Rock, Paper, Shotgun - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Alec Meer)

Quake III's Q3DM17

Level 28! No, the other kind of level. The type that you run around in, shooting people or jumping on their heads and that sort of thing. Adam, Alec, Alice and Graham gather to discuss their favourite levels and/or maps from across the vast length of PC gaming, including selections from Deus Ex, Call of Duty and Quake III. Someone even makes a case for Xen from Half-Life, and means it.

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PC Gamer
PC Gamer

Why I Love

In Why I Love, PC Gamer writers pick an aspect of PC gaming that they love and write about why it's brilliant. Today, Phil praises the Half-Life 2 soundtrack.

I sometimes hear it argued that the best soundtracks are the ones that go unnoticed. The theory is that a good soundtrack should work in tandem with the work its attached to—subconsciously enhancing a game or movie without going out of its way to reveal itself. The reasoning seems sound, but I don't agree. I'm perfectly capable of noticing music while simultaneously appreciating a stunningly realised set piece or top notch wall texture, thank you very much.

I mention this because, to me, most FPS soundtracks do go unnoticed—moreso than perhaps any other genre. Partly its because shooters are designed to offer tense firefights that sharpen your focus until survival and the elimination of your enemies is all that matters. Partly, though, it's because so many FPS soundtracks borrow from each other to the point that they all blur into a haze of hurried orchestral suspense, deep, rumbling guitars and that dark ambient soundscape that seems to state, "hey, war is all technological and complicated now. That's cool, right?"1

This, basically.

There are a lot of great things about the Half-Life 2 soundtrack, most of which are tied to how and where each individual track is used within the game. But on a broader level, the thing that I love about it is that it sounds like nothing else.

Half-Life 2's soundtrack isn't afraid to make itself known. In addition, it's not afraid to make itself scarce. Valve is content to let long stretches of the game go without an accompanying track. Instead, they let the sound design come to the fore. By trusting in the strength of the sound design, Valve is able to hold back the soundtrack for those moments when it's needed. When the music does appear, it's usually for a reason. Shit has, is, or is about to go down.

It's not just that the songs are good, it's that each is perfectly tailored to the moment it's used in.2 Take the obvious example: Hazardous Environments.

It comes at the point where Gordon is finally able to take some control over his surroundings. We're never privy to Gordon's state of mind, but the opening of Half-Life 2 must be a disorientating experience for the physicist. He's awoken from stasis, dumped onto a train arriving at the dystopian centre of an unrecognisable world, and forced to escape a brutal police force operating under the orders of an alien collective.

Now, finally, he's among friends, and in possession of the suit that helped him survive the last deadly situation he found himself in. It's an artefact that links that world to this one, and so it's fitting that it's accompanied by the corresponding song from Half-Life 1. It's nostalgic, slow and assured.

Throughout Half-Life 2, the soundtrack plays with elements of techno, drum-'n-bass and industrial, and never lets itself get tied down to one genre. Just as one chapter of the game may play differently from another, so a music track can stand apart while still somehow feeling cohesive. It helps that the music is artificial throughout—perhaps as a parallel of the story's ramshackle resistance force, and how they repurpose and rebuild old machines and enhance them through the stolen tech of the alien race now subjugating them.

Take Ravenholm Reprise, which builds on the dark horror of that chapter with what essentially amounts to an extended electronic howl. It's unnatural and unnerving. Earlier in the game, players are treated to CP Violation—a perfect accompaniment for the Civil Protection, in that it sounds like an alarm that builds in intensity as you're hunted through the city's abandoned tunnels, warehouses and sewers.

My favourite track isn't tied to action or foreboding, but quiet reflection. It's called Triage At Dawn, and it plays shortly after Ravenholm, as you stumble across a recently attacked resistance outpost.3 Someone's been hit. It's Winston.

In isolation, the scene is kind of ridiculous, but it's effective in game—a reminder that the Combine's actions aren't simply limited to the isolated horror of Ravenholm, but affect everyone fighting for their freedom. Death hangs over them all. Or just being injured a bit. Winston's probably fine.

It's the music that sells this moment. It's a haunting, sad refrain that lends poignancy to the action. It's a manipulative shortcut, sure—the scene is otherwise too short to make anybody care about Winston—but then, that's a soundtrack's job. And Half-Life 2's soundtrack does its job exceptionally well.


1Yes, this is an exaggeration. But I'd argue that there is a noticeable homogeneity among military shooters in particular—a phenomenon that is perhaps ironically fitting, given the stories that tend to lay at the heart of these games. That said, even noting this, the individual compositions can be excellent. It's a shame that in adhering to a particular style, so many of these pieces are lost. Outside of this one particular sub-genre, though, there are plenty of distinct sounds. Borderlands 2's electro-Southern rock strikes me as an obvious example.

2Valve is continually a master of this, and I could have easily written this piece about any of their games. Of particular note is Portal 2, the music of which nicely mirrors the plot of the game. Its music sounds broken and chaotic, as if degraded by thousands of years of disuse. Portal 2 is also worth praising for its use of dynamic music—giving it a playful quality as it reacts to your interactions with the game's puzzle elements.

3My favourite track from the Half-Life 2 series as a whole is Sector Sweep, from Episode 2. It comes at the perfect time, after a tense encounter with a Combine Advisor. It's such a driving, adrenaline-building instrumental that it makes what could be a difficult fight in tight hallways feel like a liberating licence to take out your frustration on the Combine forces. It's the sort of song that says, "no, no, get the shotgun out for this bit."

PC Gamer

I've never played the Killzone games, owing to the fact that I don't possess the precise living room box required, but now at least I've gotten a taste of the Helghast. Killzone Source doesn't recreate an entire Killzone game in HL2, but provides a particular mission called Strange Company.

It represents several years of work by Moddb member zombiegames, and while I can't personally vouch for its representation of Killzone, it's pretty cool and looks great. With an AI companion, you fight your way through the interiors of a multi-floor building, battling Helghast at every turn, then proceed outside for more gunplay. You can carry a pistol and one of several rifles, use frag grenades, and are also armed with a knife. The Helghast look great, and I don't know if this is true of the original game, but they scream entertainingly when they die. Every time. I couldn't get enough of it.

They're tough as hell, too. Even on normal difficulty they killed me repeatedly. I had to disable AI using the Source console just to get close enough to them to take their pictures. At one point a dropship appeared over a shattered courtyard and they rappelled down on ropes in front of me. They're also pretty good at using grenades.

My AI companion was a little worthless in a fight, but she's still cool to hang out with. While I was remapping my keys (the default keybindings are a little odd) she helped herself to a soda from a vending machine. 

The guns are fun to use, and plenty challenging due to recoil, and the maps are dressed with various bits of detail like Helghast propaganda. There are some other touches, like flying enemy drone that I presume has roots in the original game.

To play, you just need a Steam account and to have the opt-in beta of Source SDK Base 2013 Singleplayer installed. For the beta, right-click the SDK base on Steam, select properties, open the Beta tab and choose '-upcoming' from the list. (You don't need to input a beta access code.)

As for the mod itself, here's its page on Moddb. If you've tried it, and you have experience with the Killzone games, I'd love to hear if you think it's a faithful recreation of the mission.

Rock, Paper, Shotgun - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Alec Meer)

Gathering together the best shooters is no easy task, but if you’re looking for a new PC FPS to play, look no further.

Your favourite game is at number 51.

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

Now that the commercial version of Half-Life fan remake Black Mesa [official site] is out in Early Access form (and pretty great so far), what’ll happen to the original free mod?

Not that much, really – which is hardly a surprise. Developers Crowbar Collective haven’t given up on it, as they said they wouldn’t, but expect future updates to be more along the lines of bug fixes than big additions. The mod won’t see Xen, for starters. The older version of the Source engine the mod uses isn’t up to handling the pretty Xen they want to make, see, and they can’t change it.

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Rock, Paper, Shotgun - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Marsh Davies)

Alt-text is having a week off to recover from the election. Soz.

Each week Marsh Davies latches onto Early Access like a brain-eating alien parisitoid and slurps up any stories he can find. This week we re back in Black Mesa [official site] – the classy fan remake of Half-Life 1 in a hybrid version of the Source engine which was used for its sequels. An incomplete release of the project was made available on Steam for free last year, but the Early Access incarnation is a more polished, ongoing, funded development, with additional chapters planned, multiplayer, workshop integration and modding tools.>

If the past is another country, then it s one under constant mnemonic invasion from the present. This is doubly true of moments from a distant childhood, a time when experience was already enlarged so dramatically by the imagination, when the emotional significance of toys, or books, or games far exceeded their actual sophistication – and it is these responses which then endure in memory, rewriting the reality. 22 years of brain death has sneakily uprezzed my recollection of the original Syndicate, for example, transforming it into a glorious cyberpunk cityscape that its crude, mud-paletted pixels have never really deserved. So when I say Black Mesa is every bit as good as the Half-Life I remember playing 17 years ago, you ll understand that I m praising something much greater than an act of recreation.

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Rock, Paper, Shotgun - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (John Walker)

There is a peculiar irony to the impression people have of gaming. When videogames are lazily portrayed in the wider world, they inevitably show a soldier being shot through a gun scope. Hell, even within the highest enclave walls, people are wont to dismiss the poor taste of others by snarking, They d probably like it if it had a gun floating at the bottom of the screen. The first-person shooter is the most emblematic genre of gaming, and yet it s now the most under-served, under-developed, and rarest of mainstream releases. There are barely any new non-indie FPS games. And it s all Half-Life s fault.>

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

If we acknowledge that many jokes have been made about the Half-Life series then may we, you and I, accept that there’s no need for us to crack any more and vow never to ever again ever?

The commercial version of Black Mesa [official site], the fan-made remake of Valve’s seminal Half-Life, arrived on Steam today at 14.99/$19.99. On Steam Early Access, to be precise, as it’s still missing the Xen chapters. While those are absent, present are new additions since the free mod release like Steam Workshop support and deathmatch on six classic HLDM maps.

… [visit site to read more]

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

Zap me.

Today in News You Should Probably Be Glad You Never Heard About At The Time Because You’re Already Disappointed Enough And This Would’ve Been Frustrating And Yeah I Guess You Would’ve Written A Lot Of Annoyed Comments On The Internet And TBH Neither You Nor I Want That But Boy, What If This Had Happened: Deus Ex director Warren Spector and his (now-closed) studio Junction Point were at one point working on a Half-Life game.

The mystery game would’ve been a Half-Life 2 episode separate from Valve’s own core episodes, introducing a new physics-y magnet gun. But it was not to be, and Junction Point went on to focus on Epic Mickey instead.

… [visit site to read more]

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