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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.
Yesterday, Garry's Mod creator Facepunch Studios unveiled S&box—a prototype that aims to "take a powerful game engine (UE4 right now) and build a hotloading C# layer on top of it".
In turn, so reckons the developer, this will allow users to sidestep using C++, waiting for things to compile, and closing games while developing. Overnight, a handful of Reddit threads reckon S&box is Facepunch's way of announcing Garry's Mod 2.
We reached out Facepunch's head honcho Garry Newman to ask what exactly S&box is, if it is in fact Garry's Mod 2, and when we might expect to learn more about it.
"So this might be a bit complicated," Newman tells us via email. "There's a lot of "is this Garry's Mod 2", the honest answer is "maybe"—but nowhere near that yet. We've basically built our own game engine on top of UE4. We're really using UE4 for its core features, rendering, networking, physics. It's all done in an engine agnostic way. We can lift our system off and put it on the source engine (it actually started on the source engine).
"It's too early to say whether this will turn into a spiritual successor of Garry's Mod, or whether it will even be released as a moddable platform (we might use it internally to make our own games on). But at the moment we're enjoying playing around with it and that's enough right now."
Newman also links to this—something he describes as "one of the many prototypes [he and his team] are working on."
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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