Half-Life 2 - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Rick Lane)

orangeboxhead

The Orange Box is one of the strangest quirks of gaming history. Never before had a developer released three brand new, entirely separate games at the same time in one package, and thanks to digital distribution, it probably won’t happen again. What makes The Orange Box truly remarkable though is that it contained two of the most-anticipated games of 2007, and what proved to be the biggest surprise hit of the year (some might argue ever).

The company was Valve and the games were Half Life 2: Episode 2, Team Fortress 2 and Portal.

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Half-Life 2

The Orange Box unlocked on Steam at 00.01 Pacific time, 10 October 2007. Ten years later, we've put together a series of articles celebrating this unforgettable bundle of Valve's games, with new features on Half-Life 2: Episode Two, Portal and Team Fortress 2, as well as an interview with Valve on what this release represented back then.

We've also published Tom Francis's original reviews of the games from the UK magazine, for some context on what it meant to PC Gamer for all of that to launch at once. 

Here's what you can read today:

Valve reflects on The Orange Box, ten years laterOur original review of The Orange Box from 2007Remembering HL2: Episode Two, and the conundrum Valve faced afterwardsHow Team Fortress 2 changed FPSesThe cake is a lie: the life and death of Portal's best baked cake meme

Half-Life 2

The Orange Box launched ten years ago. It was undoubtedly the greatest bundle of games ever, with the simultaneous launch of Portal, Team Fortress 2 and Half-Life 2: Episode Two, alongside the existing Half-Life 2 and Half-Life 2: Episode One. The former three were instantly significant in the landscape of PC gaming: Portal was an influential puzzle game that many cited as the surprise highlight of the set, while Team Fortress 2 arrived as a fully-formed multiplayer phenomenon that would constantly evolve across the next decade. Episode Two, of course, was the last time we experienced a new chapter of arguably the greatest singleplayer FPS series of all time. 

It was a massive moment: imagine that many amazing games dropping at once now, from the same developer. It just wouldn't happen. Here, Valve's Robin Walker reflects on the factors that led to The Orange Box's release, and offers some behind-the-scenes insights on both Portal and Team Fortress 2.

PC Gamer: What did the release of The Orange Box mean for Valve at that time, and what does it represent as part of Steam's history?

Robin Walker: The Orange Box was a huge step for us internally because it was the first time we’d ever managed to complete more than a single product at a time. In some ways, the Orange Box was a company level 'hack' where we made three separate products that all consider themselves the same product for shipping purposes, which meant that people could rationally prioritize their work across all three of them. If you were on Portal, and everything was going well, but TF2 was struggling, it made sense for you to jump over and help TF2 out because all three games needed to ship together.

The Orange Box was also a great product to really highlight why the retail channel was reducing game developer’s options. We found with Episode One that retail really didn’t understand or like a premium quality $20 title—they stood to make less money per box, and they had a limited amount of shelf space in their stores. The Orange Box avoided this by combining multiple quality products into a single box that was worth that full amount, but in doing so it created other problems. Retail had never seen a new, high quality box containing more than one title. Historically, a box that contained multiple titles was a bundle of old or low quality titles.

So in terms of Steam’s history, to us the Orange Box represents the era in which distribution channels placed a huge amount of friction on what kinds of games were made, how big they should be, and how much they were sold for. These weren’t things that retailers should be blamed for, they were simply the side effects of operating in physical space. It’s great to be able to look around and see such an enormously wide spectrum of games being made today, many of which wouldn’t have had much of a chance to find their audience in that physical distribution world. 

Were you surprised by the response to Portal, in that a lot of people considered it to be the highlight of The Orange Box at the time?

We didn’t really know what to hope for with Portal. We’d put it in front of enough play testers to be confident that players would have fun with it, but Portal didn’t fit any existing model of a successful game for us to know how it was going to really turn out. There wasn’t much of a history of first person puzzle games, let alone ones that combined a new gameplay mechanic with comedy. The Orange Box really solved Portal’s biggest challenge, which was to explain itself to players. By putting it in the Orange Box, we didn’t have to do the heavy lifting of explaining to people why they should buy this thing that was unlike anything they’d played before—instead, we could lure them in with Episode Two & TF2, and surprise them with the game they had the least expectations for.

Portal became incredibly influential to the indie games scene—its length, storytelling and environmental design are felt in a lot of today's games. Can you recall that process of the Narbacular Drop team joining Valve, and the key decisions that eventually made that game what it is?

By the time we saw Narbacular Drop at the Digipen student day, we’d already hired multiple groups of inexperienced developers who had built interesting things. When we hire those kinds of teams, we’re fundamentally more interested in the people than the thing they’ve built, and in our discussions with them, the Portal team seemed like a group of people with a huge amount of potential. We paired them up with some experienced developers at Valve, and let the team loose.

In any game's development, there are too many decisions to count, and many of them will ruin the game if made incorrectly. One decision that ended up being very important was the one behind GladOS. We had been working on Portal for about a year, and at that point we had 14 levels of the game in a state where they were being regularly playtested. There was no GladOS, the player just moved from puzzle to puzzle without any sense of progression or reward beyond the increasing complexity of the puzzles. The playtest response we kept seeing could be summed up as "This is really fun! When does the game start?". This was both great and terrifying. Players were having fun, but they seemed to consider everything they played as just training leading up to something else. Considering the entire game was really just a process of learning about the core gameplay mechanic, this scared us a lot, making us worry that we’d have to create a whole other section of the game afterwards.

But first, we asked ourselves what it was that was causing players to consider everything as training. After much discussion, we settled on the idea that it was the lack of threat or pressure. Nothing in the game pushed back on the player. There was no real failure, no cost to mistakes, nothing overall to fear, no larger goal to strive for, and hence no real reason to advance. We talked about various solutions, and in the end decided that introducing an antagonist made the most sense. The antagonist could start as a narrative tool for introduction & reward, and over time become the thing that pushed back on the player, eventually giving them the core goal of the game—"I want to learn all this because I need to be able to defeat X". We had little in the way of art production on the team, so it being a character that largely spoke to you via voice over was a straightforward production solution.

In the end, there are many important decisions after this that were critical to GladOS working as well as she did, such as her entire personality. But her genesis begins with a straightforward process of us trying to solve the core gameplay problem in Portal. Even today, it’s always fascinating to us that players seem to start Portal talking about the gameplay, but after they’re done, all they talk about is GladOS.

You've kept updating and transforming Team Fortress 2 over the years, and few competitive games have that kind of lifespan. What's been the philosophy behind that? How have you kept reinventing the game while still making it recognisably TF2?

The philosophy is pretty simple—listen to your players, pay attention to what they're doing, ship your work, and iterate as much as possible. But TF2's a strange thing. In some ways, it seems so different to how it launched in 2007, but at the same time, it still feels utterly familiar. There are still Snipers on the battlements in 2Fort having a fine old time paying no attention to what's going on with their flag in the basement. There's a much wider set of potential threats to deal with than they faced back in 2007, but they now have many more choices in exactly how they want to face them. And no matter what they decide, they can ensure they look different to all the other Snipers in the game.

So TF2's core gameplay seems to be fairly resilient in the face of all the horrible things we've done to it, and I think that's largely due to how we've approached our role in the process. We've always felt that our job was to support players in whatever they're trying to do. As a result, it's the players who've decided how TF2 should be played throughout the last decade. We've added all kinds of elements to the game, from both our and the community's minds, and the players have been the ones to digest and choose the way those elements ended up incorporated into the whole, even if it meant outright rejection in some cases.

You provided audio commentary for The Orange Box at the time, which was a really nice opportunity to let players get granular with the various games' creative processes, having previously tested it in Lost Coast. Can you recall the process of doing that? What was it like to examine your work through that lens as a developer?

We approached commentary as a tool to explain our craft. In our experiences listening to commentaries of other creative works, it was the nuts & bolts of how they actually did the work that interested us the most. Throughout our years of developing games, we constantly found that problems we thought were going to be straightforward to solve turned out to be nasty, thorny issues involving complex tradeoffs between design and technology. Often, that complexity was hidden entirely by the solution. So we thought it might be interesting to players if we could lift the rock and show them everything that’s going on underneath all that apparent simplicity. We’re game developers, so hopefully players will forgive us for thinking that game development is a fun thing to talk about.

Also, that commentary and accompanying analysis was all written before the product launched, which means we didn’t have the chance to examine our work through the context of how it was received, let alone how it would fit into the gaming landscape 10 years later. Would Portal be something people would like? Or would it be some weird puzzle game Valve made that no-one wanted any more of? Without that perspective, we found it hard to talk about anything other than what we were confident in—what we did, and why we did it.

Half-Life 2

Ten years. It almost doesn’t seem that long since we left Gordon Freeman in the ashes of a dead world, frozen in time with increasingly little chance of the enigmatic G-Man showing up to conclude business. The promise of Half-Life: Episode Three never really died, kept alive by jokes and hopes and increasingly desperate attempts to see a ‘3’ even hinted in anything Valve did.

Going back to Episode Two though, it’s not too surprising. The industry’s brief fascination with episodic content was a bad idea for basically everyone not called Telltale, which approached it by carefully working out pipelines for content and limited and games where one team could be working on one episode while another team did the prep-work for the next, allowing games within a couple of months. Valve, like Ritual with SiN: Episodes, was effectively looking at a new game every time, each time having to be bigger and better for a likely diminishing playerbase.

Even by 2007, and upgraded over the years with effects like HDR lighting and improved models, the Source engine was starting to creak. Tech aside, the Half-Life 2 world that had looked so real back in 2004 now felt distinctly blocky retrograde in the wake of games like BioShock and Crysis and Call of Duty 4, which, yes, was a very different style, but took shooter set-pieces to crazy levels of polish and inspiration. For Half-Life to continue as a blockbuster, it had to take that generational leap again, and at this point Valve was already turning its attention elsewhere. Soon it was too late. It could risk leaving a gaming generation blueballed over a sequel (and of course the lady equivalent!). It couldn’t so easily risk a Half-Life that didn’t set the world on fire, and it wasn’t long before it was hard to imagine what Episode Three versus a full sequel could realistically do.

That’s not to dismiss Episode 2, though. Like the best DLC/add-ons, Valve treated the Episodes not just as more Half-Life 2, but a way of exploring the potential of the game and expand what that actually meant. Episode 1 for instance reversed the order that you got the weapons, cranked up the feel of City 17 being under siege and playing your part in a warzone, and focused on the team-up of Gordon and Alyx Vance, after the largely solitary travels of Half-Life 2 proper.

The keyword of Episode Two was ‘freedom’. Kinda. To a point. It certainly wasn’t a game like, say, STALKER, where you could head off in whatever direction you wanted and fight the evil Combine. The path through the game was linear. However, it was also considerably wider, giving you a car and moving out of caves and streets and other very controlled areas to the relatively open roads of the White Forest and its abandoned houses and waypoints. One of its best set-pieces involves defending an empty inn from attack by both regular troops and the game’s new Hunter enemies, and running around from window to window to take on the attackers as they break down the doors and try to swarm you. It’s an open combat environment that feels like a carefully laid trap by the enemies rather than simply holding out against waves, as with a remarkably tedious antlion fight earlier, where you’re running upstairs to shoot out of windows and then back down as guys burst in, and otherwise trying to watch your flanks like an actual guerrilla warfare situation.

The thing is that replaying the game, despite having fond memories of wandering around the countryside and so on, the road trip is only about an hour of its running time. The first part is all underground, in a tedious trek through a maze of antlion tunnels, and just as you’re starting to enjoy the driving around, it’s over, give or take some conversations with NPCs that definitely didn’t drag on this much in 2004-2007 and can’t be sped up no matter how much junk you throw in their faces with the gravity gun (still, incidentally, one of the greatest weapons ever invented).

Only then do you get another taste of freedom with the final boss—another non-linear base defence bit, this time involving a car, attacking Striders, and the expansions’ one new weapon—a bomb created by new character (but old Black Mesa scientist) Magnusson. It’s a fun, tense standoff that certainly beats the heck out of fighting Nihilanth in the first game, or the dark matter Skeeball that ended Half-Life 2, but it’s also over pretty quickly. Like so much of the episode, the openness feels transitionary—the acceptance that Half-Life needed to grow into something new and the realisation that the tricks that were so cool in 2004 were wearing thin. Even then it gets some fun use out of physics, like smashing open a door with a carefully positioned cart, but still.

It remains a fun enough shooter, but the reality versus the memory is definitely unsatisfying. It doesn’t help that it’s the middle part of a trilogy, and in Empire Strikes Back fashion, one that exists primarily to set up the finale. Emotionally, it ends on a low, with a big win for our heroes, but the brutal murder of a major character right in front of both Gordon and Alyx. The job isn’t just unfinished, it’s unfinished leaving at least one big maggot-shaped alien needing a kicking.

Luckily, we now have at least some idea of how things would have gone, courtesy of writer Marc Laidlaw’s "Epistle 3". This not-exactly-coded ‘fanfic’ took the form of a letter from one 'Gertie Fremont' to find a ship called the 'Hyperborea' in the Antarctic and defeat the evil 'Disparate', and tells of a last-ditch suicide mission to the heart of the alien menace, before loyal partner 'Alex Vaunt' gets whisked away by a mysterious suited presence and 'Gertie' is likewise pulled from the action by the not-Vortigaunts. In short, a more explosive cliffhanger, not a big series finale.

The challenge facing Episode 3

It’s important to note that even outside the tongue-in-cheek premise, Laidlaw wasn’t the only writer of the Episodes, no longer works for Valve, there were no doubt many revisions of the story (Laidlaw himself has said that ‘Like most things in the HL series, answers are developed strictly as needed’ —there is no official big secret to be revealed about, say, the identity of the G-Man) and it’s anyone’s guess how Episode Three would actually have played out. Still, it’s both more than we usually get when series fizzle out, and better than leaving Gordon staring at a corpse for all eternity.

Now, if some of this sounds harsh towards Episode Two, it’s largely in retrospect. At the time, even with its issues, it was an exciting step forward for the series and a fresh take on things. Half-Life 2 in all its forms is still stunningly playable for its age compared to most of its peers, helped by its commitment to staying within Gordon’s POV and its set-pieces typically flowing naturally and designed around the game rather than being a flashy background to climb over or simply witness. Episode Two was a great couple of hours of action, even if it was somewhat upstaged by the other parts of The Orange Box—Portal’s sheer novelty, and the beyond-wonderful early TF2.

There’s a reason that everyone wanted Episode Three so much, and it wasn’t just to see what happened next. While Episode Two wasn’t Valve’s best moment, it was Valve at its most exciting time creatively. The company that would do something like The Orange Box. The company that had overcome everyone’s early dislike of Steam to create a platform people actually wanted to use. The company that could do absolutely anything, make whatever game it wanted, and be guaranteed to deliver. The promise of Episode Three, much like Half-Life 2 before it, was that it could be anything but was sure to be great. And maybe the result could have lived up to that. 

Maybe. Or maybe not. We’ll never know for sure.

But at least we can savour what we actually got. 

We’ll always have City 17.

Half-Life 2

Every week, we ask our panel of PC Gamer writers a question about PC gaming. This week: you have a three-slot loadout you can fill with weapons from any PC game—what do you put in them? We also welcome your answers in the comments. 

James Davenport

Half-Life 2's crossbow: Look at me, I'm doing the PC Gamer dance, invoking Half-Life 2. But truly, the crossbow is a work of art. I remember pulling over in the buggy, spotting a combine chilling on an old billboard platform, zooming, aiming, and letting that beautiful dart find a home. Nailed the guy to the wall and I clapped. I expect nothing else from a videogame gun. 

FEAR's HV Penetrator: Look, I love guns that let me nail men to walls. FEAR's HV Penetrator also lets me do that, but in stylish slow motion with a fully automatic weapon. The first GIF I ever made, age 14, was of this very beauty. It's part of me now. 

Devil Daggers' devil daggers: What are daggers if not large nails? There's no men to nail to the wall in Devil Daggers, though I'm sure an endless stream of knives shot from a hand with hell-magic would do the trick just fine. 

Chris Livingston

I have an all-Valve answer, I guess. 

Gordon Freeman's gravity gun: My love for the gravity gun is probably mostly out of nostalgia at this point, but just yesterday I had to help a neighbor move furniture, and now I'm sore, and god forbid I ever use whatever passes for my muscles to do something. The gravity gun would have saved me time and energy, plus I could have launched my neighbor's tacky nightstand into the next town.

Chell's portal gun: Set a portal over the couch and one in the office, then I can go smoothly from working to watching TV, again sparing my pathetic muscles.

TF2's medigun: Let's face it, with a gravity gun and portal gun I'm going to wind up injuring someone, likely myself. Can you use a medigun on yourself? Yes: by placing some portals first. It's perfect.

Philippa Warr

Crowbar (Half-Life): I'm a big fan of weaponry I could pass off as entirely innocent if anyone were to query what I was up to, or which has multiple uses. I mean, If you're carrying a plasma cannon around you're clearly up to no good. Swap that to a crowbar and suddenly you're a useful person doing useful tasks. The crowbar also contains the possibility of easily opening boxes which might contain presents—a plasma cannon would just obliterate everything and then no-one gets any presents. 

Blowtorch (Worms): This is another useful tool which just happens to double up as a weapon. "Madam, why do you have a blowtorch with you?" "Obviously I am going to be brazing some metal." "Ah, of course. Have fun!" 

See? AND I could caramelise the sugar on top of a crème brûlée in a kitchen emergency where you need a crème brûlée in a hurry. And don't mind the kitchen being on fire.Odette (Bayonetta): As someone who regularly wears stilettos, I'm already a big fan of weaponised shoes. The problem with high heels, though, is that you tend to need to go a lot slower. You're trading speed for piercing damage. Not so with Bayonetta's demonic ice skates! You lay down a trail of ice and speed around, plus each foot now has a sharp blade attached. Triple flip into triple toe loop into triple slashing of my foes. 

Evan Lahti

Railgun & Rocket Launcher (Quake series): There's no better one-two punch in PC gaming. Like Quake itself, Quake's guns are the pure distilled essence of FPS concepts—in this case, splash damage and direct damage. There are no attachments, secondary fire modes, or reloading to get in the way of your aim, and wielding them is a high-skill meditation on the genre itself. The canonical combo is to pop someone up by hitting them in the feet with your rocket launcher, switch to the railgun, and zap them out of midair. When you pull this off, your ancestors smile.

Particle Cannon (Wolfenstein '09): This little-remembered gun is essentially a firehose hooked up to the Ark of the Covenant. The gun feels like a faucet for liquified, otherworldly power, a theme throughout Raven Software's Wolfenstein, and it’s a great example of the fun that can arise when a single-player shooter hands you something overpowered. After a short spin-up time, a zig-zagging splurt of unholy turquoise flicks out of the barrel, cueing a banshee screech. A lot of the fun is owed to Raven’s expressive death animations: even a splash of PC energy dissolves Nazis instantly, and without interrupting their momentum.

Samuel Roberts

Gloo gun (Prey): How has no one else suggested this yet? It's a gun, but also a tool that can help you reach new places in the environment, where level designers inexplicably hide money and ammo. No FPS weapon this year is cooler than the Gloo Gun. 

Gauss cannon (Doom 2016): I went back and forth on this one, because a lot of Doom 2016's weapons transform throughout the game into more exciting, silly tools. I narrowly picked this one over the assault rifle that fires tiny rockets, merely because I love the precision bolt move on this one. It makes you feel like Iron Man.

Automatic shotgun (Wolfenstein: The New Order): An easy choice. My favourite modern shotgun. While my other two choices could be called frivolous or flashy, these are practical, cathartic-feeling bad boys for dealing with any FPS level that the gods may throw my way.

How about you, eh? Let us know your choices in the comments.

Half-Life 2

In March, new images from Junction Point's cancelled Ravenholm-set Half-Life 2 episode emerged. Led by Warren Spector, the studio's take on the eerie zombie town was said to include a Magnet Gun—a twist on Freeman's iconic Gravity Gun—and the creator has now explained what its function within his game would've been. 

Speaking in this month's PC Gamer UK magazine, Spector affirms Ravenholm was not simply an outpost in the ill-fated story's campaign, but that the episode was to be set there entirely. 

"We wanted to tell the story of how Ravenholm became what it was in the Half-Life universe," Spector tells us. "That seemed like an underdeveloped story that fans would really enjoy. In addition to fleshing out the story of Ravenholm, we wanted to see more of Father Grigori and see how he became the character he later became in Half-Life 2."

Speaking to the Magnet Gun, Spector explains how it would use projectile magnetic balls to attract metal objects from a remote location. Even in writing the examples he describes sound like great fun.

"It went through several iterations, but the one I remember was one where you'd fire a sticky magnetic ball at a surface and anything made of metal would be forcefully attracted to it," says Spector. "You could fire it at a wall across an alley from a heavy metal dumpster and wham! The dumpster would fly across the alley and slam into the wall. You can imagine the effect on anything approaching you in the alley—either squashed or blocked. 

"Or you could be fighting two robots and hit one with a magnet ball and they’d slam together making movement or combat impossible for them. Or you could be trying to get across a high-up open space with an I-beam hanging from a cable in the middle. Stand on the I-beam, fire a magnet ball at the far wall, the beam swings across the gap, walk off it, done."

PC Gamer UK's November issue is on sale now.

Half-Life

In the spirit of "why the hell not", a group of five modders is recreating Half-Life 2 in the Half-Life engine. There may be practical reasons for using this mod – maybe you don't own a copy of Half-Life 2 but you do own a copy of Half-Life – but these demakes are usually done just to see if they're possible. 

So far, so good: the team has already completed the game's first chapter, but they need help – especially from programmers and modelers. The mod's demo is currently available on ModDB, where you can also follow its progress.

"You might be aware that this has already been attempted already, but none of these have actually panned out," the description reads. "With Half-Life 2 Classic, we hope to communicate more with the community, so that even if we don't manage to recreate the whole game, we can still release a substantial part of it, which can be continued by someone else in the future."

Meanwhile, whether the mod will be a deliberately retro-styled outing, or whether they'll try to match Half-Life 2's fidelity, is yet to be seen. "We're still debating if we should stick close to Half-Life 2's graphics, or if we should downgrade them on purpose, and if so, how much. We may even make optional high-res models for the hd model pack, while keeping the base game's models low-res. But it depends on what most people want."

Check out the mod in action below. Cheers, Kotaku.

Half-Life 2

If you found science-fiction author and former Valve writer Marc Laidlaw's synopsis of Half-Life 2: Episode 3 interesting to read, you might find it interesting to play, kinda, sorta. Laidlaw recently published a gender-swapped, name-changed fan-fictionesque version of the possible major events of the never-published episode of Half-Life 2 called Epistle 3, which created a bit of excitement among Half-Life 2 fans and also spawned a game jam using Laidlaw's story as its inspiration.

There are a number of games already submitted to the jam, and I just played one made by Blendo Games, maker of Quadrilateral Cowboy and Thirty Flights of Loving. It's a Half-Life 2 mod called Tiger Team. It's only a few minutes long, and it takes you through some of the events, kinda, of Laidlaw's story, sorta. (Here's a version of the story with the game's real character names which I found easier to follow.)

I'm not honestly sure I knew what was going on with everything in the mod—there's a lot of bouncing around between scenes, and without having read the story I wouldn't have been able to follow a damn thing going on. But if you read the story and then play the mod, you should be able to grasp most of what you see. Besides, since we'll never get to play the real thing, this may be as close as we can get.

You can download the Tiger Team mod here

Half-Life 2

Every year PC Gamer's editors and contributors vote on a list of the 100 best PC games to play right now, and every year our Top 100 list is contentious. A game is always too low, and another too high, and another unbelievably missing. Such is the inevitable fate of any List Of Things In A Certain Order.

But this year, we decided it would be fun to transform the heated comment threads under our list into a list of their own—the Readers' Top 100. Last week, I asked you to pick your top two games from our Top 100 list, and suggest two games to add. I then compiled the votes (1,445 of them), weighing the write-ins more highly than the picks from our list, given that it's much more likely that 50 people would chose the same game from a list of 100 than all write in the same game.

My totally unscientific method does cause a few problems, namely: how much more do you weigh the write-in votes? A multiplier of three produced the most interesting list in this case, though next year I may ditch that tactic all together and take write-ins only. The danger is that a write-in-only list might be more easily swayed by organized campaigns (though that certainly happened anyway), and for this first attempt, I wanted to include a baseline to build off of just in case the suggestions were too scattered, or too homogeneous.

It worked out pretty well despite the uneven, improvised methodology—but do think of it as a fun exercise and not a perfect representation of PC gamers' tastes. Caveats out of the way, check out the list below. (Games that aren't on our Top 100 list are in bold.)

The PC Gamer Readers' Top 100

  1. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
  2. Half-Life 2 
  3. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim 
  4. Dark Souls 
  5. Borderlands 2 
  6. Fallout: New Vegas 
  7. Mass Effect 2  
  8. Doom (2016) 
  9. BioShock 
  10. Doom 2 
  11. Fallout 2 
  12. Deus Ex 
  13. Portal 2 
  14. Life is Strange 
  15. Starcraft 
  16. Baldur's Gate 2: Shadows of Amn 
  17. Grand Theft Auto 5 
  18. League of Legends 
  19. Diablo 2 
  20. XCOM 2 
  21. Fallout 4 
  22. Dragon Age: Origins 
  23. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind 
  24. PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds 
  25. Bioshock Infinite 
  26. Overwatch 
  27. Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 
  28. World of Warcraft 
  29. Rimworld 
  30. Path of Exile 
  31. Planescape: Torment
  32. Fallout 
  33. Dishonored 2 
  34. Crysis 
  35. Stellaris 
  36. Crusader Kings 2 
  37. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain 
  38. Dishonored 
  39. Half-Life 
  40. Warcraft 3 
  41. Quake 
  42. Factorio 
  43. Prey 
  44. SOMA 
  45. Fallout 3
  46. TIE Fighter 
  47. Elite Dangerous 
  48. Rocket League 
  49. Civilization 5 
  50. Heroes of Might and Magic 3 
  51. Starcraft 2 
  52. Nier: Automata 
  53. Stalker: Call of Pripyat 
  54. Wolfenstein: The New Order 
  55. Minecraft 
  56. System Shock 2 
  57. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion 
  58. Psychonauts 
  59. Divinity: Original Sin Enhanced Edition 
  60. Knights of the Old Republic 
  61. Age of Empires 2 
  62. Thief 2 
  63. Endless Legend 
  64. Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines 
  65. Titanfall 2 
  66. Warframe 
  67. The Secret of Monkey Island  
  68. Kerbal Space Program 
  69. Europa Universalis IV 
  70. Hotline Miami  
  71. Payday 2 
  72. Battlefield 1 
  73. Dota 2 
  74. Total War: Warhammer 
  75. Mass Effect 3 
  76. Batman Arkham City 
  77. Rainbow Six Siege 
  78. FTL 
  79. Stardew Valley 
  80. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive 
  81. The Talos Principle 
  82. Tyranny 
  83. Civilization 6 
  84. Undertale 
  85. Knights of the Old Republic 2 
  86. Team Fortress 2 
  87. The Witness 
  88. Thief Gold 
  89. Arma 3 
  90. Dying Light 
  91. Alien: Isolation 
  92. Hyper Light Drifter 
  93. Planet Coaster 
  94. Jagged Alliance 2 
  95. Call of Duty 2 
  96. Transistor
  97. Mass Effect 
  98. Freespace 2 
  99. 7 Days to Die 
  100. Ultima Online

For reference, the top 10 games on our list this year were: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Dark Souls, Dishonored 2, XCOM 2, Portal 2, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Mass Effect 2, Alien: Isolation, Doom (2016), and Spelunky. If you want a condensed sense of how our tastes differ from those surveyed, here are a few observations:

We like Spelunky a lot more than everyone else. It was in our top 10, but didn't even make it into the Readers' Top 100.

While Half-Life 2 has lost some stock in our minds, it hasn't in everyone's. It was 11th on our list, but 2nd on the Readers' list.

Everyone agrees that The Witcher 3 is great. It was first on both of our lists.

Skyrim is still chugging along. It was 26th on our list, but came in third in reader voting.

Borderlands 2 wasn't on our list, but came in 5th. Did Borderlands fans came out en masse, or are we just weird for not putting it on our list?

14th place is pretty impressive for Life is Strange. Rimworld ranked pretty high, too. Either these games are more popular than we realized, or the survey happened to be circulated among their biggest fans. Probably a mix of both.

League of Legends fans showed up to challenge our preference for Dota 2. It came in at 18, while Dota 2 was knocked down to 73. Justice?

If you'd like to compare the lists directly, I've put them side by side in a spreadsheet. Thank you to all 1,445 people who responded to the survey! Feel free to suggest new ways to compile this list in the comments, and I'll take them into consideration next year. My skill with Excel spreadsheet formulas is at least double what it was last week, a cursed power that will only have grown by next year.

Half-Life 2

There's been a lot of Half-Life 2 talk lately, what with Marc Laidlaw creatively writing some gender-swapped fan fiction that revealed his vision for the missing Episode 3 and Lever Softworks speeding up the release schedule of its Half-Life 2: Aftermath mod. In fact, it feels like there there's pretty much always a bit of Half-Life 2 chatter drifting around because it's a celebrated hunk of first-person shootery and we're still wondering (well, maybe not so much now) if we'll ever see Half-Life 3.

It wasn't this most recent surge of Half-Life 2 nostalgia that led me to play through the final chapter of Half-Life 2 a total of 15 times in 2 days. I love Half-Life 2, and I'll still play certain chapters of it every now and then. But when I play it, I never play the last chapter, and I didn't want to this week, and I certainly didn't want to play it 15 times in two days. Also: I'll never play it again.

Why I played it this week: I was working on some Half-Life 2 stuff for an upcoming issue of our magazine, and my contribution involved using Garry's Mod, which I have not used in a very, very long time. I had a specific goal in mind: to reach the end of the game, where (spoiler) there's an explosion on top of the (spoiler) citadel, Alyx (spoiler) is there and shields her face, G-Man walks out of the explosion and says (spoiler) some things before stuffing Gordon Freeman back into the interdimensional broom (spoiler) closet.

Seemed easy enough. I wait for the explosion, then disable the game's AI using the console, which will freeze everyone in their tracks. Then I'll spawn a G-Man ragdoll, pose him next to Alyx, and I'm done. Five minutes, tops.

Except it's wasn't, because when you load that final map (d3_breen_01), it loads at the beginning of the chapter, where Freeman has stupidly and willingly climbed into a locking metal coffin like an idiot, allowing himself to be captured. So you take a coffin ride, there's a ton of moustache-twirling from Dr. Breen and a lot of chit-chat from everyone else before Breen, being almost as stupid as Freeman, sets you free.

Cool, I'm free. I noclip up through the map to the top of the citadel, but then realize, oh yeah, I need Alyx (I don't think I can pose her as well as she poses herself) and the explosion. I'll need to actually play through the entire chapter to reach the climactic end. So, I noclip back down into Breen's office but apparently I've passed through a trigger or something and the sequence won't continue.

I start the chapter over, ride the coffin, listen to the chats, Breen frees me, we pursue, he gets distracted while Skyping with a large alien cyber-maggot, I get my gravity gun back, I fight the Combine and remember how to get to the top of the citadel without using noclip to fly, I shoot orbs at the thingie, the thingie breaks, and Alyx hops out of a window I probably could have used to avoid that entire fight. There's an explosion, Alyx throws her hands up, I disable the AI, and everything pauses. Perfect! I open the Garry's Mod menu, spawn a G-Man ragdoll, and take out the posing tool. Only the posing tool doesn't come out. Nothing comes out. The only tool I can use is the regular old gravity gun.

Hum. That won't do. I reload the map to start again. Coffin, Breen, Combine, orbs, explosion. Same thing. Either the game or the mod isn't letting me use the tools I need at the end of the game.

I begin again. Maybe I'm being denied the tools because at the start of the chapter all of Gordon's weapons are confiscated by the weapon confiscating machine Breen has installed outside his office, probably due to all the other weapon-bearing scientists constantly riding inescapable metal coffins to the top of his office building to kill him. When Breen frees me, I use a console code to give me all the weapons, which I wrongly assume will give me all the tools as well. I fight through the Combine again (using the rocket launcher, because why not) to trigger the final scene, but once again I can't use the posing tool.

I begin again. It's been a couple hours at this point -- this is like a 15 minute sequence -- and I'm not sure I'll be able to get this pose to work at all. After Breen frees me, I start noclipping around the map because I can't think of anything else to do. At one point I apparently pass through a kill-trigger, presumably the one that ends the game if you fall off the catwalk while fighting on the roof, and I die. Since this is G-Mod and not Half-Life 2, it doesn't reload the chapter but just respawns me back at the start of the level with the chapter still in progress—this time with all my Garry's Mod tools working. A-ha!

So I just need to play through the chapter and die at some point. I start again, Breen frees me, I disable the AI, and everyone freezes. I give myself all the weapons, then walk into the corner, drop a grenade, and squat on it. I die, respawn at the bottom with my tools, noclip back to the office, and enable the AI. Everyone wakes up and continues as if Gordon Freeman didn't just blow up his own ass and then rise through the floor a minute later with a buncha weird-ass physics tools.

I continue through the sequence, get to the top of the Citadel, blow it up, and pause. My tools are gone again. Dang! (I don't actually say dang.) I don't know what happened, but it's been like three hours of this and all I've done is watch people talk and have a grenade go off three inches from my testicles. I'm done for the night.

I wake up the next morning and sit glumly through the beginning of the chapter again. This time I wait until later in the chapter, pause, die, and return with my tools. I fight through the Combine and make it to the top. Explosion, pause. Spawn a ragdoll.

My tools. They're sort of working but not really. There's no beam extending from the poser, but I can pick up the ragdoll. I can't turn turn the ragdoll, though, no matter how I try. I can move it, but I can't rotate it to face me. This won't do.

Maybe I'll forget the ragdoll altogether. I mean, G-Man walks out of the explosion anyway and stands next to Alyx, maybe I'll just use the faceposer to give him a different expression while he's standing there. I seem to remember being able to pose faces on 'living' NPCs. I play through the entire chapter, again, making sure to sit on a grenade and die at one point, then reach the ending. G-Man walks out, I pause, then shoot him with the face-poser, only I don't because the game won't let me use it.

Okay, new plan. I'll go up and pose the ragdoll before the explosion. Well, first I'll take a break to scream into a pillow, and then I'll go up and pose the ragdoll before the explosion. Then I'll go back downstairs, fight my way back upstairs, then when the roof explodes and I disable the AI, I should be all set with the posed G-Man in place. I pause, I pose, I go back down. I've done something wrong, though, because Breen won't wake up. He won't rise up through the citadel in his force-field while mocking me, so the ending of the game won't trigger properly.

I start over. Again. After the coffin ride and family meeting, I make sure Breen starts rising through the citadel before I start messing with console codes. I disable the AI, kill myself, respawn and fly upstairs, spawn a floppy G-Man, use the poser and face-poser, and everything is all set. Then the game ends and the screen goes dark, because Breen, even with no AI functioning, has risen all the way to the top of the citadel and escaped, thus causing me to fail my mission.

After a break to put my face in my hands and moan for a bit, I start again. By carefully noclipping I manage to avoid messing with the chapter's routine. I die, I fly, I pose, I return and run through the sequence again. At the top of the citiadel, Alyx hops through the window and runs smack into the G-Man I've posed. I've placed him right in her path.

I shriek in horror.

But Alyx is smart. She doesn't miss a beat and sidesteps the obstruction, bless her. The explosion explodes for the umpteenth time. I pick up the frozen Alyx and reposition her a bit. Weirdly, I notice the explosion has actually undone some of my ragdoll posing.

Even though I've locked all of G-Man's joints, his leg is swinging away and his briefcase is askew. Thankfully, my tool is still working properly. I wedge his bits back into place, noting how his limbs are a bit floaty in the timeless portion of the chapter. I take a hundred screenshots for safety, check the folder to see that the pictures are actually there, then take a hundred more. I never want to have to come back here again.

So that's why I had to play Half-Life 2's final chapter 15 times in 2 days. I have no doubt there was a much easier way to get this done, and I'm sure there will be plenty of helpful comments below to point them out, and they will probably make me weep at my lost hours.

On the plus side, I've got some closure with Half-Life 2 and if we never get a sequel, at least the ending to this one will be forever burned in my brain.

...

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