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A rustle. A breath. A bang. Everything about a good videogame sniper rifle is sexy, sleek, and dangerous, from the look of a long steel barrel to the echoing crack of gunfire heard for miles around. We love playing games with great sniper rifles not because of how they look or sound, though, but because of something much deeper and darker: we want to play god. The allure of the sniper rifle is the allure of the divine power to reach out—way, way out into the distance—and snuff out a life.
It’s twisted, but that really is the heart of it. For proof, compare the sniper rifle to its Big Boomstick cousin, the shotgun. Both are typically slow to shoot, but they hit hard when they do. Both are loud. Both make explosions of fire and gore.
But a sniper rifle is unusual because its entire purpose is to make a fight unfair. We want to see the enemy without being seen. We look our enemy in the face without being in danger. Invisibility, invulnerability, and instant kills: the sniper rifle is a cheat code with a trigger. This is what Zeus feels like when he throws thunderbolts.
Today we’re celebrating the sniper rifle by talking about how it changed games, and all those pieces that make it a great videogame weapon. It starts with distance.
Almost all of the godlike power of a really fun sniper rifle comes from its ability to shoot at long range, so let’s start there. A great sniper rifle has to have a scope that lets us see deep into the microscopic horizon.
The best recent example of this is PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, where your ability to see other players is your most useful skill. There’s something so disconcerting about running across an open field late in the game, looking around, and seeing no one. You know other players have to be close, but the hills seem quiet. This is where PUBG’s rare scopes come in. An 8x or, inshallah, the 15x scope brings you all of god’s many powers: eliminate a contender from the island in one shot before they know you can see them at all.
Counter-Strike’s AWP is a legend itself, and arguably it helped start the "all-powerful bolt-action sniper rifle" trope that we’re celebrating today. Counter-Strike is a game where split-second accuracy and twitch reflexes decide every battle, and using the AWP demands the patience of a tortoise and the reflexes of a hare. If you’re good at it, the AWP locks down entire sections of a multiplayer level. The AWP’s power isn’t just in killing, but in threatening to kill.
Giving players a better view from the inside of a multiplayer melee is one thing, but sniper rifles can do so, so much more than that. Games that focus on realistic simulation turn sniping into an advanced physics problem that only the best shooters can manage to solve under pressure. Throwing a tiny piece of metal at a target a mile or two away—so far that you have to account for the Earth moving as it rotates—only makes a great sniper shot feel more god-like.
Arma 3’s military sandbox is the best rifle simulation you can play today, and it only gets better with community-made mods that model everything from air pressure to wind speed. Making a shot at one or two miles away stops feeling like marksmanship and starts feeling like flying a spaceship to the moon: up a bit, left a bit, now turn this dial and flick this switch at the same time, and don’t forget to breathe. But only after you pull the trigger.
Arma 3 may have the most accurate long-range sniper shots, but the most famous must be from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s best level, "All Ghillied Up." Working your way through long-abandoned farmhouses in Chernobyl's radioactive exclusion zone, there aren't even animals around to break the silence. The tension grows as you sneak past soldiers and into town. When it's time to take the shot with your M82 sniper rifle, music stirs as we watch a little red flag dance around in changing wind, holding our breath and waiting for the perfect moment to throw the lightning.
It’s obvious that a good sniper rifle has to be loud as all hell. I understand that there are some that prefer their sniper rifles to be utterly silent for stealth reasons, but these poor souls are mistaken. A sniper rifle has to sound like the Earth breaking because, again, a good sniper rifle is the fist of god.
When it comes to noise, nobody does it like the boxy brick of a rifle in HALO: Combat Evolved, a hideous piece of technology burdened with the equally hideous name SRS99C-S2AM. We’re not here for looks, though. The Halo rifle has a boom that rocks around any level followed by reverberating echoes. It’s the echoes that really get me. And it’s not just the loud noises: the SRS99C is a symphony of little beeps and whirs.
Even though the reloading sound is pretty good, it’s the only thing wrong with the SRS99C. Since it’s a semi-automatic rifle, it lacks the the iconic, metallic bolt-action clanks that come with the best sniper rifles. Racking the action on a bolt-action rifle sounds so good, that even in our ode to the greatness of shotguns, we had to admit that maybe, just maybe, bolt-action rifles sound even better.
The sound of thunder and clanking machinery is even more jarring, more fantastic, when it’s contrasted with total silence and tension. Once the silence is broken, it’s OK to chime in with a really good soundtrack, as seen in this great clip from Far Cry 2.
After celebrating all that makes a good sniper rifle "the cheat code of weapons," it might be obvious how difficult it is to build a game around a worthy sniper. Giving the player god-like powers makes it hard to design levels and enemies that challenge them—and of course, you can’t tone down the sniper rifle without ruining the whole damn thing.
But for a long time, difficulty balance wasn’t the thing that stopped videogames from featuring sniper rifles, it was technology. In the early years, one of the things that games couldn’t really do was distance; we had height and width, but no depth.
There were some strong attempts, though. In 1988, one of the first sniper rifles ever depicted in a game came from the French videogame Hostage: Rescue Mission. The game came out on platforms like the Apple II, the Commodore 64, and the Amiga. In the game, a police sniper sneaks around an embassy full of hostages to reach a vantage point, then uses a myopic little scope to scan the windows for bad guys.
But without 3D spaces, there couldn’t be any real distance. Though conventional wisdom claims that the first true sniper rifle in videogames was in Goldeneye 007 for the Nintendo 64, the truth is actually much closer to PC gamers’ hearts. A full year earlier, in August 1996, Quake Team Fortress released as a mod for Quake. Included among the Soldier, Spy, and Engineer was the Sniper. Snipers came equipped with a "Sniper Rifle," a menace that could kill at distance with one shot—as long as the player was fast enough and had great eyesight.
In March 1997, LucasArts released Outlaws, a western-themed shooter that seems to be mostly forgotten today. Those of us who played it, though, saw something new. Attached to the standard lever-action Winchester rifle was a sniper scope that magnified objects in 3D. As far as I can find, this real-time 3D magnification had never been done before at the time. Outlaws did it five months before Goldeneye launched.
LucasArts was sort of a pioneer in gaming back then, but I still think it’s unlikely that Outlaws started a trend. It’s more likely that the time for the first-person sniper rifle had just arrived. In the next year alone, 1998, we saw zoomable, first-person sniper rifles pop up in Half-Life, SiN, Starseige: Tribes, and Delta Force. Multiplayer games in particular started to play on larger maps, and the sniper rifle quickly became a staple for long-range battles. In 2000, the original Counter-Strike launched the AWP, and Deus Ex brought sniper rifles into a free-form immersive sim setting.
By the time Operation Flashpoint (the pre-cursor to Arma) launched in 2001, Battlefield 1942 arrived in 2002, and Call of Duty released in 2003, the sniper rifle was an essential part of any videogame that included guns at all.
Not all sniper rifles throw lead. Despite my grandstanding up in the "Bring the noise" section, a rifle that shoots lasers or—gasp—silently flings arrows can still be a lot of fun. The obvious example here is Half-Life 2’s incredible crossbow, a hideous sci-fi monster that nailes people to walls with superheated pieces of rebar.
The joys of Half-Life 2’s crossbow are numerous: the all-seeing perspective of a decent scope, the one-shot power of that glowing slab of iron pinning a Combine soldier’s body to the architecture.
Even the loud, bass-heavy thunk and twang of the crossbow, though obviously not as good as a huge boom, is really nice to listen to—and possibly even kind of musical? The best crossbow noise doesn’t come from the crossbow at all, but from the slightly muted, high-pitch whine of the "soldier down" Combine alarm heard from a long way off.
For laser-throwing sniper rifles, the powerful Darklance from XCOM 2 is one of our hands-down favorites. A shot of boiling, angry red death rays flying at aliens is, in general, pretty fun, but the Darklance has another edge. Unlike every other sniper rifle in the game, soldiers can fire and move in the same turn. If you do it right, a sniper armed with the Darklance can flit around the edges of a map, firing and moving, smiting and disappearing. Darklance might not give you the joy of a first-person perspective, but its power is no less biblical.
Videogame sniper rifles are rad. Though they can be monstrous in multiplayer games and their effects can be more pornographic than 10,000 dicks on parade, a well-made sniper rifle is a beautiful thing. It’s a smoothly oiled machine, a clap of thunder you can hold in your hands, and the fist of an angry god all rolled into one.
But for all its power, the reason the sniper remains so compelling is how well it's balanced out by its limitations, and all the tension they bring. Missing a shot can mean an eternal few seconds of reloading, standing naked in front of the world. That moment can give way to panic, and without a cool head, you're lost. So goes one of the greatest sniper shots ever captured on video.
There's one more tool in the sniper's belt, which forgoes range, its greatest asset, to make you feel somehow more omnipotent. If there's a more rewarding shot than the no-scope, an impossible doming that spits in the face of the sniper's intended balance, we don't know it. The no-scope defies nature and reason. It's the ultimate trump card.
Using a sniper well is an instinctive skill or a physics problem or both, and great games use them to make you feel unstoppable. Long live the scope.
Gunship Mark II's work-in-progress Half-Life 2: MMod has been around for some time, however is now gearing up for release and has a new trailer. Let's check that out first:
Despite first announcing the mod back in 2014, the creator says real life distractions have since hindered their progress—before Mark Laidlaw's 'Epistle 3' bombshell kickstarted their interest. Learning of what could have been has now inspired the mod's third and final iteration, which is now due in 2018.
"Development of v3 started right after Epistle 3 from Marc Laidlaw. You can guess, I was devastated, as many of us were," says Gunship Mark II on the mod's ModDB page. "People were saying 'That's it, Half-Life is over, Half-Life is dead'. But then it struck me: 'Bullshit', I said, 'We'll show 'em how dead it is'. I got fresh Source 2013 code base set up, I've got my tools ready, I've got Visual Studio installed, and I've started porting features from older iterations of HL2MMod, while simultaneously enhancing them and cleaning up the code.
"Some parts of the code were rewritten from scratch, some features are totally brand new, a lot of features were ported from City 17: Episode 1 mod, for which I am super grateful. I've made brand new particle effects for everything, I even did a couple of live streams to show some features off and to tell people that I am not dead."
Again, Half-Life 2: MMod is due at some stage next year. More can be read via the mod's ModDB page, and can be seen via the following GIFs:
This feature originally ran in issue 310 of PC Gamer UK. You can currently subscribe to both US and UK versions of the magazine for less than their usual price thanks to a holiday promotion.
My name is Pritus Jenkins, Citizen #00670. I know this number by heart because in the last few hours I've had to recite it around five times. Such is life as a citizen in City 17, where the alien Combine which patrol the streets love nothing more than to stop and harass me. I'm playing on a multiplayer Garry's Mod server, roleplaying Half-Life 2. But the role I play isn’t that of a hero. I am no Gordon Freeman. I am Pritus Jenkins, a 55-year-old man with a limp. And I’m hungry.
If Half-Life 2’s roleplaying community were a food, it’d be the bland, mushy packet of rations I receive hourly from the dispensary located just off the central square of the dystopian city. This isn’t a place for grand adventures and bravery, but a community of hundreds dedicated to experiencing the hopeless oppression of a society crushed under authoritarian alien rule.
Half-Life 2 roleplayers are a hardcore bunch. Even the Combine soldiers, toting weapons and bureaucratic power, are hopelessly chained by their dedication to believable roleplay. When it’s my turn to receive my rations, which are handed out by Combine players every hour, I’m asked to 'apply'—to state my name and Citizen ID. The Combine soldier uses emotes to inform me that they're looking up my file in the tablet they’re holding. I stand there, silent, for an uncomfortably long number of seconds. Then the Combine soldier turns around, grabs a unit of rations, and shoves them into my character's hands. That player will do this countless times as other citizens, like me, stop by to get their food.
As I walk around and explore the ruined alleys and dilapidated streets of this City 17 district, I can see the other citizens looking at me. Some talk amongst one another in whispers, while others lean against walls using in-game emotes to smoke imaginary cigarettes. It's an almost perfect recreation of the mood of Half-Life 2's opening hour, only with real players instead of computer actors playing out the mundane minutes of their pointless lives.
After a few minutes, one player approaches me but just as he's about to say something, a Combine soldier comes around the corner. He turns away. When the Combine soldier passes, the man immediately turns back and heads back my way.
"Ugly," he says.
"What did you just call me?" I type back. There is no voice chat, so every exchange is written in a text box on the lower left of my screen.
The man turns and walks away. Hesitant about what I should do, I decide to pursue him at a distance. I don't know these streets, I don't know these people. But maybe if I follow this man to his destination, he'll do something suspicious and I can report him to a Combine soldier and get him arrested.
After a few minutes of stalking him, the man stands before a locked gate. I crouch behind a piece of corrugated steel, watching and hoping he'll do something dumb.
I turn around to find a Combine soldier right behind me. Without complaint, I tell him my name and Citizen ID.
"Face the wall," the soldier commands, and I wonder if the few minutes I spent on this server are about to come to a depressing end. "What were you doing?"
"N-nothing, sir," I say. "I thought I dropped something."
Without another question, the Combine places a zip tie around my hands, binding them so that I can't attack him—not that I'd be able put up a fight anyway. Out of the corner of my eye I see the citizen I was following scoff at me.
"I've been watching you for a while," the Combine soldier tells me. "You’re acting pretty suspicious. I'm going to take you in for questioning. Follow me."
Not sure what to do—or even what I could do—I turn around and begin to follow the soldier.
I turn around and see the other citizen staring at me. His character wears a blank expression, but there's a smugness about it too. I've been roleplaying in Garry's Mod for maybe 20 minutes now, and already I've come face to face with the cruelty of its world. Somewhere, far from here, Gordon Freeman and the Resistance might be fighting to liberate the people of City 17, I imagine. But as the Combine soldier leads me to the ebony black doors of the Combine headquarters in this area, I fear I won’t be one of them.
Junction Point Studios is best known for developing the Wii-exclusive action adventure Epic Mickey. But this wasn’t the first project for the studio founded by Warren Spector after his departure from Ion Storm Austin. Somewhere between the end of 2005 and mid-2007, Junction Point studios worked on an additional Episode for Half-Life 2 that was ultimately cancelled by Valve.
In the interceding years, only a handful of details about the Episode have emerged. The Episode would have introduced a new weapon called the 'magnet gun', although it was never explained how the gun worked. In addition, earlier this year, purported images of the project leaked online, depicting what appeared to be the zombie-infested town of Ravenholm carpeted in snow. But whether these environments formed part of Junction Point’s final vision for the project, or to what extent Ravenholm would have appeared in the Episode, was never determined.
Now, though, PC Gamer can confirm that not only was Ravenholm to feature in Junction Point’s Episode, but it was to be the focus of the entire game. "We wanted to tell the story of how Ravenholm became what it was in the Half-Life universe. That seemed like an underdeveloped story that fans would really enjoy," says Warren Spector. "In addition to fleshing out the story of Ravenholm, we wanted to see more of Father Grigori and see how he came to be the character he later became in Half-Life 2."
Part of the reason little has been revealed about the project is because Spector’s memory of that time is hazy at best. Aside from that Father Grigori would have featured prominently, Spector remembers little else about how the story would have unfolded. When the images of the Episode were placed online, the map’s content suggested two characters named Duncan and Scooter would accompany the player, but Spector cannot recall them. Indeed, he isn’t even sure whether the player would have assumed the role of Gordon Freeman or played a different character.
What Spector can recall, and in considerable detail, is the magnet gun, and how it would have functioned. "If I remember correctly, it was team lead Matt Baer who came up with the idea for the magnet gun," he says. "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."
The magnet gun was Junction Point’s twist on the gravity gun idea from the original Half-Life 2. Instead of drawing objects into the player’s grasp, it would attract metal objects to a remote location designated by the player via firing the magnetic balls at a surface. Spector cites several colourful examples of how this could have been used.
"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."
Although Half-Life has always been a linear shooter, Half-Life 2's Episode Two expansion experimented with a slightly more open-ended structure, especially toward its conclusion. Meanwhile, Spector’s own games have always been geared toward letting the player explore and interact with the environment in numerous ways. Would we have seen an open world version of Ravenholm in Junction Point’s Episode? Spector says no. Well, mostly no. “We would have followed the Half-Life pattern. Half-Life players had expectations and thwarting them would have been crazy. Having said that, introducing the magnet gun would inevitably have opened up new gameplay possibilities players would likely have exploited in unpredictable ways," he says.
This was Junction Point’s rough design pitch for its Half-Life 2 Episode. But how much had Junction Point put into production at the point of cancellation? Spector says it had "put in a solid year" of work into development and had a "small area that demonstrated how the game would look when we were done" in place, alongside a "vertical slice" that showed the magnet gun in action.
Spector doesn’t know why Valve decided to ultimately cancel the project. But he describes the news as "frustrating". "We had just figured out how to really use the Source engine, how to get the most out of it and we had just started building what I thought was amazing stuff. And that’s when Valve pulled the plug," he explains.
"To this day, I don’t really know why [Valve] decided not to move ahead with the Episode, but they did and, frankly, that worked out okay. If they hadn’t we might not have been available to work on Epic Mickey for Disney," he concludes. "Everything happens for a reason, I guess."
Robert Guillaume, the American actor who voiced Half-Life 2's Eli Vance, has died of cancer, aged 89-years-old.
Guillaume was known outside of videogames for voicing Rafiki in Disney's The Lion King, playing Dr Bennet in 2003's Ewan McGregor-starring Big Fish, and as Benson DuBois in the popular sitcom Soap.
The latter performance netted him an Emmy for outstanding supporting actor in a comedy series in 1979. In 1985, the same role saw him become the first black actor to win an outstanding lead actor award.
Actors, celebrities and personalities have taken to social media to pay tribute to the esteemed actor, such as this from Soap co-star Billy Crystal:
And this from Valve writer Marc Laidlaw:
According to the BBC, Guillaume is survived by his second wife, a son and three daughters.
A Half-Life 2 mod released this week adds locations, characters and story beats that Valve cut from the original game. Dark Interval takes all the tidbits of information we know about drafts of the genre-defining FPS and stitches them together into a standalone game.
This week's release is just part one of the overall project, containing 11 levels in total including a revamped prologue, a reworked Kleiner's Lab section and a new locale called Manhack Arcade, where the player sees citizens of City 17 remotely piloting Manhacks (those annoying flying robots with twirling blades) to kill fugitives in the city.
The development team have filled in some of the gaps too, adding their own original work. "Dark Interval doesn't include original levels found in the 'leaked' version of Half-Life 2, and instead features brand new maps which were built from the ground up. It was decided that this was the only way to make them both stand out and be actually modern and not just modernised fix-ups," the creators said.
You don't need a copy of Half-Life 2 or any of its episodes to play Dark Interval, but you will need to download Source SDK Base 2013 Singleplayer, which is readily available in the 'Tools' section of Steam. Dark Interval can be downloaded here—that page has all the instructions you'll need to get it running.
Here's some more screenshots from the mod:
Cheers, DSO Gaming.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.