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Half-Life 2 turns 12 this year, and thanks to its powerful, if a bit creaky Source engine it remains as popular with the modding community as ever. Over the years we've seen all manner of excellent mods emerge, adding co-op or competitive multiplayer, shiny graphical updates, new story content, and even full conversions that bear little or no resemblance to the original game.
It's the latter two we're going to focus on today, as we round up the best single-player Half-Life 2 mods. We've chosen mods that stand up as separate adventures, sometimes set in worlds far removed from Combine Earth.
This is the story of a man named Stanley. Or rather, it's the story of the story: a deviously clever, reactive adventure that second-guesses your every move. As Stanley or, perhaps more accurately, as the player controlling Stanley you're free to follow or ignore the various instructions the wonderful narrator bellows over you, resulting in a tangled, branching story that rewards your curiosity, imagination, and defiance. The original Source mod was later expanded into a full game, one our Phil thought extremely highly of in our review.
Adam Foster's Minerva comes close to the quality of Valve's own Half-Life 2 Episodes in fact, Valve was so impressed Foster joined the company. It's a sizeable story, about the length of an official chapter, with considered level design and a high level of polish. You begin the game strapped to the underside of a helicopter, before being dropped on a mysterious island with a sinister secret.
Gordon Freeman ends the Half-Life series as a crowbar-wielding superhero, a figure of legend in the Half-Life universe. Two-part mod The Citizen provides a new angle on the world, casting you as an ordinary oppressed citizen of City 17. Obviously, said ordinary man soon acquires a gun and starts killing people, but you might snap too if you called that dystopia home.
This lengthy, ambitious mod swings from horror to all-out action. Occasional cutscenes tell the story of a subway technician suffering from leukaemia, but Get a Life's unlucky hero Alex also has to contend with the mod's new limb damage system, which causes effects like dizziness and limping, depending on where he's hit by enemies.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to step into the sneakers of Gordon Freeman and set off to repair a Resistance listening post. This impressive Episode Two mod begins with Gordon rowing to a distant coastline: a coastline that reminds you just how pretty the venerable Source engine can look in the right hands. The right hands in this instance are a couple of established game devs, and their experience shines through pretty much every crevice of this slick, well-paced adventure.
Thanks to its then-revolutionary ragdoll physics, a lot of time in Half-Life 2 was spent throwing chairs at NPCs, or flinging teacups with the gravity gun. In that spirit, Research and Development does away with offensive weapons altogether, leaving just a couple of secondary tools to let you manipulate gravity or order Antlions about. Puzzles are the order of the day here, and it's surprising just how easily Half-Life 2's toolset translates to this new focus.
Where there are modding tools, horror mods are sure to follow. You don't need to have played the original in fact, it's included as a prologue, giving you the chance to explore both a haunted house and a spooky hospital. The horror on offer here is mainly of the jump scare variety, so if you were hoping for the psychological horror of Silent Hill, move on to the next item in the list. Nightmare House 2 is basically FEAR it even features its own creepy ghost girl but more FEAR is hardly a bad thing.
The impressive Alchemilla drops you in the world of Silent Hill, endless fog, Dark World and all. Not only have the developers nailed the grimy aesthetic of Team Silent's classic series, they've matched its colour palette, borrowed its sound effects, and recreated its lonely atmosphere. It's such an uncanny representation that it may take you a while to notice there are no enemies traipsing around, but then those games were hardly known for their satisfying combat.
Download: Alchemilla mod.
Until now everything we've featured has been strictly first-person, but Water bucks that trend. In fact, it bucks a lot of trends, given that it's a third-person puzzley adventure starring a mermaid. Yes, a mermaid. While you're (initially at least) limited to a fantasy city's waterways, this smart mod soon finds ways to get you exploring land too, using a number of innovative systems. The developers of Water went on to make From Earth, another, similarly inventive Source mod.
Well, we couldn't ignore Black Mesa, could we? For the unaware, this recreates the original Half-Life in its sequel's shinier engine, and it's been in development since dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Much more than a simple port, Black Mesa updates Valve's game with fancier assets, new voice acting, a reworked campaign and more. The team have also excised Half-Life's much-maligned Xen section, albeit only temporarily until it's been remade to be, somehow, good. While the older mod is free, you'll find the newer version on Early Access, accompanied by a price tag.
Download: Official site.
Push Half-Life 3 to the back of your mind, where it surely spends most of its time these days. How about some new Half-Life 2? Indie dev Richard Seabrook has spent the past two years working on a continuation of Gearbox's Half-Life 1: Opposing Force story, and the result, Prospekt, is said to match Half-Life 2: Episode One in length. February 11 is the big day.
At one point in Prospekt's development, Seabrook loaded it onto memory sticks, packed them in a briefcase adorned with the lambda logo and dispatched it to Gaben. He did not hear back. After passing through Greenlight, however, Prospekt gained Valve's nod of approval for the licence and assets.
As Gordon Freeman is cornered in Nova Prospekt, the Vortigaunts teleport US Marine Adrian Shepherd into the fray to give him a fighting chance. That's you. In total, Prospekt has 13 levels (including a return to Half-Life 1's Xen, which the long-running Black Mesa project is still working on) and upgrades the visuals of the original setting.
Prospekt will cost 7.50/$10. You don't need to own Half-Life 2 to play, but I'm saying that you should own Half-Life 2, you strange maverick.
Pining for Half-Life 2: Episode 3 is so passe. I'm more interested in Episode 4, which was being developed by Arkane until it was killed for being too good for this world. Or, for sensible reasons as revealed by Valve's Marc Laidlaw three years ago. It was to return players to Ravenholm, hence the name 'Return to Ravenholm', and some legit-looking screenshots seemed to bear that out.
I'm not just bringing this up to open old wounds—some new screenshots have been unearthed courtesy of those scamps at ValveTime. There are 11 of the beggars, purportedly taken from the portfolio of one Robert Wilinski, a Senior Environment Artist who was at Arkane between 2007 and 2008. You've already seen one above, but here are a few extra of the more interesting ones. (Having said that, they're all a bit boring—damned sewer levels.) Click this link, or watch the following video, for the others.
There are also a couple of images reportedly of Arkane's similarly cancelled The Crossing. It wasn't Half-Life related, but at least it wasn't set in a bloody sewer.
When I saw the release trailer for Half-Line Miami, I assumed it was a gag whipped up by somebody bored with the wait for Half-Life 3, or a set of skinned levels built in Hotline Miami's level editor. It is neither. Half-Line Miami is a free, fully playable mash-up of Hotline Miami and Half-Life 2, complete with the G-Man introduction, and it's really good.
The actual gameplay is straight out of Hotline Miami, but the maps, enemies, and sound effects are taken from Half-Life 2. And instead of the usual assortment of blunt objects and firearms, you're equipped with the gravity gun, which works exactly like it does in HL2: Pick something up—explosive barrels included—and then fire it at your enemies to turn them into pulp.
There are eight levels in all, one for each area in Half-Life 2. For players who are into the DIY thing, it comes with a level editor as well. The soundtrack by Sung is pretty fantastic too. And it's free!
"I made this game as a declaration of my love for these 2 games, and as an experiment in game design," creator Thomas Kole explained.
Grab it—trust me, it's worth your time—at Itch.io.
In Why I Love, PC Gamer writers pick an aspect of PC gaming that they love and write about why it's brilliant. Today, Phil praises the Half-Life 2 soundtrack.
I sometimes hear it argued that the best soundtracks are the ones that go unnoticed. The theory is that a good soundtrack should work in tandem with the work its attached to—subconsciously enhancing a game or movie without going out of its way to reveal itself. The reasoning seems sound, but I don't agree. I'm perfectly capable of noticing music while simultaneously appreciating a stunningly realised set piece or top notch wall texture, thank you very much.
I mention this because, to me, most FPS soundtracks do go unnoticed—moreso than perhaps any other genre. Partly its because shooters are designed to offer tense firefights that sharpen your focus until survival and the elimination of your enemies is all that matters. Partly, though, it's because so many FPS soundtracks borrow from each other to the point that they all blur into a haze of hurried orchestral suspense, deep, rumbling guitars and that dark ambient soundscape that seems to state, "hey, war is all technological and complicated now. That's cool, right?"1
There are a lot of great things about the Half-Life 2 soundtrack, most of which are tied to how and where each individual track is used within the game. But on a broader level, the thing that I love about it is that it sounds like nothing else.
Half-Life 2's soundtrack isn't afraid to make itself known. In addition, it's not afraid to make itself scarce. Valve is content to let long stretches of the game go without an accompanying track. Instead, they let the sound design come to the fore. By trusting in the strength of the sound design, Valve is able to hold back the soundtrack for those moments when it's needed. When the music does appear, it's usually for a reason. Shit has, is, or is about to go down.
It's not just that the songs are good, it's that each is perfectly tailored to the moment it's used in.2 Take the obvious example: Hazardous Environments.
It comes at the point where Gordon is finally able to take some control over his surroundings. We're never privy to Gordon's state of mind, but the opening of Half-Life 2 must be a disorientating experience for the physicist. He's awoken from stasis, dumped onto a train arriving at the dystopian centre of an unrecognisable world, and forced to escape a brutal police force operating under the orders of an alien collective.
Now, finally, he's among friends, and in possession of the suit that helped him survive the last deadly situation he found himself in. It's an artefact that links that world to this one, and so it's fitting that it's accompanied by the corresponding song from Half-Life 1. It's nostalgic, slow and assured.
Throughout Half-Life 2, the soundtrack plays with elements of techno, drum-'n-bass and industrial, and never lets itself get tied down to one genre. Just as one chapter of the game may play differently from another, so a music track can stand apart while still somehow feeling cohesive. It helps that the music is artificial throughout—perhaps as a parallel of the story's ramshackle resistance force, and how they repurpose and rebuild old machines and enhance them through the stolen tech of the alien race now subjugating them.
Take Ravenholm Reprise, which builds on the dark horror of that chapter with what essentially amounts to an extended electronic howl. It's unnatural and unnerving. Earlier in the game, players are treated to CP Violation—a perfect accompaniment for the Civil Protection, in that it sounds like an alarm that builds in intensity as you're hunted through the city's abandoned tunnels, warehouses and sewers.
My favourite track isn't tied to action or foreboding, but quiet reflection. It's called Triage At Dawn, and it plays shortly after Ravenholm, as you stumble across a recently attacked resistance outpost.3 Someone's been hit. It's Winston.
In isolation, the scene is kind of ridiculous, but it's effective in game—a reminder that the Combine's actions aren't simply limited to the isolated horror of Ravenholm, but affect everyone fighting for their freedom. Death hangs over them all. Or just being injured a bit. Winston's probably fine.
It's the music that sells this moment. It's a haunting, sad refrain that lends poignancy to the action. It's a manipulative shortcut, sure—the scene is otherwise too short to make anybody care about Winston—but then, that's a soundtrack's job. And Half-Life 2's soundtrack does its job exceptionally well.
1Yes, this is an exaggeration. But I'd argue that there is a noticeable homogeneity among military shooters in particular—a phenomenon that is perhaps ironically fitting, given the stories that tend to lay at the heart of these games. That said, even noting this, the individual compositions can be excellent. It's a shame that in adhering to a particular style, so many of these pieces are lost. Outside of this one particular sub-genre, though, there are plenty of distinct sounds. Borderlands 2's electro-Southern rock strikes me as an obvious example.
2Valve is continually a master of this, and I could have easily written this piece about any of their games. Of particular note is Portal 2, the music of which nicely mirrors the plot of the game. Its music sounds broken and chaotic, as if degraded by thousands of years of disuse. Portal 2 is also worth praising for its use of dynamic music—giving it a playful quality as it reacts to your interactions with the game's puzzle elements.
3My favourite track from the Half-Life 2 series as a whole is Sector Sweep, from Episode 2. It comes at the perfect time, after a tense encounter with a Combine Advisor. It's such a driving, adrenaline-building instrumental that it makes what could be a difficult fight in tight hallways feel like a liberating licence to take out your frustration on the Combine forces. It's the sort of song that says, "no, no, get the shotgun out for this bit."
I've never played the Killzone games, owing to the fact that I don't possess the precise living room box required, but now at least I've gotten a taste of the Helghast. Killzone Source doesn't recreate an entire Killzone game in HL2, but provides a particular mission called Strange Company.
It represents several years of work by Moddb member zombiegames, and while I can't personally vouch for its representation of Killzone, it's pretty cool and looks great. With an AI companion, you fight your way through the interiors of a multi-floor building, battling Helghast at every turn, then proceed outside for more gunplay. You can carry a pistol and one of several rifles, use frag grenades, and are also armed with a knife. The Helghast look great, and I don't know if this is true of the original game, but they scream entertainingly when they die. Every time. I couldn't get enough of it.
They're tough as hell, too. Even on normal difficulty they killed me repeatedly. I had to disable AI using the Source console just to get close enough to them to take their pictures. At one point a dropship appeared over a shattered courtyard and they rappelled down on ropes in front of me. They're also pretty good at using grenades.
My AI companion was a little worthless in a fight, but she's still cool to hang out with. While I was remapping my keys (the default keybindings are a little odd) she helped herself to a soda from a vending machine.
The guns are fun to use, and plenty challenging due to recoil, and the maps are dressed with various bits of detail like Helghast propaganda. There are some other touches, like flying enemy drone that I presume has roots in the original game.
To play, you just need a Steam account and to have the opt-in beta of Source SDK Base 2013 Singleplayer installed. For the beta, right-click the SDK base on Steam, select properties, open the Beta tab and choose '-upcoming' from the list. (You don't need to input a beta access code.)
As for the mod itself, here's its page on Moddb. If you've tried it, and you have experience with the Killzone games, I'd love to hear if you think it's a faithful recreation of the mission.