The sky churns with deadly energy. Looming above, the stricken Citadel claws into the heavens, its tip crackling with transdimensional discharges. The stage is set. Lights, camera—wait, hold everything. I almost forgot to switch on the Cinematic Mod which adds a bevy of high-quality textures, shadows, and a film-style lighting filter to the works. There we go. Now I'm Director Freeman.
The Cinematic Mod has been around since 2005, but updates continue rolling out regularly, with the most recent 12.1 patch releasing last month. Installing the meaty 30GB(!) mod results in a slew of immediately visible differences: high-resolution skins for everything (yes, everything, including character models for Alyx Vance, Barney, and others), dynamic shadows, and flared lighting seemingly ripped straight from a Mass Effect nightclub. The potpourri of post-production punch "gives the HL2 trilogy a more stressed, darker, and uncomfortable look," according to the mod's website.
It's essentially Half-Life 2's version of the popular ENBSeries add-ons, and the Cinematic Mod needs some hefty hardware. You'll want at least a quad-core processor and 4GB of RAM for the suite of color adjustments and shader smoothing. The upside? You'll get to find out what really lurks within the GMan's pockmarks. Head over to the mod's website for more info.
Query your cortical data node and you'll recall NeoTokyo was chosen along with 20 other titles for Steam Greenlight's second round of approvals back in October. The mod itself has been around for much longer, originally appearing in simple deathmatch form for Unreal Tournament 2004. Four years later it transitioned to the Source engine, where it languished without updates--until today, when developer Studio Radi-8 released a fresh version out of nowhere (which is apparently becoming a thing now), adding eight new maps and higher-quality weapon models.
The modes: deathmatch and Capture the Ghost (the latter, in a tip of the hat to NeoTokyo's inspiration from dystopian sci-fi anime classics such as Ghost in the Shell and Akira, replaces the flag with an android torso). The classes: Recon, Assault, and Support. Each brings special vision modes such as motion-tracking and infrared, and with the exception of the Support role, everyone can cloak for a short duration. Before each round, you select your primary weapon from an armory that grows as you gain rank from kills and victories. Think cyberpunk Counter-Strike.
It's quite the fun setup. The maps stick to the cyberpunk theme of dense city blocks, military installations, and industrial decay, with plenty of near-future gadgetry and set pieces of glowing computer interfaces and multi-legged tanks with scary-sounding Japanese names. Server selection is rather sparse at the moment, but it should hopefully jump up as word of the update spreads. You and your fellow operatives can get in the action by downloading NeoTokyo from its official website.
Someday, Valve will eventually run out of wonderful features to pack into its mega-gaming-hub Steam. Let's hope it's a long way off, because we'll all be busy poring over the user-written manuals, walkthroughs, and tips for our various games in the newly launched Steam Guides section of Steam's Community area.
Anyone can create and submit a guide for the game of their choice by clicking the new Guide tab on a game's Community Hub page. You can pretty up your words with images and embedded YouTube videos as well, and the guides also appear upon Steam's overlay whenever you're running a program. Neat. I can finally whip up my "How to avoid tigers" guide I've been planning for Far Cry 3 quickly and easily.
Head over to the Steam Guides page to take a look at the over 1,000 guides already created.
The hurricane of savings that's swirled over PC gaming in the past few years has been tremendous. Deep discounts seem to pop up weekly on digital stores like Amazon, GOG.com, and Steam. But should the ubiquity of sales fundamentally change our buying habits?
In this Face Off debate, Logan argues that waiting for a sales gets you get a more refined product at a cheaper price. But Evan thinks that waiting too long denies you the best-possible experience, especially in multiplayer games.
Jump over to the next page for more opinions from the PC Gamer community, and make your own arguments in the comments. Debate team captains: it’s your time to shine.
Logan: Nope. Hanging on to your cash for a while—a few months, a year, or whenever you’ve caught up with that backlog that’s been building up—buys you a game that’s had its bugs squashed, costs far less on sale, and probably even runs better on your machine. Remind me what the downside is again?
Evan: We play games to have great experiences, right? In most cases those experiences diminish in value over time. Technology ages. Stories are spoiled. Sequels outdo their predecessors. I’m not advocating against the ridiculous sales we’ve seen in recent years, but looking back, being needlessly frugal would've denied me some of my most precious gaming experiences. Playing Left 4 Dead every night after work in October ‘08 with my friends was so special because we were mutually discovering the game together. I can’t put a price tag on that.
Logan: OK, let’s be clear here: I don’t think buying games at launch is a bad thing. You can bet your pet headcrab that I won’t be waiting for Half-Life 3 to hit the discount bin. What I’m saying is that with a little patience (and, sure, some deft spoiler-dodging), you get a better experience at a far lower price. Sure, you miss out on being a part of the conversation when a game launches. Like how pissed off people were about the save-corrupting bugs in The Walking Dead series, which to the best of my knowledge were fixed by the time you could buy the entire season during the Steam Winter Sale for half-price at $12.50!
Evan: Oh, whatever. If you wait until a game is bugless, you’ll be waiting forever. The Walking Dead was more than playable at launch—we gave it a 90. The conversations I had with friends about that game (and Mass Effect, and Far Cry 3, and XCOM) are worth so much more to me than $12—it’s a lesser game without that.
I think you’re overstating the impact that launch issues actually have. Other than Diablo III and, I don’t know, Sword of the Stars II last year, when were games unacceptably broken at launch? If I was picking up Diablo III now—assuming I could actually twist a friend’s arm to reroll a new character—that pristine experience of grinding our first dungeons together and feeling caught up in something new together would be gone.
Beyond that, I think we should be mindful that our purchases have a real and actual impact on developers. Last year, Rockstar Vancouver, Big Huge, Black Hole, 38 Studios and Paragon Studios closed. Great games don’t exist unless we support them.
Logan: You’re being hysterical. It’s not just about bugs and launch issues. It’s about enjoying a smoother ride overall, and getting stuff like new features and levels to boot!
Evan: Listen, all I’m asking you to consider is this: How many indie developers’ malnourished babies are you personally responsible for?
Logan: I am not a baby malnourisher. I don’t want to deprive developers of handsome profits. In fact, I wish I had a leaf blower that blew cash into their windows. It’s just that I—like most gamers—have a limited budget. Buying games at a discount means that I can buy more games. And feed more babies.
Look, developers who don’t want to discount their games simply won’t do so. But most do put their games on sale because, ultimately, it makes them more money.
Evan: My imaginary leaf blower also shoots money. Waiting months to buy something isn’t universally the best budget decision if you’re passionate about a game. It’s actually becoming more prevalent for pre-orders to provide incentives or actual savings over the retail price. In the case of free-to-play games like MechWarrior Online and Tribes: Ascend, putting money down before release got me extra in-game currency, extra content, and immediate access. Multi-copy packs are also usually a great deal—in Borderlands 2’s case, you could get four copies for the price of three at launch, something that’s much harder to do after release.
Logan: Oh, yeah, pre-order bonuses can be great deals too, and the Borderlands 2 promotion was a pretty smart way to get cheapskates like me to pony up before launch. But these are exceptions to a general rule of thumb that’s indisputable: if you can wait it out, you’ll almost always get a better product for less money. Any way that you legitimately purchase a game is supporting the developer. If you insist that supporting a developer means paying more than you have to, then I think that what you’re talking about is a contribution, or charity.
Evan: Waiting for patches might give you a less buggy game, but I don’t think you’ll necessarily get a better experience, which is what you’re paying for. Sure, EA made Battlefield 1942 free last year, but replaying it years removed from its popularity wasn’t fun for me at all. Moreso than film or books, games age. Hopping into Battlefield 3 now—just 14 months after release—and you’d miss out on the volcano of enthusiasm, shared discovery, and level playing field in the metagame that existed at launch.
There’s always going to be several games a year where I’m going to want to be there on day one. If you wait four or five months—about as long as it typically takes to shed 25% off something on Steam—or longer, you’ll have missed out on that.
Logan: But remember, games acquire new fans when they’re discounted or go free-to-play. Solution: make new friends.
Evan: Or we could get everyone we know to wait six months to buy a game.
For more opinions on PC gaming, follow Logan, Evan, and PC Gamer on Twitter. On the next page: more opinions from the community.
For more perspectives, we've poured out some of your thoughts from the bucket of opinion known as Twitter below.
@pcgamer It depends on if they're $60 triple A titles for me. $60 is too much for most games, especially after last year's disappointments.— Coalton Ross (@Coalton) January 14, 2013
@pcgamer If you're a fan of the game, the series, the studio, etc...then yes, it's your job as a fan to positively reinforce great work.— Kevin Robertson (@krobulous) January 14, 2013
@pcgamer To anyone who has any sort of budgeting they should never buy on release date. Waiting for a sale is the only way.— Ryan Melanson (@RyePunk) January 14, 2013
@pcgamer established franchises or series yes (elder scrolls), New and unproven games wait for more info and reviews.— Now Hiring Henchmen (@HiringHenchmen) January 15, 2013
@pcgamer It's definitely difficult to see the game you paid $60 for be repackaged with extras for the same or lower price < 12 months later.— James Schumacher (@JamesInDigital) January 14, 2013
@pcgamer On the other hand, being swept up in the ARG and playing the heck out of Portal 2 was a delightful experience.— S Wilkins (@ElAcordeonachi) January 14, 2013
@pcgamer Multiplatform/console port multiplayer games are better at launch however. They're most fun when the playing field is very equal.— Jason (@TeslasButler) January 15, 2013
@pcgamer depends if I trust the developer enough to deliver a good product. I rarely buy into the hype anymore. Burned too badly in the past— Wim (@Quercuas) January 15, 2013
@pcgamer overpriced on release, wait a week, don't follow the hype— TFB (@tf_blackjack) January 15, 2013
The Half-Life 2 Zero Point Energy Field Manipulator Replica will go on sale in April, but they're going to be pretty tough to get hold of. Joystiq have noticed a sales page on Think Geek offering NECA's 1:1 model for $150. There will only be 5000 sold worldwide. Once they sell out, "they're gone forever!" The two foot gun features "orange LEDs, 2 handles, 2 triggers, 4 unique sounds from the game." You'll find a list of pre-order links here on the NECA pre-order page.
I think I prefer their Portal gun, but sadly that's flown out of stock. All that's left is a little note saying that the entire batch went in less than half an hour. There's more merch on the NECA site, and you can get a closer look at the Gravity Gun replica in this photograph right here.
Contrary to popular belief, the anticipated Oculus Rift virtual reality headset doesn't run on pixie dust and elf tears. Like all hardware, it needs software drivers. And while its 20-year-old creator, Palmer Luckey, focuses on manufacturing more developer kits to meet the exceedingly high demand, enthusiastic 3D fans are already planning homebrewed custom drivers. One such project is CyberReality's Vireio Perception which extends Rift 3D support to first-person greats such as Portal 2, Skyrim, Mirror's Edge, and Left 4 Dead.
As CyberReality describes it, Vireio (or Virtual Reality Input Output, but we like how the shorthand name sounds like an enemy boss) can "pre-warp the image to match the Oculus Rift optics, handle custom aspect-ratios (needed for the Rift's strange 8:10 screen), and utilize full 3D head-tracking." As we describe it: Whoa.
The drivers work with nine games so far: Left 4 Dead, Half-Life 2, Portal 2, Skyrim, Mirror's Edge, AaAaAA!!!, Unreal Tournament 3, Dear Esther, and DiRT 2. CyberReality plans to add additional games in the future after spending more time with the kit. If all goes well, the possibilities are enormous: Think of revisiting classics such as Thief or Deus Ex with full head-tracking vision. Oh, yes, this is exciting.
Black Mesa's overhaul of Gordon Freeman's educational field trip is a lovingly crafted tribute to the FPS classic, but it's still not entirely done. Although the team is working on the concluding Xen areas, certain earlier parts took cuts to stay on schedule. A notable example is the Surface Tension chapter which abruptly cuts off after a one-man assault on the dam section. Luckily, one gamer took it upon himself to design and restore missing levels with the Surface Tension Uncut mod.
Modder TextFAMGUY1's three levels cover Surface Tension's second half, including a tangle with a tank, flying alien manta ray things, and a lot more zappy noises. Like the majority of Black Mesa, the mod's level design incorporates new buildings and altered layouts while keeping the core pacing right on track with the 1998 original.
It's unknown if the Black Mesa team will go back at some point and release official updates to the shortened levels, but TextFAMGUY1's effort is here now, so head to Mod DB to download it, and keep an eye out for more of TextFAMGUY1's work—he's planning a retouch of the On a Rail chapter next.
The only thing missing from Alan Edwardes' Half-Life 2 mod Estranged is a cryptic introduction narrated by Rod Serling, possibly with a door flying into your face from a starry sky. But Estranged's "key of imagination" still unlocks plenty of mystery involving a wrecked ship, a puzzling island, its eccentric inhabitants, and a moonlit beach.
Estranged falls under the mod motif of eschewing explanation for exploration. The hows and whys of your predicament aren't immediately apparent—like any good story, Estranged unravels the truth slowly and subtly until the final twist. You'll solve puzzles and bump into the occasional zombie, but the focus clearly revolves around unfogging what's really going on. Story-driven, atmospheric content is a great way to showcase hard, thoughtful work, and Estranged's tiny touches—the flotsam lining the shore or an island inhabitant's scrounged baubles displayed on a shelf—reflect Edwardes' superb attention to detail.
Edwardes recently released the latest alpha version of Estranged, which you can download on its official website.
You can always count on modders to use Half-Life 2 as a canvas for interesting genre combos. Empires exemplifies this as one of the oldest total conversions, bringing Battlefield-style warfare onto the Source engine with three-faction multiplayer mayhem and a commander mechanic akin to Natural Selection 2's system. The first update to the mod in two years, 2.4 adds five new maps, new models, and a small army of fixes.
The new maps—Bush, Arid, Eastborough, Palmbay, and Midbridge—cover typical warzones such as urban, forest, island, and unsecured-bridge-of-certain-death. The heavy tank for the Brenodi Empire as well as the APC for the Northern Faction both received reskins, and the Brenodi's Heavy Pistol model got a bump in quality. Lastly, issuing orders from the commander's interface should be easier through improved menus.
Check out the rest of the extensive patch notes over on Mod DB, where you can also grab 2.4 as a free download.
Dinosaurs were essentially nature's mechs: big stompy giants with shoulder-mounted missile... wait, no. Just big and stompy. But still cool, making it surprising that we don't see more of them in games and that, the few times they do show up, they've a tendency to be rubbish. So fingers crossed for Jurassic Life, a Half-Life 2 mod that's currently in development and has just released this splendid trailer.
Obviously the big draw is the dinosaurs, although here they may as well be wearing a big "work in progress" sign around their necks. But also of note is the beautiful scenery that's being coaxed out of the engine. Given its age, it's easy to forget how good Source can look.
Jurassic Life's ModDB page has the details: "In this adventure, you are Robert Muldoon, the person in charge of the safety of the park. The game will proceed in a relatively linear but intense way with Resident Evil inspired management of the stress."
Obviously it's still a ways off release, with the team looking for additional hands to push them towards completion. It's showing a lot of promise though, and at the very least it should answer the burning question of "what happens when you shoot a T-Rex in the face with a shotgun?" For that reason alone it's worth keeping an eye on.