Why I Love
In Why I Love, PC Gamer writers pick an aspect of PC gaming that they love and write about why it's brilliant. Today, Phil praises the Half-Life 2 soundtrack.
I sometimes hear it argued that the best soundtracks are the ones that go unnoticed. The theory is that a good soundtrack should work in tandem with the work its attached to—subconsciously enhancing a game or movie without going out of its way to reveal itself. The reasoning seems sound, but I don't agree. I'm perfectly capable of noticing music while simultaneously appreciating a stunningly realised set piece or top notch wall texture, thank you very much.
I mention this because, to me, most FPS soundtracks do go unnoticed—moreso than perhaps any other genre. Partly its because shooters are designed to offer tense firefights that sharpen your focus until survival and the elimination of your enemies is all that matters. Partly, though, it's because so many FPS soundtracks borrow from each other to the point that they all blur into a haze of hurried orchestral suspense, deep, rumbling guitars and that dark ambient soundscape that seems to state, "hey, war is all technological and complicated now. That's cool, right?"1
There are a lot of great things about the Half-Life 2 soundtrack, most of which are tied to how and where each individual track is used within the game. But on a broader level, the thing that I love about it is that it sounds like nothing else.
Half-Life 2's soundtrack isn't afraid to make itself known. In addition, it's not afraid to make itself scarce. Valve is content to let long stretches of the game go without an accompanying track. Instead, they let the sound design come to the fore. By trusting in the strength of the sound design, Valve is able to hold back the soundtrack for those moments when it's needed. When the music does appear, it's usually for a reason. Shit has, is, or is about to go down.
It's not just that the songs are good, it's that each is perfectly tailored to the moment it's used in.2 Take the obvious example: Hazardous Environments.
It comes at the point where Gordon is finally able to take some control over his surroundings. We're never privy to Gordon's state of mind, but the opening of Half-Life 2 must be a disorientating experience for the physicist. He's awoken from stasis, dumped onto a train arriving at the dystopian centre of an unrecognisable world, and forced to escape a brutal police force operating under the orders of an alien collective.
Now, finally, he's among friends, and in possession of the suit that helped him survive the last deadly situation he found himself in. It's an artefact that links that world to this one, and so it's fitting that it's accompanied by the corresponding song from Half-Life 1. It's nostalgic, slow and assured.
Throughout Half-Life 2, the soundtrack plays with elements of techno, drum-'n-bass and industrial, and never lets itself get tied down to one genre. Just as one chapter of the game may play differently from another, so a music track can stand apart while still somehow feeling cohesive. It helps that the music is artificial throughout—perhaps as a parallel of the story's ramshackle resistance force, and how they repurpose and rebuild old machines and enhance them through the stolen tech of the alien race now subjugating them.
Take Ravenholm Reprise, which builds on the dark horror of that chapter with what essentially amounts to an extended electronic howl. It's unnatural and unnerving. Earlier in the game, players are treated to CP Violation—a perfect accompaniment for the Civil Protection, in that it sounds like an alarm that builds in intensity as you're hunted through the city's abandoned tunnels, warehouses and sewers.
My favourite track isn't tied to action or foreboding, but quiet reflection. It's called Triage At Dawn, and it plays shortly after Ravenholm, as you stumble across a recently attacked resistance outpost.3 Someone's been hit. It's Winston.
In isolation, the scene is kind of ridiculous, but it's effective in game—a reminder that the Combine's actions aren't simply limited to the isolated horror of Ravenholm, but affect everyone fighting for their freedom. Death hangs over them all. Or just being injured a bit. Winston's probably fine.
It's the music that sells this moment. It's a haunting, sad refrain that lends poignancy to the action. It's a manipulative shortcut, sure—the scene is otherwise too short to make anybody care about Winston—but then, that's a soundtrack's job. And Half-Life 2's soundtrack does its job exceptionally well.
1Yes, this is an exaggeration. But I'd argue that there is a noticeable homogeneity among military shooters in particular—a phenomenon that is perhaps ironically fitting, given the stories that tend to lay at the heart of these games. That said, even noting this, the individual compositions can be excellent. It's a shame that in adhering to a particular style, so many of these pieces are lost. Outside of this one particular sub-genre, though, there are plenty of distinct sounds. Borderlands 2's electro-Southern rock strikes me as an obvious example.
2Valve is continually a master of this, and I could have easily written this piece about any of their games. Of particular note is Portal 2, the music of which nicely mirrors the plot of the game. Its music sounds broken and chaotic, as if degraded by thousands of years of disuse. Portal 2 is also worth praising for its use of dynamic music—giving it a playful quality as it reacts to your interactions with the game's puzzle elements.
3My favourite track from the Half-Life 2 series as a whole is Sector Sweep, from Episode 2. It comes at the perfect time, after a tense encounter with a Combine Advisor. It's such a driving, adrenaline-building instrumental that it makes what could be a difficult fight in tight hallways feel like a liberating licence to take out your frustration on the Combine forces. It's the sort of song that says, "no, no, get the shotgun out for this bit."
I've never played the Killzone games, owing to the fact that I don't possess the precise living room box required, but now at least I've gotten a taste of the Helghast. Killzone Source doesn't recreate an entire Killzone game in HL2, but provides a particular mission called Strange Company.
It represents several years of work by Moddb member zombiegames, and while I can't personally vouch for its representation of Killzone, it's pretty cool and looks great. With an AI companion, you fight your way through the interiors of a multi-floor building, battling Helghast at every turn, then proceed outside for more gunplay. You can carry a pistol and one of several rifles, use frag grenades, and are also armed with a knife. The Helghast look great, and I don't know if this is true of the original game, but they scream entertainingly when they die. Every time. I couldn't get enough of it.
They're tough as hell, too. Even on normal difficulty they killed me repeatedly. I had to disable AI using the Source console just to get close enough to them to take their pictures. At one point a dropship appeared over a shattered courtyard and they rappelled down on ropes in front of me. They're also pretty good at using grenades.
My AI companion was a little worthless in a fight, but she's still cool to hang out with. While I was remapping my keys (the default keybindings are a little odd) she helped herself to a soda from a vending machine.
The guns are fun to use, and plenty challenging due to recoil, and the maps are dressed with various bits of detail like Helghast propaganda. There are some other touches, like flying enemy drone that I presume has roots in the original game.
To play, you just need a Steam account and to have the opt-in beta of Source SDK Base 2013 Singleplayer installed. For the beta, right-click the SDK base on Steam, select properties, open the Beta tab and choose '-upcoming' from the list. (You don't need to input a beta access code.)
As for the mod itself, here's its page on Moddb. If you've tried it, and you have experience with the Killzone games, I'd love to hear if you think it's a faithful recreation of the mission.
Rock, Paper, Shotgun - email@example.com (John Walker)
There is a peculiar irony to the impression people have of gaming. When videogames are lazily portrayed in the wider world, they inevitably show a soldier being shot through a gun scope. Hell, even within the highest enclave walls, people are wont to dismiss the poor taste of others by snarking, They d probably like it if it had a gun floating at the bottom of the screen. The first-person shooter is the most emblematic genre of gaming, and yet it s now the most under-served, under-developed, and rarest of mainstream releases. There are barely any new non-indie FPS games. And it s all Half-Life s fault.>
Rock, Paper, Shotgun - firstname.lastname@example.org (Alice O'Connor)
Today in News You Should Probably Be Glad You Never Heard About At The Time Because You’re Already Disappointed Enough And This Would’ve Been Frustrating And Yeah I Guess You Would’ve Written A Lot Of Annoyed Comments On The Internet And TBH Neither You Nor I Want That But Boy, What If This Had Happened: Deus Ex director Warren Spector and his (now-closed) studio Junction Point were at one point working on a Half-Life game.
The mystery game would’ve been a Half-Life 2 episode separate from Valve’s own core episodes, introducing a new physics-y magnet gun. But it was not to be, and Junction Point went on to focus on Epic Mickey instead.
Speedruns are artistry. Not only do they demonstrate complete mastery over a game, but they also poke away at the edges of what a game intends you to do. Watching a perfect speedrun is similar, I imagine, to watching good gymnastics, but they're more than just skill-based. They're borne of a curiosity about the edges of games: the things we're not meant to see and the things we aren't supposed to do.
There's a whole science behind speedruns. Players spend weeks and sometimes years chiselling a perfect path through a game. They exploit minor traversal bugs to gain speed, they tap away at the outer limits of a game world in search of hidden routes, and then they move to execute all these tricks in one graceful swoop. There's a strong collaborative spirit among speedrun communities, because in the end, it's all about what's possible, not who wins.
There are lots of different speedruns, and the rules vary depending on the type of speedrun a player hopes to achieve. Most of the runs I've featured below are Any% runs, which simply require the player to complete the game under any difficulty setting as quickly as possible. These contrast with 100% runs, which as the name suggests requires full completion of the game (any secret worlds or any optional collectibles, for example).
What follows aren't "the best speedruns of all time" but instead a selection of especially impressive runs. I've tried to collect those most suited to spectating, so there are a lot of shooters and platformers. Meanwhile, I've generally avoided speedruns too heavily reliant on glitches that bypass huge sections of a game (like this Pillars of Eternity run, for example). I'm not arguing these aren't legitimate: just that they're not as fun to watch.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Bethesda made a big deal of Skyrim's 100 hour potential back in 2011, but I'm sure they're not surprised that speedrunner gr3yscale has beaten the game in less than 40 minutes. After all, Skyrim QA guy Sam Bernstein managed to complete the whole game, glitch and cheat free, in two hours and 16 minutes. If you know what you're doing, the biggest games can be reduced to a series of carefully timed leaps.
Gr3yscale's world record time of 39:24 uses a number of built-in exploits, but arguably more interesting than the run itself is this accompanying tutorial video on how he achieved it. The lengthy video is a step-by-step instructional, detailing everything from the graphics settings you should use (as low as possible) through to how to steal the Blank Lexicon from Septimus Signus in less than five seconds. If you've got any interest in the painstaking process of routefinding for a speedrun, it's a must watch.
For the best example of speedrunner Kahmul78 s thoroughness, look no further than the 1:56 mark below. The way he switches his inventory load out in the middle of a plunge attack demonstrates that every second is precious for an adept speedrunner. He won t need those newly equipped arrows for a while, but when you re looking to shave off precious seconds in a notoriously difficult game, you don t waste time.
After clearing the tutorial area, Kahmul78 takes a very unconventional route through Lordran. Using the Skeleton Key starting item he passes through New Londo Ruins and Valley of the Drakes into Darkroot Basin, then onto Undead Parish. This not only skips the second boss encounter, but it also means facing off against the first mandatory boss battle by the eight minute mark.
For the average first time player it s likely to take up to five hours to make that much progress (or about ten, if you re like me). The fact that this whole run wraps up in under 48 minutes naturally attracted a lot of attention when it was first posted. There are quicker Dark Souls speedruns out there which exploit a major glitch, but this is the real deal.
With so many tools at his disposal it's little wonder that Corvo Attano can get the job done quickly. He's not really meant to do it this quickly though, with speedrunner TheWalrusMovement completing the stealth adventure in 34:35. Attano's Blink ability a lightning quick dash mainly used for covert operations is utilised a lot in this run, to the extent that it's difficult to keep track of TheWalrusMovement's routing.
Nonetheless, Dishonored is a surprisingly enjoyable game to spectate, and TheWalrusMovement is forthcoming with his secrets. This world record run can probably be improved the runner's commentary points out a couple of areas of improvement but this is the best out there in the meantime.
Picture this: you ve just returned from Hell only to find that Earth is in worse shape. You were really looking forward to having a beer though, so you want to save the world as quickly as possible. But how quickly is as quickly as possible? How s 23 minutes and three seconds sound? Not bad at all! Start pouring.
The work of speedrunner Zero-Master, this Ultra-Violent mode playthrough managed to topple a record set in 2010 by Looper. That s a long time in speedrun years and it only managed to come out on top by 22 seconds. A backseat speedrunner will no doubt see areas of improvement in the below video, which Zero-Master concedes to in his YouTube description, but for the time being this is the quickest run there is.
While Doom 2 is probably the most popular speedrunning instalment in the series, it s worth checking out speedruns of the two Final Doom WAD packs too. These outings upped the difficulty dramatically, and if you want to see a run with a few clever rocket jumps, look no further.
Duke Nukem 3D
Duke 3D s Build engine is home to a lot of glitches very handy to speedrunners. As Duke speedrunner LLCoolDave explains in this video, a major one is crouchjumping . If you crouch while freefalling and then hit the jump key before touching the ground, Duke can clip through certain walls and structures. The engine in Duke 3D is less than stable, allowing for switches to be triggered from unintended vantage points and whole regions of levels to be skipped.
As in most glitchy speedruns, triggering the engine s limitations at just the right moment is an impressive skill in itself. Speedrunner Mr_Wiggelz manages to complete the game in 9:19 below, though it s worth noting that only the first three episodes of the Duke Nukem 3D Megaton Edition feature (the fourth episode didn t appear in the original game).
Mr_Wiggelz admits that he messed up a couple of times during this run, so it probably won t be long before we see it bettered.
Some genres, especially platformers and shooters, are particularly suited to the speedrun. Others, like the open world RPG, definitely are not. That doesn t stop people from trying to beat the likes of Pillars of Eternity, Skyrim and Fallout 3 in the time it takes to prepare an English breakfast, but there s inevitably glitches involved. Games like these are designed to eat up your time and life.
Rydou s 18:53 speedrun of Fallout 3 (that s 18 minutes, not hours) utilises a few glitches, but no cheats or third-party programs. As he explains on his YouTube page, this run makes liberal use of a quicksave bug. Basically, if you rapidly quicksave and then quickload you ll briefly have the ability to clip through walls. In this way, the player-character goes from birth to saving Washington in less than 20 minutes.
After a bit of publicity off the back of this speedrun, Rydou moved to emphasise the difference between cheating and exploiting glitches. For those who wonder about the legitimacy of the run, using and exploiting glitches have always been a part of the speedrun community. This is a way to push the game even further, and [is] not considered cheating.
An hour and 32 minutes might not sound impressive for a Half-Life 2 speedrun: the game's an all time classic and ten years old to boot. You can blame the game's regular unskippable dialogue sequences for that record, but hey, at least it gives record holder Gocn k some time to take a break. He needs it.
There are some interesting strategies in this video. GocAk makes liberal use of two traversal glitches common in Valve's Source Engine, namely Accelerated Back Hopping and Accelerated Side Hopping. For a stunning example of the former skip to the 29 minute mark, where a sequence of careful jumps actually propels the player into the air.
Sourceruns.org has a more detailed description: "When you exceed the game's speed limit, the game tries to slow you down whenever you jump, back to the desired speed. By default the game thinks that you're moving forwards, so when you exceed the speed limit, it'll accelerate you backwards. If you are facing backwards, this will only increase your speed. So, the faster you're going - the more you will get accelerated."
No big tricks or glitches here, just an exceptionally talented player. Speedrunner Dingodrole completes Hotline Miami in 20 minutes and seven seconds, but his ultimate goal is to get below the 20 minute mark. If you watch the whole run you'll notice there's very little room for improvement, and Dingodrole seems to have the routing down pat. He's been steadily chipping away at the time for a while now, so it's probably inevitable that this will be beaten some day.
I Wanna Be The Guy
It pays to know a game intimately before embarking on a speedrun, but that rule has a different meaning when it comes to I Wanna Be The Guy. A parodic love letter to 8-bit platformers, I Wanna Be The Guy subverts every reliable trope in the platformer rule book. Shiny red apples aren t collectibles: they ll kill you. Don t worry about reaching those spikes: they ll come to you. Nothing is predictable, and everything is learnt from the experience of dying. You can t learn this game, you have to memorise it.
So it s always fun to monitor the speedrunning community s progress with I Wanna Be The Guy (as well as its many follow-ups). You need a great memory and superhuman dexterity to complete the game once, let alone in 28 minutes and 40 seconds without glitches, as Tesivonius has done.
A few caveats: this is a segmented Portal speedrun, which means the game wasn't completed from beginning to end in a single playthrough. Instead, the best level times were stitched together for the final video. Additionally, there were four different speedrunners involved: Nick "Z1mb0bw4y" Roth, Josh "Inexistence" Peaker, Nick "Gocnak" Kerns, and Sebastian "Xebaz" Dressler. Some would argue a segmented speedrun is illegitimate, but wherever you stand on that matter, it's still interesting to see what's possible.
This run uses neither cheats or hacks, but it does exploit a number of glitches. "This run first started after the discovery of a new glitch, which snowballed into a whirlwind of discoveries of new tricks, skips, and glitches," the team writes. As you'll see below, the glitches make for a disorientating watch, but its fascinating nonetheless.
The Quake speedrun scene used to be massive, boasting its own highly organised community in the form of Quake Done Quick. The below video sees all four episodes of the game completed in 11 minutes and 29 seconds (on Nightmare difficulty!) and demonstrates world class bunny hopping and rocket jumping skills. The occasional glitch is implemented and whole chunks of certain maps are skipped with the help of rocket jumps, but no cheats were used.
Twitch streamer Bananasaurus Rex is, or was, the world authority on Spelunky. It was he who figured out how to kill the game s invincible ghost. It was he who achieved a solo Eggplant run (this involves carrying an Eggplant to the end of the game, obviously). It was he who collected $3.1 million worth of gold in a single playthrough. Arguably the highest bar he set was the legendary 5:02 Hell speedrun. Simply reaching Hell is difficult enough on its own, but completing the whole game using this route is punishment. Doing it in five minutes is God tier.
Unfortunately for Bananasaurus Rex, someone managed to beat his Hell run, and not by a measly couple of seconds. Youtuber Latedog beat secret boss Yama in 4:36, creating a new record which let s face it will probably only be beaten by accident. Like Bananasaurus Rex he utilises the warp device, which is somewhat reliant on luck but pretty much crucial if you want to shear minutes off a playthrough.
Super Meat Boy
When humankind is wiped off the face of the earth by some malevolent alien society, the planet s new inhabitants will learn a couple of things as they sift through the rubble. First, we really liked bottled water. Secondly, Coca-Cola was an especially totalitarian leader. Thirdly, we were really bloody good at Super Meat Boy.
Speedrunner Vorpal has been chipping away at the world record for a while, but this is the best he/she has managed so far: the base game completed in 17 minutes and 54 seconds. That stat doesn t include the dark levels or any of the retro themed ones, but anyone who has spent half-an-hour with Team Meat s punishing platformer will peek through fingers as Vorpal passes the final boss run by the skin of his teeth.
Speedruns can be beautiful. Twitch streamer sheilalpoint completes VVVVV in 12:12 in the below video, and watching it (with the sound down) can be like watching a weird 1970s art film about a little man s efforts to euthanise himself in outer space.
The beauty of this run is that there aren t really any major tricks, just a thorough knowledge of the game s layout. Sheilalpoint pulls some interesting maneuvers with the game s checkpoints particularly in one sequence where hitting them as they collide with spikes actually increases the momentum of the player character but otherwise, this is plain old fashioned mastery.
Transmissions: Element 120 is a "short single-player" Half-life 2 mod that equips players with a new kind of gravity gun that enables them to leap over buildings and fall from great distances without suffering damage. Taking place after the events of Half-Life 2: Episode 2, it challenges players to figure out where they are and why they've been sent there. On the technical side, it boasts custom levels, code, models, sounds, and a number of upgrades to the Source Engine, including enhanced dynamic lighting, improved support for complex structures, and better AI. And it was all created by one guy.
"Hello, I've been working on this half-life 2 mod for 2 years, Transmissions: Element 120. It was a lot of hard work, coding, mapping, designing, modeling on nights and weekends but I'm finally done and its now available for free," the creator, who goes by the name of Shokunin000, announced on Reddit. "I hope you all like it, I put a lot of myself into this so be nice and enjoy. :) and of course valve deserves a ton of credit for letting me use their content to begin with."
I haven't played it yet, so I can't say if it's any good, but somebody at Gearbox certainly thinks so, because shortly after Shokunin000 posted his message, he was offered a job interview. "Hey, do you want a job in the industry? I work at Gearbox Software, we are currently looking for talent," a Redditor by the name of Jesterhole wrote in reply to the announcement. "This is 10x times better than most submissions I've seen. Great work. You should apply. I'd be excited to interview you. Good luck!"
In response, Shokunin000 described Gearbox as a "great company" but said he needed to discuss the offer with his family before he committed to it. We'll let you know which way he decides to go when we find out—in the meantime, why not give the mod a try? Download it free from transmission-element120.com, and if you dig it, throw it some love on Steam Greenlight.
I've been banging the Half-Life modding drum pretty hard the last couple weeks, but hey, there's been a lot of good stuff lately! For example, Transmissions. It's a Half-Life 2 mod that gives you a new custom adventure along with a new toy: a version of the gravity gun that lets you fire concussive orbs and perform a rocket jump.
The mod begins with the assumption that By Now You Know What You're Doing. Get ready from the start to solve a few environmental puzzles by moving crates around to act as steps, bust padlocks off doors, provide power to generators using ridiculously oversized plugs, carry objects in your invisible hands to act as shields against bullets, and so forth. It's also not going to hold your hand in terms of difficulty: you'll be faced with zombies and Combine turrets from the outset, and you won't have the standard gravity gun to help you cope.
Before long, however, you'll stumble into an abandoned secret lab where a prototype weapon has been developed, the Zero Point Energy Projector. It looks like a gravity gun, but you can't pick up things with it. Instead, you can fire a concussive orb that can be used to kill enemies, blast physical objects, and shatter obstructions. You can also fire it at the ground while jumping, which launches you into the air. While falling, you can also use it to cushion your landing.
The ZPEP doesn't need ammo, but it is tied to your auxiliary power, like your flashlight, so it does need time to recharge after about a dozen or so blasts. And, it's fun. The rocket jump is mainly used for reaching high spots on the maps, but the concussive orb is great for blasting zombies and soldiers, and for sending physical objects scattering before you.
It's something to keep in mind while you play: is there anything I can blast while I'm in a fight? For example, that cargo container dangling from a magnet? The one that strider is currently advancing under? Hey, maybe that will do something helpful.
The mod is short, but very challenging, and there are several arena-type maps featuring swarms of enemies, so be prepared for some scrambling. You do have access to some of HL2's other weapons, like the SMG, shotgun, and rocket launcher, but it's way more fun to simply try to Zero Point the crap out of everyone.
You can visit the Transmissions website right here, which has download links and instructions.
Rock, Paper, Shotgun - email@example.com (John Walker)
It s over ten years since Half-Life 2 was released. The other day I found myself arguing that there still hadn t been a first-person shooter released that was better. Then wondered if I was talking out of my hat. In an effort to learn whether Half-Life 2 is as great nay, as perfect as the version in my head, I ve replayed it, and realised there s so much I d forgotten.>
Rock, Paper, Shotgun - firstname.lastname@example.org (Alice O'Connor)
Zapping Combine soldiers with the supercharged gravity gun was a right lark, a fine moment in Half-Life 2. Today I’ve been larking around with a different type of turbo gravity gun in a new mod, and I think I prefer it. See, it lets me ‘rocketjump.’
HL2 mod Transmissions: Element 120 [official site] is a short singleplayer mod introducing a new zapgun. It blasts balls of concussive force that send enemies and physics objects flying (and its levels are heavy on blastable props) and, of course, you. Look down, jump then blast a ball, and go sailing through the air like a beautiful murderous butterfly.