa: Source as a stand-alone game on Steam. It was originally released as a free mod in 2012, and in late 2013 was among the first games to get the Greenlight on Steam—a somewhat surprising development, given that it's based entirely on Valve's intellectual property.

It's generally assumed that when the commercial launch rolls around, it will include the Xen levels, which weren't included with the original mod. According to a post on the Black Mesa: Source forums, however, one of the developers said the alert "has nothing to do with the imminent release of Xen," but added that more hints may be in the offing.

It's worth remembering that the BMRF site was actually part of the Black Mesa: Source ARG that launched shortly after the mod was released, and as noted by Reddit, the site is owned by the Black Mesa web developer. It's legit, in other words, but legit what, exactly, remains a mystery.

Rock, Paper, Shotgun - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Alice O'Connor)

What a cute little Citadel!

Way back when RPS was a wee bairn, Alec gurgled and waved his flabby babyfists at Half-Life 2: Wars, a mod turning Valve’s FPS into a Company of Heroes-ish RTS. Pistol squads facing off against headcrab zombies, breaking out RPGs to take down Combine gunships, and all that. Well, RPS has grown a lot since then, as has Alec, and so has HL2: Wars too. Having renamed itself Lambda Wars (it tried Spike but the other mods at school were merciless>), it’s matured over the years and is now available on Steam as a standalone game free for all. You don’t even need to own Half-Life.

… [visit site to read more]

PC Gamer

Half-Life 3 it ain't, but if it's a new Half-Life game you crave then maybe Lambda Wars will do the trick. An RTS spin on the Half-Life universe, Lambda Wars has been kicking around the modding community for a while as HL2: Wars, but now it's absolutely standalone and most winningly, free. The beta has been available since the weekend. 

The game uses the Alien Swarm engine, but as a newly standalone offering you won't need a copy of that nor any Source Engine game to run this. As either the Combine or Resistance you can play online with up to eight human or AI players.

Check out the trailer below:

Rock, Paper, Shotgun - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Graham Smith)

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game recommendations. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.>

You read the headline and the tea spurts from your mouth. “Have I pla–!?” Half-Life! The gall of it! To suggest that not every PC owner has already experienced Valve’s formative first-person shooter. The frivolity of it! To give space to those who have might enjoy reminiscing or celebrating a game long loved but no longer frequently discussed.

I know> – I’m just a mess about it myself.

… [visit site to read more]

PC Gamer

November 16th, 2004 was a red letter day on both sides of the screen. The original Half-Life had redefined the FPS as an immersive experience instead of merely a series of missions, and no-one expected its follow-up to do anything less. Few were disappointed. In City 17, Valve created one of the most coherent and ambitious worlds ever seen in gaming—and if it looks a little primitive now, it s because so many since have followed in its footsteps. BioShock Infinite s opening for instance works almost entirely to Half-Life 2 s now dog-eared playbook, offering greater fidelity and a more exciting city, but recognizably the same style.

What Half-Life 2 really brought to the industry wasn t new ideas… though it absolutely had them… but demonstration after demonstration of how things both could and should be. Alyx Vance for instance was an effective sidekick and a fun character, but it was her ability to make a connection with the player through things like eye contact that elevated her above her others—something shared by fellow Source engine game Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines, especially with characters like Jeanette and your pet ghoul Heather. She could shoot a worried look. She could smile, and have the smile go further than her lips. She could go directly from being your wing-woman to interacting with the world, from having conversations to fixing something, all as smoothly as Half-Life managed to never break perspective as you went from random lab geek to savior of two different worlds. She d even climb and vault over things instead of simply walking around the old fashioned way, easier as that would have been to script.

That sense of flow is what really defined Half-Life 2—sequences bleeding into one another to create the feel of an unbroken journey (give or take a loading screen). It was a game of smooth traversal around the maps, of combat bleeding into story, and each major section, most famously zombified Ravenholm, casually experimenting with the formula. Every cool bit offered something new and most left us wanting more, even if the radical shifts did take away much of the original Half-Life s thematic consistency. Every not-so-cool bit, like the dull start of Sandtraps (a vehicle section that paled in comparison to what Valve was able to pull off by Episode 2) was short enough not to be that big a deal, and something else was always on its way. While admittedly the story sequences are interminable by modern standards, the action was all about peaks and troughs that allowed both intensity and time to savor the craft.

On top of that came the details; a hundred things designed to be absorbed rather than directly noticed. The soundscape for instance, with the Combine announcements using medical terminology to describe uprising—Gordon Freeman as a staph infection —or the Combine s logo—an outreached claw almost, but not quite, absorbing a small world. It s a subtle detail, but one of many told through level design rather than audio logs or cutscenes. Others include visiting rusted playgrounds of a world without children, and seeing the empty seas that have left ships high and dry—the terraforming inflicted on the natural world mirroring the shift from old and human to new and alien that you see throughout City 17.

One of the most subtle, though much borrowed since, is the way that Valve tends to show new mechanics off three times—first with no pressure, then some pressure, and then for real to be sure the player has grasped and understood it, before it becomes an assumed skill. The gravity gun for instance. First you just move a solid box into position to meet Alyx. Then her robot Dog throws other boxes at you for you to catch. Then, it s zombie fighting time.

Speaking of fighting zombies, we can t overlook the physics engine—used in Ravenholm to let you hurl sawblades. Half-Life 2 was one of the first FPS games to go big on physics, for two basic uses. The first was, honestly, showing off. They were a novelty then, which came through in a lot of puzzles like pushing barrels under a platform to be able to cross it. Looking back, they re a little eye-rolling. At the time though, they were pretty cool. It s no secret that Half-Life 2 was at least in part a demo of Source, with these bits standing out even at the time as largely the equivalent of early 3D card lens flare effects. Cool, but gimmicky. When it showed them off, or put us in a vehicle, it was at least partly saying Look what we can do!

The big benefit though was creating a world that felt right, in stark contrast to the largely static worlds of the previous generation; of games like Return To Castle Wolfenstein and Medal of Honor. Again, yes, it s a bit showy to have a guard at the start insist you pick up and throw a cup into a trash can just to shout PHYSICS! What mattered though was that from there you both feel the benefit of them in every interaction with the world, big and small, and immediately start bemoaning their absence in any game that doesn t have them. The rolling and floating of flaming barrels in water. Debris flying off as it felt like it should.

It all added, in much the same way that the original Half-Life s responsive skeletal animation system instantly made conventional frame-based animations intolerably stiff. When Valve called its behind-the-scenes book Raising The Bar, it wasn t kidding. Half-Life 2 was an amazing game, but its crucial, lasting influence was less about the new things it did (as important as they ve been) as showing how the familiar deserved to be done.

Unforeseen consequences

Which of course brings us to its shining achievement—Steam. To sum up Steam s unpopularity in 2004 would leave no words left to describe ebola, lawyers, or Piers Morgan. And not without cause. It was buggy, it was ugly, there was no missing that Valve was outright forcing it down our throats out of nowhere, and the much crappier bandwidth of the day made being told to download games of this size almost offensive in its arrogance. It would be a long, long time before Steam even got close to the service that at least most of us know and love today, instead of its name just getting tacked onto the words ing pile of shit.

But. With Half-Life 2, Valve had a game that managed to get the necessary traction to create the service we know today, and while nobody would claim it s perfect, nothing else has done so much to legitimize and make digital distribution work. Much as it took Apple to break the music industry s obsession with DRM on MP3 files, it took Steam to show the whole industry that the game had changed. The idea that you d be able to redownload your games in perpetuity for instance was heresy to companies that at best wanted that to be another service. Being able to download them onto any machine instead of them being locked to a single PC, or maybe three, or five? That just wasn t done. Valve was the first major company to build a digital download service that people actually wanted to use, that made the experience of buying games online better. Without Half-Life 2 though, who would have used it? Without that audience, who would ever have agreed to let a competitor sell their games? Half-Life 2 didn t just give the FPS a shot in the arm, it changed the entire industry.

It wasn t a perfect game. It was far more a series of cool things than Half-Life s journey, it was heartbreaking to be taken out of City 17 almost immediately in favor of being consigned to the countryside, the story was primitive and a few of the set-pieces dragged on far too long. It held up pretty well for years, but looking back, yes, it s now a bit long in the tooth. Few games though have had a more lasting impact in so many ways, or can be deservedly held up as both paragon and pioneer. Fewer still have done it so well, they re still being copied a decade later.

Now then, Valve, about that Half-Life 3…

PC Gamer
PC Gamer

Every year, the month of November is notable for two events. The beginning of the month is marked by people muttering to themselves "Oh my God, it's November already?" and the end, in the U.S. at least, is celebrated by surrounding ourselves with cousins whose kids' names we can't remember and eating food until we explode.

This particular November is also notable for a milestone in PC gaming: the 10th anniversary of the release of Half-Life 2. This will no doubt inspire many nostalgic replays of Valve's landmark FPS, and Mod of the Week is here to make a suggestion about how best to walk another mile in Gordon Freeman's boots.

There's no shortage of full-conversion mods for HL2, and many of them are great and well worth your time, but today we're looking at mods that keep the original story intact as opposed to providing an entirely new experience. Enhancement mods, in other words. What's actually out there to improve the game?

Our first stop was to pay a visit to the simply named "Update" mod. Half-Life 2: Episodes One and Two provided a bit of a graphical upgrade over the original game, mostly in the form of better textures and slicker effects, but Valve never bothered to retrofit HL2 with these improvements. Modder Filip Victor took it on himself, but unfortunately, when HL2 was moved over to SteamPipe, it wound up breaking the mod. A fix, while promised in 2014, has yet to materialize. 

There were also rumblings about an ENB for HL2 that was sadly never released by the modder who did the same for the original Half-Life. No luck there. I also installed this ENB that purports to add depth-of-field and SSAO, but despite following the instructions I wasn't able to activate it in-game. Hurm. I'm zero for three.

That leaves us with pretty much a single option for souping up HL2 graphically: FakeFactory's Cinematic Mod. The name probably sounds familiar: it's been around for a while and there were a lot of complaints that it went too far: not just adding higher resolution textures, advanced HDR, new props, and dynamic shadows, but replacing the game's character models with new, completely different looking HD versions and adding music from the new Batman films.

While I agree that most of the new character models are tremendously off-putting and the music is a baffling choice, it's important to point out that Cinematic Mod is almost ridiculously customizable. You can run the mod without the replacement character models, leave out the new music, and tailor the look and even the difficulty of the mod to a high degree.

In fact, I'd recommend turning off a few things. The enhanced bloom is a bit much, and the head-bob made me nauseous (and I can't ever recall getting motion-sick from an FPS before). I enjoyed playing with the new weapons: a laser-dot pistol and some meatier machine-guns are fun, and iron sights and weapon recoil adds a bit more of a shooty feeling to the shooting (again, you can choose to play with the standard weapons as well). As far as the new models go, I actually liked the new Combine metrocops and soldiers the mod adds: they're bulkier and more dangerous looking without being a major departure from the originals.

As for the overall look of the mod, I liked a lot of it. It's slicker and shinier, and many of the new textures are fantastic. It does still go a bit far: I don't really need video screens flashing the word OBEY to get the idea that I'm in a dystopia, and some of the new graffiti textures are hardly subtle. Still, for the most part, it's very impressively done.

If you decide to use it, be prepared for a hefty 10 gig file, and torrent it or else you'll have to download it as sixteen separate .rar files (ugh). You can find it here, and here's a video detailing installation and configuration.

What else can you do to spice up your visit to City 17? Well, if you don't mind going full-on wacky, you can always try two previous Mod of the Week picks. There's Crylife (actually a submod for the high-octane SMOD), which gives Gordon Freeman the nanosuit from the Crysis games, and there's also gmDoom (actually an addon for Garry's Mod) that lets you play HL2 with weapons and monsters from Doom. You'll still be able to enjoy the story beats of the original game while spawning cyberdemons or running around with your cloak engaged.

Ultimately, though -- and I realize this is an odd conclusion for a mod column to reach -- I'd recommend replaying Half-Life 2 without any mods whatsoever. Yes, it's been ten years, and sure, the game is definitely beginning to show its age. But this mod enthusiast is happy to admit that some games just don't need improvement. 

...

Search news
Archive
2015
Feb   Jan  
Archives By Year
2015   2014   2013   2012   2011  
2010   2009   2008   2007   2006  
2005   2004   2003   2002